Sunday, 16 June 2019

Antigone: heroine or death-obsessed zealot?

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With the backing of the king of Argos, Polynices attacks Thebes and attempts to seize the throne from his brother, Eteocles. Thebes repels the invasion, but in the process Polynices and his brother are killed. Their uncle Creon ascends to the throne and proclaims that Eteocles is to be buried with full honours deserving of a patriot and a hero; while Polynices will remain unmourned and unburied, exposed to the birds and dogs, a fitting punishment for a traitor. Defiance of Creon’s order will be judged an act of treason punishable by death. Antigone cannot accept Creon’s decree and secretly performs burial and mourning rituals over her beloved brother’s corpse. The devoted sister is caught, brought before Creon and makes no effort to disguise her guilt or contempt for the king and his ‘laws’, claiming she acted according to ‘higher’ laws, on the correct treatment of family dead as defined by Hades and Zeus…

Sophocles’ Antigone is probably the most popular Greek tragedy in contemporary times. Moderns have liked to interpret Antigone as a rebel who defies a tyrant and the state; a proto-feminist protesting patriarchy; or a dissident youth who refuses to accept the strictures of her elders. This famous BBC version of the play, with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone, depicts Creon as a cruel dictator, who has usurped the law in the service of his rule and deploys it as part of a cult of the ‘state’. (Throughout Don Taylor’s otherwise powerful translation, polis is translated not as ‘city’ but as ‘state’ – to emphasise, for Taylor, Creon’s totalitarian disposition).

However, this insistence on interpreting Antigone as a drama of the individual against the state is facile. A Greek-filmed version of Antigone (above), with Irene Papas in the lead role, has a more complex portrayal of Creon who, rather than an implacable tyrant, is shown to be a weak and vacillating ruler. Having made his decree against Polynices’ burial and stipulated the death penalty for anyone who should defy it, Creon is inclined not to invoke the law now that Antigone – his niece, member of the Theban royal family and betrothed to his son, Haemon – and not Argive sympathisers or traitors, has been revealed as the party guilty of tending Polynices’ corpse. However, it is the gloomy, death-obsessed Antigone’s almost deranged defiance of her uncle and king that force Creon into a corner, and compel him to assert his authority and insist on the defence of the polis and its laws.