by Dr. Michael Scott
Many ancient Greek tragedies have story lines that take place in Thebes. So it’s tempting to imagine that the Athenians watching these tragedies - sitting safely in Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus - felt a good distance from any of the activities going on on the stage – after all, those were the kind of things that happened elsewhere… (remember that immortal line in Disney’s Hercules when the satyr trainer Philoctetes tells Hercules “Saddle up kid, we’re going to Thebes – it’s a real problem town!”)
But Sophocles’ Antigone – while taking place in Thebes – deals with issues that strike right at the heart of how ancient Greek – including Athenian – society operated, what it believed about life and death and what happened to the soul after death. This was a play in which the action was happening elsewhere – but the central problem was one that could confront Athenians just as much as Thebans.
The central issue is one of burial, and particularly access to correct and full burial rights, irrespective of how the person being buried had behaved in life.
The story line is as follows: in Thebes, during civil war, two brothers had fought on opposing sides. The brothers Polynices and Eteocles killed one another in battle. Creon, now ruling the city, ordered that Polynices, who brought a foreign army against Thebes, not be allowed proper burial rites.
Their sister, Antigone – believes this act to contravene the much more important cultural, religious and social convention that burial rites should always be given to everyone – irrespective of their behaviour – in order to ensure that their soul makes it way safely through the underworld and that the gods are not angered by human disrespect.
So who is right? This was a question for all of Greek society – specifically including every Athenian in the audience watching. It offers what Greek tragedy does most brilliantly: set in motion a number of different people reacting to a difficult and knotty problem and watches as they each make choices, crucially leaving the audience to decide who they thought made the best of it (there is never a perfect solution to the problems posed in tragedy – the best that can be hoped for is making the best of a bad job!).
In this play, the audience has to decide whether the question of burial is one that should be decided by the political rulers of a polis (that’s Creon’s view), or whether it is an issue that supersedes all earthly authority and where religious convention wins out (that’s Antigone’s view). But there are also a number of points of view within the play that sit on the spectrum between these two extremes. Ismene – Antigone’s sister – agrees with her sister in principle but can’t summon up the courage (or the desire) for the fight against the political authorities. Haemon – Creon’s son – does not necessarily disagree with his father in principle but does disagree with how he is going about imposing his will (like a tyrant), not listening to the advice of others. And the chorus – where do they stand? They change their opinion through the play, becoming, especially after they have heard the warnings of the soothsayer Tiresias – very critical of Creon’s choices.
And of course everyone’s reaction to this knotty problem is coloured by their particular position in society, their family ties and their more general character. Creon is the ruler – he has to unite a city torn about by civil war. His is the problem of governance – does that make his decision to take such a hard line understandable? Haemon is Creon’s son and so owes him filial loyalty but is also in love with Antigone. Does that discredit his stance? Antigone is scornful of anyone who does not have the courage to stand up to civic power – including her sister – and seems almost hell bent on a stance to the death. Does that mean we like her less and buy her argument less fully?
In reality, there will be very few people watching this play who end up agreeing with Creon. Unusually for a Greek tragedy, there are very strong indications given that his was not the right course of action. None of the characters by the end of the play, for example, agree or sympathise with him. Creon ignores the soothsayer’s words of warning (always a bad sign in tragedy), he loses his son (who kills himself alongside Antigone) and has lost any real hope of ruling and uniting the city. He ends the play realising his own failure. So we as the audience are strongly encouraged not to side with Creon. But that does not mean we necessarily side instead with Antigone. Indeed there are lots of points on the spectrum where each of us may feel much more comfortable – that is for each of us to decide as we watch. And at the same time, we can all hope that we never have to make this decision for real.