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‘Obedience is Due’
Antigone by Sophocles
© 2013 James LaFond
The translation by Sir George Young (1837-1930)
Written and performed in the late 440s B.C., Antigone is considered by many to be the best work of Sophocles. It has been some time since I’ve translated Greek—to my editor’s horror—but I think Sophocles translates pretty directly as ‘Thoughts-of-honor’.
Most people in our time think of classics as literature of the 1800 and 1900s, and regard ancient literature as entirely divorced from our reality. This is a shame as these ancient works tend to be quick reads, particularly the plays. This is my second reading of Antigone, the first being out of the Loeb collection. This reading is from the Dover Thrift Edition, and runs to a sparsely set 48 pages. We readers have such scant time to read and so many candidates for our dimming eyes, that one does want a reason for adding another title to our list.
What type of person would I recommend Antigone to?
Those interested in ancient history, feminism, and liberty, particular where principals of state ownership of humans and individual and collective obedience are concerned.
The story itself concerns the children of Oedipus Rex, mythic king of Thebes; his two daughters Ismene and Antigone, and their slain traitor brother Polynices [Many-victories], for whom their uncle Creon, the current king, has denied funerary rites. There is a sentinel and a chorus to provide a body of witnesses within the play itself.
The story unfolds as a series of dramatic discussions of the rites due the underworld on behalf of the Dead championed by Antigone, the obedience due The State championed by Creon, and the right to survival by way of submissive obscurity championed by Ismene.
The entirety is in chorus and verse, with the chorus representing something much more substantial than what it does in modern music.
Ismene beseeches the powers of the underworld to forgive her obedience to kings and men.
Antigone would rather die than forgo the rites due the dead.
The two women together represent the dual feminine elements of traditional society: powerlessness and cultural continuity. Oddly enough, these feminine perspectives out of the distant past echo in our time as the male-dominated anarcho-libertarian movement, and the predominantly male right wing conservative block.
Creon, on the other hand, makes the case for secular power and the necessary obedience of the citizen. The arguments Creon makes have echoed in the mouths of every president, dictator, premier and prime minister of our own time. It is noteworthy that while modern rulers invoke religion and family to solidify their base, and freedom seekers generally make a secular appeal, and modern religions tend to place women in a subservient role, that these three trends are turned completely on their head in Sophocles’ Antigone.
In terms of understanding the depth of the human condition Antigone is essential reading. For more specific matters, like the antiquity of feminism, the importance of funerary rites in pre-secular societies, and the nature of the small communities that forged the Western Way of War of which we are the inheritors, few pieces match Antigone.
Also, the verse is wonderful:
“Alive; to me no bridal hymns belong,
For me no marriage song
Has yet been sung; but Acheron* instead
Is it, whom I must wed.”
-Antigone, under guard
*The river of death.
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