Comfort Classics: Cressida Ryan

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Cressida Ryan

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

I think I’ve got a bit of a flowchart, depending on how I want to feel after reading. The key texts I reach for though are Sophocles (particularly the Oedipus at Colonus and Ajax), or Lucretius.

I attach a lot of emotional weight to site visits too. Whenever I’ve been in a Greek theatre, I’ve tried to spend time reading a play, imagining plays happening, perhaps reciting a bit, and generally wallowing in the atmosphere rather than just passing through. The ones which I experienced most intensely were Epidauros, Byblos, and Caesarea. Looking back over photographs of these is always encouraging. When I was a school-teacher I kept a board of my Greek theatre photographs up on my classroom wall for my benefit as much as students’!

The theatre at Caesarea, taken by Cressida Ryan

When did you first come across these texts?

I must have read Ajax when I was about 16, but I first saw it in the Actors of Dionysus production in 1997 at the Turtle Key Arts Centre. I was so struck by it that I remember travelling home on the Tube with the school group afterwards and asking everyone not to talk to me while I processed it. Watching it on their video The Face of Dionysus just isn’t the same though; decontextualised and on screen I’ve not found it anywhere near as powerful.

I read the OC when I was about 16 and fell in love with it. It was an A-Level set text (in English), but overstudying it didn’t ruin it for me.

I first came across Lucretius when I was 16 too, finding my mother’s old copy. I didn’t really ‘get’ it, but it seemed important. Then I shadowed a first year for a day at Cambridge and heard Prof David Sedley lecturing on Lucretius. I still didn’t understand much. A year later I was at Cambridge and attending that lecture again, and things began to sink in. I took a course on Politics and Poetics and discovered that actually, I loved Lucretius. Like with Sophocles, I find something new in his work every time I read it.

Can you tell me a bit about these texts and their context?

The most powerful part of Ajax for me is the combination of speeches around his suicide, but especially his final speech. Ajax has gone mad and killed flocks thinking they’re Greek leaders. On coming to his senses he’s so ashamed, mortified, and angry that he resolves to kill himself. His wife, Tecmessa, tries to talk him out of it, and ostensibly he convinces her he wouldn’t dream of it, but then he goes and kills himself on the shore with a sword given to him by Hector.

In the OC, the chorus of local men sings an ode in praise of the area. It’s where Sophocles was born, so the ode is full of a clear love of the area, mixing a sense of real and symbolic geography to celebrate Colonus as experienced through all the senses, and the gods’ involvement with it. The version of the Colonus Ode in The Gospel at Colonus is amazing (as is the rest of the music from that show too!). The messenger speech then comes when Oedipus finally leaves the stage to disappear (not die) in the grove, continuing the strong sense of awesome place in the play.

The opening to Lucretius Book II (the ‘Lucretian Return’) sets out how there is pleasure in watching a ship on a stormy sea while you’re safe on land. It underpins lots of thinking about where we find pleasure in aesthetic experiences, and for Lucretius is tied up with his philosophy of the role of poetry in life.

What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

The Ajax is a fabulous play in general, but the experience of the suicide speech is something special. It has this odd shift in location, and unusual on-stage violence, which makes it very disturbing in Greek tragedy terms. Something about all of that makes me engage intellectually and emotionally all at once.

I couldn’t put my finger on why I loved the OC so much, and it took a PhD on its reception to get to grips with it. For me, the messenger speech and Colonus ode are beautiful poetry, and powerful political and religious statements. The time speech is so relevant to today, reminding us that nothing is permanent, and that we just have to get on with where we’re at because the future is unknown and likely to be topsy-turvy. I get drawn into the text, and find the Greek phrases (and various translations of them) rolling around my tongue and my mind. Every time I read Sophocles in Greek I find something new to think about. Whether it’s the status of the tent in Ajax, or hierarchies, or religious tensions, political echoes… there’s always something. Periodically I write translations of the plays, and they’re always different, growing with me.

The main theme of my PhD was the development of the concept of the sublime, applying Lucretian aesthetics to understanding Sophocles. I turn to the opening of Lucretius Book II whenever I feel like I need to weather a storm.

They’re not exactly encouraging texts, but they do allow me to channel intense emotions, reflect on them, and take a step back.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I bake, a lot. I learned Greek as an extra subject, so cake was a constant feature of classes, and somehow cake and Classics seem to be inextricably linked in my life. My students don’t tend to object! I also like to sing, loudly, or kayak, peacefully.

Cressida Ryan is the Instructor in New Testament Greek in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. She researches the reception of Sophocles (especially in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), Early Modern Latin, and Greek and Latin pedagogy. She keeps a blog about her teaching (and research) at, and tweets @CressidaRyan.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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