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Marriage & Death In Antigone

From a lecture given by Dr. Richard Seaford University of Exeter Saturday 26th November 1994
I won't speak for very long, perhaps about half an hour. But even half an hour may seem a long time in a culture where the attention span is supposed to have been reduced to thirty seconds. So congratulations for coming here and subjecting yourself to a lecture. Congratulations, also, for coming to Sophocles' Antigone because it seems to me that behind the glittering variety of our media culture there is a fatal narrow homogeneity. That's true even of the West End. And one way of breaking through that homogeneity is to stage a play like Sophocles' Antigone, which is different. It's different because it belongs to a culture different from our culture and yet it's not so different that it's outside our comprehension. Sophocles' Antigone is at just the right distance from us to tell us something about ourselves, which is new but which we may feel that we have lost. But that requires an informed effort of the imagination. It requires a little bit of work and I hope to make some small contribution to that informed effort of the imagination. First of all I suppose I'd better to say something about the story from the formal point at which the play begins. It's about the house of Oedipus, one of those disastrous families about which Philip Larkin's verse, which you probably know, might have been written: "They fuck you up your mum and dad. They do not mean to but they do. They give you all the fraughts they have And add some extra just for you." That is true of this Theban Royal family on a grand scale. Now Oedipus, by mistake, married his mother and killed his father, and when that was discovered he had to cease to be the ruler of Thebes, He had four children: two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus cursed his sons and as a result his sons fell out with each other over the succession to the kingship at Thebes. Eteocles was king but refused to give up his kingship, by rotation, to Polyneices, who, therefore gathered a great army and besieged Thebes. There was a war, which Eteocles lost. Thebes remained safe, but the two brothers killed each other. And that left Antigone and Ismene alone, except that their uncle (their mother, Jocasta's, brother) Creon is left to take over the

kingship (tyranny as it's often called in the play) of Thebes. Creon decides that he will treat the dead bodies of Eteocles and Polyneices differently, because Polyneices has attacked Thebes, and so he issues an edict to the effect that noone is allowed to bury Polyneices. And this is the point at which the play opens. Antigone decides that she must defy the edict. She tries to persuade Ismene to help her in this, but in vain. Antigone symbolically buries the body of Polyneices and is, as a result, done to death by Creon. The whole thing ends in disaster, not only for Antigone but also for Creon and for Antigone's fiance, Creon's son, Haemon. That is all I'll say about the plot: just enough to enable you to understand what I'm going to go on to say about the cultural context in which the play was written and performed. I want to start with deathritual because that is essentially what the play is about: the insistence of a woman to perform a deathritual which she has been forbidden to perform. In one sense the play is very distant from us because we practice what we call "death avoidance". Death is taken from us by the doctor, the undertaker and the vicar. Ordinary people in general have very little contact with death and dead bodies and, in particular,.what to do after death. We are unusual in that respect. Modern industrial society is, I imagine, the only society which operates like this. In previous societies, including Greek society, it was quite different and this is one of the respects in which we can see that Antigone is dealing with issues which are somehow within us, but which we have lost. Now, I want to describe several ways in which deathritual, dealing with death, operates in ancient Greek society and still to some extent in Greece today. First of all, deathritual is in the hands of the family, not in the hands of doctors, undertakers and the church. It is entirely the responsibility of the family to perform it and this still is the case to some extent in Greece today, though here of course we do have the church and undertakers. But the family, particularly women, play a role even now. The second point is that deathritual in ancient Greece is a very intimate matter. Antigone says: 1 will come dear to you my mother and dear to you, my father and my brother in the underworld, because I washed with my own hands your body. I dressed you. I poured libations on your tomb. It's all very intimate washing the dead body, dressing a member of the family. And so when, in Aeschylus' tragedy Agamemnon, Clytemnestra kills her husband in the bath in which she's actually washing him after his return from Troy, when she puts a robe over him to trap him, this is the transformation of the intimacy of the deathritual, which would be familiar to the audience, into its opposite. It becomes not an expression of love for the dead husband, but a means of killing him. The third point about deathritual which is of relevance to us and is very important in Greek culture is that it is an expression of order and control over what is the most disordered, uncontrolled and brutal fact of our existence, namely death. The embodiment of the brutality of death and of our lack of control over it is the corpse, which, if left, will rot and smell, be eaten by birds and animals. So the act of washing it and dressing it, adorning it, then pouring libations on the tomb is a very potent symbol of the necessity and the power of human control over these fundamental transitions.

This is one reason why Greek literature is almost obsessed by this idea in a way which we may find difficult to understand and why nothing ever must threaten the right of people to bury their dead. You can kill people in battle, be their enemies, but you must not prevent them from burying their dead. That goes too deep. If that is out of control, everything is out of control. Warriors will look forward to being buried, thinking that even if they die in battle, at least their wife will wash them and dress them and bury them, and everything will be fine. And this is a way of reconciling oneself to death. Deathritual was in the hands largely of the women. We don't know for certain why this was, but it is easy to see why women might be more closely associated with the kind of physical intimacy, that I've talked about, than men. Also, of course, death ritual is performed on relatives and in the ancient world as in many Mediterranean societies now, possibly even in our own society still, the female role is the household, the kinship group, the family, whereas the male role is the marketplace, the community, the square, the cafe, the citystate. So, when it comes to dealing with close kin in this intimate way, it may be natural that it is women who do it, rather than males. When Antigone says at a famous point in this play: I have to bury my dead brother, because there are unwritten laws that tell me to do so, and nobody knows where they came from. They are very ancient. They override any decrees that politicians may make, she is expressing partly the greater antiquity of the family over the political state, the male community which is headed by Creon. And it is also an expression of the absolute imperative for control over the natural processes that I have described. Another feature of deathritual both in ancient and modern Greece, in fact all the way through from our earliest knowledge of Greek society to today, is that it produces conflict, which again is unfamiliar to us. One of the very first things we hear about Athenian history is the legislation produced by Solon at the beginning of the C6th BC to the effect that women must be controlled. They must not lament too much. The gift to the dead must not be too great. The laying out of the body must not take more than a certain amount of time. All these things are designed to circumscribe the emotional intensity of the deathritual. This goes all the way through Greek history: we find it in the Church Fathers, who rail against women for being too intense in lamenting their dead because there is something unchristian about it. We find it today in a marvellous book, which I came across a year or two ago, in which an anthropologist describes how in Greek villages in the Mani, the women lament for the dead, wash the body and so on, and they all join in (they love a good lament) and as they lament they express female concerns. It is like an alternative political assembly, but for women. The males have their assembly based on the cafe but the women use deathritual in order to express their concerns and their relative autonomy as women in the community which may involve adverse comment on the way in which the men are running the community. So, all the way through Greek history, we can see a gender conflict in deathritual between the female household sphere and the male public sphere. This is, of course, absolutely crucial for understanding Antigone, for this is the conflict at the heart of the play, and not, as it is usually taken to be, the conflict

between the individual and the state. (This is a modern conception dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and we very easily read it into Antigone. That's fine, but we extend our imagination if we realise it has nothing to do with the original tragedy. The Greeks at this time did not have the vocabulary to describe that. They were not interested in it. What they were interested in was the rather more fundamental conflicts of the time, that I have described, particularly between genders.) Having talked about death and deathritual, I want to say something about marriage. Here again, we are dealing with something which we can recognise, but which is significantly different. Marriage in our society is still a transition, but a lot of people don't know what it's for. Marriage in ancient Greek society is much clearer in its outlines. What I am going to describe is marriage from the point of view of the girl. Women in Greece married a lot earlier than they do today: maybe fourteen or fifteen. Until their marriage they were confined in their parental household, and knew very little of the world outside it. Marriages were arranged, so they would not know, or barely know, the man to whom they would be married, and he would be much older. Imagine, therefore, the trauma of marriage for a Greek girl. She is leaving the only home she's ever known, never to return; she's leaving her parents whom she will see again only (perhaps) sporadically; she's going into the total control of a male, whom she does not know, who is older than her, who has his own kinship group, whom she also doesn't know, who will have expectations of her. For the Greek girl, marriage is a form of death. It is a movement into the fearful unknown. The two fundamental transitions of the Greek woman, marriage and death, are invisaged in terms of each other. Marriage is a kind of death, and, conversely, death for an unmarried girl is expressed as a kind of marriage. This still happens in Greece today. If a girl dies before her marriage, she may be dressed in the coffin as a bride. When I was in Greece a few years ago, there was a newspaper story of a sad case of two adolescent lovers whose parents disapproved of their relationship. They committed suicide, at which the parents of course expressed great remorse and there was a photograph in the newspaper of the extraordinary procession through the streets of the town in which the dead couple were dressed as bridegroom and bride, and the whole thing was like a wedding procession. What they were doing, whether they realised it or not, was enacting a very ancient cultural form. Death and marriage, then, interpenetrate for the girl in particular in Greek society and that interpenetration is greatly facilitated by the similarity of the two rituals. In both cases the ritual consisted of a movement out from the home in a torchlit procession, often with the dead or the bride on a cart, which went (with the family of the dead or the bride) to a new bed: the tomb or the marital bed. The person, the dead or the bride, is then left and the kin of the dead or the bride then return sorrowfully to their own home, never to see the lovedone again.

I have said quite a lot about ritual, because ritual is at the heart of the Antigone. But I am now going to move on to a more political dimension of the play, and talk about the ways in which the play does not so much reproduce, but present an anomaly to cultural mores. At the very beginning of the play, Antigone says to her sister, Ismene: "Ismene, dearest Ismene, who are from the same womb, what of the sufferings that come from Oedipus is Zeus not fulfilling for us, when we are still alive. " Sufferings from Oedipus: Antigone and Ismene are the offspring of the incestuous union of Oedipus and Jocasta. If you are from an incestuous union, there is a sense in which you are doomed. This is a note struck at the very beginning of the play, and it is a note that reappears throughout the play. What is the horror of incest? Incest is a universal taboo; every society has this taboo, but it is actually quite difficult for us to say why we feel that horror, to rationalise it. It is one of the few taboos left that we all agree about, without being able fully to explain it. One of the things that we do is to say it's genetic: brother and sister marrying have funny children. But that is not as true as people think it is. It certainly is not the origin of the incest taboo. The origin of the incest taboo has to do with the absolute necessity of marrying outside the group. Only if you marry outside the group will your kinship group form the links necessary to survive in a difficult world. Now, when in Greek mythology a family practices incest, it is refusing to do that. In this play, Antigone says at a crucial point in a famous speech, What I've done, I did for my brother. I wouldn't have done it for a husband, and I wouldn't have done it for my children, because you can have more children. But once your parents are dead, you can't have a brother any more, so I had to do it for my brother. This might seem rather odd: why is she making these distinctions at the point of her heroic death? What she is doing is saying: I am for my natal family. I prioritise that over marriage. Antigone has a fianc, Haemon, whom she entirely ignores throughout the play. There is one line in the play in which she may mention him, but it is uncertain whether is spoken by Antigone and Ismene: it could be either. O, dearest Haemon, how your father dishonours you. I think that is spoken by Ismene, and that Antigone actually ignores Haemon all the way through, because she is the representation, the embodiment of introversion, devotion to the natal family, rather than the marital family, to brothers and parents rather than to husband, and this is also incestuous in a sense. Not only does she have incestuous parents, but she too, Antigone, is incestuous. The language she uses about her brother whom she wants to bury shows this: 1 will lie with him, and be dear to him and he will be dear to me. In Euripides' version, the language is even more erotic, and in Statius, a much later Latin poet, Antigone actually has an explicit erotic relationship with her brother. This is not a prurient interest, it is an expression of this polarity, this dilemma, between loving your natal family and loving your husband. Antigone is the woman who does not make that transition: she is entirely devoted to her brother.

Now, this has both a significance for the ritual that I have talked about, but it also has a political significance. I shall end by saying a little bit both about the ritual significance and finally the political significance. When she is escorted to her death in the play, this is a funeral procession, but unusually she is alive. She is going to be enclosed alive in her tomb, and the tomb is also a wedding chamber. It is described as a wedding chamber of Hades. She says: 1 shall wed Acheron, the river of the Underworld. Here is the ambiguity I talked about earlier between the funeral procession and the bridal procession. In the normal bridal procession, of course, the funeral is a metaphor. In the end, the bride will live and reproduce, and life will go on. The funeral expresses the negative aspects of the wedding, which she nevertheless has to overcome, to be incorporated into her new household and produce new life. But Antigone's procession is not a wedding procession, but merely described as a wedding procession, in the way that even today Greek girls who die before their wedding are dressed as brides, in the combination of wedding and funeral. In Antigone's case, it is of course the funeral that prevails. It is death that dominates. She also says as she goes: 1 will come dear to you, my father, and dear to you, my mother, and to you, my brother, because I washed you and dressed you, and I poured libations on your tomb. She is happy, because she is going to spend all eternity with her natal kin, her mother and her brother and her father. This is, for the group, dangerous. It is introverted. This is a wedding procession, as it were, in which she moves not to the new home which her husband is in, and in which she will have children, but the home paradoxically which she has just left. She goes from the parental home in this world to the parental home in the next world. It is a transition, but it is back, as it were, to the same place. This is a powerful ritual expression of the introversion, the incestuous introversion which I have been describing, and this is an area in which the power of ritual representation and political significance interpenetrate. This introversion, this refusal of marrying out, of exogamy, is of great political significance, particularly when it is practised in a royal family. We know of powerful families in the ancient Greek world who preserved their power by marrying in, by not giving their women to outsiders. The Bacchiads of Corinth for centuries were said to control because they never gave their women to outsiders. If you give a woman to an outsider, there is a risk that the offspring of that union will have a claim on your wealth and your power. When the Egyptian monarchs, the Greek rulers of Egypt married their brother or their sister, which happened quite a lot, it wasn't that they kept falling in love with their siblings, it was because that was the way to preserve power and wealth within the family. The Theban royal family with its incestuous, introverted tendency, and also its tendency to selfdestruct (with fratricide, with Creon doing his own niece to death in this play), represents a view of the powerful introverted royal family, the family that separates itself off from everyone else, from a democratic perspective. There is the theatre, with the citizens of the democratic state gathered to see the dramatisation; there i$ the chorus, who in a sense mediate between the audience and the action, who represent ordinary citizens, and who will be alright; and then here on the stage, at the back, is the royal family, and they won't be

alright. They will be destroyed, not by the citizens, but by a combination of the gods and themselves. This is an absolutely characteristic pattern of Greek tragedy: the royal family which selfdestructs. What I am suggesting, then, is that it would be a mistake to suppose that the original audience simply felt the deepest sympathy with Antigone, because Antigone represents this introversion which was so dangerous to the citystate. Towards the end of the play, in the last choral ode, the chorus sing a song to the god, Dionysus. This is significant, because Dionysus is first of all the god who opposes incest and introversion. He goes into the royal household and takes the women out and puts them on the mountainside where they're going to have sex with strangers including Dionysus himself: this is characteristic of what Dionysus does. Accordingly, Dionysus is also the god of the whole people. Dionysus, as an oracle says, wishes that everyone should worship him together, mixed up in the streets. Dionysus wants honours from everybody indiscriminately. He is the god of the citystate, the god of the polis so he is also the god who takes the women out from their potentially incestuous, introverted households and puts them en masse on the mountainside. Dionysus is also, thirdly, the deity in whose honour drama is performed. Drama is performed at his festival, so he is presiding over the endless selfdestruction of the royal family which takes place every year at the City Dionysia on the stage. There is, therefore, an antithesis set up between what the citizens have now, where they have got rid of their royal family, and where they have a democracy presided over in particular by Dionysus on the one hand, and the horrors of the royal family, their selfdestruction, the pollution that it spreads around the citystate on the other hand. This is a very powerful feature of ancient Greek tragedy, and one which we, in part because of our political cast of mind, fail to see. It is easy to see how people would feel desperately sorry for Antigone, and for Creon, and that is absolutely right. The Athenian audience, I think, had it both ways. On the one hand they found great sympathy with the sufferings of the royal personages on the stage, and would have wept copiously, felt horror and grief at what was going on, but on the other hand, at the end, they would also feel great relief because those days are past, and they must never return. For what they now have is a democracy, a democratic festival and the god, Dionysus.

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