In a final battle for the control of Thebes, Oedipus's two sons kill each other. Creon issues an order that no one is to bury Polynices upon pain of death. But Antigone is determined that ... See full summary »
In a final battle for the control of Thebes, Oedipus's two sons kill each other. Creon issues an order that no one is to bury Polynices upon pain of death. But Antigone is determined that her brother's body will have the proper rites of burial. Written by
In a highly competent cast, the most striking performances are John Shrapnel's Creon, Tony Selby's Soldier, John Gielgud's Teiresias, and the 12-man Chorus. Creon is an autocrat, often arrogant, domineering, coarse or brutal, though democratically allowing and responding to gibes and arguments from his subjects. The translation, the staging, and the actor all make Creon more vicious than Sophocles intended, but Shrapnel brings him powerfully to life.
Selby's Soldier is a show-stealer. We are familiar with Shakespeare's skill in using clever, uninhibited commoners to create comic interludes in high tragedy. Greek tragedy is not noted for this, but Sophocles clearly knew how, and the translation is even funnier. A very old John Gielgud splendidly gives the ancient seer, Teiresias, a power of presence sufficient to overbear the autocrat. Gielgud does not shout; he is on stage for only two minutes, but the force of his utterance lingers in the memory. The Chorus look like older peers of the British House of Lords circa 1890. Their lines are spoken, sometimes in unison, sometimes singly in sequence, always with great clarity and variety.
The play begins with an act of civil disobedience by the king's niece, and ends with the misery and suicide of the perpetrator, of her fiance (the king's son), and of his mother (the queen), together with the utter despair of the king. What went wrong?
The first move is Creon's: a decree that, under pain of death, no one may bury Polynices (his nephew and Antigone's brother), who has been killed making war against the city. The stated reason for the decree is that enemies must be treated manifestly worse than loyal citizens. But why go to this extreme? One could easily distinguish between an enemy (Polynices) and a patriot (Eteocles, his brother, killed in the same battle) by simple rites for the former and elaborate ones for the latter. Creon completely ignores the conflict between his decree and the hallowed custom of burial rites.
Antigone, aware of the law and the punishment, plans to bury her brother anyway. This action strikes her as beautiful, partly because, unafraid, she will be doing what she enthusiastically believes to be Right. But partly also because she is entranced with the notion of embracing Polynices forever in the world of death. Her sister, Ismene, thinks the plan extreme, but can only counsel submission. Neither woman considers trying first to persuade Creon to amend the decree which, if successful, would make disobedience and its consequences unnecessary. By disobeying, Antigone will challenge Creon's authority as well as his wisdom, making it harder for him to back down. Especially hard in this case, since his acquiescence would look like partiality for a family member, a sin he has pledged to avoid.
Having disobeyed the edict, Antigone is brought before Creon. She eloquently invokes the "divine, everlasting" laws that her disobedience obeyed, but falters when Creon's questioning (a la Socrates) probes her understanding of justice to enemies and patriots. The questions logically point to the solution mentioned above: burial for both, but simple for the enemy and elaborate for the patriot. But no one offers it: neither Antigone, nor Creon, nor the Chorus.
Ismene is summoned. Grief-stricken at Antigone's prospects, she pleads to share the guilt and the punishment. Turned down by Antigone, she puts to Creon a powerful argument: surely he will not execute his son's betrothed. Her love, compassion, courage, gentleness and poise are beautiful, but the formula that might have saved the day does not occur to her.
Creon's son, Haemon, now enters, desperate to rescue his betrothed. He begins by expressing full deference to his father's judgment and authority, hoping this will make it easier for Creon to consider alternatives. Haemon tells Creon that the city completely disagrees with him: it thinks that Antigone's action merits not death, but the highest honors. The confrontation shows great courage in Haemon, but also much dishonesty. That popular opinion, even if favorable, would be as unanimous, as enthusiastic, or as accessible to him as he claims, is not plausible. The opinions he reports are emphatically his own and manifestly contrary to his father's. The initial assertion of deference was a pretext. Creon is enraged. If, instead, Haemon had asked Creon to explain why the edict was necessary, might this have led to a discussion of its merits, and might that have opened the way to changing the decree?
This was the last chance to prevent catastrophe. Haemon rushes out, warning that Antigone's death will cause another. Antigone, waiting for transfer to the tomb where she will be buried alive, laments her fate, feeling now that her death will be ugly and miserable.
Teiresias enters to declare that the country's altars and hearths are all defiled by birds and dogs satiated with Polynices' unburied body. Creon takes this as balderdash that Teiresias has been bribed to concoct. Whereupon Teiresias predicts Haemon's death. Remembering that the old man's prophecies have never been mistaken, Creon finally changes course. He rushes to bury Polynices and then to free Antigone. But too late: Antigone has hanged herself; a grief-stricken Haemon lunges at his father, then kills himself. Hearing the news, the queen also commits suicide. Creon is left inexpressibly miserable and shamed. The Chorus, having offered no criticism when it might have helped, now daringly condemns the grand words of proud men, who lack wisdom and piety.
Creon does change course, not in time through reason, but too late and through compulsion. Given his character, would better reasoning have persuaded him? Given the other characters, was better reasoning within their repertory? Was it all inevitable? In practical life we usually assume not. Should the assumption in this play be different?
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