My son is studying Sophocles’ Antigone at school. This revived potent memories of my own year 12 study of the first of the Theban trilogy, Oedipus Rex. Who can forget the man inexorably doomed to murder his father and marry his mother, who unwittingly fulfils a ghastly prophecy, and who, upon realisation, skewers his own eyes with the pins of his dead mother-wife’s golden broaches? These 2500-year-old plays have a way of branding themselves on the mind.
Sophocles (496-406 BC) was Athens’ greatest son in her greatest age. Rich, handsome, musical, and powerfully built, at age 16 he was chosen by the city to lead the paean celebrating the naval victory over the Persians at Salamis. From there he never looked back, becoming one of Athens’ most revered generals, statesmen, and priests during her golden age of art, science, and philosophy.
It was however his astonishing poetic abilities that made Sophocles immortal, writing 123 plays that won the constant prizes and applause of his fellow Athenians. Since then, his seven surviving tragedies have deeply impressed the hearts and minds of every generation.
Plays should be seen not read, so I sat down with two of my teenagers to watch the BBC TV’s fine 1986 version of Antigone. And despite the dearth of kissing and car chases, they were transfixed.
The plot is well known: Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polynices are the fruit of Oedipus’ incestuous union: at once his siblings and children. As the curtain rises, the brothers have slain each other in battle, Polynices attacking Thebes, Eteocles protecting it. Creon, King of Thebes, has decreed a state funeral for Eteocles, and that Polynices’ body lie unburied. Not only will the dogs and vultures have his bones, the suspension of religious rites will prevent him from finding afterlife peace. Thus Creon makes him a fearful example to would-be traitors.
Brave Antigone defies her uncle. She ceremonially washes her brother’s body and sprinkles it with burial sand. Being caught in the act—she hardly tried to hide it—she now faces public execution for her civil disobedience. But instead of shame and fear, she exudes profound peace and pride in breaking Creon’s edict. Her defiant monologue before Creon is electrifying — I will come back to it.
For Creon, defiance of the state is the crime above all crimes, and his niece’s death is scheduled. Now enters Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancée. He begs his father to be merciful, if only for Creon’s own sake, for no one is pleased with Antigone’s sentence. Creon instead orders Antigone to be instantly buried alive.
In the next scene Creon is doomed by Teiresias the Seer, and the play ends like… a Greek tragedy. Antigone has hanged herself in her tomb, and Haemon falls on his sword and holds his lover’s body in bloody embrace. In her grief Creon’s wife Eurydice pierces her own heart.
Back to Antigone’s monologue. Burying her brother was for Creon a crime against the state. But to leave her brother unburied was for Antigone a crime against the basic natural laws of humanity. Here’s the 1912 Loeb translation of her defiant response:
Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
Did you think that you, a mere mortal, could with a word undo the unchangeable laws of heaven?
They were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.
I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown,
To disobey these laws and so provoke
The wrath of Heaven.
I knew that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
And if in this thou judgest me a fool,
Methinks the judge of folly’s not acquit.
In sum: “Creon, your earthly decree was not given by Zeus, the father of gods; and certainly not by Justice (Δικη), to whom even the gods bow. Did you think that you, a mere human, could with a word break the unbreakable laws of heaven? Would I choose to please man over Justice and Nature?“
And so Antigone, standing in the same immortal line as the Hebrew midwives before Pharaoh, Joan of Arc before le tribunal, and Sophie Scholl before the vile Roland Freisler, teaches us that it is better to die than to bend and submit to injustice.
So powerful are these words, it is no surprise that they have been press-ganged onto all kinds of odd vessels. Hegel found, between the thesis of moral goodness, and its antithesis of political success, the synthesis of “wisdom”. Jean Anouihl’s interpretation, produced in Paris in 1944 under German occupation, left the audience wondering whether it was not better to simply submit to authority. (Nazi censors certainly had no issue with this!)
The Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht shot back with Creon as a Nazi dictator in his 1948 version. A famous 1967 version, by the Living Theatre Company in New York, made Antigone celebrate freedom from guilt, and the triumph of emotion over reason.
But Antigone’s brave stance for Justice and Nature against unjust human laws is what electrified me. We in the Western world live in days of mad, accelerating, and bewildering change. A same-sex couple is the same as a man and a woman; male and female is an illusion; an unborn baby has a right to life only when her mother grants her that right; children may be taken from their natural parents for the gratification of adults; and anyone who opposes these schemes may, for their intolerance and bigotry, be ridiculed, sacked, fined, imprisoned, and, most sinister by far, re-educated.
At this time when the laws of nature and basic justice are conscientiously unravelled and suppressed, Antigone’s defiance makes the heart swell. “I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown, To disobey these laws, and so provoke the wrath of Heaven.”
As the storm-clouds of social change gather and loom, here is Sophocles’ ancient and potent inspiration for all those who stand, whether in the Christian tradition or not, for Nature and Justice. Seeing that we must die, we had best do so, in this awesome battle, faithful and brave.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania.