Interpreting Antigone

Benjamin Franklin had a falling out with his only son during the Revolutionary war and he cut off all ties because his son was a loyalist and Franklin believed that family ties should usurp any artificial ties of state or king , a theme that would have sounded musical to Antigone.

This is the last part of the Theban tragedy / trilogy and the story of Oedipus . I finished 3 Shakespearean tragedies this year  , King Lear , Othello and Macbeth and while it was enthralling , they do not move one nearly as much as each of the Oedipal plays. Perhaps it is the element of helplessness that Sophocles portrays , man is a pawn in the games of the gods . There is interesting quote on those lines in King Lear

As flies to wanton boys,are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport

Chronologically this play follows “Seven against Thebes” which in turn has followed “Oedipus at Kolonus” where we see Oedipus cursing Polynices that he would slay his brother and be slain in his hand .

We find out from Antigone and Ismene that Polynieces and Eteoclyes, the sons of Oedipus have killed each in battle fulfilling their father’s cruel prophecy. Creon the new king of Thebes has decreed honors for Eteoclyes since he defended the city but declares that Polynices was a traitor and his body be deprived of burial and anyone who dares to do otherwise will be put to death.Antigone is clear that she has a higher duty to the gods and her promise to her dead brother who has entreated her on their last meeting to bury him. She has to bury her brother even if that means her death. Ismene tries to talk her out of it, she starts off stating their helplessness and then tries to convince Antigone of her civil duties(obeying the laws of the land) and then finally she brings up her gender , stating that women do not fight men and finally that it is the highest wrong to chase what is impossible.

We watch Creon justify his edict that the traitors not be honored even though Polynices is his nephew . He has put his family ties aside for the sake of the state and decrees that Polynices be punished by denying him last rites.

True to her word , Antigone buries her brother’s dead body and performs last rites secretly. When Creon finds out he berates money as being the root of all evil to sprout from human soil (human invention) and accuses his watchmen of taking bribes. It is interesting that the thought that he is dealing with somebody who is fighting for her beliefs never crosses his mind. So Creon digs up the body again and this time sets a trap . Antigone is caught and sentenced to death and this is where we start with the drama.

Creon gives him a speech to his son Haemon (betrothed to Antigone) about the importance of family versus the woman who comes by marriage (so past family vs future family) . But Haemon admonishes his father and also reminds him that the City of Thebes is also against him. Creon seems to have lost sight somewhere that as a ruler, he has to bow to the wishes of his subjects from time to time,especially in religious matters. Creon sentences Antigone to be buried alive in some desolate wilderness.

Antigone states that she would only do this for a brother, not for her children, not for her husband because she would have no more brothers with both Oedipus and Jocasta dead but husband and children can be replaced. So would Antigone have not gone with this terrible ordeal if she had another brother I.e Eteocycles had lived ? and what does that say for her earlier arguments of family vs state.

Thereafter the prophet Tiresias ( does he never die ) shows up and tells Creon that if he does not bury the body and let the girl go free, Creon will pay a price of blood. Interesting just like Oedipus in “Oedipus Tyrannos” , Creon refuses to believe him at first but soon his mind full of dread (and helpfully goaded by the chorus), Creon decides to bury the body and free Antigone but he is too late, Antigone has hung herself and his son commits suicide after an unsuccessful sword lunge at Creon. After hearing of her son’s death, Eurydice, wife of Creon kills herself after cursing Creon. My emotions at this point did a 180 degree turn , I had despised Creon until this point and suddenly my heart bleeds for the man . Talk about a raw f***ing deal and merely because he was trying to do something right by the state i.e punish a traitor.

I kept wondering about the family vs state argument . My favorite actor , growing up was the Bollywood hero , Amitabh Bachchan , and I have probably watched every single movie that he ever acted in until the late 90s.  Early in his career , he acted in two movies ,several years apart where he plays characters that end up on the wrong side of the law and in the first movie , he is killed by his brother who is a police officer and in the second movie , he is killed again by a police officer ,this time around; his own father . The two police officers are doing their duty and both movies tout that dedication to their duty ( and to society as a whole) is absolutely well and beyond the call of  family .Obviously both the movies have an underlying theme that is the complete antithesis of Antigone . Personally the cynical side of me believes that when playwrights decide to write about inspiring stories , they write about themes that are missing in their society , so Indian playwrights write about incorruptible police officers , ancient Greek playwrights write about family values instead of seducing young boys and Black Southern writers write about a society where the color of your skin is a irrelevant factor  but that is a topic for another day.

 

The chorus seems to have very active role through the play whether it is stopping Creon from killing Ismene or later praising Antigone and reminding her that she will have much glory, not wasted by old age and disease or maimed by a sword  when she is weeping at her fate , being unwedded and going to her death.

Antigone raises many questions but I could not help but wonder if she is the first emancipator of women , the first truly strong woman who was willing to take on an entire state for her beliefs and indeed the first truly strong individual willing to take up an non violent stance against the state and willing to give up her life for her beliefs.

Though the argument of family vs state is something that will keep us wondering forever, Sophocles has many  useful messages including “There is nothing more dangerous than rash judgment” or as Sophocles puts it “It is deadly for bad judgement to embrace a man”

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