Eliot, quoted by Peter: "The tension within the society may become also
a tension within the mind of the more conscious individual: the clash of
duties in Antigone, which is not simply a clash between piety and civil
obedience, or between religion and politics, but between conflicting
laws within what is still a religious/political complex, represents a
very advanced stage of civilisation: for the conflict must have meaning
in the audience's experience before it can be made articulate by the
dramatist and receive from the audience the response which the
dramatist's art requires."
Eliot's pre-1910 education in history and philosophy stuck with him for
a long time. This is pretty pure Hegelianism, and since Hegel there has
been both enormous advances (some quite recetnly) in the knowledge of
ancient Greek history and considerable change in the understanding of
_Antigone_. Hegel's views on Antigone were so powerful in the 19th
century that they even led scholars to question lines in the poem which
conflicted with the Hegelian Antigone.
Whatever we think of Hegel's view of history in general (it has much to
recommend it) or of his dialectics (also highly admirable in many ways),
his interpretation of Antigone, echoed here by Eliot, was profoundly
wrong, in almost every detail.
The assumption is that there is a conflict of religion and law, an
assumption which requires that we see Antigone as being _obliged_ by
religious conviction to bury her brother. That is obviously untrue. At
her extremity, Antigone says (quoted from memory but quite accurate), I
would not have done this if it had been my husband or my son, for had it
been my husband, I couldf marry again, and had it been myson, I could
have had other sons, but all my brothers are dead and my parents are
dead and I will never have another brother. Quite pious this!
One can get some grasp of Antigone's motives from a heroine of a much
later tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi: Faced with certain death, and
responding to her murderer's attempt to cajole her into accepting death,
she replies, "I am the Duchess of Malfi still." That is, You can kill
me and I cannot stop you, but I wouild not be me if I went to death
willingly. Antigone says in effect: What ami I? I am a sister. What does
it mean to be a sister? It means to bury one's brother. You can kill me
but you cannot make me not be Antigone. I am Antigone still!
More. The tragic protagonist of _Antigone_ is not Antigone but Creon,
and it is Creon who occupies the stage almost uninterruptedly through
out, while Antigone has only relatively few scenes, and much happens
after her death. She has no tragic flaw; she represents no tension. She
is not the central character but, rather, the conditition of Creon's
tragedy, the reality which he defies and which detroys him. And she is
not a martyr, not, that is, one who dies to bear witness a truth, for
when the Chorus tries to comfort her with thoughts of how she will be
viewed by others like other tragic figures from myth, she replies
angrily, Don't mock me, you fools, I'm being murdered and you dare to
try to comfort me. (Not a quote but a paraphrase of the feeling in her
Creon and his son Haemon clash, and when Haemon points out that the
people are on Antigone's side, Creon affirms that his word is what
counts, and Haemon replies (differing translations, but one at least
catches the feeling here), "It is no city where one man rules." Not, "It
is a bad city where one man rules" but it is no city at all: Creon would
be a fine ruler on a deseret island Haemon tells him.
It is Antigone not Creon that stands for law and order; it is Creon wh
destroys order, who threatens the very being and nature of the Polis,
that public space in which men meet to persuade and be persuaded (Hannah
Arendt). The tragedy is the tragedy of the hubris of Creon attempting
to control the future.
Near the end of the play a character who has not even been mentioned
suddenly appears, gives one short speech, disappears and kills herself:
Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, who kills herself on learning of
Haemon's death. If you follow the action and do not read the play as a
19th-c novel you will see his sucide as not a private affair of a
despairing lover but as a political act directed against Creon, as is
the suicide of Creon's wife. Creon says to the Chorus, i.e. to the
people of Thebes whose opinion he had despised, I want to die. He wants
to die because his future has been destroyed through the death of his
son and of his wife. (Cf. Antigone's earlier reference to husbands,
sons, brothers.) And the chorus replies (in effect) Shut up you old
fool; don't wish to die; don't wish to live - you have lost the right to
choose your future.
Sophocles was not as committed to Athenian democracy as Aeschylus had
been, but he was committed to it, and he dramatizes in Antigone the
tragedy of the would-be Tyrant, the enemy of the demos.