Antigone the SJW

Antigone is probably not a lot of fun to go out drinking with. In addition to being morally upright, devoted to family, committed to doing the right thing no matter how difficult and devoutly pious, she is inflexible, judgmental, argumentative, and maybe even a little priggish.

Antigone’s play was written by the great playwright Sophokles who was famous for creating the “tragic hero”, a character faced with a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by compromise which entails a total betrayal of something they hold supremely important. They refuse to accept the compromise despite persuasion, threats, or violence, resulting in being termed “deinos”, a term which means terrible, wondrous and strange, and ending in destruction. Most Sophoklean heroes are both admirable and repellent, and Antigone is no exception.

She stands in splendid isolation.

Antigone’s story is set in Thebes, a city viewed by golden age Athens as a place where conflicts and dilemmas get pushed to their limits and resolution is impossible. Its concerns with polis (city-state) politics is especially interesting considering its first production during the height of Athens’s glory, then resurfacing sixty years after Sophokles’s death when the famous orator Demosthenes read to his political opponent Kreon’s speech on the proper loyalties of a citizen. Even Aristotle quotes the play repeatedly in his treatise Politics.

Antigone and her siblings are the children of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta, whom he married with neither of them knowing the other’s identity. This family is ill-omened right out of the gate. The two boys, Eteokles and Polynices, are dead, having just killed each other in the battle for the soul of Thebes told more fully in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes. Antigone and her sister Ismene are left to mourn them as their uncle Kreon takes over the rulership of Thebes. His first act as king is to declare Eteokles, who fought on behalf of Thebes to hold the throne, a hero, and Polynices, who attempted to enforce his claim on the throne by attacking Thebes, a traitor. Eteokles is to be buried with full honors, Polynices to be left unburied for the scavengers. Anyone who attempts to bury him will be stoned to death.

Antigone is having none of it.

She tells her sister that she plans to defy Kreon and bury Polynices, in accordance with both divine law and family obligation. Ismene, while sympathetic, is afraid of the anger of the new king, and points out that they owe him their fealty both as head of their oikos (household) and their ruler. Antigone flares up at this and declares that even if her sister has a change of heart and wants to help, Antigone won’t let her, pointing out that “Even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory,” and, “I have longer to please the dead than to please the living here.”

Ismene, representing the obedience expected of a good ancient Greek maiden, fears for Antigone and begs her to at least do the burial honors on the sly. Antigone sneers at her for her cowardice, adding, “I will suffer nothing as great as death without glory,” before sweeping out on a wave of self-righteousness, leaving poor Ismene to flounder in her wake, meeping her terror and love for her sister.

Kreon is a bloviator. In his declaration of his own kingship he extols his own virtues as a man who has been tested and demonstrated amply his own character, principles, and judgement, as well as mansplaining how anyone who places friendship over patriotism is worthless. “Such are my standards. They make a city great.” Even the admiring chorus, consisting of the elderly citizens of Thebes, is a little anxious about the absolutist statements. Their concern gets them browbeaten into abject accord with their king.

When a messenger enters and, after some hemming and hawing, delivers the news that an unknown person has performed the rites over Polynices’s corpse, the chorus suggests timidly that it might be the work of the gods. Kreon erupts in fury that anyone could defy his edict, let alone think the gods would care about the disposition of the body of a traitor. He leaps to the unfounded assumption that his soldiers have been bribed, and promises the hapless sentry who brought the news that unless he produces the traitor, Kreon will “String you up alive and wring the immortality out of you.” After being denied the opportunity to speak in his own defense, the sentry declares that he’s heading for the hills, leaving the chorus to mutter about doom and evil portents.

But the sentry is back before too long, hauling a bound Antigone with him. He tells his irascible king that he and his men were wronged by Kreon’s harsh words, but since they caught the real perpetrator in the act they felt duty-bound to bring it to Kreon’s attention. He adds that nonetheless he’s decamping, as he wants nothing more to do with Thebes’s jerk-in-chief.
He gives the story in gory detail, describing the slimy, softening corpse and its smell. A dust storm blinded them, but when it passed they saw the wailing girl, scooping up dry dust to scatter over her brother and pouring libations from a fine bronze urn onto the corpse. She did not flinch from arrest nor make any attempt to lie or evade her captors. When Kreon demands she speak she shrugs and says, “I did it. I don’t deny a thing.” She informs her uncle that she is obeying divine law which supersedes that of a mere mortal king and that dying will be a small pain compared with the dishonor Kreon offers her brother.

The chorus shake their heads, mumbling about how like her father Oedipus she is—wild, passionate, unable to bend in adversity. But Kreon vows to break her, as tempered iron, spirited horses, and slaves all break when their lord and master lowers the boom. He accuses her of insolence, not just for her actions but her lack of shame over them, then whirls on poor Ismene and accuses her of complicity.

Ismene is in hysterics but Antigone is coldly scornful. She asks what, other than her arrest and execution, her uncle wants of her and snaps at him to stop moralizing and get on with it. She mocks the chorus for being wimps and accuses Kreon of being power-drunk, causing Kreon to shout, “Go down below and love, if love you must. Love the dead! While I’m alive no woman is going to lord it over me.”

Antigone will not even allow her devastated sister to share her fate. “Never share my dying, don’t lay claim to what you never touched. My death will be enough.” At this point Ismene lets us know that Antigone is actually engaged to Kreon’s son Haemon by pleading with Kreon to consider this, but Kreon sniffs that “There are other fields for him to plough.” He has guards take the girls away as the chorus moans about generational curses.

Haemon tries to soften his dad’s position by promising filial obedience, which does indeed please the king. Kreon tells his son that being married to a disobedient woman would be a misery and to spit her out and let her make her bed among the dead. Haemon points out that although unmaidenly, Antigone’s position is noble. That while he’s proud of his dad, maybe just a smidgeon less self-righteousness might not hurt, and that no one is infallible. A bitter, sharp exchange follows, ending with Kreon accusing his son of being a woman’s slave, and Haemon calling Kreon crazy and hinting darkly that Antigone’s death will cause another death. Kreon splutters that he’ll bring the dang girl out then and there and kill her in front of Haemon. Haemon rushes out yelling that Kreon will never see him again. When the chorus prophesies that Haemon might do something stupid in his rage, Kreon replies wearily that nothing his son can do will save the girls. The chorus, aghast, asks if he’s really planning to execute both of his nieces. A crack appears in his armor of fury and he commutes Ismene’s sentence and changes Antigone’s from stoning to being walled up in a cave.

Left alone to ponder all of this awfulness, the chorus talks about the terrible, destructive power of Love. When Antigone is escorted back to stand before them, they bemoan having to watch her go to her fate while she weeps that her bridal bed will be that of Hades, not her longed-for husband. They all agree that this is a continuation of Oedipus’s ghastly story of passion, incest, and murder. Kreon, entering just in time to hear this last, counters with, “Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you.” Denying her last request to say goodbye to her loved ones, he orders the guards to take her away and immure her swiftly. She is dragged out lamenting her unjust fate, calling upon the gods to witness that she never transgressed, and to mete out to her tormentors a fate at least as horrible as her own.

The blind seer, Tiresias, tells Kreon that the gods are angry with him and that perhaps he should rethink some of his recent decisions. After a furious argument in which Kreon accuses Tiresias of taking bribes, the seer storms out. But Kreon is shaken despite himself. He tells the chorus that he will go himself and set Antigone free, leaving them to praise Dionysos in their relief.

But it’s short-lived.

A messenger enters and tells them that despite all the great things Kreon has done for Thebes he is not to be envied. Kreon’s wife Eurydice comes along and asks why all their faces are so long. The gruesome details unspool. The messenger went with Kreon to Polydices’s poor disintegrating body and washed and buried it properly. Upon returning to the city, they heard a long wail, which Kreon recognized as the voice of his son. They rushed to Antigone’s tomb and dragged away the rocks, only to find her hanging from a noose made from her own veils. Haemon clung to her, shrieking, but when Kreon tried to pull him off, Haemon spat at him and lunged at him with a sword. Kreon ran away and Haemon threw himself upon the sword, clutching his wife-to-be’s body to him. Upon hearing this dreadful news, Eurydice leaves without saying a word.

As the chorus and the messenger speculate uneasily on the queen’s next move, Kreon enters with Haemon’s body on a bier. As they all mourn, another messenger arrives to deliver the news that Eurydice has also committed suicide. Her body is brought out on an “ekkyklema” (a “rolled-out thing”). Confronted with all this death, Kreon is overcome with horror and grief. “Come, let it come! The best of fates for me that brings the final day, the best fate of all! Oh quickly now—so I never have to see another sunrise. Whatever I touch goes wrong—once more a crushing fate’s come down upon my head.”

The play ends with the chorus saying, “Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy.”

Antigone is an early Rosa Parks, performing a dangerous act of civil disobedience. She undervalues her duty to her polis, maybe, but then we have to look at Kreon undervaluing his to family and oikos. Kreon believes that citizens must obey laws even if they disagree or there will be anarchy; Antigone that individual understanding of right behavior supersedes human law or there will be totalitarianism. Finding a balance is no less a problem today than it was in 5th century BCE Athens.,influenced%20Hellenistic%20and%20Roman%20theatre.

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