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HomeNewsWhat a play written 2,500 years ago can teach us today

What a play written 2,500 years ago can teach us today

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AROUND 441 BC the Greek playwright Sophocles wrote Antigone, a searing drama about the conflict between the demands of human laws and those of the gods, what we might call today laws of morality. Antigone’s dilemma is that one of her brothers, Eteocles, is the defender of the city of Thebes, where she lives, against an attack by the other brother, Polynices; her brothers kill each other in the conflict, but the city is saved.

Her soon to be father-in-law, King Creon, ordains that Eteocles’s body should be honoured with ceremonies befitting a hero, but his brother’s corpse should be left to rot. Anyone who contravenes these dictates will be killed, most unpleasantly. All very reasonable on the face of it, as Polynices was the enemy of the city, apparently. However, the gods and Antigone have a different view, namely that it is sinful to disrespect the dead, no matter what they have done.

Antigone is caught pouring libations on Polynices’s corpse, and is sentenced to death by being walled up in a cave:

With food no more than to avoid the taint
That homicide might bring on all the State,
Buried alive.

The play was first performed 2,500 years ago, yet the conflict is a variant of what we are facing today, as those in charge of our destiny are making the same ostensibly reasonable but in fact amoral demands; let’s hope that the result will be different this time round.

The Chorus in Greek plays acts as the voice of conscience, for both sides: it lets you overhear the unconscious dialogue that gives the best Greek plays their urgency and lasting relevance. And this is where it gets interesting. Before getting to the action, the Chorus tells us why this particular story is important. Here is the speech that sets out how amazing and resilient humans are and is the perfect antidote to the woke nonsense that we are a curse on the planet:

Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man;
Over the surging sea, with a whitening south wind wan,
Through the foam of the firth, man makes his perilous way;
And the eldest of deities Earth that knows not toil nor decay
Ever he furrows and scores, as his team, year in year out,
With breed of the yoked horse, the ploughshare turneth about.


The light-witted birds of the air, the beasts of the weald and the wood
He traps with his woven snare, and the brood of the briny flood.
Master of cunning he: the savage bull, and the hart
Who roams the mountain free, are tamed by his infinite art;
And the shaggy rough-maned steed is broken to bear the bit.


Speech and the wind-swift speed of counsel and civic wit,
He hath learnt for himself all these; and the arrowy rain to fly
And the nipping airs that freeze, ‘neath the open winter sky.
He hath provision for all: fell plague he hath learnt to endure;
Safe whate’er may befall: yet for death he hath found no cure.


Passing the wildest flight thought are the cunning and skill,
That guide man now to the light, but now to counsels of ill.
If he honours the laws of the land, and reveres the Gods of the State
Proudly his city shall stand; but a city-less outcast I rate
Whoso bold in his pride from the path of right doth depart;
Ne’er may I sit by his side, or share the thoughts of his heart.

The Chorus brings two messages, one that ‘resourceful man’, to quote the Penguin translation, ‘ingenious past all measure . . . forges on, now to destruction, now again to greatness’ both can and will solve all that he encounters. It anticipates Hamlet’s description of humanity:

What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.

The second message is that we must ‘cast out that man who weds himself to inhumanity’.

When young people tell us they will not have children for fear the world will end, those purveyors of doom far exceed Creon in lacking humanity. Even if it were true that global warming will boil the seas dry, the children should be encouraged, as in the past, to find solutions. That it is not true, and that they obfuscate the reality and hide the data, makes the lack more terrible.

Both laws are necessary for humanity to work, but against the practical laws of Creon, there are the moral laws of Antigone and Polynices, and while Creon controls the agenda, he fails to see that he is the problem. Antigone insists that whatever Polynices has done, to disrespect his corpse is inhuman and unforgiveable, and so she breaks Creon’s law, knowing full well what will happen.

Her promised husband, Creon’s son Haemon, enters the story and describes the reality of cancellation, 441 BC-style.

The commons stand in terror of thy frown,
And dare not utter aught that might offend . . .

He seems to be supporting his father’s rights and dues:

‘Tis not for me to say thou errest, nor
Would I arraign thy wisdom, if I could . . .

O father, nothing is by me more prized
Than thy well-being, for what higher good
Can children covet than their sire’s fair fame,
As fathers too take pride in glorious sons?

But he continues:

Therefore, my father, cling not to one mood,
And deemed not thou art right, all others wrong.
For whoso thinks that wisdom dwells with him,
That he alone can speak or think aright,
Such oracles are empty breath when tried.

And then accuses his father thus:

Talk not of rights; thou spurn’st the due of Heaven

Still Creon will not bend. The blind soothsayer Tiresias enters to warn him that he has overstepped the mark. To bolster his case, Creon accuses Tiresias of being in the pay of others (is that familiar?)

This too I know, Teiresias, dire’s the fall
Of craft and cunning when it tries to gloss
Foul treachery with fair words for filthy gain.

But in the face of Creon’s intransigence Tiresias warns him:

Thou shalt have given the fruit of thine own loins
In quittance of thy murder, life for life;
For that thou hast entombed a living soul,
And sent below a denizen of earth,
And wronged the nether gods by leaving here
A corpse unlaved, unwept, unsepulchered.

Having fallen out with his father, Haemon has joined Antigone in death, while Creon is persuaded by the Chorus to heed Tiresias’s words. He rushes to the tomb where Haemon and Antigone lie, too late to make a difference.  It is not without significance that all three in this story were the children of Oedipus’s incestuous relationship with his mother; the furies care not.

There is much in this drama that anticipates the current struggle between the ideas of woke, ideas that seem as absolute in their certainty as is Creon, that only they have the answers, and deniers are only so because they are being paid by woke’s enemies. The false prophecies of the climate change believers and of the purveyors of Covid panic are given in the same tenor as Creon’s dictats. They should read this play and ponder:

 . . . To err is common
To all men, but the man who having erred
Hugs not his errors, but repents and seeks
The cure, is not a wastrel nor unwise.

I hope I have not given too much away, so that if you ever get the chance to see Antigone, take it, and if that does not come to pass, read it; and think how lucky we are to have the gifts and insights laid out in this story. While there will always be Creons to attack and undermine our humanity, all in the guise of saving us, the story that makes life worth living, and perhaps dying for, is Antigone’s.

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Howard Dewhirst
Howard Dewhirst
Howard Dewhirst has had a long career in international energy resources exploration relying on climate change-driven stratigraphic principles.

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