A Study in Rebellion: Antigone
“Antigone was a favorite play of ancient philosophers because it promotes debate (e.g. what is law, is Antigone as guilty of arrogant dogmatism as Creon, and how shall we think about the powerless?), and the centuries since have seen many translations, perhaps most notably by the Classicist and poet Anne Carson (Antigonick, Bloodaxe Books 2012). There are many ways of interpreting the play, from an examination of gender-based misogyny (Sophocles was the first dramatist to focus the story of Thebes on the character of a young girl) to inter-generational conflict, but most relevant in 2022 may be what Sophocles has to say about autocracy.”—Dr. Diane Fortenberry
Outside of a Dog
By Dr. Diane Fortenberry
“[D]esiring revenge is likely to be virtuous and thus conducive to your happiness only if a wrong has been committed which can be righted by revenge. Righting the wrong should help protect in the future from a similar wrong, at the hands of the same perpetrator.”―Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life
“Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium, atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace.)”—Tacitus, Agricola
Editor’s Note: Dr. Fortenberry is on extended “book leave” from “Hubris,” writing away in England. We miss her! This column first appeared here in April of 2022 and is even more timely today, as Putin scorches Ukrainian earth with not a thought for the truths laid down by Sophocles in c. 441 BCE.
LONDON England—(Hubris)—1 April 2023—Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the most frequently performed ancient Greek dramas, and it resonates, in particular, in times of conflict.
Jean Anouilh staged a version in occupied Paris in 1944, in which Creon represented the Vichy government and Antigone symbolized the Resistance. Bertolt Brecht adapted the play in neutral Switzerland in 1948 as an unapologetic commentary on the politics of the day, representing Creon as a Nazi tyrant in full uniform who eventually destroys his city as well as himself.
In the late 1960s, the inmates of Robben Island prison in South Africa chose one year to stage Antigone as their Christmas play, and Nelson Mandela played Creon—despite his sympathies and those of his fellow inmates being with the character of Antigone. In the early 1970s, a group of interracial actors created a play called The Island, about that performance of Antigone at Robben Island. At a time of apartheid, it could not legally be performed in South Africa, but it was staged around the rest of the world, and as the Classicist Edith Hall has said, it turned an ancient Greek drama from the 5th century BCE into the “ultimate civil rights play.”
There can be no doubt that a version of Antigone will be performed in Ukraine; more interesting, however, is whether or not it will it be permitted, ever again, in Russia.
Sophocles’ play occurs during a war. The two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, have quarreled over the throne of Thebes; Polynices, exiled, has gathered troops and attacked the city. He and Eteocles kill one another in single combat, and Creon, their uncle, becomes king. Creon decrees that while Eteocles shall be mourned with full honors, the body of Polyneices shall be left unburied, food for dogs and crows.
In the opening scene, Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, debate Antigone’s decision to defy their uncle and symbolically bury their brother by covering his body with dust and performing the sacred rites of internment. Ismene tries to reason with her sister: even the best intentions must bow before great power, and Creon has declared that anyone who attempts to bury the body of Polynices will be put to death. Her arguments fail. Antigone insists that the laws of the gods, which demand proper burial of the dead, supersede any commands by a man, even a king.
When Creon hears that dust has been laid upon the body of Polynices, he is enraged. Not only has his decree been flouted, but his right as king to lead his city along the path he has chosen has been threatened. Antigone is brought before the king, caught red-handed while conducting the necessary rites. She confronts her uncle, admitting her guilt and maintaining that the mores of generations, of family and of the gods—of humanity itself—will always prevail over any decree he may impose.
In their heated exchange, they talk over one another, using the same words but with opposing meanings. To Creon, “law” (nomos) means civic law, as decided by one ruler; to Antigone, the same word means a deeper, older law, one agreed on by generations. So, with “friend” and “enemy,” “piety” and “impiety”: though they argue, they fail to communicate.
After Creon has Antigone removed by guards, he must then contend with the chorus of city elders, who subtly warn him that “evil seems good to him whose mind the god is driving towards disaster.” If that were not enough, Creon’s son Haemon then appears and attempts to talk his father out of killing Antigone, to whom he is betrothed. He tells Creon that the entire city is on Antigone’s side, and the chorus agrees, but Creon will not change his mind.
Creon: There is no worse evil than insubordination! Most lives are saved by obedience! We have to protect discipline.
Haemon: Do not think that your opinion and no other must be right! Trees that yield to the swollen river in winter retain their branches, while those who resist change perish. It is good to learn from those who give good counsel.
Creon: Does not the city belong to its ruler?
Haemon: You would be a fine ruler over a deserted city!
Haemon leaves in despair, but not before telling his father that they will not meet again. Creon then reveals his plan to the chorus: he will avoid the pollution that results from murdering a member of one’s family by walling Antigone up in a cave with a token quantity of food. When she starves, it will be a natural fate; not his fault.
After Antigone is taken away, Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, appears, full of bad auguries. He announces that the city is polluted because, in violation of all norms, Creon has entombed the living and left the dead unburied. After Tiresias leaves, the king cannot shake a sense of doom and finally asks the chorus for advice. Free the girl, the elders tell him, and he finally agrees that he must change his mind and assent to the laws of the gods and of humanity.
He is too late. A messenger arrives at the palace with the news that Haemon has stabbed himself. As this is revealed to the chorus, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, appears and demands to know what has happened. The messenger explains to her that Creon went first to the body of Polynices, where he purified the corpse with water and cremated the remains before heaping up a burial mound of earth. Only then did he approach the cave in which he had entombed Antigone. He found her hanging from a noose of linen, she having declined to acquiesce to her uncle’s plan that she starve quietly. Grasping her round the waist was Haemon, lamenting the death of his fiancé. Haemon spat in his father’s face and drew his sword, striking out at his father. Creon retreated, and his son instead drove the sword into his own body—becoming a corpse embracing a corpse.
Eurydice leaves the stage without another word. Creon appears carrying the body of Haemon, and another messenger returns from inside the house: Eurydice has killed herself, but not before cursing her husband. We learn at the end that he has lost not only his wife and his younger son, but that his older son was also killed, the day before, in battle. “All that was in my hands I have lost.”
Antigone was a favorite play of ancient philosophers because it promotes debate (e.g. what is law, is Antigone as guilty of arrogant dogmatism as Creon, and how shall we think about the powerless?), and the centuries since have seen many translations, perhaps most notably by the Classicist and poet Anne Carson (Antigonick, Bloodaxe Books 2012). There are many ways of interpreting the play, from an examination of gender-based misogyny (Sophocles was the first dramatist to focus the story of Thebes on the character of a young girl) to inter-generational conflict, but most relevant in 2022 may be what Sophocles has to say about autocracy.
The political message would have been unmistakable to a male Athenian audience in 441 BCE. Creon wants a stable society and, in his eyes, Antigone threatens that by refusing to obey the rules he has made. From the beginning, he tells the chorus of elders that he is making decisions on his own—alone, without consultation, without counsel (boule). Moreover, he carries on despite being told by both the chorus and his son that the people of the city disagree with him and support the actions of Antigone.
The men of Athens would have picked up immediately on this characterization of autocratic rule, a paranoia that only becomes more entrenched when Creon is offered counsel. It is not until the prophet Tiresias warns him that he finally asks the chorus what he should do—but he listens to their counsel too late.
After Creon’s incensed promise early in the play to kill whoever has defied him by burying Polynices’ corpse, the chorus of elders sings a four-stanza lyric that is sometimes called the Ode to Man; it comprises one of the most quoted sections of any ancient Greek play. The first three stanzas describe the achievements of mankind—technological, political, cultural; only Death can defeat humankind.
The last stanza then turns all this on its head: it tells of what can go wrong. It cautions against those who exert their will recklessly, and warns that power ill-used, in defiance of justice and natural law, will only bring disaster. This is the crux of the play.
So, to return to our earlier question: could Antigone be staged in Moscow today? Probably not.
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm gray sea
Yields to his prows. The huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year and year, the timeless labor of stallions.
The light-boned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish lighting their reaches of dim water,
All are taken, tamed in the net of his mind;
The lion on the hill, the wild horse windy-maned,
Resign to him; and his blunt yoke has broken
The sultry shoulders of the mountain bull.
Words also, and thought as rapid as air,
He fashions to his good use; statecraft is his,
And his the skills that deflect the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain: from every wind
He has made himself secure—from all but one:
In the late wind of death, he cannot stand.
O clear intelligence, force beyond all measure!
O fate of man, working both good and evil!
When justice is done, how proudly his city stands!
But stateless is the man who dwells with dishonor.
Never may the anarchic man find rest at my hearth,
Never be it said that my thoughts are his thoughts.
(Translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, 1938.)