You are on page 1of 6


Greatness & Suffering in Sophocles

from a lecture given by Professor Jasper Griffin Balliol College Oxford 29th November 1994 Greatness and suffering bring to mind two rather problematic aspects of Classical tragedy: elitism and morbidity. Tragedy is set at the very top of the social scale. Gods, kings, head of houses no death of a salesman is worthy of tragedy in antiquity, or in the days of Shakespeare (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; King Lear no commercial travellers there). Only in the C 18th do we begin to get middleclass tragedy, much derided. Now, of course, we assume that tragic persons will be drugaddicts, dropouts, students, the dregs of society! Secondly, morbidity. Why is this taste for disaster felt to be a good and edifying taste, whereas a taste for watching carcrashes or gladiatorial contests is thought to be a low and degrading taste? The reason why that is so has something to do with the similar reason why the presentation of love in the theatre is not improved, but debauched, by the actual representation of the sexual act as a reality. People have done both. In the Roman empire, there were performances of tragedy in which people were actually killed when the script called for someone to be killed. On the whole, we don't think that this was an example to follow. These two things, elitism and morbidity, go together, very grand, persons at the top of the social scale suffering extreme torment. The suffering of elevated souls, great people who are supposed to be of more significance than we are in their lives and in their suffering, means something: twenty four carat, genuine suffering and significance, intensely felt and greatly expressed. It is no use having people who are up to getting the most out of the suffering, or sharing it with us by being articulate and powerful. It is in the contemplation and sharing of that spectacle that we elevate and expand, and also chasten and limit our conception of what it is to be human. Sophocles is very rare among poets in being interested in physical pain. Not only in Antigone, but in three more of his seven extant plays, somebody is shown in the extremity of physical anguish: Oedipus blinding himself; Heracles, in the Trachiniae being consumed by a poisoned shirt that tears away his flesh as he tries to tear it off; Philoctetes rolling about on the stage in the grip of his poisoned wound. This is unusual: very few great works of literature have gone in much for extreme physical pain. It is not a very Shakespearean subject, though there is that scene of the blinding of Gloucester which is always evoked by pornographers, King Lear 3.7, so, aha!, Shakespeare did horrible things on the stage too! But that, of course, is different.

This kind of suffering, physical suffering, concerns the men. The great suffering of Sophoclean women is mental. Antigone and Electra suffer like Juliet and Cleopatra. It is not like La Traviata, dying of disease, though we notice that even with her, in the opera, we do not hear about her pain, only about her weakness. The great hero, or the great heroine (Sophocles accepts that there are heroines who are great in the same way that there are heroes) are in the grip of inescapable suffering. This is the choice spectacle, the spectacle for the gods, which shows us, as it were in a metaphor, what it is to be human. However big and brave and determined you are, this is what the gods can do to you. So the suffering of Antigone is not physical agony, but mental agony, especially in two respects. The first is that she has accepted that she is going to be put to death for what she does, but the tyrant, Creon, invents a particularly horrible way of doing it. She is going to be buried alive, and his point in doing this is to maroon her between the upper world of the living and the lower world of the dead. The second thing, and even more acute, is the pain of not being understood, that nobody shares her view or expresses any sympathy for what she has done. There is a big scene in the middle of the play, in which she laments her death before the citizens of Thebes, and here is the keenest point of her suffering: she is alone, and understanding is withheld from her. The plays of Sophocles are characteristically built round one character who is different from the others, and different in passionate stubbornness, intensity, and (what goes with that refusal to compromise) the ability to suffer in the grand manner. That must be expressed at a greater level of linguistic intensity than the speeches of the other people in the play. We can compare, for example, Othello in his play, who is different froth the other people, not simply in colour, but he talks in a different way, he has a different kind of depth to his character, and when he says, for example, at the end of the play o cursed, cursed slave, whip me, you devils, from the possession of this heavenly sight, blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur, wash me in steeped out gulfs of liquid none of the supersubtle Venetians in the play can remotely talk like that. The fact that he has that kind of utterance marks him out as different from them. He is marked out to suffer and to feel that suffering more strongly than the others. So, too, in rather different ways, Coriolanus and, perhaps, King Lear. Laurence Olivier, who did a memorable Lear, said of the character, after he had acted it, that he was in his view a "stupid old fart". That is, I suppose, C20th speech for what Lear says himself: I am a very foolish, fond old man. This clearly is one way you could describe Lear he does make a terrible hash of things but one feels that something has been left out, really. We are convinced by the ferocity and power of his curses and his ravings that only a soul of exceptional depth and richness could articulate the suffering that only such a soul is great enough to feel. The bad characters in the play don't understand this nature of Lear they think he can be content to be humiliated, should just put up with it when they take away his knights and so on, instead of which he destroys them all and himself by the passion of his rejection. It is significant that they can't rise to grand last words of the kind that Lear says. The last words of Goneril: Ask me not what I know . The last words of Regan: my sickness grows upon me. Clearly those are not at all the kind of things that Lear is radiating all the time. Another actor, who shall be nameless, who recently acted the part of Romeo, summed up the part by saying that Romeo was in his view "a wanker". Both Lear and Romeo do, indeed, make a hash of things, but I think we must say that we must allow the work of art to work on you with a somewhat more generous spirit than that! Antigone is a landmark in an historical and philosophical point of view, because two world views come into conflict and are explicitly argued about for the first time. It is also the first martyrdom in Western

literature (the second is that of Socrates, as written up by Plato). And I want to insist here, that her opponent, Creon, is a modernminded person, that is to say he is a person who thinks entirely in terms of politics. Everything is politics. and the decision of whether or not to bury the prince who marched against his own city is a political judgement: by not burying him we will deter other people from taking that kind of step. The gods, according to Creon, are the gods of the city, as he keeps calling them, and they will understand they, too, see the world in political terms. This is an early appearance of a characteristically C20th way of looking at the world, and it makes it difficult for some people nowadays not to think that Creon must be at least half right, or perhaps more than that, perhaps nine tenths right. A professor in California writes to say: except for his neglect for sanitary considerations, it is hard to think that Creon is not in the right, against the obscurantist Antigone, clearly a reactionary, bad sort of person. It is perfectly possible, quite a way into King Lear, to think that his daughters are much more reasonable than he is (all these rowdy knights making a nuisance of themselves, and so on). Against this figure of Creon, and the modern political world, Antigone stands for something quite different, the family: the family survives death; the rites which are possessed by the dead in their helplessness no matter what they did in life, those rites are not taken away by political considerations; the absolute certainty of the divine law which forbids certain things and you cannot just get round it to suit your political calculations, or ours either. The Greeks were very keen on this topic of the burial of the dead . It doesn't interest us very much, but that is because their gods did not issue very many direct prohibitions of the sort that we have in our sacred literature, and that was one they actually did issue. It is a place where human will and divine will come directly into conflict. I am not going to argue this case. I am just going to assert for now that what the poet meant was that Creon is wrong and Antigone is right. We shall see in the course of the play that Creon is forced by the logic of his position, which sounds in a way not unreasonable when he first states it, and by the sense of righteous anger that fills him, to do increasingly unsatisfactory and awful things. First he orders the death of the innocent sister, Ismene (and the chorus says: you do mean that, do you? To which: No, of course, 1 didn't mean that!); he then insults the gods of the city, and defiles their cult by leaving the body unburied (as the prophet Teiresias tells him, the cult won't work while it's like this); and finally his life is destroyed by the family affections which he tries to contradict. That is to say, by the action of his wife and his son by killing themselves. These are things which the state can't interfere with. If you put your finger into that machine, it will drag you in and pulp you up. Going back to Antigone, she is a young woman engaged to be married. In Greece, which was a thirdworld country in many respects, women had in principle, no political role, and the more democratic things became, the less political roles they had. Under a kingship, it is very difficult not to have queens, but in a democracy you can avoid that. It is Antigone who does what nobody else dares to do, and defies the edict of the king. She is equipped to point up how exceptional she is, with a sister who is not exceptional, an ordinary, conventional girl, who says, well, it's very unpleasant, but we're women and there's nothing we can do about it. Some very modern scholars, rather surprisingly agree with Ismene. They take the view that Antigone shows herself to be "a bad woman" by taking a strong line in the public arena, and the fact that she was right is, according to these scholars, of less importance than the fact that she breaks the rule that she should have shut up. Now, I think that is completely wrong. It misreads the whole experience of the play.

It adds to the acuteness of the crisis that the king is not opposed by a great noble or warrior, or somebody like that, a man of action, but a young woman. Nobody else dares to speak, so he finds himself arguing with this girl, and he is the sort of man who is greatly enraged by this. That is not supposed to be an admirable feature, as I think you can see if you listen carefully to his scene with his son. The confrontation of two abstract views is thus made more poignant and also more picturesque, more spectacular. Instead of being argued by two heavies, two middleaged men with beards, we have on the one hand a man like that but on the other a woman, and it made more interesting because she is about to get married. The less obviously powerful cause is, in the end, to prevail. It is weakness in this world, in contrast with the king with his armed guards (in the Greek productions, he would come in with a whole lot of spear carriers, which is where that term comes from: the chaps who never get to say anything interesting), and that contrast underlines its strength on a plane where that sort of military strength is of no significance. Antigone has the temperament of a heroine and a martyr. That does not necessarily make her a very nice girl. She disobeys Creon's order, and when he challenges her, she talks to him with a freezing hostility and contempt, as if to make it quite certain that she will in fact be put to death. She is not at all nice to her sister. Her sister refuses to help and Antigone at once says, right, you're an enemy; you're on Creon's side. Many scholars have felt that they would rather be married to Ismene, perhaps, than to Antigone. That is no doubt true, but you mustn't flatter yourself that that's the point of the play. The point of the play is not who you'd rather be married to. It might be difficult to accept that, but there it is. Sophocles shows his insight here, because the fact is that martyrs and heroes and heroines are not necessarily nice or certainly manageable or agreeable people, and when one meets one or two of them in one's journey through life one realises what impossible people they very often are. His male heroes also tend to be very unmanageable. The hero of the Trachiniae, Heracles, was described by the virtuous Gilbert Murray, who was a forerunner of woman's rights and a president of the League of Nations, as "a kind of Bill Sykes". I don't think that was entirely right either, but he certainly wasn't very nice to his wife. These people do not necessarily possess the smaller virtues and they are not as lovable as we are, who are not heroic. How does Antigone show this stature? Essentially at two points in the play. One, the big speech with Creon when she explains why she has done it and invokes the unwritten law which overrides your temporary injunctions and power. It was not the gods who sanctioned this rule, nor the goddess of right who dwells with the gods below. And I didn't think your pronouncements were of such force as to override the unwritten, unshaken ordinances of the gods. They were not issued today or yesterday, they have always been alive, and noone knows when first they appeared. Now that speech is a classic statement of a profound moral position, the protest, the eternal protest of the outraged soul against brutal and blatant power, in the phrase of Auden, the mass and majesty of this world, all that carries weight and always weighs the same. It is made in this play with a ringing crispness, an unforgettable utterance once it is made, and it is not by chance that when they put on Antigone in Paris in the 1940s, during the German occupation, the Germans instantly forbade it, because that message is one that, once heard, must be responded to. Her other great utterance is as she faces the moment of death, and that is musical. Now it is a general fact about Greek tragedy that it divides up into two clearly separate parts: what we, in our less

clearminded, Northern country regard as an indistinguishable mass of emotions and arguments. Whereas the soliloquies of Shakespeare jumble together intellectual points with more or less raw expressions of emotion, the Greeks characteristically tended to put one in one place, the other in another. That goes with the fundamental division of Greek tragedy into two: speech and song. Shakespeare alternates verse and prose, but on a much less significant scale. In important respects, Greek tragedy resembles grand opera at least as much as it resembles English tragedy. In the alternation of recitative and aria, and also of solos and ensemble singing, arguments go naturally into speech, emotions go naturally into song, and they complete each other. Antigone develops her reasons for her action in the scene with Creon which is a spoken scene, and also in her last speech before she goes off to her death. Just before that, there is a long scene in which she laments with the chorus, and there, essentially, what she unpacks is not the argument but the pathos of her death. Creon originally said, anyone who does this will be stoned to death. The point of stoning, both among the Greeks and among the Hebrews and other people is that it is like a firingsquad: everybody has a hand in it, it represents rejection by the community as a whole; noone individually causes the death. It is not clear whether Creon thinks that that decision would not draw nearly as much enthusiasm, or what, but he changes it. At first he says he will put her to death before her fianc's eyes (not a nice thing to say when you find yourself saying that sort of thing, something has gone wrong) and then changes it instead to this cutting her off from the world of the living and the dead. She has always been devoted to the dead. Her brother is dead. Her parents have died in gruesome circumstances with the incest of Oedipus, and as she says, she is going to share in that world, but only in this horrible parody of real burial below the earth, but still alive. She compares herself to the mythical queen, Niobe, the one that comes in Hamlet, like Niobc, all tears, who mourned for her children until she was turned to stone, still running with water. That stony, watery doom seems the nearest parallel to her own fate. So, in that scene, the injustice of her condemnation is in the background. Her thoughts are on its cruelty. And even that is less painful than the fact that she cannot induce the chorus or anybody else to admit that she is right, to show some understanding of what she has done. She does not hear the scene where her betrothed, Haemon, argues with his father; she does not know about that; she does not know about his defiance. Her sister Ismene has shown she does not understand. The Chorus, who are a respectable but uncourageous lot of Thebans, refuse to understand her case or give her any moral support. They limit themselves rather to narrow remarks which fall very flat. They won't even comment on the moral issue. The point of this is partly that Sophocles wants her to be alone. I think he would have thought that the idea of her being dragged from the arms of supporting lover and chorus would be melodramatic in a way which he did not want. Antigone is not going to get married. She won't have a husband, she won't have children, and to a Greek woman that meant that she had lived in vain. There were no bachelors and no spinsters in antiquity. Even people, who joked about how gay they all were, were probably all married. The gravestones of girls who died unmarried make it clear that this was an extremely pathetic thing to happen. Antigone was on the point of getting married. That unhusbanded and childless doom she laments, in pain at the moment of her death, parting from the light of the sun, unmourned, alone, with her terrible heredity as the child of incest she laments her fate, and she feels it and makes us feel it, but she never wavers about the rightness of her decision, and she never begs for mercy either. In that, she contrasts very sharply with Creon, her adversary who tries to be as stubborn and as tough as she is, but who really is made of different stuff. Creon tries not to recede from his judgement; he resists

various forms of pressure; he loses his temper; he shouts at everybody, at Antigone, at his son, who is warning that public opinion is against him; he loses his temper and blusters and threatens; he has to be reminded that Ismene is innocent; he threatens to put Antigone to death before the eyes of his son; he blasphemes the gods of heaven and earth; and in the end, of course, he crumples up. When his disaster strikes him, with the death of his son and the death of his wife, he has no grand utterance to make. He can only say things like I'm nothing; I'm useless; take me away. That inability to rise to suffering on a high plane is his final condemnation: a second rate character, as well as being wrong, he is simply swept aside at the end of the play. ACTORS OF DIONYSUS