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Parsons, M. (1990). Self-Knowledge Refused and Accepted: A psychoanalytic perspective on the ‘Bacchae’ and the ‘Oedipus at Colonus’. J. Anal. Psychol., 35(1):19-40.

(1990). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 35(1):19-40

Self-Knowledge Refused and Accepted: A psychoanalytic perspective on the ‘Bacchae’ and the ‘Oedipus at Colonus’

Michael Parsons, M.A., M.R.C.P., M.R.C.


The Bacchae and the Oedipus at Colonus are two of the masterpieces of Greek tragedy, and there are several points of comparison between them. The Oedipus at Colonus dates from 408/7 bc, near the end of Sophocles's life, while the Bacchae was found among Euripides's effects when he died in 406: two last plays, close together in time, from two of the greatest dramatists. Certain points of detail in the text are similar, such as the unearthly silence and the god's voice in the messengers' speeches (Bacch. 1078ff., O.C. 1621ff.); and each play taken as a whole has provoked controversy and differing interpretations.

Reading them as a psychoanalyst, I am inevitably interested in another area of comparison. Both plays are concerned with subtleties of the human spirit. Dramatic though their action is at certain points, they are primarily plays of psychological conflict. Such conflict can be external, between the attitudes or wishes of different characters, or internal, between opposing beliefs, feelings or impulses within a single character. I think that in both these plays we can detect a particular theme of internal conflict: the question of what happens when we are brought face to face with aspects of ourselves that we have found intolerable.

We are all familiar, of course, in our own lives with both interpsychic conflict with another person and intrapsychic conflict within ourselves. I am aware of the problems in applying to characters in a literary text considerations that we apply to ourselves and others in ordinary life. For the moment, however, I leave that issue on one side. When I have explored my theme and examined the two plays in its light I shall turn round and make some comment on what I have been doing.

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