“The greater your arrogance, the heavier God’s revenge.” Thus the Chorus to Creon, ruler of Thebes and antagonist in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Antigone is the daughter of ill-fated Oedipus, and her brother has just died in a Theban rebellion. As punishment, Creon decrees that his body will not be buried. But Antigone defies the law, buries her brother and, when confronted, admits everything. Does she care nothing about obeying the law? There is, she argues, a higher law.
And so the stage is set for yet another tragedy as Creon puts his own pride ahead of humane and just considerations, imprisoning Antigone, quarreling with his own son (who is engaged to her) and hectoring the prophet Teiresias when he comes to call the ruler to his senses. In the end, we are left with a heap of bodies and one of the ancient world’s most profound meditations on the conflict between the individual and state.
I always approach the Greek tragedies with a sense of wonder. How can an author like Sophocles transform what amount to philosophical conversations to the stuff of high drama, especially when all of the murders and suicides and battles happen off stage? It is a testament to the power of words and ideas. We know nothing about Antigone in everyday terms—what colors she likes, what her tastes in music happen to be—and everything about her very being: her principles, her bravery, her stubbornness.
Though they were not written as a trilogy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone are often read this way. If this tragic trio doesn’t spark a discussion among your students, nothing will.
by J. Mark Bertrand