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Antigone: Hero or Villain?
Antigone by Frederic Leighton (1882):
Antigone is one of the most impressive and unforgettable female figures in the whole of ancient mythology. She is not a goddess, nor is she semi-divine. Her father and mother were human beings, not gods, demi-gods or river spirits. She is a member of the ruling family of her city. Other than that, she is an ordinary girl, engaged to be married to her cousin and destined for the life of domestic obscurity which was the lot of most women in ancient Greece.
But something happened. Antigone found herself in direct conflict with the ruling powers of her city – namely, her uncle Creon, father of her fiancée and ruler of Thebes. It was a battle which she, an isolated girl, could never win. Her certain death was the only foreseeable outcome. But she couldn’t abandon her principles. She had to do what she saw as the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Thus, she comes across as a shining example of integrity and loyalty, a weaker party who refuses to be bullied, no matter how strong or dangerous her opponent may be. She is a true hero, in every sense of the word. And yet, maybe there is a side to her story which makes us feel just a little bit uncomfortable?
Head of Sophocles. Roman copy of Greek original
Go, my songs, seek your praise from the young and from the intolerant,
Move among the lovers of perfection alone.
Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light
And take your wounds from it gladly
Ezra Pound, Xenia, lines 22 to 25
Antigone’s story is the subject of one of Sophocles’ seven surviving plays. Sophocles was born in or around 496 BC and lived until 406 BC. His life was not only long, it was also productive. In addition to writing about 120 plays, Sophocles also served as a general and held a number of civic and political posts.
The majority of Sophocles’ plays were tragedies. That does not mean that they all had sad endings. In ancient Greece, the word “tragedy” meant a serious (non-comic) play, performed by a few actors and a chorus of about 15 singers. In my hub entitled Introducing Greek Tragedy: Performance art or reading matter? I give some general background to Greek tragedy. Sophocles’ seven surviving plays are widely regarded not only as some of the greatest plays ever written but also as some of the greatest literary products of ancient Greece. Ezra Pound clearly regarded Sophocles as the standard by which all poetry should be judged.
Oedipus and the Sphinx. Red figure kylix c. 470 BC
Background to the story
Maybe in this case we can blame the parents! Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus. Yes, that Oedipus. Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes. An oracle foretold that their son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. The parents were understandably horrified. The baby’s feet were pierced (the name Oedipus means “swollen foot” in Greek) and he was left to die on a mountain. A shepherd took pity on the baby and brought him to Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, to raise as their own son. All might have been well, but a drunken guest at a party told Oedipus that he was not the true son of the royal house of Corinth. Angry and confused, the young Oedipus consulted the oracle and Delphi and was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believeing his parents to be the king and queen of Corinth, Oedipus left home to put himself at a safe distance from his supposed parents.
On his travels he got involved in what we would now call a “road rage” incident at a crossroads. In self defence, he killed a man. He travelled to the city of Thebes and rescued it from the curse of the Sphinx. As a reward he was granted the hand of the queen of Thebes, whose husband had been killed. In spite of the age difference which must have existed between them, he had four children by her: two boys, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two girls, Ismene and Antigone. So Antigone is Oedipus’ daughter – and sister. Oedipus is Antigone’s father – and brother. And Antigone’s mother is also her paternal grandmother. Complicated, isn’t it?
A plague befell Thebes. To free the city from this curse, the killer of Laius had to be found. This story is told by Sophocles in Oedipus the King. At the end of that play the truth is revealed. Oedipus is shown to be the killer of his father and the husband of his mother. Queen Jocasta hangs herself. The horrified Oedipus, having blinded himself with a pin, is exiled from the city.
Who is to rule Thebes now? Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, quarrel over the kingship. Eteocles remains in Thebes as ruler while Polyneices, having raised a foreign army, attacks the city, hoping to take the kingship. The two brothers die at each others hands and the rule of the city falls to Jocasta’s brother, Antigone’s uncle, Creon.
The first scene of Sophocles' Antigone. Antigone is played by Juliet Stevenson and Ismene by Gwen Taylor.
Irresistible force meets immovable object: the story of Antigone.
The back-story may be complex but the story of the play Antigone is very simple indeed. Creon, now ruler of Thebes, has declared that Eteocles, defender of the city, shall be buried with honours while Polyneices, attacker of the city, shall rot unburied outside the walls of the city, as an example to others of the rewards of disloyalty. Death is the penalty for anyone who should attempt to bury Polyneices. Antigone is outraged at this treatment of her brother and buries him as well as she can. She is brought before Creon and is utterly unrepentant. She is therefore sentenced to death.
But the problem is that she is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon. Haemon now appears on the scene and, at first, it seems as it he is going to obey his father in all respects:
Father, I am yours, and you keep me upright with precepts good for me—precepts I shall follow. No marriage will be deemed by me more important than your good guidance.
Lines 635 – 638 trans R Jebb, CUP 1891. All quotations from Antigone are from this translation, which is in the public domain.
However, Haemon attempts to plead the case for his doomed fiancée. His father is having none of it. They quarrel irrevocably. Their great scene ends thus:
Is that so? By Olympus above—know this well—you will have no joy for taunting me over and above your censures. Bring out that hated thing, so that with him looking on she may die right now in her bridegroom's presence and at his side!
No, not at my side will she die—do not ever imagine it. Nor shall you ever look at me and set eyes on my face again. Indulge in your madness now with whomever of your friends can endure it.Exit Haemon.
Lines 758 – 765.
The central scene of the play: the argument between Creon and his son Haemon. Creon is played by John Shrapnel and Creon by Mike Gwilym
Antigone is led away to her death. She is to be sealed in a cave, as Creon is unable to shed her blood, she being “family”. But now things start to go wrong for Creon. The prophet Teiresias now enters, bringing news of fearful oracles and urging Creon to relent and to bury the body of Polyneices. Creon furiously rejects this advice and Teiresias issues a dire warning. Creon has perverted the natural order of things. He has kept a corpse above ground instead of putting it in the earth, and he has buried someone who is living. Creon will pay for this sacrilege with his own son’s life:
Then know, yes, know it well! You will not live through many more courses of the sun's swift chariot, before you will give in return one sprung from your own loins, a corpse in requital for corpses. For you have thrust below one of those of the upper air and irreverently lodged a living soul in the grave, while you detain in this world that which belongs to the infernal gods, a corpse unburied, unmourned, unholy.
Lines 1064 – 1071.
This warning finally gets through to Creon. He rushes off to release Antigone from her living tomb, but it is too late. Antigone was not prepared to wait for death and instead took her own life by hanging herself. She is discovered by Haemon, who makes an attempt on his father’s life and, when that fails, kills himself. At the end of the play, Creon is a ruined, broken man.
An extract from Carl Orff's opera Antigonae, based on Hölderlin’s German language version of the play. Antigone is sung by Hanna van Niekerk
The message of the play.
What it all boils down to is a clash between two irreconcilable moral forces – the rule of law and the rule of conscience. Sometimes we forget that what we call myth was religion and / or history for the ancient Greeks. They had no scripture or formal theology. The Homeric poems were the nearest thing the Greeks had to a Bible. But religious observance was immensely important to the ancient Greeks, and they would have been deeply shocked at the idea of an unburied corpse.
Modern readers find it very easy to sympathise with Antigone and to take her side. She is a women, which means that in the context of ancient society she is the weaker party, the underdog. She stands powerless against the powerful and yet shows unwavering courage and defiance. She represents the claims of love against the callous rules of law. Ultimately, albeit indirectly, she destroys her persecutor.
But modern readers / audiences inevitably overlook the fact that, for Sophocles and his contemporaries, the “state” was not some sort of all-powerful, anonymous, nationalistic Orwellian force, but something altogether smaller and more human. Ancient Greece was not a “country” in the modern sense of the term. It was a collection of autonomous city-states. Each city had its own laws and its own rulers. Each city was a separate country. City states were comparatively small and vulnerable to attack. Security was paramount, and the security of the individual was dependent upon the security of the state. Antigone’s brother had raised foreign forces for an attack on his own city. He had invaded his own country.
So, in Sophocles’ play, things are rather more balanced than it may first appear. The Chorus are supportive of Creon and are shocked at Antigone’s rebellious actions. The only character to praise Antigone and her actions is her fiancée Haemon. The prophet Teiresias doesn’t even mention her name. The modern reader or audience member might also like to reflect upon the fact that today we live in the age of the internet. Hacking is rife. What if some modern Antigone were compelled by her (or his) conscience to reveal state secrets which could put millions of lives in danger?
The theatre of Dionysus in Athens where Antigone was first performed, probably around 440 BC.
Why aren't the plays of Sophocles performed more often?
Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the most powerful and exciting plays you could ever wish to see. If it isn’t being performed in a theatre near you, why not purchase a DVD of it? Because…there aren’t any. The extracts from the play given above are from a BBC television film, made and broadcast in the mid 1980s and it has yet to appear on DVD. While writing this hub I checked on Amazon (both .co.uk and .com). There is a version in modern Greek, with subtitles. There is a version in Italian, without subtitles. There are two modern film versions which seem to be very loosely based upon the plot of Sophocles’ play but which cannot count as actual performances of it. And that’s it. Why?
I suspect that there may be two main reasons for the neglect of Antigone, and of Greek tragedy in general. The Chorus poses a problem for producers. Do you have a group of people speaking in unison, in which case there might be problems of clarity, or do you have individual speakers speaking the Chorus’ lines, in which case the effect is lost? The other problem is the text. There are a number of good translations of this play, but translations have a shelf-life. A producer needs a text that is both in clear, modern, idiomatic English and is faithful to the original. What we usually get these days are not translations but “versions”, created by writers who are themselves using translations rather than the original Greek. The details of Sophocles’ text then become obscured or are simplified out of existence. The “hard Sophoclean light” grows dim.
At the time of writing, Sophocles’ Antigone is being performed in London. The production has been filmed and has been shown on BBC 4. This is obviously encouraging. One can only hope that it will lead to a serious revival of interest into the work of one of the greatest dramatists who ever lived.
In ancient Athens, performances of tragedy ended with a comic “satyr” play, to settle the audience down and send them away happy. So – to end this discussion of Antigone, here is a comic “summary” of Sophocles’ immortal drama!