Antigone is perhaps the greatest of Sophocles' plays, rivaled in beauty and cultural significance only by Oedipus Rex. Antigone the woman is Oedipus' daughter, but Antigone the play can be read completely separately from Oedipus in every sense.
The plot is fairly easily summarized. Antigone's two brothers fought on opposite sides in a bitter civil war. Both were killed in battle. The one on the winning side was given full funerary rites and honors; the one who died on the losing side has been left where he fell. The king, who is also Antigone's uncle, has ordered that no one bury the body, but that it be left to rot as a warning against others who might rise up against the authority of the state.
Antigone is incensed by this. What she feels is not the gut-level horror that a modern reader would feel at the idea of a beloved brother's corpse (or any corpse, for that matter) being left to decay or be eaten. She is outraged that a close relation is being denied the all-important funerary rites, without which his spirit cannot take its rightful journey to the underworld. There is also the insult to the gods implicit in such a flagrant defiance of divine law.
This conflict between her wish to do what she considers right and good for her family versus the king's wish to have his own power confirmed and strengthened had been described as a classic conflict between personal and governmental rights. Creon the king has a point, sort of; he doesn't want the traitor to the state (and no one is arguing, by the way, that the nephew/brother in question is anything but that) to be honored equally with the loyal man of duty. Creon may be right to be concerned about threats to the city-state from within as well as without. Greece was not a united country at this point; it was a cluster of tiny kingdoms making war with one another in an ongoing battle for power and arable land. Creon may have gone too far in his punishment of the murderous traitor (let's not forget that the brothers died at one another's hands), but he isn't acting completely irrationally.
This conflict between individual and state could be argued quite vigorously for hours. Is Creon merely protecting his own power, when after all by trying to prevent another civil war he is protecting the individuals who would die as a result of it? Can the rights of the individual versus those of the states be observed simultaneously, a la render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar?
But the conflict between individual and state isn't the only one, or even necessarily the most significant one, in Antigone. There is also the basic conflict between male and female rights and roles implicit in Creon's edict and Antigone's defiance of it. In denying Antigone the right to bury her brother properly, Creon is laying seige to the traditional female realm of mourning and laying the dead to rest.
Women had very little power of any kind in classical Greece. Only a very few exceptional women, with exceptionally wealthy and indulgent fathers, were educated even to the point of basic literacy. Women were routinely denied any right to vote in Athens, regardless of who their parents were or whether they had been born in the city. There was no such thing as a female "citizen" of Athens in a purely political sense. They were controlled by law and by male relatives. They were allowed very little in the way of autonomy.
And so any arena in which they could exercise some semblance of power would be prized. In Sue Blundell's excellent Women in Ancient Greece, the particulars of the tending to corpses and graves are outlined in detail in a section devoted to women's work and contributions to the household. Women would wash, anoint, and dress the dead, as well as bring appropriate offerings to the gravesites. Though the former tasks are now given over to professionals in our culture, even now one would be rather surprised, in most cases, at the thought of a man being the one to make the decisions about what a beloved relative who has died will wear to his or her grave. And women are still associated with the flowers and other offerings (including, in some cultures, the ancient tradition of food and drink) brought to the tomb. Women in ancient Greece were also expected to sing dirges and perform ritual dances. They also cut their hair for mourning -- a ritual in many cultures, to show that their respect for the recent death is so deep that they will not be troubled by any ordinary concern for personal appearance. A man in ancient Greece who was defending himself in court for having murdered his wife's lover offered the fact of his wife's wearing makeup, though her brother had died a month ago, as one of the clues that led to his discovery that she was having an affair.
Mourning and funerary rites, then, were strongly associated with women. Creon the king may have given out a general decree that his nephew's body will be left where it is, but whom can this be expected to impact? The women of the family -- Antigone and her sister Ismene.
Their relationship is as important to the play as the conflict between Antigone and Creon. Antigone could be called the Greek Sense and Sensibility. One sister is not only carried away with her passionate feelings, but seems to value passion itself above all else; the other sympathizes with and admires her headstrong sister, but is practical and pragmatic. She wishes to live, and accepts that life necessitates compromise; Antigone would rather die than bend one inch on anything she's set her mind to, and in fact seems attracted by a romantic idea of death. The quiet dignity and deep, unwavering love Ismene has for her sister can slip by almost unnoticed next to Antigone's storming about, but she is every bit as valuable and admirable a character as her sister, and her own strength of character should not be disregarded.
There are many translations of Antigone. The culture as well as the language are vastly different from our own, and so if at all possible the reader should find an edition with good introductory material and adequate explanatory footnotes. Robert Fagles' translation of Antigone is, like all of his work, outstanding; and the always reliable (and always riveting) Bernard Knox annotates and explains Fagles' text. If you have a choice, this is the edition I would recommend. However, David Grene's translation is supposed to be excellent. I don't have any information about the annotations or other material that this edition may supply.
I would also recommend reading something about ancient Greek culture and women's place in it -- something by a writer who may admire and respect the Greeks, but doesn't blindly revere them. Blundell's book is very good. Eva Keuls' The Reign of the Phallus is invaluable, though of course the book is worth the cover price by virtue of the title alone. Sarah Pomeroy's Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity is very good, though its scope is not limited to the world of ancient Greece. The first volume of A History of Women (edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel) has some interesting essays about women in ancient Greece. Your librarian should be able to recommend a good accessible introduction to ancient Greek life and culture; this is one of the few cases where I would say that you should head for the grownup books, though in general it's my rule of thumb that when in ignorance, start with books aimed at children, since they won't assume that you know anything about the subject. At least read the introduction to whatever edition of Antigone you have, even if you skip every other foreword since you didn't buy this book to listen to somebody who isn't the author chat about it. Just this once, read all the way through from page one. And don't skip the footnotes.
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