Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sophocles, The Theban Plays of Sophocles


Opening Passages: From Antigone:

Dear sister, Ismene, what evils that come
from Oedipus our father has Zeus not sent
to burden our lives? There is nothing, no shame, no pain,
no sorrow, no disgrace that you and I
have not endured. And now comes the general's new
proclamation. What have you heard? Or do you
take no notice of how our enemies move
against our friends.

From Oedipus Tyrannos:

My children, the latest to spring from Cadmus' stock,
why do you sit before my house with your votive
garlands? The whole city is filled with wailing,
lamentations, and prayers to Apollo. Incense
fills the air. I have not sent to inquire
but have come myself to hear from you directly,
I, Oedipus, whom all call famous.

From Oedipus at Colonus:

Antigone, child of a blind man, where are we?
What place is this? What city of men have we come to?
Who now shall welcome wandering Oedipus
who brings but scanty gifts? Expecting little,
I get even less, but that, for me, is enough,
for suffering and time that have been my companions
have instructed me in contentment. Nobility, too,
teaches me patience.

Summary: In Antigone, we find the aftermath of a terrible civil war, literally brother against brother as the sons of Oedipus fought for the throne of Thebes until they both died before its walls, leaving their uncle Creon fully in charge of the city. It is, I think, essential to the play that one understand that this puts Creon in a terrible and difficult position. But Creon is a ruler with a peculiar characteristic: he always, and in every way, puts the good of Thebes above any other good. For the good of Thebes, one brother must be recognized as hero, the other as traitor, and for the good of Thebes, the traitor must be punished by the full brunt of the law. Not for the Greeks was the notion that human capacity to punish ended at death; you may punish someone after they are dead by denying them proper funeral rites, thus refusing them even in death the regard of the city. Eteocles will be buried as a hero; Polyneices is to rot in the field as a traitor.

But Creon is meddling with something greater than he understands, and this begins to take shape in Antigone, who defies his orders and buries her brother. It is an act of piety to her brother and to the gods of the dead. It is also an act of treason. Again Creon finds himself put into an impossible situation by the House of Laius, and again he responds to the problem as he must, putting the affair of the state above all personal good. A ruler cannot show favoritism,but must uphold the law. He condemns his niece to death. It is worth, I think, taking a moment to appreciate how extraordinary this. Age after age, nepotism has been one of the great sources of evils in government; for a ruler to be so free of nepotism as Creon is a truly extraordinary thing.

Creon's son, Haemon, however, who was to be married to Antigone, argues that the people have a much greater sympathy with Antigone than Creon knows. The people of Thebes do not see what Antigone has done as a crime. The very idea baffles Creon to the point of frustration. Of course it was a crime; she broke the law and honored a traitor to the city. Moreover, it is he, not the people, who has the responsibility for the city. In the midst of his argument, Haemon threatens that if Antigone dies, she will not die alone. This infuriates Creon; it seems to him as if the whole city is going mad.

Creon has Antigone walled up in a cave as a living tomb, with a ritual minimum of food and water to prevent the city from any guilt of direct murder. Antigone enters, bewailing her virginity and stubbornly insisting against both the Chorus and Creon that she was in the right.

Then the blind seer Tiresias, Creon's most trusted advisor, comes to him with a warning: the sacrifices to the gods have been tainted by the sentence against Polyneices -- his rotting corpse is literally desecrating the sacred rites of the city, so that the gods no longer regard its prayers. He must relent in his penalty against Polyneices. For Creon, this is simply the last straw; here is yet one more person who has gone mad and is advocating respect and honor for those who have betrayed the city. They have a massive falling out, and Tiresias leaves, prophesying that Creon will be made to pay by the gods. Again, Creon is in a difficult situation: to relent is politically impossible, but he himself can see the danger if it turns out that Tiresias is right. But at the advice of the Chorus, he yields to what he finally sees as necessity, and goes to release Antigone and to put the body of Polyneices into the cave as a proper tomb. But of course, it is too late. Antigone is dead; Haemon is dead; Creon's wife, Eurydice, dies when she hears her son has died.

You might perhaps notice that I have told the story entirely as a story about Creon. Antigone is such a striking figure, and so sympathetic to us Christians, who really and truly believe that there is a knowable law greater and more fundamental than any human law, and who regard desecration of the dead as an immense sacrilege compared to which political treason is insignificant, that it is she who comes to the front of the story, despite being in only parts of it. Indeed, even for the Greeks she was sympathetic enough to be the most memorable part of the work. But the structure of the story makes Creon, not Antigone, the real tragic hero. Antigone's certainty far exceeds anything that pagan Greeks could possibly have granted her; the good of the city is one of the sacred pillars of life itself for them, and Antigone's lack of respect for it was problematic; to punish the enemies of the city was the charge of the ruler and there is no doubt or question that this is what Creon was doing; it is impossible to imagine that there weren't many Greeks who would have had the attitude we find explicitly expressed in the story by Ismene and by the Chorus, that there is something admirable about what Antigone was trying to do, but that what she was trying to do was beyond the power of mortals. It is Creon who finds himself in tragedy because he insists on doing what he clearly can see is right.

Creon and Antigone share their fatal flaw, and it is certainty in their own rightness. Part of the difficulty is that they are, indeed, right. Antigone is right that the punishment against Polyneices is a desecration and an insult to the gods of the dead. Creon is right that traitors must not be honored. But, as they are opposed, the rightness of each guarantees the wrongness of the other. Antigone owes an obligation of respect and deference to the ruler of the city, one she at no point acknowledges, and that the authority of the gods is not her authority; and Creon is failing to acknowledge that he, too, must defer to a higher authority.

The Greeks never saw the stories of their tragic plays except against a background of a larger tale. Each tragedy is one particular outgrowth of some more terrible curse that lies in the background, one afflicting entire houses, entire cities, and, in the case of the Trojan War, all of Greek civilization. The larger curse against which Antigone's tale would have been seen is that of the House of Laius, rooted in the tale of Oedipus. With this root Oedipus Tyrannos, since Aristotle often considered the most perfect of all Greek tragedies, is concerned.

Thebes is blighted in some mysterious way, which has led Oedipus to send Creon to the Oracle at Delphi. Oedipus is living high; he has become king of Thebes because of his cleverness in overcoming the terrorizing Sphinx shortly after the previous king, Laius, had been murdered. To have attained the heights by one's wits is a very splendid thing. But, of course, all things move forward in a doom that has already been laid down and therefore is not at all avoidable, as, piece by piece, the truth of Oedipus's history falls into place. The layering of this is quite masterful, as the certainties of everyone involved are stripped away.

In Oedipus at Colonus, which in some ways is my favorite of the three, we see the countervailing power of eunoia, or benevolence. Oedipus, who has gouged out his eyes, is wandering with his daughters Antigone and Ismene to guide and aid him. He comes to Colonus and stumbles into a sacred grove dedicated to the Furies. This distresses the local townsmen greatly, but he convinces them that he means no ill, and with their guidance undergoes the ritual to remove the piacular guilt of trespassing on a sacred place. I've always liked the balance of this, since it shows the beginning of a new turn in a nice, clean way. Oedipus has spent much of his adult life stumbling into sacred places, violating the strictures protecting the sacredness of fatherhood, of motherhood, and now of the gods; but the ritual means for removing the unintended guilt of violating the bounds of the grove shift the terms of the curse. They do not end it -- as we see merely by looking at Antigone by his side -- and his house will still suffer the consequences of it. But for Oedipus himself, it is the one thing that truly begins to make things go right, or, as right as they can go after all that has already happened, at least.

Through his noble willingness to uphold the honor of Colonus before the gods, he is put in good stead with Theseus, king of Athens, who is the protector of Colonus. It will turn out to be a crucial thing. For the god Apollo is not done intervening in the life of Oedipus through the instrumentality of his Oracle. The Oracle has informed Thebes that Oedipus is crucial to the safety of Thebes, and thus Oedipus, at whom all had looked in horror, is now courted by both his son Polyneices and his brother-in-law Creon.

Creon comes first. Oedipus cannot dwell in the land of Thebes, but if there is one constant in the portrayal of Creon in Sophocles, it is that he will do anything, absolutely anything, for the good of the city. Thus he intends to set Oedipus up under practical house arrest just outside of Thebes's legal jurisdiction, so that the exile of Oedipus will remain but Thebes still may enjoy the protection the gods have said now comes with Oedipus. Oedipus refuses vehemently, noting that Creon did absolutely nothing in support of him, and only wants Oedipus now to protect Thebes from Athens -- but the Athenians have treated Oedipus better than the Thebans did, even knowing his terrible history. Creon attempts to get what he wants by force; he has already seized Ismene, and seizes Antigone as well. Theseus, however, pursues and returns them.

When he does, he notes that a suppliant has come asking for Oedipus, and it turns out to be Polyneices. He has been thrown out of Thebes by Eteocles, and has come for Oedipus's help in reclaiming the city, claiming kinship both of blood and of fate. Oedipus refuses this plea, too, noting that it was Antigone and Ismene who have sacrificed everything for him, while Polyneices was one of those who threw Oedipus out from Thebes. Antigone urges Polyneices not to attack the city, and Oedipus prophesies that the two brothers will kill each other.

A terrible thunderstorm arises, and Oedipus takes this as an omen that his death is near, and he finishes life with sacrifices to the gods. Before he dies, however, Oedipus has Theseus promise to keep his tomb secret, so that the protection promised by the gods may belong to Athens and never be stolen from it. And Antigone, learning of this, asks for help in returning to Thebes, hoping to stop Polyneices from his attack on the city....

Slavitt's translation is very easy to read. The simplicity is capable of achieving the dignified. Here for instance, is Slavitt with Antigone's famous speech:

Yes, for it was not Zeus who made that law,
nor Justice who dwells with the gods below and rules
in the world of men and women. Your edict was clear
and strong, but not enough to suspend the unwritten,
unfailing laws of the gods who live forever
and whose rule, revealed to us so long ago,
is not for here and now but, like the gods,

This is about as dignified as Slavitt gets, and it has a certain amount of force. And it contrasts favorably with Paul Roche's version of the same:

Naturally! Since Zeus never promulgated such a law,
Nor will you find that Justice,
Mistress of the world below,
publishes such laws to humankind.
I never thought your mortal edicts had such force
they nullified the laws of heaven,
which unwritten, not proclaimed,
can boast a currency that everlastingly is valid,
an origin beyond the birth of man.

But in all the concision it is easy to lose track of the fact that this is a ritual -- admittedly, it is a ritual that admitted of considerable flexibility, but all tragedies were ritual components in larger religious and political events. Slavitt's breaking up of the Chorus may make it easier to treat the plays as drama, but it materially harms their ability to be ritual representations of the things of gods and heroes. This is especially notable at the ends of the plays, which all kind of peter out instead of coming to their stately choral conclusions.

Favorite Passage:

OEDIPUS: Daughters, you hear the words of the helpful stranger?

ISMENE: We have listened, Father, what shall we do?

OEDIPUS: I cannot go, myself. I have not the strength
and I cannot see. One of you must go
to perform the rite for the three of us as he
prescribed. Even one, who is sincere, may speak
for a larger number. One of you, go. The other
must stay with me to help me and be my guide.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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