In the Antigone contempt of death enables a weak maiden to conquer a powerful ruler, who, proud of his wisdom, ventures in his unbounded insolence to pit his royal word against divine law and human sentiment, and learns all too late, by the destruction of his house, that Fate in due course brings fit punishment on outrage.
The play takes up the story of the Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, but with some changes in the situation. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have fallen, as will be remembered, at one of the gates of Thebes. King Creon allows Eteocles to be buried at once, that he might receive due honor among the shades; but he orders a herald to forbid any funeral rites or burial to the corpse of Polynices. "Let him lie unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and whoso touches him shall perish by the cruel death of stoning."
Antigone tells these gloomy tidings to her sister Ismene, and informs her of what she has resolved to do:
"In spite of the orders, I shall give my brother burial, whether thou, Ismene, wilt join with me or not."
In vain her sister bids her keep in mind the ruin of their house:
"We twain are left alone, and if we brave the king's decree, an unhappy death awaits us. Weak women such as we cannot strive with men; rather were it seemly to bow to those that are stronger than ourselves. The dead, who lie below, will deal leniently with us, as forced to yield."
Pathetically noble is the response of Antigone:
"Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me; nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains."
The sisters retire, and the chorus of Theban elders enter. They greet the sun's bright beams, the fairest light that ever shone on seven-gated Thebes.
"For the warrior-host from Argos sent, which Polynices brought, is dispersed in headlong flight, ere it was sated with Cadmean blood, and ere the fire of Hephaestus had consumed our towering battlements. Presumptuous insolence has Zeus laid low, and he who boldly rushed high on our towers with cries of victory is hurled headlong by his lightning flash. If round the seven gates of Thebes Ares roused mutual strife, yet there the foreign leaders left their armies as tribute to victorious Zeus; yea, even the two unhappy brothers, who, with victorious spears, dealt with each other like doom. Wherefore let there be no more thought of war; in stately dance we will surround the temple of the gods, with joyous Bacchus at our head."
Creon enters, as ruler of the State, to tell the elders of the city why he bade the herald call them to assemble. He announces his decree:
"Honoring the good and punishing the vile, as well beseems a ruler, I have assigned due funeral rites to Eteocles, who died fighting for the fatherland; but Polynices, who sought to make desolate with fire his native city and its gods, and who sought to glut himself with kindred blood and lead our citizens to slavery--to him shall no man give a tomb. Let the body lie mutilated, as a feast to dogs and birds. Therefore have I appointed watchers over his corpse, and do ye watch yourselves that no one disobey. Greed has often led men to their death."
A guard approaches reluctantly and with fear.
"But just now," he says, "some one has sprinkled the corpse with dust, and given it funeral rites. Yet there is no sign whose hand it was. One guard accused another; yet each will by ordeal of fire and sacred oath maintain his innocence. At last we made resolve that we would tell the king of this thing and the lot fell that I should be the bearer of this unwelcome message."
"Well might this deed," says the chorus, "be the work of the gods."
But Creon rebukes the suggestion as impious.
"Never would they honor him who threatened their shrines with fire, destruction to their sanctuaries and laws. It is the citizens, who long since have murmured at my rule. They have bribed them to let the deed be done. Therefore I swear, unless ye guards track out the guilty one and bring him here before me, ye shall pay for your neglect by a death of torture, and so shall learn that from base profit comes more loss than gain."
The king passes into the palace. The guard hastens away, thanking the gods that he has come off so well. The chorus sings an ode in praise of man as the mightiest of all mighty things on earth:
"Through the sea's dark waves he steers his ship, through the surging storm, cleaving the water in his foaming coarse. Year by year with his deep-furrowing plough he wears the earth, the puissant earth. The winged race of birds, the beasts of the forest, and the denizens of the deep he takes, snaring them in his network mesh; he brings to the yoke the maned horse and tameless mountain ox. Speech and thought are his; he knows how to frame controlling laws, no less than how to escape frost and rain, the missiles of the air. Naught that may come finds him unprepared. Even from fell disease he has contrived to flee; only from Death he will never find escape. Gifted with wondrous skill to plan, he turns him, now to evil, now to good. Shield of the State, when he holds fast his country's laws and the gods' sacred right; the State's destruction, when in his pride he gives himself up to the base. Far may he be from us who dares such deeds."
But the elders see the guards dragging with them Antigone. They fear that in her folly she has proved a rebel to the king's decree. The guard confirms their fears. "She was taken," he says, "in the very act."
"We watchers swept away the dust above the corpse, and lay in wait near it upon the hill. The sun stood in mid-heaven, glowing hot; and suddenly a whirlwind raised all the dust of the plain, and when at last it was at rest, we saw the maiden, who, with loud wailing, cursed the man who had undone her deed. And she quickly brought in her hands fine dust, and spread it on the corpse a second time, pouring three times libations from a vase of brass. On beholding this, we quickly hastened to the spot; she let us seize her, nor denied what she had done."
The chorus of Theban elders sings the woes of the house of Oedipus, and the divine anger by which it is pursued:
- High is their happiness whose life stands clear
- From touch or tasts of Ill.
- For them whose roof-tree rocks beneath the wrath divine,
- No respite is from fear;
- But curse on curse comes crowding on them still--
- Birth after birth, their generations pine.
- As when, beneath the North Wind's stormy scourge
- Of bitter blasts that blow from Thracian land,
- Over the deep-sea darkness drives the surge,
- From the dim gulf it stirs the dark and storm-vext sand,
- And wave-worn headland and confronting shore
- Reverberate the roar.
- So see I woe on woe, ordained of old--
- Woes of the living race, on woes of old time rolled,
- For all the line of Labdacus!
- No generation's blight
- Can sate the curse nor give back light
- Where some dark power impends, with ruin fraught!
- Awhile, light seemed to grow
- O'er thy last root, O house of Oedipus!
- But the fell sickle of the gods below--
- Wild words and frenzy of the mind distraught--
- Hews all away to naught.
- Zeus! by no sin of man the overbold
- Is thy high rule controlled;
- Not minished is thy strength sublime
- By sleep, that preys on all, or tireless months of time!
- Ageless in power, thy living royalty
- Dwells in Olympian sheen, in gleaming halls of the sky!
- This law of days long past,
- For the next hour and for all time stands fast--
- Who gaineth bliss or wealth too great,
- For him lurks evil fate.
- Restless beguiling hope
- For many men holds gladness in its scope,
- But foils, for many, all they craved and sought
- In giddy pride of thought.
- Man knows not Fate's approach, but onward fares,
- Till on the scorching fire his foot treads unawares.
- Wisely one spake this immemorial word--
- The man whom God unto ill doom doth lead,
- Sees and is blind, deems right the wrongful deed:
- And brief his date is, and his doom assured.
The following ode to love is also sung by the chorus:
- O love, thou art victor in fight, thou makest all things afraid;
- Thou couchest thee softly at night on the cheeks of a maid;
- Thou passest the bounds of the sea, and the folds of the fields;
- To thee immortal, to thee the ephemeral yields.
- Thou maddenest them that possess thee; thou turnest astray
- The souls of the just, to oppress them, out of the way;
- Thou hast kindled amongst us pride, and the quarrel of kin;
- Thou art lord, by the eyes of a bride, and the love-light therein;
- Thou sittest assessor with Right; her kingdom thine,
- Who sports with invincible might, Aphrodite divine.
Antigone has broken the laws of the king, while fulfilling the laws of the gods; for, according to the ideas of the Greeks, to sprinkle dust thrice over the body of the dead was equivalent to burial. Until this rite was performed his spirit must wander through space, but now was entitled to the home appointed for it in Hades.
After some contest of words with Creon, and the vain intercession of her sister, Ismene, and her lover, Haemon, the son of Creon, interspersed with choral hymns, it is ordered that Antigone be led to the dungeon, where she is to die of starvation, and thus bewails her fate:
- O tomb, my bridal chamber, vaulted home,
- Guarded right well for ever, where I go
- To join mine own, of whom the greater part
- Among the dead doth Persephassa hold;
- And I, of all the last and saddest, wend
- My way below, life's little span unfilled.
- And yet I go, and feed myself with hopes
- That I shall meet them, by my father loved,
- Dear to my mother, well-beloved of thee,
- Thou darling brother; I, with these my hands,
- Washed each dear corpse, arrayed you, poured libations,
- In rites of burial; and in care of thee,
- Thy body, Polynices, honoring,
- I gain this recompense.
- And therefore, giving thee the foremost place,
- I seemed to Creon's eyes, O brother dear,
- To sin in boldest daring. Therefore, now
- He leads me, having taken me by force,
- Cut off from marriage-bed and marriage-song,
- Untasting wife's true joy or mother's bliss
- With infant at her breast, but all forlorn,
- Bereaved of friends, in utter misery,
- Alive I tread the chambers of the dead.
- What law of Heaven have I transgressed against?
- What use for me, Ill'starréd one, to look
- To any god for succor, or to call
- On any friends for aid? For holiest deed
- I bear this charge of rank unholiness.
- If acts like these the gods on high approve,
- We, taught by pain shall own that we have sinned;
- But if these sin, I pray they suffer not
- Worse evils than the wrongs they do to me."
Soon afterwards enters the seer, Tiresias, and warns Creon of an evil fate impending, for the gods are wroth with him. "Bethink thee well, O king, that all men may err; yet must they, taught wisdom, turn their minds to better things. There is no prowess in slaying the slain. Wherefore do what my good counsel bids." Creon answers, with mockery, and the seer retires, threatening vengeance, which follows swiftly on the menace.
A messenger arrives and says:
"Ye men of Cadmus, suddenly has passed the long good fortune of the king; for Haemon lies dead, slain by his own hand in wrath against his father's deed."
Eurydice, the wife of Creon, enters from the house. She, too, has heard the news, as she hastened to pray in the temple of Pallas. Yet she will hear the horror once again.
The messenger relates his tale:
"I followed in attendance to the place where the body of Polynices lay, mangled by the dogs. And having prayed the goddess of the roads and the lord of Hades graciously to cease from wrath, we washed him with holy water, and what was left we burnt with branches freshly cut, and reared him in his native soil a lofty monument. Then we hastened to the stone-paved home, the maiden's marriage chamber, where she wedded with death. There a servant heard a low wailing, and in haste told this to Creon. He, too, had heard a confused murmur, and groaning, he cried: 'Woe, woe is me, this way so tells my heart, is dreariest of all that I have ever trod. My son's voice greets me. Quick, ye servants, go; look through the narrow opening of the stone, and tell me if it be the voice of Haemon that I hear, or if the gods deceive me.'"
"Following our lord's command, we saw the maiden's body hanging at the back of the vault, her neck entwined by a linen band; and Haemon was found embracing her, and weeping for the bride of whom his father's act had robbed him. Then Creon, seeing him, groaned bitterly aloud, and called him wailing: 'Poor boy, what hast thou done? Art thou mad? Come out, my child; see, on my knees, I pray thee come.' He turned on his father his wild, fierce, glaring eyes, and ever silent drew his sword and rushed on him. But his father avoided the blow. Then in anger with himself, deep in his side he thrust the blade, and laying his faint arm around the maid, gasped out his life in streams of blood. Now he lies dead, beside his dead bride, and has held, poor youth, his marriage rites in Hades."
Without a word, Eurydice, having heard the tale departs. The chorus are alarmed, and the messenger full of wonder; yet he comforts himself with the hope that she did not wish to show her mourning to the common gaze but to bewail her woe at home.
"Deep silence," says the chorus, "no less than loud cries, is proof of bitter woe."
Creon enters with his son's body. He curses himself as the murderer of his child. Some evil power has smitten him and shattered all his joy.
A servant comes to announce his wife's death. The body lies close at hand, and the king must lament the loss of both wife and son.
"She fell," says the servant, "pierced with wounds from her own hands beside the altar of the house, wailing the fate of Magareus, her youngest born, and now of Haemon, and last of all she called a curse of bitter woe on thee, the murderer of thy sons."
Creon bids them slay him, too:
"No one is guilty of the deed but I alone. Would that the last blessing might come to me, the day that ends my life. Lead me then forth a thing of naught, who slew his son and wife. All is lost and on my head is a doom too hard to bear."
He is lead away, and the chorus concludes with the words:
- Man's highest blessedness
- In wisdom chiefly stands;
- And in the things that touch upon the gods
- 'Tis best, in word or deed,
- To shun unholy pride.
- Great words of boasting bring great punishments,
- And so to the gray-haired age
- Teach wisdom at last.
The Antigone indisputably belongs to the best works of Sophocles; indeed, most modern critics rank it above Oedipus the King. "The Antigone," says Bernhardy, "must be received as the canon of ancient tragedy; no tragedy of antiquity that we possess approaches it in pure idealism, or in harmony of artistic development. It is the first poem produced by the union of the whole strength of the resources of which tragedy was capable; of all the extant works of Sophocles it is the most perfect; no other exhibits such a striking combination of subject, language and technique. Its greatness lies in its perfect regularity of action, its richness of ideas, its true and living characters--qualities brought to perfection by the splendor of its dialogue and odes."
The ideal of the female character in Antigone is boldly and severely outlined. Her indignation at Ismene's refusal to take a part in her daring resolution; the manner in which she afterwards rejects Ismene, when the latter, repenting of her weakness, offers to accompany her heroic sister to death, borders on harshness; her silence and her speeches against Creon, whereby she provokes him to execute his tyrannous resolution, are a proof of unshaken courage. Neither does she restrain the outbreak of her feelings when it will no longer make the firmness of her purpose appear equivocal. While they are leading her off to death, past recall, she pours herself forth in the tenderest and most touching wailing over her bitter, untimely end, and does not disdain--she the modest virgin--to bewail the loss of nuptials, and the unenjoyed blessings of marriage. On the contrary, in not a syllable does she betray any inclination for Haemon, nay, she nowhere mentions this amiable youth. After a determination so heroic, to be still fettered to life by love for an individual would have been weakness; to leave without repining those universal gifts with which the gods make life happy would not accord with the devout sanctity of her mind.
At first sight the chorus in the Antigone may seem weak, accommodating itself, as it does, without contradiction, to the tyrannous commands of Creon, and not once attempting a favorable representation in behalf of the young heroine. But it is necessary that she should stand all alone in her resolution and its accomplishment, that she may appear in all her dignity; she must find no stay, no hold. The submissiveness of the chorus also increases the impression of the irresistible nature of the king's commands. So even in their last addresses to Antigone, there must be a mixture of painful recollections, that she may drain the full cup of earthly sorrows.
After the completion of the deed, and the suffering endured for it, there yet remains the chastisement of insolence, and retribution for the destruction of Antigone: nothing less than the utter ruin of Creon's whole family, and his own despair can be a worthy death-offering for the sacrifice of a life so costly. Therefore the king's wife, hitherto not even mentioned, must appear quite toward the conclusion of the piece merely to hear the misfortune, and to make away with herself. To Grecian feelings it would have been impossible to look upon the poem as properly closed by the death of Antigone, without any atoning retribution.
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