Before we talk about Antigone, I want to salute the three of you who are celebrating your birthdays this weekend. I hope they’re the best birthdays imaginable. The rest of us will think of you this weekend and sing: happy birthday to you!
And we all get a present: We get to read Antigone this week.
I love this play so much– and it’s ok if you don’t love it as I do, because we can disagree. Besides, l will have time to persuade you of its merits when I see you next week.
And I love this play particularly in light of the historical context that Vernant and Naquet describe.
They tell us that ancient tragedy (they call it “Attic tragedy,” meaning, from Athens) was performed during a liminal period, when the Greeks were losing their faith in myth and just beginning to think of themselves as citizens. Strangers to each other, for the most part, the spectators who watched tragic heroes suffer much more than anybody should were coerced into an experience of agreement they might have found elusive other wise. And those spectacles of violence on a massive scale helped them construct the kinds of bonds among themselves that would enable them to belong to each other, democratically.
How do you read Antigone in this light– and what does it tell us or invite us to ask about the political good that literature might do?
I’d love to look at some specific passages that seem striking to you in some way– illuminating, perplexing, moving, whatever you like. Things we might discuss include: the role of the Chorus; the characterization of Antigone; the politics of her refusal of Creon’s edict; oh so many things.
On this rereading of the play, I was particularly struck by the dialogue between Antigone and Ismene. The more placating sister just wants everybody in the polis to get along, so she urges Antigone to bend to Creon’s rule, chiding her for being “in love with what’s impossible” (90):
Ismene: Oh, poor Antigone! I’m frightened for you.
Antigone: Don’t fear for me. It’s your life you should put right. (81-82)
All of this seems resonant to me today with the dynamics of our own polis, while this horrifying political drama is playing out on tv. And this is a classic move: Every age has a tendency to reread Antigone as a drama about its political dramas. Extending that tradition, a theater in Harlem is also staging Antigone to reflect on the culture and politics surrounding police violence in the contemporary U.S.
I’m excited to talk to you about it all.