FYP Texts: Antigone: “The Lady of Situations”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007/2008 issue of Tidings.

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, I: The Burial of the Dead  (lines 49-50)

The eponymous heroine of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone made her first appearance on the world stage in Athens nearly two and a half millennia ago (somewhere around 440 BCE).  Presumably, she would have continued to exercise her grip on our theatrical imagination even without the unequivocal admiration of the great 19th-century philosopher Hegel, who described Sophocles’ tragic drama as “one of the … most excellent works of art of all time…”  The only way to match that sort of enthusiasm is to do exactly what Hegel himself did: in his discussion of the never to be supplanted Antigone, Hegel rises to Sophocles’ standard by producing one of the most celebrated exercises in literary criticism ever formulated.

In essence, the Hegelian interpretation explores the perfect balance that Sophocles’ tragic vision delivers; Sophocles manages both to catalogue and to intensify the conundrum, the aporia, the Greek agon (contest, competition, combat) which is at the heart of the play.  Antigone and Creon are simply incapable of seeing from eye to eye, which, in the play, leads to their mutual destruction: Creon arranges Antigone’s incarceration and pushes her towards suicide.  This, in turn, precipitates a rash of suicides, which swallow up both his son and his wife.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

The circumstances of this showdown between uncle and niece are reasonably well known: Oedipus’ two sons cannot satisfy themselves with the power-sharing arrangements put it place after their father’s abdication.  Consequently, one brother (Polynices) violently seeks to depose the other (Eteocles), with the hapless citizens of Thebes reduced to the “collateral damage” unleashed by this fatal family rift.  A certain poetic justice is, however, realized on the battlefield when the two brothers, locked in mortal combat, manage, at the last, to kill each other.

Creon, as their surviving regent, and as brother-in-law to the polluted Oedipus, wishes to restore the healthy state of the “commonwealth” of Thebes, and so orders that the one brother (Eteocles) be buried with full military honours as the champion of his native city.  However, Polynices’ putrid corpse is to suffer the same dishonour that the living traitor had exercised upon the city of his birth.  The dishonorable Polynices is to be denied even the most minimal funereal rites, without which, according to ancient Greek piety, the soul of the treacherous brother can never come to rest.

It is further essential to recall that Oedipus sired four children in the womb of his mother: two brothers and two sisters.  Therefore, this evenhandedness in the contest of two brothers finds its immediate “counterbalance” in the opening scene of Sophocles’ drama.  The brothers have liberally furnished the occasion for tragedy, and their two sisters now ably respond to this prompt in the spat which makes up the tragedy’s first 100 lines.  The brothers’ grotesque expression of sibling rivalry finds its appropriate parallel in the bathos[1] of grieving, quarrelling sisters.  Essentially, this altercation reflects the larger quandary: is it possible to accede to this royal decree, which forbids even the most cursory adherence to custom, specifically the dignity and respect, in death, which we must accord to even our bitterest enemy?

Antigone, as an orphan, is devoted to her “irreplaceable” brother — at one point she argues that while one can always have more children, a brother must remain unique (c. line 910).  So she will not be deterred from her duty to honour her brother in death just as much as in life.  Her sister, Ismene, on the other hand, who wants to live, and what is more to live in Thebes, urges Antigone to proceed with a little more caution and tact.  This advice is rejected as mealy-mouthed, pusillanimous time-serving, that is to say irrelevant where questions of eternal justice are on the table.  But divine justice, as we know, extracts a terrible fee: Antigone, so apparently devoted to family, shall in due course perish in a barren solitude.

But we are not yet done with the awesome parallelism of Sophocles’ play.  Towards the conclusion of the tragedy, around line 1300, there is the very first mention in the play of Creon’s two sons.  Haemon’s name is well known, as Antigone’s betrothed, as the dutiful son trying to reason with his father, and as the bridegroom whose only entry into his marriage bed is by way of his own self-inflicted death.  However, in this last turn of the drama, there is suddenly a reference to Megareus, by tradition Creon’s older son.  His miserable history, which the play assumes without further elaboration, results from his pious response to the prophecy of Teiresias: Thebes will never survive this onslaught without the provision of a human sacrifice.  The dutiful Megareus, as Creon’s son, offers himself as the price that must be paid for the city’s safety by falling to his death from the walls of Thebes.  While the details are not mentioned by Sophocles, we are told that Creon’s wife, unable to bear the grief of Haemon’s death, herself dies cursing her husband for the loss of both sons.

Here in exquisite miniature, we rehearse, at the play’s denouement, the overwhelming dilemma of all the action.  Creon apparently has already lost or sacrificed one son in the interests of civic peace: Megareus, the city’s champion; now Creon, through his pig-headedness casts his younger son into the role of the city’s renegade — since Haemon is unable to stomach the promulgation of the father’s inhumane laws.  In principle, remember, laws are only enacted to serve the citizens and to enable their freedom.  As Creon loses sight of this principle, Haemon informs his father, this inflexibility has the effect of turning Thebes into a barren wasteland.

First two sons, then two daughters, and finally another two sons: with this awesome parallelism does Sophocles hammer home the contest, competition, and combat by which great families are going to be destroyed.   The genius of the play, and the occasion for its tragedy, is the evenhandedness with which Sophocles presents the principles moving (and destroying) the close relations in this extremely dysfunctional royal family.  The 20th-century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre , in discussing one of his own most successful plays, gives the final word both to Sophocles and Hegel.  Sartre’s description could not have been formulated without both of them: “I do not take sides.  A good play should raise problems, not solve them.  All the characters in Greek tragedy are in the right and all of them in the wrong…”


[1] Bathos: in the sense of a decline from the sublime to the ridiculous.


Post Script:

The status of the title of Greek tragedies is the subject of an essential article by Alan H. Sommerstein in his The Tangled Ways of Zeus (Oxford: 2010).  In Brill’s Companion to Sophocles (Leiden; 2012; p. 60), the title of Antigone is brought to our attention, since the death of Antigone occurs with “over 30%” of the tragedy left to perform.  In the Antigone, the heroine herself speaks only 216 lines compared to Creon’s 350 (p. 114).  Sommerstein mentions the title of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where there are more lines to perform after Caesar’s assassination than are performed before.  One way we might, then, be persuaded to look at this: the first half of Julius Caesar concerns what is done to the eponymous hero, while the second half is about what the conspirators (Brutus and Cassius) are doing to themselves.  In that spirit, the tragedy by Sophocles entitled Antigone might lend itself to quite a different reading from the one to which we are often accustomed.   The first division of the tragedy is what is done to Antigone (by Creon and Antigone), and the concluding part is what Creon has done to himself.


FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.

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