Sophocles is probably the greatest dramatist in the history of civilization, with the obvious exception of Shakespeare. He lived for ninety years, his life spanning almost the entirety of the fifth century B.C., from 496 to 406. During his long life, which seems to have been spent entirely in Athens, he witnessed both the rise and the fall of the Athenian Empire, a period of great social upheaval and political turmoil. He is best known for the Oedipus Cycle, also known as the Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. There are two ways of reading this cycle of plays. They can either be read in their order of composition, as listed above, or in the order of the chronology of the story they tell.
Oedipus Rex tells of the rise and fall of Oedipus, King of Thebes; Oedipus at Colonus tells of Oedipus’ old age and death; Antigone takes up the story of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter. The advantage of reading them in the order of composition is that we see the growth of wisdom of the playwright reflected in his work: Antigone is full of the vigor and vibrancy of political idealism; Oedipus Rex is a mature reflection on the mystery and meaning of suffering; Oedipus at Colonus takes the reflection on suffering to deeper levels of understanding, answering the questions that Oedipus Rex asks. Oedipus at Colonus, which was written when Sophocles was a very old man and was not performed until after his death, reflects the wisdom of the playwright’s ninety years of accumulated and philosophically digested experience. We will discuss Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus in the next two essays in the series. Now, however, we will endeavor to put Antigone in a nutshell.
The play begins as the dust settles on a battle in which the sons of Oedipus fight on opposing sides and kill each other in combat. Creon, King of Thebes, declares that one of the brothers, Eteocles, should be buried with full military honors but that the other, Polynices, is a traitor to the state who must not be dignified with burial. On the contrary, Polynices is to be left to rot where he fell, food for the vultures and the wild dogs. The decision of Antigone, the sister of both deceased warriors, to give her brother a dignified religious burial in defiance of the law of the state sets up a drama in which timeless legal and moral principles are evoked. Does the state have the authority to deny anyone a dignified burial according to the rites of religion? Is the power of the state “under God” or is it a law unto itself? How should those with religious faith respond to anti-religious laws? How should the state deal with religious dissidents who disobey its laws?
Forced to choose between the rites and rights of religion and the law of the land, Antigone chooses to be obedient to the gods in defiance of the law. Her logic is theological. Creon’s law forbidding a religious burial for her brother is “an outrage to the gods.” Seeing reality in terms of her eternal destiny, she fears offending the gods more than she fears the power of the state to execute her for breaking its laws. “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here,” she says. “In the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Faced with a choice between obeying temporal mortal laws or eternal laws, she proclaims that she will not “dishonour the laws the gods hold in honour.”
Against Antigone’s religious perspective is the secularism of Creon who declares that “whoever places a friend above the good of his own country is nothing.” Love of country and obedience to the state trump the love of neighbor.
In the midst of this epic struggle between two opposing worldviews, the religious and the secular, the Chorus, representing the people as a whole, is sympathetic to Antigone but fearful of expressing its dissent in the face of the power of the state. The silent majority is silenced by fear. Antigone tells Creon that the members of the Chorus would praise her for her stance “if their lips weren’t locked in fear.” It is only through fear of the tyrannical state that the people “keep their tongues in leash.”
The plot thickens when we discover that Haemon, Creon’s son, is betrothed to be married to Antigone. Haemon tries to reason with his father, reminding him that “only the gods endow a man with reason, the finest of all their gifts, a treasure.” He also echoes the words of Antigone when he tells Creon that the silent majority are on Antigone’s side and that they are only silent through fear:
The man in the street…dreads your glance,
he’d never say anything displeasing to your face.
But it’s for me to catch the murmurs in the dark,
The way the city mourns for this young girl.
“No woman,” they say, “ever deserved death less,
And such a brutal death for such a glorious action….
Death? She deserves a glowing crown of gold!”
So they say, and the rumour spreads in secret,
Creon, blinded by his own prideful arrogance, is unwilling to see reason, even when the blind prophet Tiresias warns him of the dire punishment from the gods that awaits him if he remains obstinate in his war on the religious rights of the living and the dead. Reiterating the motif of Homer’s epics, Sophocles shows us in the tragic consequences of Creon’s obstinacy that pride precedes a fall. This moral is driven home unequivocally in the play’s final lines, spoken by the Chorus:
Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in an ongoing series of articles that will explain the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image Credit: Antigone in front of the dead Polynices by Nikiforos Lytras (Wikimedia Commons)]