Saturday, 12 December 2015

Defy the State - Sophocles' Antigone

Antigone Title

I was sitting outside a coffee shop in Melbourne one morning and a tram trundled past advertising a production of the Sophoclean play Antigone. Knowing that Melbourne trams have the really bad habit of advertising plays that have long since finished I jumped onto the internet and to my absolute delight discovered that it had yet to begin. I have only ever seen one Ancient Greek play performed in my life and that was an amateur production (though it wasn't all that bad - its just that amateur productions tend to be a little different - the actors wander amongst the audience beforehand practising their lines), so I decided to immediately book my tickets.

I probably shouldn't be surprised that you don't see many Ancient Greek plays performed (other than the fact that since I'm in Australia the number of professional productions tend to be very small due to the size of the audience and the number of plays that are being produced every year - they tend to focus on the more contemporary Australian productions) since there is generally a lot of background involved that is not covered in the plays (Greek plays tend to be quite short). Also, because not many people are that familiar with Greek plays the audience tends to be even smaller.

Anyway, like most Greek plays, there is quite a lot of background to Antigone, and while the Chorus does outline what has happened beforehand, to the original audience much of the story was common knowledge.

The Tragedy of Oedipus

Antigone falls into what is known as the Theban Cycle - a series of stories in Greek Mythology that chronicle a number of tragic events that strike the city of Thebes. The whole sorry mess begins when the king of Thebes, Laius, is given a prophecy that his son will kill him and proceed to marry his wife. Being the type of person who takes prophecies seriously he proceeded to break both of his son's legs and then leave him exposed on Mount Citheron (a common practice back in those days when you didn't want a child). While Laius thought that that was the end of it, it wasn't since a shepherd found the baby and took him to Corinth where he became the adopted son of the King. However, one fine day when Oedipus was wandering out in the country he learnt that he was going to kill his father and marry his mother. Thinking that the King and Queen of Corinth where his legitimate father and mother, he decided to flee.

Oedipus and the SphinxWhile travelling through the country he accidentally meets Laius, who demands that Oedipus step aside so that he may pass. Not being one to succumb to demands from arrogant strangers, he draws his sword and kills Laius. He continues on his travels to arrive at Thebes where he discovers that the city is being terrorised by a sphinx who kills anybody that can't answer the riddle. Being a rather smart fellow, Oedipus gives the correct answer and then proceeds to kill the sphinx. As a reward he marries the Queen of Thebes, namely because her husband was killed while trying to find somebody to save the city.

They have a pretty happy marriage for a while, and even give birth to two children, however one day it comes to light that the guy that Oedipus killed was the husband of the woman that he has married. Even more disturbing he then learns that that guy happened to be his father, and the fact that that guy was married to the queen of Thebes meant that he had married his mother. Oedipus was absolutely horrified, proceeds to gouge out his eyes and then retires to Colonus in exile. Jocasta (the queen and Oedipus' wife/mother) is just as horrified and hangs herself.

Mind you, the story doesn't end there because Oedipus leaves behind two sons, Etocles and Polynices (and Jocasta has another son - Creon). They also have a daughter, Antigone. Anyway, instead of simply nominating one person (usually the oldest) to ascend the throne they do something really, really strange - they allow Etocles and Polynices to share the throne, each ruling for a year, with Etocles being the first. However, as can be expected, when the year came to an end and Polynices came to take his place, Etocles basically told him to get lost. Not letting his brother push him around Polynices went off, raised an army, and stormed the city. In the ensuring battle Etocles and Polynices killed each other, leaving Creon to take over the throne. Considering Polynices to be a traitor, Creon ordered that he should not receive a proper burial but rather to be left exposed and to be eaten by the crows and other animals.

Melbourne Production

A Modern Rendition

I probably should not have been surprised to discover that the production that I saw was an interpretation of the original play. While I suspect it may still be performed as it was originally written, these days not as many people are familiar with a lot of the Ancient Greek concepts that the audience would have understood. While the idea of keeping the corpse exposed was retained, much of the play was rewritten. For instance the director had completely dispensed with the chorus. Once again I shouldn't be surprised since retaining the chorus means that you will need a few more actors, and that can make the play somewhat more expensive to produce. While I would have liked to have seen the chorus retained, especially since it does play the role of the narrator, I can understand why it isn't.

Exposure of PolynicesThe idea of keeping a corpse exposed as punishment isn't something that is as familiar to us today, however it still happens. For instance corpse would be hung for the public to see as a warning not to do what the corpse had done, however these days we will still generally bury bodies - not so much for spiritual reasons, but more because of hygiene. In the Ancient Greek mind this worked both ways - it would act as a warning to others not to rebel against the state, but it was also a form of punishment as well. The Ancient Greeks viewed death much differently than does the modern mind and proper burials were reserved only for good citizens. Such a burial would serve as a memory of the individual and their lives. As such, because Polynices was decreed to be a traitor, such a burial would be denied and he would be cast out into the wilderness to be forgotten.

Greek PlateIn a way the fact that Creon had decreed that Polynices should not be buried is a minor point. What it does do is create a catalyst for the conflict that arises within the play - the question of who should be owed the greater loyalty, one's family or the state. Further it is not a question of whether Antigone loved one brother more than the other - Polynices was still her brother, and the familial attachment meant that she wanted to also give him the proper burial rites. Consider this in our modern mind - a beloved member of the family dies and the state then steps in, takes the body, and forbids us to hold a funeral or even a wake - we are to forget them and pretend that they never existed. This would be doubly traumatic for all who are involved because not only have they lost a loved one, they are not even permitted to give them the traditional farewell.

Authority of the State

It was interesting viewing this modern interpretation because the questions that plagued the original audience still plague us today. In a way the director wanted to create the impression that this could, and was, happening in 21st century Australia. In fact we are seeing this happen more and more as the government of the day is doing all it can to prevent people from criticising its actions, which includes going so far as to imprison journalists for writing about certain things. Mind you, this has not stopped the leaks from pouring out of the government's meetings, but it is working to silence opposition.

We see this a lot with the right-wing conservative movement who wave their flags and demand that anybody who is not happy with the way things are run to go and find themselves a new home. In a way they see that the state, and the established order, should not be challenged, and anybody who questions a decision made by the government are traitors and should be dealt with accordingly. Mind you, that does not mean that they automatically accept whoever is elected as the government. If we look over to America we see that there is a lot of rage being levelled against the Obama administration - and I would hardly call them left wing radicals - all he wants to do is to set up some form of universal health insurance. In a way it is not a question of accepting the government, it is a question of accepting only one form of government and one ideology.

The thing is that this form of government believes that for the community to be safe then the state must be secure. It is not a question of freedom, it is a question of security. The arguments that are put forth is that if security is lax then our freedoms are in danger, therefore to protect our freedoms we must let the state implement its form of security - it is very Orwellian in character. By allowing the state to increase its power our freedoms aren't actually protected, but rather sacrificed on the altar of order and security. I guess this is one of the dilemmas of the modern democracy - we want our freedoms, but we also want to be safe, therefore we must try to find a balance. If we lean towards freedoms then our security is at stake, however if we swing back towards security then our freedoms are at stake.

Take the metadata retention laws for instance. The internet, as we all know, is an untameable beast and governments are quickly coming to realise how dangerous it can be. As such they wish to be able to disrupt the potential that it has for criminal and terrorist organisations to use it to their advantage. What it means is that the internet ceases to be a way of private communications. However what they don't realise is that such organisations have been profiting long before the invention of the internet. The government didn't intercept snail mail, nor did they monitor every single meeting that occurred. However, what the internet has enabled them to do is to be able to more effectively keep tabs on what the ordinary person does, just in case that person may pose a threat to the stability of the state.

A Government in Crisis

Let us also consider this - Thebes had been through an incredibly tumultuous period. It began with the descent of a monster, then the murder of a king, then a devastating infertility plague, and finally a civil war. The city state had effectively collapsed and it was up to Creon to attempt to bring back order. The last thing Creon needed at this time was for somebody to defy his orders. By exposing Polynices, Creon was asserting his authority to demonstrate that rebellion would not be tolerated. Thus, when Antigone went and buried her brother, against the explicit orders of the state, something had to be done. He simply could not let Antigone get away with it - if he had done so his authority would have been brought into question.

Antigone - The Traitor
Then there was his son - he had taken Antigone's side in the argument. This was even more disastrous, and like Antigone's rebellion, this also had the effect of undermining his rule. Fortunately for him his son ended up taking his own life. Yet this action strikes at Creon's heart - he had just lost his son, yet if he were to maintain his leadership, and not to show any weakness, he had hide his grief (and while this may not have been the case in the original play, it was the case in this production). As such, at the end of the play he also turns his son into a traitor, giving him the same fate that faced Antigone.

In the end it all boils down to one thing - economics. That is why we have this push for security in the modern state. When a state is in chaos the economy suffers - businesses to not want to invest in an unstable state, to do so would mean that they would lose their investment. When businesses invest they do so to make money, not to lose it. A stable government and a functioning state not only attracts investment, but also creates a return on that investment. That is why there is such a push for security in the modern world, and the the claim that the state is supreme. In the modern economic world, it is not the individual that counts, it is the return on the investment. It doesn't matter if a single person is taken out of the equation, but rather whether society as a whole is spending money. It is not a question of individual freedom, it is a question of economic freedom.

The Vulnerable Citizen

One thing about the production that put me off was the fact that for most of the play Antigone was naked. A part of me though that this was unnecessary. Okay, she wasn't completely naked (she wore skin coloured shorts), but the intention was that she was supposed to be naked. However, at the end of the play, when Creon's son committed suicide, he was also naked and a part of me realised that the director was trying to bring out an idea by using nakedness. The thing is that nakedness represents two things: shame and vulnerability. The thing with shame is that nakedness brings it upon oneself as opposed to those around them. In any case European society is not a shame based culture, so the idea of Antigone's actions bringing shame on her family isn't something that would resonate with us - we see everybody as being responsible for their own actions, and as such families tend not to be put out by the actions of one of their members (and even then they tend to disown them).

Antigone's Vulnerability
However vulnerability is different - when we are naked we are vulnerable. We are exposing our innermost selves to the world at large. One of the reasons that we clothe ourselves is because our clothes offer us some form of protection, whether it be against the elements, or the leering eyes of those around us. In a way by removing our clothes we feel weak and prone to exploitation. This brings out one nature of a sexual relationship - we remove our clothes in front of each other because we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable towards each other. Okay, I know, there are lots of instances where people remove their clothes in front of complete strangers, but what I am suggesting is that it doesn't happen as often as one thinks. Consider the stripper for instance - do many people actually have very high opinions of them or their profession? Consider those who have suffered the indignity of revenge porn - many of them feel exposed, vulnerable, and exploited - as if their innermost secrets have been broadcast for the world to see.

The thing with Antigone is that before the state she is weak, helpless, and in effect vulnerable. The state, in the form of Creon, is all powerful and does not recognise any individual merit. It does not matter that Antigone is a member of the royal family, just as much as it is irrelevant with regards to Polynices. Both of them are traitors, and both of them deserve the same fate. Antigone is punished with death, but it is more so, especially in this place - she is banished to an island where she will be executed and forgotten. Like her brother, her name will be purged from the annals of Thebes. Against the power of the state she is weak, she in vulnerable, yet despite that she continues in her act of defiance. In doing so she meets the same end as does her brother.

The Cult of Empire

Okay, there have been lots of examples throughout history of the state taking the form of the deity, even so in the modern era. However the thing with the all powerful state is that it does not tolerate any dissent, or any foreign ideas. This was no more true than in Ancient Rome. On the face of it Rome appeared to be a tolerant society that accepted people from all walks of life. In fact it was an incredibly multi-cultural community. However there were limits - dissent against the government was not tolerated and would be put down appropriately. There are numerous stories of various cities and territories going into revolt which resulted in a swift reprisal against the guilty parties - Bodecia in England, and the Jews in Palestine are prime examples.

However there was another group that caught the unfortunate eye of the empire - Christianity. They were seen as a threat not simply because they worshipped a foreign god - there were many foreign gods being worshipped in Rome, whose followers also participated in secret rituals. In fact one of the common threads throughout religions of that period were the secret rituals. The problem with Christianity was that they refused to accept one simple rule - pay due respect to the emperor.

It was not that they were actively rebelling against the established rule - the Bible commands them to pay due respect to the government of the day (something that many Christians in the modern world seem to fail to be able to do) but rather they refused to worship the religion of the state. To the Romans this was dangerous, simply because the civil religion - the cult of the state - was what gave society its cohesion. The thing with the Christians is that they were unable, and unwilling, to accept any god but their god - the state included.

The problem with the state is that it cannot tolerate any form of dissent, even if this dissent is passive. Since the Christians refused to worship the emperor, the state saw this as a danger as it threatened to unravel the cohesian of the state, and as a result brought their full force against it in an attempt to stamp it out. Similar things have happened in the modern world were minority religious groups have faced persecution simply because they are different. The state maintains its authority not just through fear, but through the belief of the subjects that they need its protection. The teachings of the early Christians stood against that, refusing to fear the state, and knowing that ultimately the state was not able to protect them. Maybe the Romans were right to fear Christianity since some have suggested its rise led to the eventual collapse of the empire.

The Unsung Executioner

To put it simply Antigone is a hero. It is not that she stood up to the state and prevailed - by no means - it is that she had balls to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. She was willing to stand by her convictions and say to the state that there was a limit to their powers, and a line which they should not cross. Sure, the state ignored her and crossed that line, executing her in the process, but the thing is that the story of Antigone prevailed. It is the same with many martyrs throughout history - the state sought to silence them, to prevent them from standing up for what they believed in, to punish them for daring to hold a contradictory view - however despite their deaths, their views prevailed.

It is not that Sophocles wrote a great play by any means, but rather that out of all of the plays that he wrote this one survived. In fact out of all of the plays written by the Greek tragedians, this was one of the handful that has passed down through the ages to still be performed today - Creon failed in his task - Antigone was not silenced, nor was she forgotten. Nor is it a play of Shakesperian character - in Shakespeare's mind Antigone is the villain: she had the audacity to stand against the state and to rock the boat. In Shakespeare's mind this was anathema. If you read enough of his tragedies you will see that the common thread through many of them is that by defying the state you upset the natural order of things and death and destruction abound. In any case it was not as if Sophocles actually created anything - the story was a part of the Greek Canon long before he arrived on the scene - he just turned it into a really successful play.

Throughout history there have been many martyrs that have followed in Antigone's footsteps, who have refused to cower in fear of the power of the state. Some, such as Martin Luther, prevailed. Others were not so fortunate. Yet like Antigone, their legacy remains, their willingness to stand up for what they believed in, to let the state make an example of them, have elevated them to the mists of legend while their executioners have vanished into obscurity. She is a hero to all of those who fight against an oppressive government, who will not let go of their beliefs in the face of death, who say with confidence 'I will bury my brother!'.

Further Reading
The Economist, not surprisingly, has a brilliant piece on Antigone.
Another review of this particular production appears on Sometimes Melbourne Theatre.

Creative Commons License
Defy the State - Sophocles' Antigone by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.


  1. Great post! I haven't read Antigone since High School, but maybe I should revisit it.

    One thought that comes to mind is that you could read this not just as the question of the State versus the individual, but as a question of the good of society versus the needs of the individual. You pointed this out in the sense of order and security being more valued than the ties of love and family. When you mention the Right here in the United States, patriotism is as you describe it, but there is a lot more that goes into it. For instance, the hostility toward President Obama has a strong racist element, and also a rejection of his more global focus. (The right wing wants him to condemn all Muslims, for example, rather than try to find common ground with moderates.) There is also a strong cultural element to the political wars here, with an expectation (from the Right) that people will be willing to sacrifice their personal freedoms to preserve a certain culture. (Generally, white, middle class, and Protestant.) That element seems to desire to bring back the shame-based society you mention. Just one interesting parallel is the way that several prominent preachers have demanded that parents treat their gay or lesbian children as if they were dead. Not so different from the demand on Antigone...

  2. I remember reading a post about why Obama was smashed in the mid-terms and one of the things they suggested was that they shouldn't blame racism. However I do tend to agree that there is in attitude with the extreme right. Another interesting thing I heard was American being described as being a very religious nation - it's not something that one tends to pick up as an outsider, particularly since we tend to only get the feelings that emerge with the major population centres.