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DIONYSUS VOLUME 10

WHO IS THE "HERO" OF ANTIGONE?


Sir Kenneth Dover Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews In the title of this talk, I have been very careful to put the word "hero" in quotation marks. I am not concerned at the moment with the Greek heros, which is something quite different to what we mean in modern English by the "hero" of a play or novel. What we usually mean by hero is somebody who is the focus of attention in the work of fiction, somebody through whose eyes perhaps we are meant to see the events, someone with whom we empathise. In other words, it just means the principal character. It may seem rather silly to ask who is the principle character of Antigone, because the play is called "Antigone", and the titles of tragedies were ancient. And in the conflict between Creon and Antigone (which is what the play is all about), Antigone is certainly vindicated; she turns out to be right and Creon wrong. The reason why I want to talk about this conflict between them and where our attention should be focused is that long ago Hegel decided that Antigone was not a conflict between right and wrong but a conflict between right and right. In 1973, there appeared a very worthwhile and interesting book by Brian Vickers called Towards Greek Tragedy, and in his discussion of Antigone he says that Creon approaches as near as possible to a totally evil character as he can and still keep within the bounds of credibility. It so happened that when I was reading Vickers' book, I was also working on my book on Greek popular morality as one can deduce it from lawcourt speeches at Athens, and I got a certain feeling that if by any chance Antigone had done what she did in classical Athens in the time of the democracy and had been prosecuted for it, she might very well have lost the case. This, then, is an interesting aspect: how would the original audience have reacted respectively to Antigone and Creon? A reminder, very briefly, about the story. Oedipus, when he went into exile from Thebes, left four children: two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. They were his children, but in view of his rather unusual family circumstances, one could also say they were his stepbrothers and stepsisters. Eteocles and Polyneices for a while shared the power in Thebes between them. Then they quarrelled. Polyneices went into exile, and allied himself with the king of Argos, and came with an army to conquer Thebes and turn out Eteocles. There was a lot of fighting. Thebes was saved, and the brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, killed each other in single combat. The power in Thebes then devolved on Creon, who was Oedipus' mother's brother, and he decreed that whereas Eteocles as the defender of the city should be given great funeral honours, the corpse of Polyneices should be left to lie out in the open unburied to be eaten by the birds and dogs. Antigone decides that her brother must be properly buried, so she carries out a symbolic burial, scattering earth over the body, but she is caught and Creon sentences her to death by being immured in a cave where she will die of starvation. This is, of course, to avoid the pollution of bloodshed, which was an important consideration in some circumstances for the Greeks. Antigone is engaged to be married to Creon's son, Haemon, and he begs his father to rescind the sentence and allow his fiance to live. Father and son quarrel. Haemon goes off in a rage. Then there appears that famous seer, who always seems to be around the place in tragedies about Thebes, Teiresias. Teiresias says the omens are all wrong; you must let Antigone go. And he

also predicts the death of Haemon. At last Creon relents because is assured by the chorus that Teiresias has never been known to be wrong. He buries Polyneices and rushes off the cave to rescue Antigone. When he gets there he finds that Haemon has got there before him, but before Haemon's arrival Antigone had managed to hang herself. Haemon is embracing her dead body. When his father appears, Haemon tries to kill him, but Creon gets out of the way in time and Haemon then stabs himself to death. On hearing all this bad news, Creon's wife also commits suicide. Let us look at why modern audiences sympathise with Antigone so intensely. One reason is that she is a woman. At one time, sympathy for her was a matter of chivalry. Now it is a matter of feminism. Either way, the audience sympathises with her. Secondly, she is young, and we can certainly envisage her as beautiful; and the death of beautiful young women does elicit much more sympathy from an audience than the death of middle-aged men. Haemon is also young, and we have a tendency nowadays to think that when sons quarrel with fathers, the sons are always right; that the young are right and the old are wrong. Fourthly, the modern audience sees Antigone's decision as a matter of conscience, and nowadays juries, and to some extent the law, are notoriously soft on conscience. What is more, Antigone's conscience apparently impels her to carry out a religious rite in obedience to what she regards as a religious law, and there again the law and juries tend to be soft on religion. It all depends, of course, on how far it goes. Between the wars, before the Nazis, in Germany there was a notorious serial killer who, when eventually caught and put on trial, pleaded that he should not be tried and punished for what he had done because it was dictated by his conscience. The jury did not buy that one. Equally, if we had in this country a group of people who claimed to be descended from the ancient Phoenicians and to worship Moloch, who required them to throw their firstborn infants into the fire, we would say that we did not care whether it was their religion or not. They would not be allowed to do it. Lastly, the conflict between Creon and Antigone is a conflict between the state and the individual. Modern audiences tend to side with the individual in such cases. Let us consider how a Greek at the time that Antigone was performed would have regarded these issues which so much elicit the sympathy of the modern audience. First of all, the fact that Antigone is a woman. This obviously matters terribly to Creon, because he more than once expresses his indignation that he should be disobeyed by a woman, and, when Haemon comes to plead for Antigone, he regards Haemon as being at the mercy of his fiance, as being therefore an inadequate male because he is acting in the interests of a woman. This is a recurrent theme. It is, of course, in accord with general Greek sentiments at the time of the play. Women in democratic Athens did not have any share in the taking of decisions. They had no political role, no administrative role. The only circumstance in which a woman could exercise authority and tell men what to do was when she was the priestess at the sanctuary of a goddess, but that is a very limited scope. The exclusion of women from the power to take decisions affecting a community rested on the general supposition that woman was not only weak physically but weak mentally as well, that women had butterfly minds. There is a very interesting attack on that belief in Lysistrata by Aristophanes, but incidentally in Lysistrata we do get a glimpse of male Greek attitudes when Lysistrata complains that when her husband came back from the assembly, if she asked him what was decided in the assembly that day, his reply was "you shut your mouth". So, she says, "I shut it".

The question of youth and age. In a society like that of ancient Athens, although a lot of people (especially older people) felt that things were changing fairly fast, in comparison with our own age they were not really changing at all. The generation gap barely existed in Athens, insofar as what the older generation had to say was still useful to the younger generation, which in many respects nowadays is not so. Greeks would commonly boast of their respect for their parents. There is one interesting case at law in Lysias where the speaker, defending his own character, says "I am thirty years old and I have never contradicted my father." Obviously he expected the jury to think that this was a good thing. So, the refusal of Haemon to fall in with what his father has decreed is a matter on which the sympathy of the Athenian audience would tend to be with Creon for exerting paternal authority. The question of conscience. What exactly is conscience? It is not really a Greek idea except insofar as one can express in Greek what we would say in English by "I have this on my conscience", especially if what is meant by that is "I am afraid of being found out" or "I am afraid of being punished by the gods" or sometimes 'I am afraid I have not lived up to the standards of behaviour which I have set myself'. All those things can be perfectly well translated from one language to another without using the word "conscience". One odd thing is that whereas in English we distinguish between conscience and consciousness, French, Italian and Spanish do not. I was once lecturing in Italy on Greek popular morality. I wanted to talk about the Greek idea or absence of idea of conscience, and I discussed this with Italian friends who could not really produce an equivalent word. Coscienza in Italian means "consciousness", so they suggested coscienza morale, which one can translate as "moral consciousness", but which again is still not the same as what we mean by "conscience" in English. I remember reading an English translation of a modern French philosophical work once where the translator in his preface says that he has normally translated conscience by "consciousness" except in one or two passages where it seemed to him it was more equivalent to the English "conscience". So there are many problems about the equivalence of words in different cultures. What people tend to mean when they say that their conscience will not allow them do do something is simply that they think or they feel suchandsuch, that they cannot make themselves do it because they have a strong emotional reaction against it. It is very difficult to see that the British conception of a conscientious objector in wartime means anything other than that, and of course conscientious objection to war is not recognised in all countries. I understand, for example, that it is not recognised in Israel. It is, then, a very subjective question. If Antigone says that "I feel that I must bury Polyneices", Creon's reply to that could very well be "too bad". If conscience is given a religious basis, then again troubles still arise, because somebody can say that they have a conscientious objection to something because they believe that they are forbidden to do it by God. There again, the answer to that could be, "convince us, persuade us that God has forbidden it and then you will be okay. Otherwise you are only talking about your own beliefs, and that is not good enough." There, on the whole question of conscience, the Greek audience and the modern audience start from a quite different standpoint. On the religious side, Antigone refers more than once to a religious law that the dead must be buried, and the basis of this is that when you are dead you belong to the gods below the earth, and nobody is entitled to take you away from them by failing to perform the rite de passage that transfers you from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Antigone again regards this general law about burial as a law made by Zeus. Zeus being the ruler of the gods, all practices which are believed to have a religious sanction behind them can be treated as "laws of Zeus", laws made by Zeus and enforced by him.

This is all very well, but the interesting thing is that it is not entirely true. The Athenians themselves normally threw out of Attica the dead bodies of people who had been executed for treachery or for plundering or stealing from a religious sanctuary. They had no obligation to bury them. There were circumstances in which provision was made for throwing a body over a cliff into the sea. It is not true, therefore, to say that the audience would have thought that in all circumstances the dead must be buried. Polyneices, after all, was a traitor in the sense that be brought an enemy army to attack and conquer Thebes, and it could well be argued that this is precisely the sort of person whose corpse should be surrendered to the dogs and the birds. Plainly, this matter of an unconditional right to burial has fuzzy edges and people could argue one way or the other, depending on how they felt about that particular case. Pursuing this question of religion further: when Teiresias comes to see Creon and tell him that the omens are disastrous and that something frightful is going on in the supernatural world, Creon's reaction is to accuse him of being bribed and trying to defy and overthrow Creon's power. This charge of bribery brought against a seer, a prophet, a weaver of omens is something we encounter elsewhere, notably in Oedipus Rex, where Teiresias is roughly handled by Oedipus when he tells him something unwelcome. Teiresias must not be imagined as someone like Elijah, enjoying the favour of God, nor is he someone like Cassandra who in Agamemnon sees in her mind's eye strange visions which she interprets as referring to imminent events. Being a seer and prophesying was essentially a skill, a technique. It was done by interpreting omens. If you see six swans pursuing a raven, you can look it up in a book and see what that means. In other words, it is teachable. It is interesting that in Prometheus, long ascribed to Aeschylus, when Prometheus is talking about his benefactions to mankind, he talks about the interpretation of omens and dreams on the same footing as arithmetic and medicine and building. In a speech of Isocrates, there is a reference to a man who for quite a while had looked after an older man who was chronically ill, and in gratitude, the older man, who was a seer, left the younger man in his will his books on the interpretation of omens and seership generally. From these, says the speaker, the younger man made a good living. Because the interpretation of omens is a skill, some seers can be better than others, exactly as in medicine or in law or any other profession. It is perhaps possible therefore to say that a seer has got it wrong. I had a rather nice illustration of this long ago when, at the only time in my life I have been threatened with litigation, I went to my lawyer and he assured me that what I had done was not a matter for litigation under Scots law, but I knew he was wrong because I had already looked up the law books myself. He looked them up a week later. That is how seers are regarded. They can be wrong. You can, sometimes, know better than a seer. Xenophon makes precisely that point when he says that it is very important for the commander of an army to learn the basics of seership so that he may be able to detect it when his seer is trying to deceive him. The possibility of a seer being bribed to deceive the person he is serving is a real possibility. It is not just something that Creon imagines in a mood of paranoia. The last point, the question of the state and the individual: Creon is represented as an absolute ruler, which is being true to the heroic age long before the invention of democracy. But under the democracy also, suppose that Creon, rather than being an absolute ruler, had been a military commander or a magistrate, elected or appointed by the community as a whole and empowered for a year to exercise authority. The Athenians insisted on obedience to all authorities who were appointed by the community as a whole. So, when Creon at one point says in argument with Antigone that is it necessary to obey anyone whom the state or the city appoints, this in fact was a sentiment applauded by the Athenians and regarded afterwards as a very wise and

important saying. On those grounds also, Antigone would not have got all that much sympathy from an Athenian jury at the time. There is an interesting tieup between the state and religion. The Greek city-state contains quite a number of sanctuaries and temples. These have their stores of valuable offerings. They have their festivals which are designed to attract the friendship of the gods and goddesses. If therefore you destroy a city, you are depriving the gods of some of their privileges. You are reducing the amount of reverence and service that goes up from humans to the gods. So an act which imperils the city can always be represented, and in some speeches we have is represented, as a potential injury to the gods and therefore impiety. In that way, lack of patriotism and impiety merge together. When Polyneices came to conquer Thebes, the view taken and expressed in the play from the Theban point of view is that his army was intending to destroy Thebes, including all its sanctuaries, temples and so on. This is something of an exaggeration. What Polyneices wanted was to recapture Thebes from the brother with whom he had quarrelled. Nevertheless, it is always possible to represent an enemy as bent on this kind of sacrilege. It is, therefore, difficult to disentangle what can be represented as Antigone's disrespect for the state from what could be represented as her disregard for the religious consequences of what would have happened if Polyneices had been victorious. If we look at the way the chorus reacts in the course of the play, it is interesting to see how they waver and how in the end they decide that Antigone must be in the right. When the news is first brought of the sprinkling of dust on the corpse of Polyneices, the symbolic burial, the chorus wonders if this could be supernatural, a divinely managed event. This is an idea which Creon instantly rejects. They regard Antigone, when her guilt is established, as exceptionally daring and rash, part of the unfortunate history of the House of Oedipus as transmitted from one generation to the next. At one point, apparently in reaction to what they regard as Antigone's daring, there comes a lyric passage in which the chorus reflects on the extraordinary daring of the human race as a whole, the kind of things that humans get up to. This is referred to, not unreasonably, as the "Ode to Man", and many American feminists who know no Greek think that this means an ode to the adult human male. Of course, it doesn't, because Greek (like Latin and German) has different words for "human" and "adult human male", whereas English has only the one word "man" (like French, Italian and Spanish). This ode in Antigone is actually an ode to the daring and adventurousness of anthropos, which means "human", not "adult human male". Eventually in the quarrel between Creon and his son, Haemon, the chorus makes the typical choruslike comment to the effect that there is something to be said on both sides, and they try to damp things down. Eventually, however, after the scene with Teiresias, the chorus makes the vital observation that Teiresias has never been known to be wrong, and this is what really shakes Creon and makes him try to reverse everything he has done. Creon is referred to in the play several times by the Greek word tyrannos, which is our word "tyrant". Among the Greeks, a tyrannos was not necessarily a bad ruler. You can have a good tyrannos or a bad one, but the distinguishing feature of the tyrannos is absolute power as an individual. For that reason, when Athens had become a democracy, tyrannos became a very hostile word. It continued in poetry, and therefore in tragedy, quite often to mean simply "ruler" or "commander", but there was a great deal of animosity directed against anyone who was suspected of an ambition to become tyrannos. When Haemon has come to plead with his father for Antigone's release, he says something very important, which is that what people in Thebes are saying is something that they will not tell you. They are afraid to. But I know, I hear them, and everyone in Thebes is praising the courage of Antigone and saying that it is wrong to punish her. Creon does

not take any notice of that, but the point of it is that Creon is behaving in an undemocratic way. He is not taking notice of what the people, whom he rules, think or feel. There is an interesting contrast here between the way in Greek tragedy in which the Athenian prehistoric hero Theseus is presented. Theseus is a sort of ancestral fatherfigure or founder of the Athenian democracy, and although at the time that tragedies containing Theseus are about, that is what we would call the Bronze Age, democracy had not been thought of by anyone, in tragedy Theseus is always represented as consulting the Athenian people before he takes a decision. Creon is the opposite. Creon disregards public opinion. He does not care whether the inhabitants of Thebes think he is right or wrong, because he is the boss. This is the key factor which would dispose the Athenian audience to sympathy with Antigone and to hostility towards Creon the fact that he did not care what most of the citizens thought. One last thing: Antigone's character. Antigone and her sister Ismene are not the only pair of sisters in surviving Greek tragedy. There is another pair, which we meet in Sophocles' Electra: Electra and her younger sister Chrysothemis. In Electra, Electra wants the cooperation of Chrysothemis in killing her mother and her mother's lover because they murdered the girls' father Agamemnon. Chrysothemis is afraid. She says it is hopeless; they are only women, after all. Electra, however, never really gives up hope, because when she has reason to believe (wrongly as it turns out) that their brother Orestes has been killed abroad and is therefore never coming back to avenge their father, she turns to Chrysothemis and says "we must do it ourselves". She does not abandon the idea of Chrysothemis helping her. Antigone and Ismene, on the other hand, are quite different. When Antigone tells Ismene of her determination to bury their brother, Ismene is afraid to because she dares not disobey Creon's decree, and for Antigone that is it. She is not interested in Ismene any more. When Ismene says that if Antigone means to do it, she will keep quiet about it. Antigone says she does not give a damn whether Ismene keeps quiet or not; she can proclaim it from the housetops as far as Antigone is concerned. After Antigone has been caught, and is threatened by Creon, Ismene tries to associate herself with Antigone's guilt. But Antigone will not have it. She wants the fame, the glory of having done it alone, and since Ismene from the start would not help her to do it she does not want her in on the act at all. The relation between sisters in Antigone, then, is very different to the relation between the sisters in Electra. One curious thing in Antigone which is very much argued over, and people take sides on quite passionately is one of Antigone's last utterances before she is taken off to be immured in the cave. This is where she says "if it had not been my brother I would not have done this, I would not have buried him. If I had lost a husband, I could have got another one. If I had lost a child, I could have had other children. But my parents being dead, I could never have another brother." This is rather an odd thing to say, and there are two odd things about it. One is that it occurs also in what is probably a pretty old story in Herodotus about a Persian noble who was condemned to death (along with all his male relatives) by the King of Persia. His wife went to the king to plead for him. The king told her that she could choose one to survive, expecting that she would choose her husband. To his surprise, she chose her brother; and asked why, she gave the reasons which Antigone gives. There's not much doubt that the Sophoclean passage is taken from the Herodotean, not the other way round, because Antigone says "I could have had a child by another man" which suits the Persian story but has no bearing on Antigone's situation. Yet, because Antigone has up to that point treated the burial of Polyneices as an absolute obligation, many scholars believe that her statement "I wouldn't have done it for anyone but a brother" must have been interpolated in the fourth century BC. We know that that kind of thing happened to a lot of plays, to introduce the audience to striking ideas, regardless of consistency of character. But how interested was

Sophocles himself in consistency of character? It is important that he should present us with a uniformly "hard", uncompromising Antigone, or a "soft", vulnerable Antigone? You must judge for yourselves when you see the play.

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