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George Steiner

Print publication date: 1986

Print ISBN-13: 9780192819345

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780192819345.001.0001

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Chapter Three

Chapter Three

(p.200) (p.201) Chapter Three

George Steiner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In order to comprehend classical Greek texts or any other text that is set in a language that could be compared to the formally and density of that used in Sophocles' Antigone would entail utilizing a great deal of both inaccessibility and immediacy in order to attain a certain degree of stability. Although this sort of approach may shed light on the text's general meaning, such an endeavour will only yield temporary results because of the varied perceptions and uncertainties that one may experience in analysing this complex work. Understanding the tragedy requires both a present and historical dynamic. This chapter attempts to point out that understanding what Antigone aims to portray could be modified by certain pressures depending on the social style, politics, and other such elements that may affect one's construal of the play.

Keywords:   Greek texts, language, Antigone, inaccessibility, immediacy, stability, dynamic, social style, politics, understanding


To ‘understand’ a text in classical Greek, to ‘understand’ any text in any language as formally and conceptually dense as is Sophocles’ Antigone, is to oscillate between poles of immediacy and of inaccessibility. If we read well, if we make ourselves answerable to the text intellectually, if we discipline our sensibility to scrupulous attentiveness, if, in the final analysis, we make of our reading an exercise of moral trust, rendering our own risks of feeling concordant to those of the poet (though on a more modest, secondary level), this oscillation will find points of stability. It will, more or less consciously, come to rest in a general sense of the shapes of meaning. It will align local detail with the landscape, with the ‘tonic’ conventions of the work as a whole. But such ‘coming to rest’ is always provisional. It is a tensed, momentary poise between degrees of established perception and the creative uncertainties, even outright fallacies, which lead to revision—literally, to ‘a new sighting’.

Where it addresses itself to a text of the order of the Antigone, ‘understanding’ is, as we have seen, historically and presently dynamic. It is a process of accord and dissent as between the cumulative, selective authority of received opinion and the challenge of individual supposition. Reading is never static. Meaning is always mobile. It unfolds—though ‘unfolding’ is too smooth, too programmatic a term—in the semantic space mapped, we have seen, by grammarians and critics, by actors and producers, by music and the visual arts as these ‘set’ or image the play. With successive generations, the larger climate of politics and of social style presses on every fibre of interpretation. This pressure can alter the conditions and ideals of understanding. In a marginal note to the Athenaeum of the brothers Schlegel, which he set down in 1804, that master reader, Coleridge, uses an apt simile. Between us and the text runs ‘a drawbridge of communication’. The implication (p.202) is graphic. Such a bridge can be lifted. If it is, the text is made mute.

But can we hope to cross the drawbridge to Sophocles’ Antigone without knowing classical Greek?

This question seems to me technically and psychologically more punishing than is often allowed. I have directed much of my work and personal life to the study and exposition of the history, of the poetics, of the philosophic-linguistic aspects of translation. The translator is the mail-man of human thought and sentiment. At every single node in time and place, the currents of energy in civilization are transmitted by translation, by the mimetic, adaptive, metamorphic interchange of discourse and codes. Without translation, our acts of spirit and of form would soon be made inert. No polyglot, however far-reaching his linguistic antennae, can touch on anything but a minute fraction of those languages in which have been thought, felt, expressed, the fundamentals and the dynamic variants which constitute literacy. Draw up even the most crassly reductive of ‘basic book lists’, include in it Homer and Scripture, Dante and the religious teachers of the Orient, Shakespeare and Goethe, Flaubert and Tolstoy—and such a primer of awareness will stand or fall by virtue or failure of translation. Translation is that drawbridge across which men after Babel have crossed into what Heidegger has called ‘the house of their being’.

This is self-evident.

So is the truism that no translation is wholly commensurate with the original, that even in the greatest translation there are hair-line cracks where source and receiver interlock. This essential inadequacy is rooted in the genius of language itself. The genius of language, the existential and formal singularity of every speech-act, can, indeed, be most clearly defined by saying that no translation will be total, that none can transfer to another tongue the entire sum of implication, tonality, connotation, mimetic inflection, and inferred context which internalize and declare the meanings in meaning. Something will get lost or have been elided; something else will have been added by the impulse to paraphrase; subtle but decisive magnitudes will have altered scale; there will be transpositions from those ‘key-patterns’ and deep-buried cadences which, unrecapturable to analysis, make of each language, of the (p.203) speech-habits of each individual, a ‘dialect’, a more or less circumscribed uniqueness in the spectrum of communication. Speech, uttered or unspoken, is as intimate to the pulse of man's being, is as much the live context of normal human existence, as is breath. No man can reduplicate perfectly, can substitute for, another man's breath. This, perhaps, is why πνεῦµα and λóγοс, ‘the breath which inspires, which blows us into being’ and ‘the word’, are so closely meshed in theological and metaphysical speculations on the essence of the human person.

This, too, is evident.

I. A. Richards qualified the transfer of full meanings between semantic codes, between different languages and the ambience of association and inference in which languages develop, as ‘the most complex type of event yet produced in the evolution of the cosmos’. Even at humbler levels, this ‘event’ is always under twofold pressure. The vast majority of translations are bad. They are imprecise, sloppy, inflationary, short on stylistic and conceptual competence, at ease in error. ‘Through a glass darkly’ (a phrase which, itself, poses arduous problems for the translator) comes near to summarizing our lifelong encounters with discourse and with texts in languages which we, ourselves, do not know. But sheer inadequacy, particularly where it exhibits itself to the listener or reader, is not the most damaging. More falsifying is ‘great’ or ‘high’ translation interposing its obscuring radiance and virtuosity between ourselves and the original. Self-conscious translation will transfigure its source, as do those orchestral transcriptions of Bach through which the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries sought to enhance an ancient nakedness. It will augment and adorn; it will deflect meaning into ‘beauty’—‘beauty’, that is, as experienced and formulated by the transposer and his contemporary aesthetic milieu. Witness the marvels of reinvention, of modulating echo, of transformative mimesis, in Dryden's version of Horace, Odes III. 29—one of the undoubted exercises of genius in the long history of Horatian-European transmission.

The upshot of all this is banal but consequential. When we read a translation, whatever its quality, we are reading the translator. He can be the hack next door; he can be Hölderlin or W. B. Yeats. The fact of second-handedness, of individual (p.204) and cultural Ersatz or synthetic surrogate, remains unalterable. Can one seriously approach Sophocles’ Antigone on these terms? Can one hope even to set foot on ‘the drawbridge’ without knowing ancient Greek?

But what, in this context, does ‘know’ really signify? Let us set aside (though one can never do so in actual practice) the whole gamut of text problems, the lacunae, errors of transcription, editorial manipulations—some going back to Hellenistic recensions—which render the literal status of an ancient Greek drama always questionable. Let us abstract the isolation of individual plays from the format of the relevant trilogy and from the lost corpus of Aeschylus’, Sophocles’, and Euripides’ production. Constraining as they are, these handicaps of loss and uncertainty are only external. The heart of the difficulty is, of course, the fact of language. No man after Alexandria has had direct personal access to Aeschylean or Sophoclean Greek. No generation speaks precisely the same speech as its predecessors, except by virtue of willed archaism. With time, the immediacies of identification and implicit reference recede from the subconscious. They become, inevitably, an object of deliberate retrieval, of conservation, of interpretation. Modern scholarship is millennially distant from the text. Even those who ‘know’ classical Greek best stand at the present end of a tunnel through time which is loud with interference, with false echo and distortion. No man can learn to speak ancient Greek in any customary or meaningful sense of the term.

Thus, even the masters of classical philology and textual criticism, an Eduard Fraenkel, an Edgar Lobel, a Rudolf Pfeiffer, thus, even those whose linguistic-archaeological tact allows brilliant feats of emendation and recapture, possess a ‘knowledge’ of Periclean Greek incomparably thinner, incomparably more contrived, than that of the most uncouth natural speaker in the Athens of Sophocles. The life of resonance, the vital shorthand of the implicit and the self-evident, the codes of intonation, of inflectional stress or understatement, as between social classes, age-groups, genders—all that surrounds individual words and phrases in a living spoken tongue with exact or diffuse values, is very nearly as lost to the scholar as it is to the layman. Ruskin notes cheerily in his Praeterita that a mere glance at what were taken to be Anacreon's odes proved (p.205) to him ‘that the Greeks liked doves, swallows, and roses just as well as I did’. Quantitatively this might be so, albeit that writers of odes need not be the soundest witnesses to their society. But with regard to psychological tenor, to usages of sensibility, to expressive modes, ancient Attic ‘likings’ may well have differed radically from those of the Victorians. In certain pointed cases—attitudes towards and perceptions of erotic relations, slavery, the concept of determining fate, the readings of illness—we can arrive at some rough sense of such difference. Where the material is primarily literary, where it is deceptive precisely through its immediacy of appeal, traps abound. The roses of Anacreon are not those of a nineteenth-century European Christian who, consciously or not, has internalized the symbolic role and values assigned to the flower by the iconographers, troubadours, and theologians of the twelfth century.

Philological authority is no talisman. The great scholar does read with manifest responsibility. Someone whose Greek is (like mine) lame and derivative, someone who can approach Sophocles only in translation, leans heavily and thankfully on the scholar's verdict and supposition. But the difficulty is this: the mental set, the equipment of awareness and feeling of classical scholars, grammarians, editors are, in themselves, highly specialized and incisively reductive agents. They narrow in depth. They bring to the elucidation of the poet a more or less conscious bias towards the lexical norm and the rationale of a canonic syntax—though such a norm and rationale may be of their own devising. Housman deemed the combination in the same individual of philological rigour and literary finesse to be even rarer than poetic genius. Yet linguistic determination and literary judgement can never be separated. Housman's own perception of ‘the lofty character of Creon’, to which I have already referred, stems from, bears upon, his subjective emendation of the second word in Antigone, line 746. The letter does not necessarily determine or deny the spirit. But in the scholar-editor it generates a particular sort of ‘spirit’, a particular sort of ‘truth-value’. In consequence, there are celebrated editions of, commentaries on, Greek tragedy either devoid of a sense of poetry and of theatre or arbitrary in their treatment. Knowledge becomes ‘knowing’, in the slippery sense of the term.

(p.206) Hence the perennial, insoluble conflict between the qualified classicist and the literary critic or poet-translator (who may, scandalously, have no personal competence in the language of the original). Hence the unsettling, but also bracing, paradox of such intuitive seizures of unmastered material as Pound's Cathay, which Chinese readers and scholars find truer to the source than any versions by qualified western sinologists.

Finally there is this: the most learned classical scholar and the layman with his fallible translation are both the products of a massive history of inheritance. They come long after. Whether or not they are explicitly aware of the fact, the aggregate of preceding editorship, exegesis, staging, and criticism presses upon their own understanding. There is a distinction, certainly, which needs to be drawn between the legacy of scholarship and the heritage of criticism. There is in the textual-exegetic process a cumulative and collaborative advance. Some errors get cleared up; better manuscripts may be discovered. Criticism is, on the other hand, an essentially synchronic, self-subverting enterprise in which Plato's negation of the poets, Aristotle's catharsis simile, and John Jones's emphasis on the economics of the House of Atreus, are, in some respects, contemporary with each other. But in both the scholarly and the critical spheres the past is an active embodiment within current judgement. It is, organically, at work in each act of new insight. As it comes to us from Sophocles’ Antigone, ‘meaning’ is bent out of its original shape just as starlight is bent when it reaches us across time and via successive gravitational fields. It is the creative as well as the obscuring aspects of this distortion, it is the effects such distortion has on reading Sophocles now, which are the theme of this study.

Every element of the challenge is merciless in the first line of Antigone.


The masked male actor who impersonates Antigone addresses the masked male actor who impersonates Ismene. He does so in verse whose metrical units, based on syllabic lengths, are (p.207) underwritten by a complex system of tonal values. Some of these reach back into the particular expressive world of the epic. Homeric resonances give to the discourse of Greek tragic drama much of its monumental impetus. In turn, the dactylic hexameter is sometimes under pressure from a more ‘demythologized’ and even prosaic idiom—a pressure registered in Aristophanes’ satire on tragic rhetoric, The actual metrics of the lines spoken in the prologue to Sophocles’ Antigone (lines 1–99) are accessible to us; but not the relation of these lines and of their pattern of pitch and stress to any musical material in the presentation of the play. All that remains to us are the words in fifth-century Attic Greek whose transcription by contemporary or later scribes, notably in lines 2–5, already seemed suspect to Byzantine scholiasts. Totus locus vexatus is the grim finding of a recent editor.1

Context and subsequent reference make clear that the two personae are meeting in front of the royal palace at Thebes. Their encounter takes place before daybreak. This is vital in the general symbolism and taut management of the play. After the Renaissance, our curtained stages in the West will simulate dawn. In the theatre of Dionysus, the hour, the meaningful temporalities of action, must be read out of the words of the play. There is no half-light on the scene or on the acting platform; only the white brilliance and knife-edge shadows of an Attic noon. Inevitably, the Active moment—the uncertain end of a harrowed night—must have played against the absolute sunlight in which ‘Antigone’ and Ismene’ first (p.208) appear. The inherent ‘distancings’, the demands made upon the transformative sensibilities of the vast audience, the extent to which familiarity with the relevant myth or other scenic variants thereof helped the spectator to meet these demands, are factors largely unrecapturable for us.

The opening line consists of five words of which two, ‘O’ and ‘Ismene’, are straightforward. The other three have been the object of voluminous exegesis. The semi-darkness in which they are spoken seems to cling to them. Literally—and ‘literally’ always begs the question—we read something like this: ‘O my very own sister's shared, common head of Ismene.’ Hölderlin, as we saw, transposes unflinchingly. He acquiesces in the clotted strangeness of Antigone's summons, producing a verse ominously near to Housman's parody of the Greek tragic mode. The textual critic, the scholar-interpreter, the ordinary reader or spectator, gropes, κοινóν is a seminal term in the history of language, of religious thought and institution, of anthropology. A fertile duplicity inhabits the word. It signifies ‘common’ in the sense of ‘ordinary’, ‘general’, ‘widely diffused’ (as in κοινή, meaning ‘common speech’ or ‘vulgate’). It also means ‘related by blood’, ‘generically bound’. It is a crucial paradox or duality of the human condition that kinship is, in one respect, the most universal, ordinary of biological–social facts, yet in another the most irreducibly singular and individually specific. In the mouth of Antigone, as Kierkegaard sensed, κοινóν is fatally charged.

Originally, and the concept of ‘origins’ is itself in part a mythical one, much of mythology may have been a compelling formulation of the uncertainties, of the atavistic embarrassments attached to the sources of kinship and of familial organization via incest. Antigone and Ismene are the sisters and children of Oedipus. This dark knot links them with the monstrous necessities of human origins (whom but their sisters could Cain and Abel wed?). But this anarchic commonalty, in its turn an enormity, cuts them off from the accepted norms of evolved mankind. Within the context of the myth, their kinship is an outrage. It is precisely this, however, which knits them close as no other sisters are knit, which makes them ‘common to one another’ and, as it were, fused (the which fusion distinguishes them, fascinatingly, from the very similar pairing of Electra and Chrysothemis in Sophocles’ drama). The pendulum (p.209) motion of meaning in Antigone's κοινóν is truly dialectical. It modulates from intimations of primordial indistinction and ‘confusions’ of consanguinity to a singularity of social apartness so drastic that it makes of Oedipus’ two sister-daughters a single, a ‘common’, being.

‘Of the earth earthy’, says Charles Lamb, seeking to make palpable a certain Shakespearean touch. ‘Of sisterhood, of sorority sisterly’ might, as Goethe felt, come in range of αὐτάδελϕον. Ismene's existence on this Theban doomsday is that of being her sister's sister. This attribute is both the sum and summoning of her identity so far as this identity can still be perceived and realized existentially. Again, Antigone's ‘provocation’, for every syllable in this opening speech is simultaneously a calling and a challenge, aims at the unique scandal and sanctification of kinship in the lineage of Oedipus. Antigone and Ismene are daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta. They are, at the same time, Jocasta's granddaughters. Equally they are sisters to the son of Laius. This triple bond makes the fastness of their sorority matchless. ‘Most sisterly of souls’ was Goethe's paraphrase. Joined to κοινóν, αὐτάδελϕον renders the blood-relation of Antigone and Ismene concretely hyperbolic.

That ‘Ιсµήνηс κάρα has the literal meaning ‘head of Ismene’ is inescapable. This meaning can be attenuated to that of a periphrasis: ‘identity of Ismene’, ‘essence, spirit of Ismene’ (we speak of ‘heads of state’ in reference to persons). Or it can be allowed its vehement anomaly. Both physically and metonymically, the head of an individual is taken to incarnate his or her individuality. In the shadow-light before dawn, Antigone recognizes Ismene by the shape or bent of her head. To claim this head as being ‘common to us both’ and as ‘shared in the totality of sisterhood’, is to negate, radically, the most potent, the most obvious differentiation between human presences. As one commentator puts it: Ismene's head is made ‘nothing but a sister's’.1 In its imperious awkwardness, in its stylized carnality which is at once Aeschylean (αὐτάδελϕοс will be found in both the Seven Against Thebes and the Eumenides) and older than Aeschylus, Antigone's prolusion strives to compact, to ‘ingest’, Ismene into herself. She demands a ‘single-headed’ unison. In twilight, shadows melt into a compounded mass. (Did the one masked head draw the other to him/her?)

(p.210) This little we can assert with mild confidence. Line 1 of Sophocles’ Antigone does not, at least, provide the sort of lexical and grammatical tribulations which, in reference to lines 2 and 3, reduce a recent annotator to declare: ‘I can see no solution, and write this note only to show that the difficulties of this notorious passage may be even greater than we had imagined.’1

But my remarks on Antigone's opening words only scratch the surface. The challenges to understanding, to the achievement of a past presentness which does not violate the integral autonomy of that past, are central and arduous. How are we to grasp the dynamics of inwoven reference, the pointers to social–psychological conventionality or debate, implicit in such a passage ? Such grasp is shallow if it is merely archaeological. How may we best hear, from within the music and meanings in the original text, those insistences on human exposure, on the conflictual conditions of human experience, which have initiated and sustained incessant echo across the millennia? In other words, how are we to reach through this echo to the voice, while knowing that these are, at our linguistic–historical–psychological remove, inseparable? It is the absolutely synchronic strangeness and presence in the source, in the original, often irretrievable, play of meanings, which compel and elude adequate response.

The provocation to Ismene, but also to us, turns on the contradictions between the dignities and liberal values of individuation, on the one hand, and the more archaic but perennially recursive ideals and reflexes of community on the other. In the Sophoclean text, this conflict—or, more precisely, the indeterminacies of feeling and of expression which it engenders—finds an exact syntactic form. When Antigone invokes the afflictions which Zeus is unleashing and will unleash upon ‘us both’, she uses the dual. This is a grammatical marker, in common colloquial use, as we know from Aristophanes, for the endings of those verbs, nouns, and adjectives used only where two subjects are acting, are being designated, or are being qualified. We are unable to reproduce this particular linguistic instrument. It is, nevertheless, pivotal. After Ismene's initial refusal to help bury Polyneices, Antigone will not again resort to any dual forms. In the opening lines, (p.211) furthermore, her uses of the dual seem to extend beyond the manifest pairing Antigone–Ismene. The immediate context, referring as it does to the hideous inheritance of sorrows bequeathed by Oedipus to his children, vividly suggests that the two sisters, welded, as it were, into one resolute being, are coupled with that other oneness in simultaneous, reciprocally inflicted death which is constituted by Polyneices–Eteocles. Four doomed personae are, in a sense both spiritual and bodily, made two. This fusion to duality, with its concise enactment in Antigone's syntax, ominously but also ecstatically perpetuates the unspeakable cohesions of kinship in the House of Laius.

The Hinterland to Antigone's formulation, the genetic–social conflicts and indecisions which must have attended the very gradual evolution of western concepts of distinct individuality (the tenebrous aetiology of the ego), lie wholly beyond our reach. It is solely in the pathologies and metaphoric suggestions of autism on the one hand and of schizophrenia on the other that such primordial instabilities surface. Indeed, the mystique of familial bonding on which Antigone draws may have had resonances as lost to Periclean Athens and even to Sophocles himself as they are to us. Such temporal ‘fade-outs’ or ‘close-ups’ of perception are far subtler than any chronology. What matters is the evident truth that the exponential pressure of the Antigone theme on subsequent imaginings and the concentration, at once integral and insoluble, of these pressures in Sophocles’ play, are such as to engage our sense of immediacy without losing the genius of their origins, without relinquishing, easily or altogether, their part of night.

Literally and figuratively, Antigone's writ to Ismene springs at her sister and at ourselves out of receding darkness. It queries, it indicts the new discretions of human privacy (that which is ‘discrete’ being also, by definition, ‘separated’ and ‘fragmented’). It is Ismene who persistently puts forward the first person pronoun and the singular possessive. Polyneices is also ‘my brother’ (ἐµóν). But it is just on this meagre singularity of brotherhood that Antigone brings to bear the ironic fury of her ‘dualism’. If Polyneices is ‘only’ Ismene's brother, he is indeed yielded to the exile of dishonoured death and desecration. Polyneices is, he must be felt and seen to be, the brother whom Antigone and Ismene share in total symbiosis. The newer (p.212) syntax of egotism, of individual apartness, which is ours still, cuts across the mysteries and claims of blood. Sensing but failing to apprehend these mysteries, Lear will resort to the obscuring term ‘propinquity’. The grammar of Antigone lies prior to our classifications. When, in lines 71 and 72, with their vehement enjambment—‘him I | Shall bury’—and their (rare) sense-break after the verb, Antigone uses ἐγώ, the word is a bitter concession. ‘I’ is now her marker of solitude, of that enforced break with unisons of kinship, of familial or clannish collectivity, which made possible, which necessitated, fusions of feeling, of purpose, of action. Of these fusions, the Greek tragic chorus may itself have been a late vestige.

Ismene's rejoinder, in line 90, is celebrated: ‘you are enamoured of, you strive after, the impossible’—ἀµηχάνων ἐρα̑ιс. In the play, words built around the stem µηχαν- (our ‘mechanical’) are used three times by the chorus, with its often cautionary idiom, and three times by Ismene herself. Once, the word is used by Creon (line 175). The ‘mechanical’ denotes that which pertains appropriately to the range of productive mundanity. ἀµήχανοс conveys notions of unreality, of unmasterdness, of anarchic disorder. In line 90 the use of the term is intentionally spacious: it points in at least two directions. On the plane of actuality, Antigone's plan to bury Polyneices, by herself alone if need be. is a practical impossibility. On a fundamental level, moreover, that which is no longer possible, yet which Antigone uncompromisingly demands, is the welding, the seamless meshing, of individuals—Antigone–Ismene, Antigone–Ismene–Polyneices—into an organic oneness. A ‘mechanistic’ reality is a reality of Cartesian individual volitions and individual perceptions. Two lines later, Ismene reiterates her charge: Antigone ‘hunts after impossibilities’ (τἀµήχανα). Her longing for lost, nocturnal modes of total kinship has turned to the hunter's destructive and self-destructive pursuit. As we know, from the Oedipus Rex and Electra, such references to the chase are not, in Sophocles, comforting.

Throughout the rest of the play, we can follow the contrapuntal stress on mechanistic individuality on the one hand, and on more ancient currents of generic and psychic ecumenism on the other. The chorus oscillates uneasily between both. In the magical fifth stasimon, the chorus sings (p.213) and ‘dances itself into a dithyrambic openness to the imminence of the god. Dionysus is like a bolt of pure energy which welds into unison the dance of the stars and that of mortal men. Much of the inexhaustible depth of the first stasimon, the ‘Ode on Man’ as it is sometimes referred to, resides in the elusive, anguished delicacy of the chorus's movements between motifs of inspired, creative egotism—man's mastery over the possible, his extension of possibility to the very limits of the material and organic worlds—and motifs of homecoming to the concentric circles of his πóλιс and of his hearth. The dialectically insoluble quality of such homecoming stems from the fact that the hearth is, by virtue of historical development, no longer that of a pre-social or totemic collectivity, but is itself, in part at least, a private institution guaranteed by civic ordinance.

Pleading out of the receding edge of night, striving to draw Ismene's ‘shared’ head into her own being, Antigone comes as close as ‘modern’ speech is able to a consciousness, to a rearticulation, of those osmotic tides which can, at moments, negate individuality, dissolve the first person singular, and let human beings ‘flow into one another’. (One recalls Keats's witness to the entry of other human presences into his own psychic and, indeed, corporeal self.) It is in a return to darkness, to that night of the rock-tomb blacker even than the night of fratricidal slaughter and retributive injustice which immediately precedes the action of the drama, that Antigone may find the primal collectivity, the ingathering of her own persona into the Oedipus–Polyneices–Eteocles triad, denied to her in the daylit constraints of the possible. But Antigone is by no means certain that death will not turn out to be a solitude, a ‘discreteness’ even sharper than that which she must endure after Ismene's refusal to be ‘one with her’, to enact the grammar of the dual. She, in whom palpable, if indefinable, impulses towards human interfusion are so intense, is, by virtue of Ismene's monitory realism and the ambivalences of the chorus, made the most solitary, individual, anarchically egotistical of agents. Therein lies the bottomless irony and falsehood of Antigone's fate.

The wealth of Sophocles’ questionings presses on us today. The magnetism of the collective is unmistakable in our fragmented societies. Beyond the erosion of formal religiosity, beyond the shibboleth of ‘alienation’, one observes nascent (p.214) counter-currents of communal existence. Privacies, the nucleus of the ego, are now under pressure of Utopian, of group-therapeutic, of mystical nostalgias for symbiosis. The commune, the therapies of ‘encounter’, of bodily contact and shared hallucination, are in part artificial but in part authentically atavistic endeavours to claw one's way out of the proud prison of the self. We recognize in Antigone's attempt to cradle, to interpenetrate with, Ismene's beloved head’, as in Henry Moore's drawings of the meshed, anonymous bodies seeking each other's warmth and plural strength in the air-raid shelters, an immensity of need. The sovereignties of individuality, as they are proclaimed by the Renaissance, by Cartesian methodology, by Puritan and liberal personalism, seem to many to have left men naked. Great art, music above all, can set off within each of us those oscillations between self-consciousness on the one hand and subterranean intimations of a negation or a transcendence of the ‘I’ on the other. Primal collectivities seem to flow towards us out of the fount of dreams (blurred as they are, Jung's readings of the choral nature of art and of myth are far more persuasive than Freud's). It is the pulsing exploration of the ‘dual mode’—grammatical, spiritual, psychological—which, as I have suggested earlier, makes of the Ulrich-Agathe chapters in Musil's Man Without Qualities the finest ‘translation of’ and commentary on the first line of Antigone available to us. In both, the voices of blood-kinship emerge from and seek a homecoming to the solacing indeterminacies of night.

Virtually every line in the play invites reflections and provisional elucidations of this sort. Commentary is always latent with unendingness. The breeding of exegesis out of previous exegesis is menacing in so far as it occludes the primary text. The proliferation of interpretation threatens to bury the poem. Yet it is via the hermeneutic process of better understanding that the text is ensured survivance. I see no ready way out of this contradiction. Very likely, one ought to distinguish between categories of essentially textual–critical analyses (themselves discursive and parasitical) and those means of ‘commentary in action’ represented by translation, stage-production, musical setting, and graphic illustration. But as I have argued throughout, a translation of Antigone by Hölderlin or Yeats, a setting to music of this or that part or of (p.215) the whole of the play by Mendelssohn or Orff, a radically penetrative staging, be it by Tieck or Meyerhold, are, inevitably, metamorphic acts of interpretation. They are often as illuminating as any but the rarest of philological-critical glosses. Yet these glosses, also, must be attempted in every generation and context of sensibility, if only to make their inadequacies fruitful, to fall short in ways which clarify.

Let us stand in the way of other passages.


Lines 198–206 seem to call for only trivial emendations. Our reading, moreover, is more or less ensured by the fact that the lines are quoted in a parody from antiquity. Together, these eight verses make up a single overwhelming sentence. Its construction is reiterative (anaphoric), and Creon's meaning is plain as a hammer. He addresses his fury to ‘that Polyneices’. Already the syntax dehumanizes. Creon hurls a triple accusation. The ‘banished’ Polyneices, which epithet makes of his mere return a gravy felony, had come back to Thebes to ‘put to the torch’, to ravage, the land of his father and of his father's deities. Polyneices had come αἵµατοс…πάсαсθαι, ‘to drink, to feed upon, kindred blood’. Thirdly, says Creon, it had been Polyneices’ resolve to lead the surviving Thebans into slavery, to annihilate the civic status of his own countrymen.

This is the fratricidal, traitorous, and tyrannical ruffian who is to be left unburied, carrion for birds and dogs. Subsequently, in lines 286–7, Creon elaborates on the first charge. Polyneices purposed to burn, to lay waste, the temples of the gods and the divine laws. In this passage the grammar is so densely woven that we can, that we are meant to, equate those ‘votive offerings’ which Polyneices will destroy when he puts the temples to the torch with the laws themselves. For are such laws not, in turn, ‘divine gifts’? Creon's challenge is massive: is it not blasphemy against piety as well as against ordinary human good sense to afford the bestial slayer and rebel Polyneices the same rites of sepulchre as those which are to be bestowed on Eteocles, the valorous (ἀριсτεύсαс, ἀρίсτοιс) defender of a πóλιс of which he was the legitimate ruler?

The questions pressed upon us are these: are we to believe Creon's indictment? At what levels of meaning are we to (p.216) interpret the three accusations? If we do believe Creon, this does not, to be sure, signify that we need concur in the edict against Polyneices’ remains. The open ground for moral debate, the extraterritorialities of mercy, lie precisely between premiss and consequence. Nevertheless, Creon's claims cannot be evaded. They will exact diverse degrees of acquiescence or denial.

Mazon is unequivocal: Creon's speech is not only inspired rhetoric but manifests ‘une conviction sincere’. Other exegetes see in Creon's formulations of Polyneices’ alleged intentions nothing more than tactical cunning and a mendacious, secretly uneasy endeavour to rally chorus and citizenry to a despotic cause. Yet others argue with more finesse. Creon's violent sententiousness cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric or falsehood. Per se his words are true. But he fatally perverts their ethical and pragmatic application. By acting against Polyneices as Polyneices would, according to Creon's own findings, have acted against his kindred and the city, Creon sets in motion the fatal automatism of hatred and self-ruin.1 This may or may not be so. One asks still: ‘Is Creon giving a just account of Polyneices’ purpose?’ Did Sophocles want us to believe what Creon propounds, be it merely in terms of the equilibrium and economies of the play?

As it happens, such questions of intentionality are at the very heart of current critical–hermeneutic theory. We are no longer allowed an innocent acceptance of auctoritas, of an author's privileged determination of the meanings, open and covert, in his text. Nor is the advance into sophistication made by the Henry Jamesian strategy of shifting narrative ‘points of view’ felt to be adequate. It is not enough to say: ‘This is how Creon sees it; the words are, finally, his.’ The new semantics of deconstruction turn wholly to the text itself; as if it was an autonomous play of grammatological and epistemological impulses open to, soliciting, a boundless counter-play of possible interpretations. Such schools of reading and reception would rule out the ‘simplistic’ query: ‘Did Creon mean what he says, and was it true of Polyneices?’

Most instructively, a work such as Sophocles’ Antigone seems (p.217) to rebuke the playful pretensions of deconstruction. The modish axiom of ‘pure textuality’ is naїve in the face of a composite of mask, music, choreography, and complexly stylized elocution. The linguistic text of a Greek tragedy is not an object set apart. It is only one of the relevant means of emotive–informative executive forms. But a second reason for rejecting deconstructive facilities is inherent in Greek dramatic practice itself. The swift, delicately calibrated shifts of interpretation, the ironies and provisionalities of understanding and of decoding, which are the aim of later-twentieth-century theories of reading, are already, as we have seen, dynamic in the chorus. No outside response is more flexible, no external interpretation of what the protagonists say is more supple and self-subverting, than are the ‘hearings’ and counter-statements of the chorus. It is the chorus in Greek tragedy which, from text-moment to text-moment, ‘deconstructs’ and recomposes the intentionalities of dramatic rhetoric, which places and displaces the meanings of meaning.

Therefore, the question we must learn to pose precisely is this: ‘In what key does Creon speak at this particular point, to what family of possible truths does the idiom, the cadence, of his accusations against Polyneices refer the listening chorus (and that greater ‘chorus’ which is made up of the audience in the theatre of Dionysus and, thereafter, of ourselves) ?’ The ‘truth-values’ of Creon's charge lie in the specific totality—phonetic, syntactic, possibly gestural—of his eloquence. Can we make our hearing sufficiently acute?

The scholars are of direct help. Creon's register throughout, and most saliently at this point, is that of the epic. There are distinct analogues to Homer in Creon's phraseology. The criminal aims attributed to Polyneices are stated almost formulaically, and with the archaic violence appropriate to epic (perhaps ‘primitive’) evil. This is especially so of the expression ‘to feed upon, to drink kindred blood’. It is possible that this grim tag echoes not the Homeric epics so much as it does the language-world of the lost Theban epic cycle. But undoubtedly Creon's style throughout lines 198–206, and the system of recognitions and response which this style articulates, reach back to the Iliad and to the immediacies of the Iliad in such dramas as Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Creon's register and its context are, very precisely, those of war.

(p.218) It is not easy for us to gauge the role of war in the development of Greek civilization. Hellas derived much of its sense of identity from the Iliad. The language(s) of classical Greece, the codes of rhetoric and public conduct, the literary genres, are inseparable from the Homeric precedent. A great war-epic gives to ancient Greece its sense of heroic beginnings. The Persian wars, in turn, bring on a brief but psychologically momentous experience of strategic and ethnic community. Out of the Peloponnesian wars, Thucydides draws the classic concept, which is, very largely, ours still, of history and historicity. The catastrophe consequent on the Peloponnesian wars is a constant undercurrent in the later plays of Sophocles and Euripides. When Heraclitus professed (fr. A 53 Diels–Kranz) that warfare, πóλεµοс, ‘is the father and ruler of all things’, when he said that it was war ‘which makes deities of some and men of others, which makes some men slaves and others free’, he was giving cosmological totality to a commonplace. The pre-Socratic images of the coming into being of the world are frequently expressive of elemental combat. Greek philosophical argument, the exposition of law and of politics, the dialectical techniques of intellectual and poetic encounter (the ‘stichomythia’ as used in drama), are ‘agonistic’. Like no other body of thought and sentiment before Hegel's, that of ancient Greece reflects and communicates man's experience in conflictual, bellicose terms.

Medieval and Renaissance treatments of the ‘matter of Thebes’ locate the fortunes of Antigone squarely within the framework of war and of the politics of war. So do Hasenclever and Brecht in their ‘Antigones’. War and enemy occupation are the defining context in Anouilh. We look for that framework to Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes rather than to Sophocles. Yet it is overwhelmingly, if concisely, present in our play.

The first choral song or parodos (lines 100–54) has always been admired for the virtuosity of its anapaestic sections, for the wild brilliance of the agonistic clashes of light and dark, of colour and shade, which it evokes. Whereas Antigone's voice aches out of night, private and desolate, the chorus surges towards daybreak in loud ecstasy. Sophocles seems to echo Pindar's mythopoeic but also tactile sense of a kinship between the sacred circularity of a πóλιс, within its rescued ramparts, (p.219) and the white sphere of the divine sun. Sophocles takes over from Aeschylus and, doubtless, from the epic repertoire which is the common font of tragedy the motif of the fierce radiance of the sun as it is reflected by the blanched shields and weapons of the doomed Argives. Commentators draw attention to the Sophoclean use, in this parodos, of emblematic, perhaps originally totemic, touches such as they were developed in the almost ritual art of the Seven Against Thebes. Although editors know there to be a lacuna at line 112, the central thematic motion is pellucid. Polyneices, the mercenary host, or both, had flown over Thebes like an eagle, screaming as it plunges to seize its prey. But Cadmus’ dragon has routed the winged attacker. Phonetically, metrically, in its skein of imagery—the white sun burning off the retreating darkness, the hot light of the torches which were to incinerate Thebes, the white Argive shields, the white-plumed eagle screaming against the light—the choral song is a marvel of closely mimed battle.

But the choral song in no way disguises the realities of war. Zeus and the sun have rescued the πóλιс from savage onslaught, destruction, and enslavement. The god to whom victory and the trophies of victory are due is Zeus τροπαȋοс—literally, ‘the causer of rout’. And these trophies are the brazen, heraldic panoplies of the slain champions. Ares, god of war, is, at one point in the ode, the personification (though this term is too abstract to convey the hybrid complexity and terror of the original) of the clamour of battle. At another point, Ares is at once the trace-horse, spearman, and charioteer tearing through the enemy host. A play which is ‘about’ the fate of two corpses on a battlefield springs into lyric life with an evocation of total war—‘total’ in precisely the Homeric and the Heraclitean sense. It engages gods and mortals, the duel of light and of dark, the blank fury of animals at each other's throats. In the closing antistrophe, the chorus ascribes to the persona of Victory an ‘immensity of splendour’ commensurate with that of Zeus and of the sun itself. Yet in a sudden ‘deconstructive’) impulse, the elders of Thebes appear to flinch from this hyperbole: ‘Yesterday's wars are now done; let us achieve forgetting.’ At this exact moment, however, Creon enters.

A number of editors and producers envision him advancing in armour, immediate from combat. Others would have him (p.220) garbed in his newly donned royal robes; and the chorus does point to him as βαсιλεύс, ‘king’. The costume is, surely, immaterial. The point is that Creon enters with the winds of war at his back. It is to the carnage of the preceding day and night that he owes his sovereignty over the delivered city. The Argive aggressors are, as it were, still on the horizon. Creon's oration (rhesis), with its metallic grandiloquence and self-aggrandisement, with its striking alternance of static sententiousness and peremptory ordinance, has behind it and pulses with the tumult and sudden, uncanny cessation of hand-to-hand combat. The effects are analogous to those achieved in Coriolanus, 1. ix. 41–6:

  • May these same instruments, which you profane,
  • Never sound more: when drums and trumpets shall
  • I’ the field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be
  • Made all of false-fac'd soothing:
  • When steel grows soft, as the parasite's silk,
  • Let him be made an overture for the warres.…

Both Sophocles and Shakespeare show grammar stiffened, monumentalized, and intonation pitched to stentorian brutality, under stress of physical combat and abrupt release. Creon's account of Polyneices’ purpose is convincingly that which a man must picture to himself and proclaim unreservedly to his followers if he is to hurl himself into mortal battle. Like the eagle simile in the choral ode, Creon's assertions are a ‘war-truth’. They bespeak the fierce twist of the world and its natural nuances in times of battle. Sophocles was himself acquainted with warfare and command. Like Thucydides, he knew of the conscription and arming of language towards necessary hatreds. These hatreds, the concept of discourse as a hand-to-hand and spirit-to-spirit ἀγών, will reach far into the play. Antigone will refuse ‘the truths of war’. More exactly, she will seek to circumscribe them narrowly. Her ethic, with its obvious note of femininity, is fundamentally anti-Heraclitean. To her, πóλεµοс is neither father nor regent of human relations. Battle is a contingent disaster within a much larger and abiding fabric of kinship and transcendent fidelity. The utter gap between Creon's idiom and Antigone's is that which Shakespeare contracts into the double-edged pathos of Coriolanus’ salutation to Volumnia: (p.221)

‘My gracious silence, hail.’ In the face of Creon's ‘war-truths’ and of what they logically entail, Antigone cannot be mute. But observe Sophocles’ equity: no one in the play seeks to refute Creon's bitter charge against Polyneices. Creon's Polyneices is what Creon declares him to be.


The conventions whereby the preternatural is met with and recounted take us to the heart of a culture and its poetics. Greek attitudes to the irrational have been studied magisterially. What we know very little about, however, are the orders of ‘suspended disbelief, of selective credulity, operative in the audience at the dramatic festivals of Dionysus. The problem is more specific than that, so often debated, of the extent and precision of the knowledge of mythology which the Greek tragic playwright could expect from his public. What one would want is some clear notion of the levels of acceptance of the spectators with regard to the ‘divine’, to the daemonic, and, in general, to the domain of the supernatural. As we know, this domain is significant in many extant plays and, presumably, throughout the classic tragic repertoire.

It is difficult to imagine the art of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as we know it, without its resort, at once spectacular and oblique, manifest and inferred, to oracular voices, to ‘ghosts’, such as that of Darius in the Persians, to miraculous substitutions—Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen in Egypt—to godly apparitions and epiphanies of varying degrees of directness (ranging, say, from the full presence of gods on stage in plays such as Prometheus or the Eumenides, to the almost imperceptible hint of a divine voice sounding through the lips of otherwise mute Pylades in Choephoroe). Certain insistent tonalities and plot constructions in Euripidean drama have been interpreted as strategies of ironic literalism, as rationalistic subversions of a mythological inheritance and apparatus too concretely invoked. But whether or not such an interpretation is valid, the question remains that of the response of the fifth-century audience to the authenticity of enacted or narrated supernatural encounters where these play a vital role in drama, notably in Aeschylus and in Sophocles. To what degree (p.222) was such material privileged precisely because of the archaic-status and indeterminacies of its distant origins? To what extent was the ‘miraculous’, if this concept applies at all, metaphorized so as to take on essentially psychological values? Moreover, even where such modulations occur, as in the Bacchae, a primordial force of naked terror persists. One would dearly wish to know how many men and women, in the noon-light of the theatre, chose to interpret Prometheus’ thunderous plunge into the abyss or Heracles’ wrestling bout with Death as aesthetic fictions. We do know how urgently the ambiguous relations between revealed religious beliefs or inherited rites on the one hand and their presentment in poetry and drama on the other exercised Plato's moral politics. The several treatments of this relation in the Ion, the Republic, and the Laws suggest that the dilemma had lost none of its acuteness even after the close of the major phase in the Greek tragic theatre. But the rest is, very largely, conjecture.

The supernatural possibility is incised in myths, in those eroded or shadow-myths which underwrite our metaphors and, if my hypothesis is right, in certain non-pragmatic, poetic features of grammar itself—features which correspond, at depths perhaps unrecapturable to formal analysis, to the meetings of sensibility and sense with categories of experience, with phenomenological constructs, ‘outside’ or tangential to the empirical order. Masters of poetic discourse can bring to the light of articulate speech the solicitations of the uncanny, of the extra-sensory, of the hallucinatory and hypnotic, as these are embedded in and integral to the tenebrous growth of human perceptions and syntax. (Music, as Plato knew and feared, can perform this externalization even more mysteriously and immediately than can language.) The true poet or dramatist will open the doors of speech on significant darkness, yet leave us at liberty to doubt, or to translate his findings into a rational, explicative register. Being, as Holderlin stressed, one who envisions mortal man as living in resplendent yet perilous proximity to agencies greater, more numinous than himself, Sophocles works close to ‘the shadow-line’ (Conrad's tale is, at many points, profoundly Sophoclean) between the empirical and the transcendent. The madness of Ajax, the clairvoyance of Neoptolemus, the grove and epiphany at Colonus, are superbly poised constructs of twilight, circumscriptions (p.223) of existential zones bordering equally on reason and on miracle. No other poet, unless it be Blake, has brought to bear on lucid, indeed transparent, modes of statement a stronger inference of secret presences. Here also, a phrase out of Conrad, ‘the secret sharer’, is most apposite. And it is such inference, together with our uncertainties as to the context of credence in which the dramatist and his audience mesh, that make ‘untranslatable’ lines 417–25. Yet which tell us, at the same time, that in these lines the genius of the play is explicit.

Annotations come fairly thick and technical. Line 418 poses problems of accentuation and comprehension, even at a superficial level, сκηπτóс has Homeric and Aeschylean authority as signifying a lightning-bolt, but with implications, as well, of a violent, upward discharge, as from the thrust of a weapon. How is this range of meanings to be accorded with the ‘dust-storm’, if it is precisely that, in Antigone? The grammatical placing and function of the two final words in line 418 are debated. They do appear to echo line 573 in Aeschylus’ Persians. Read in apposition to сκηπτóν, the phrase would designate an affliction, a punishing visitation, earth-bred or, at the least, surging from the earth, albeit of a ‘celestial’ kind, and ‘heaven-sent’. If the words are not to be taken in apposition, the direction of meaning would be generalized and more expressly ‘of the heavens’ (e.g. Mazon's ‘un vrai fléau céleste, qui envahit la plaine’, where the use of the word vrai all too clearly signals the scholar-translator's discomforts). The verb in line 420, which is generally taken to mean ‘has been filled’, is echoed in Sophocles’ Electra, line 713. But editors and textual critics note the possibility of a variant reading. The syntax in lines 422–4 is uncommon and does some violence to everyday logic. However, the paratactic sequence and historic present seem essential to the poetic–theatrical effect of the passage as a whole. The closing, crucial word in line 423 is much discussed. Where Jebb and Mazon read πικρα̑с, where Bothe and Bruhn emend to πικρω̑с, Dawe, in his edition and commentary, proposes πικρά. The distinction is, in fact, far-reaching: in the one case, ‘bitterness’ is a moral–psychological trait of the kind attributed to Antigone by the speaker or general opinion and reflected, as it were, in her outcry. Müller's analysis and Dawe‘s emendation, on the other hand, make of the word an adjective pertaining strictly to the bird-like quality of the (p.224) cry, to its specific avian shrillness and sharpness. It is this latter reading which would underwrite the recent Bernard Knox–Robert Fagles version: ‘And she cried out a sharp, piercing cry.’

But these textual uncertainties are, even in the case of variant transcriptions and translations, merely symptomatic of the intended, necessary complication of the dramatic episode and its recital. The midday sun hammers at the senses of the watchmen, forcing them to shield their eyes, dazzling their observance. The ‘dust-storm’ compels them to close their eyes altogether and numbs their perceptions with its seeming ‘endlessness’ (Sophocles’ acute psychological touch). The subtle modulations of verb tenses further blur the material sequence. The sharpness of the light, abruptly smothered, the equally abrupt sharpness of sound—the ‘bird-cry’—are transposed into, are in turn communicated by, the flickering or oscillating sentence and verse structure. The echo-crowded idiom, again richly Homeric and Aeschylean, the play of sound (note the vowels in lines 422–3), the unconventionalities in the syntax, are performative of the scene being recounted.

What, then, has transpired? Or, in terms of the play: what is it that the Guard, with his own ambivalent motives of imminent terror and relieved self-satisfaction, with his own personal style, is conveying to Creon, to the chorus, and to us—a triple focus whose intricate flexibility of placement is, as I have emphasized, singular to the Greek tragic stage?

The insinuation of the supernatural possibility occurs early in the play. The moment is a famous illustration of Sophoclean economy. Having heard the Guard's report of the first, nocturnal scattering of forbidden earth on the corpse of Polyneices, having listened to the Guard's insistence on the total absence of any visible spoors around the ostracized cadaver, the coryphaeus, in lines 278–9, specifically alludes to the possibility of divine agency. It is the gods who may have intervened in mysterious visitation. Creon's withering retort leaves the issue in ominous abeyance. Now we hear of a sudden ‘whirlwind’. It strikes, strangely, in the blaze of noon. We have seen that the terms chosen by Sophocles and spoken by the Guard are at once dynamic and obscure. The spinning ‘dust-pillar’ springs from the earth, skyward. Earth and air are violently confounded. At the close of line 417, χθονóс carries its (p.225) full weight of literal and symbolic meanings: uprooted, the earth, which is the primordial sanctuary of the dead, the locale of justiciaries and custodians older than Zeus, is made spiralling dust. This dust is also that which Antigone strews on the flesh of Polyneices. The mysterious tornado rises from the earth towards the realm of the gods who, by unmistakable implication, are its begetters. But, as S. Benardete acutely notes, decisive discriminations are being made as between the plausibly preternatural phenomenon of the sudden storm and that dust which Antigone has bestowed on her brother before sunrise, and which she will be bestowing once more as the storm recedes:

What distinguishes the two dusts is this. What is unseemly for Polynices’ unburied corpse to suffer from birds and dogs is the opposite of the unseemliness that the dust storm inflicted on the foliage in the plain (206, 419). The guard ascribes malicious intent to the storm; and this malice that blasted every vestige of life cannot be the same as the love that Antigone poured into the dust that covered Polynices’ corpse. Furthermore, no matter how unelaborate her original arrangements might have been, they might yet have borne the mark of human artifice, which the haphazard swirling of the dust could not duplicate. Perhaps, however, Antigone's ritual dust and whatever dust clung to Polynices’ corpse during the storm differ not so much (if at all) because artifice and chance differ as because Antigone has stamped the dust with herself. It carries in the eyes of the loving Antigone her own signature.…Antigone's recognition, then, that the storm's dust is not her dust perfectly agrees with the law's prescription that man must bury man.1

This is ingeniously argued. But ought we not to look further? In relating the chthonic to the celestial, in undoing Antigone's pious handiwork while, at the same time and in precisely the same motion, giving to Polyneices a ‘burial’ greater, more numinous than any available to human hands, the ‘dust-pillar’ (an almost Semitic expression which German Wettersäule aptly reproduces) dramatizes the problematic contiguities between the acts of Antigone and those of the gods. As Hölderlin saw, the question of priorities, both absolute and temporal, as between mortal impulse and divine interposition, is central to the tragedy. It may be that human law ordains burial by human hands. But how does this law accord with the larger, (p.226) often hidden fabric of transcendent and Olympian design? In the uncanny ‘twister’—the American designation of a brief tornado is palpably right—the two ‘dusts’ are as inextricably, as menacingly mingled as are the δαίµων of Oedipus’ child and the probable proximity of the gods. The uncertainties in the Guard's narrative are those of the play itself.

Birds play a manifold part in Antigone. In the first antistrophe of the opening stasimon, man's ability to ensnare ‘free’, ‘blithe’ birds is cited as a mark of his strange mastery over the natural order. Certain scholars assign to the epithets which Sophocles attaches to birds in this great passage a distinctly feminine tonality. If so, the association with Antigone is latent. The birds of prey, in contrast, the eaters of carrion which are to settle on Polyneices’ remains, are evoked in lines 29–30 with a savagery which will increase as the play unfolds. At the close of Antigone, in Teiresias’ climactic narration and prophecy, birds play a dominant role. Too late, Creon will ‘fly away’ to attempt to undo the sequence of his murderous feats.

As the dust clears, the sentinels see a young woman hovering over the body. Her piercing cries are those of a bird returning to its nest and finding its fledglings gone. Commentaries refer to a close parallel, and likely source, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, lines 48–51. We have seen that the custody of the unburied dead by ‘the robin red-breast and the wren’ lies deep in European folklore. Sophocles’ simile, tightly wrought but, presumably, traditional, links the ‘emptied nest’ to an ‘orphaned bed’. In human terms, λέχοс is a bed. This is no conventional contrast or formal duplication. It is an overwhelming inference of barrenness, of solitude. The desecration of Polyneices determines Antigone's own imminent doom. For her too the nuptial and maternal ‘nest/bed’ shall be empty and generation laid waste. The language at this point enforces recognitions, transpositions of literal and symbolic markers as central as, yet more poignantly evident than, any put forward by psychoanalysis (though the Sophoclean and the Freudian coincide, as Freud himself insisted). The pathos of Antigone's bird-cry needs no emphasis. But the Guard's account points to areas of experience outside those which are strictly human. And this is the point. Bird-headed anthropomorphic figures, ‘women as birds’, be they nightingale or harpy, have their functions—consoling, devouring, or ambivalent—throughout (p.227) Greek myth and ritual. At its origins, even the Sphinx may very likely have been a bird-woman.1 Antigone's shrill lament voices instincts and values, older, less rational than man and man's discourse. Can the πóλιс, built as it is on essential delimitations between the human and the animal spheres, fundamentally committed as it is to articulate speech, contain, give adequate echo to, such cries?

Both storm and bird-cry stand outside civic reason. But it is precisely the bounds of civic reason, of immanent logic, which delineate Creon's map of the permissible, intelligible world. It is the transgression of just these bounds towards transcendent irrationality on the one side and pristine animality or ‘organi-city’ on the other (observe how animals and the world of the dead are brought into contact, aggressive, totemic, custodial, at so many points in the play) which Creon labours to arrest. The economy of the drama is such that the wind-storm and the cry of the mother bird over her vacant nest precisely intimate those opaque existential areas towards which the chorus in turn advances and from which it recoils. Receptive, by dint of age and of piety, to the phenomenal manifestations of the divine, yet timorously aware that such manifestations, too readily solicited, are as dangerous to the fragile contours of the city as are the inroads of atavistic or anarchic autonomy—the blood-bonds of the clan of Laius—the chorus strains towards middle ground. Only in the fifth stasimon, when it is literally ‘beside itself’, will the chorus overstep the limes of rationality and of civic Thebes. Its ecstatic summons to Dionysus, the almost distraught annunciations of his coming, and the tumultuous geography of the god's onrush will confound the civic order with the cosmic and shatter reason into song. But what of the sentry? There are naturalistic, indeed comic, touches in his style. His fear of Creon, his brute relief at being able to produce the wanted culprit, his spurts of barrack-room revolt against a taxing, inequitable order of things, belong to a realistic plane of speech. But these dramatic tints do not colour his narrative either of the eerie storm or of the discovery of Antigone. Here a crass perception is made transparent.

The convention of narration, of the extended ‘message’, in Greek tragedy, in Latin, and in neo-classical drama, corresponds to an aesthetic of abstinence. The removal of (p.228) spectacle and of violent physicality gives to ‘the world behind the stage’ a paradoxically intense nearness and pressure. This urgent contiguity overflows into words. Such words and the events which they articulate on the visible scene derive a fierce strength and actuality from the very impact of that which they exclude. The means of discourse and of gesture (so far as we can reconstruct them, and with such evident exceptions as the Prometheus or Sophocles’ own Ajax), are the audible, visible spear-point of a wealth of excluded motion and excluded physical tumult. Only a rhetoric and theatrical form of quite exceptional coherence can abstain from so much or, more exactly, can energize, can buttress, the severities of its own means with that which it narrates but does not mime. Such abstention is, in Greek grammatical and logical terms, the ‘privative’ and deletionary aspect of the use of a messenger and nuntius.

But there is also a positive semantic yield. In such passages as lines 417–25, speech is the actor. The immediacy of action is integral to lexicon and syntax. The coincidence, in the strong sense of the word, of language and reality excludes not only the exits and alarms of physical mimesis—the wind-machine to blow up dust, the actor trying to look or sound bird-like—but the naturalistic particularities of personal idiom. Where the message attains its highest degree and urgency of delivery, the nuntius is, himself, a transparency. Far from being un-dramatic, as they are often held to be by a ‘Shakespearean’ or romantic-realistic dramaturgy, the great tragic narrations and récits are the quintessence of drama. For in so far as he ‘acts’ but does not ‘do’, in so far as his performance is never performative (Laertes’ foil is everlastingly blunt, Gloucester recovers his eyesight when the curtain falls), the actor is the unavoidable, the necessary betrayer of drama. The ideal of drama is that of speech in total action; it is that of a world totally spoken. Where such totality is closely approached, as in the central portion of the Guard's report in Antigone, the equivocations of natural and supernatural, of human and divine, of civic and bestial, can be allowed free play—as they cannot in the deterministic naiveties of stage-business. We need only listen to hear those other orders of possible meaning and experience which are brought to bear upon language, which are connoted by language when speech is freed from its servitudes to (p.229) (pretended) action. It is for us to hear whether the god is in the dust-pillar, whether Antigone's fury of bereft womanhood carries her outside, makes her in some way more primitive than, civilized humanity. Creon perceives only meteorology in the storm. He hears only archaic infantilism in Antigone's cry. The chorus is obscurely torn. The narrative of the Guard tests us, as v/ell as Creon and the elders, with its charged innocence of immediacy.

Such innocence is, in a closely comparable configuration, undermined by Euripides and no longer really available to Racine when he turns to Euripides. In the closing moments of Iphigénie, Ulysse, the embodiment of Cartesian bon sens, delivers his famous récti of Iphigénie's miraculous salvation at the altar. Meteorology is emphatic:

  • Les dieux font sur l'autel entendre le tonnerre;
  • Les vents agitent fair d'heureux frémissements,
  • Et la mer leur répond par ses mugissements;
  • La rive au loin gémit, blanchissante d’écume.…

The implications—those felicitious’ winds, the reply of the bovine sea, the plangent echo of the far shore—are so stylized as to lose, to erode into abstraction, their original, animistic content. Correspondingly, the first touch of miracle is so light as to pass almost imperceptibly:

  • La flamme du bûcher d'elle-même s'allume.…

Such spontaneous combustion lies discreetly in reach of secular explanation (lightning, friction). Indeed, by a swift manœuvre of pragmatic suggestion, Racine points precisely in some such direction:

  • Le ciel brille d’éclairs, s'entreouvre, et parmi nous
  • Jette une sainte horreur qui nous rassure tous.

The couplet is, in its reticent musicality and equipoise, a masterpiece of accommodation. Le ciel, in its very neutrality, allows, invites the aura of a dispensation of grace beyond the pagan. This aura is obliquely, yet vividly, reinforced by sainte horreur, a phrase almost specific to baroque and later-seventeenth-century Christian rhetoric. But now comes the crux, Diane's epiphany and descent on the altar: (p.230)

  • Le soldat étonné dit que dans une nue
  • Jusque sur le bûcher Diane est descendue,
  • Et croit que, s’élevant au travers de ses feux,
  • Elle portait au del notre encens et nos vœux.

The tribute paid to Cartesian–Galilean analytic empiricism is, at once, formally astute and conceptually massive. Ulysse shifts to a second, distancing plane of narrative. An ‘astonished soldier’, his testimony implicitly subverted by his humble rank and anonymity, his powers of observation presumably-obscured by ‘amazement’, says (dit) that the goddess has lit upon the sacrificial pyre. Ulysse himself merely transmits this report. But even this second-hand, coolly impersonal communication is further undermined. The soldier ‘believes’ (croit) that Diane ascended to the heavens. Discreetly, but unmistakably, Racine insures his text against the rebukes of reason. A twofold interposition, the report of a report and the inference of the common man's dazed credulity, keeps the irrational at a distance. Racine's perfection here has a cautionary bias. His discourse is no longer open to the uncertain epiphanies of the dust-storm around Polyneices. Yet the continuities from Antigone to Iphigénie are real.

Shakespeare's dramatic speech has a degree of self-awareness, an autonomy of self-deployment, supremely representative of that which divides modern sensibility from the antique. It spirals inward, energizing levels of suggestion which are, in their turn, linguistic, but whose dynamics often lie beneath consciousness and intentionality. At the same time, the language of Shakespeare's plays has an inherent commitment to stage-action, to the plenitude of histrionic device. It is ‘theatrical’ in the highest sense. It initiates, parallels, counterpoints the mimetic facts of the given scene. Only rarely, as in Enobarbus’ very brief account of the recessional music which signifies the departure of divine good fortune from doomed Anthony, do we experience in Shakespeare the willed invocation of the ‘unsayable’. Vast as it is, the Shakespearean range, just because it presses an incomparable articulacy to the very edges, into every rift and cranny, of human existence, rarely includes a theological-metaphysical transcendence as such. It speaks the sum of our worldly world, and bestows a marvellous substance on certain visitations, spectral, diabolical, elfin, to that world. In Shakespeare, as in the early (p.231) Wittgenstein, the limits of language coincide with those of that which is. Hence the naive but persistent questions about Shakespeare's religious-metaphysical beliefs—if any.

Yet where it is convincing, the felt pressure on mortal saying by that which lies ‘outside’ may well represent the ultimate in thought and in poetry (‘of that of which one cannot speak one cannot be silent’). Heidegger, who observes this pressure on the texts of Sophocles, of Hölderlin, and, at moments, of Rilke, marks therein the vestigial presentness, the after-glow of Being itself, of the ontological nucleus which precedes language and from which language, in passages of supreme risk and extremity, derives its numinous validity, its powers to mean so much more than can be said. The Fourth Gospel can fairly be seen to argue throughout the paradoxical concreteness of the transcendent when the latter ‘is made flesh’. St John's prologue and certain episodes in his narration are embodiments of the natural supernaturalism of the Word's presence in the word. The Greek of the Fourth Gospel is made translucid to mystery. A comparable translucency, a liberal apprehension of the truths of unknowing, can be found in Sophocles. Matthew Arnold, who seems to have had in mind lines 582 ff., gives voice to this recognition when he evokes Sophocles in seeking to define the bleakness of immanence in ‘Dover Beach’: ‘Sophocles long ago | Heard it.’ Such ‘hearing’ transfigures the Guard's notice and report of Antigone. From it stems the light past understanding which tides towards us in the recti of the wonder at Colonus.


It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god (s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self-definition and the agonistic (p.232) recognition of ‘otherness’ (of lautre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and mortality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself—the primordial journey—is to come up, polemically, against ‘the other’. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent.

But ‘collision’ is, of course, a monistic and, therefore, inadequate term. Equally decisive are those categories of reciprocal perception, of grappling with ‘otherness’, that can be defined as erotic, filial, social, ritual, and metaphysical. Men and women, old and young, individual and communitas, living and deceased, mortals and gods, meet and mesh in contiguities of love, of kinship, of commonalty and group-communion, of caring remembrance, of worship. Sex, the honeycomb of generations and of kinship, the social unit, the presentness of the departed in the weave of the living, the practices of religion, are the modes of enactment of ultimate ontological dualities. In essence, the constants of conflict and of positive intimacy are the same. When man and woman meet, they stand against each other as they stand close. Old and young seek in each other the pain of remembrance and the matching solace of futurity. Anarchic individuation seeks interaction with the compulsions of law, of collective cohesion in the body politic. The dead inhabit the living and, in turn, await their visit. The duel between men and god(s) is the most aggressively amorous known to experience. In the physics of man's being, fission is also fusion.

It is in lines 441–581 of Sophocles’ Antigone that each of the five fundamental categories of man's definition and self-definition through conflict is realized, and that all five are at work in a single act of confrontation. No other moment that I know of, in either sacred or secular imagining, achieves this totality. Creon and Antigone clash as man and as woman. Creon is a mature, indeed an ageing, man; Antigone's is the virginity of youth. Their fatal debate turns on the nature of the (p.233) coexistence between private vision and public need, between ego and community. The imperatives of immanence, of the living in the πóλιс, press on Creon; in Antigone, these imperatives encounter the no less exigent night-throng of the dead. No syllable spoken, no gesture made, in the dialogue of Antigone and Creon but has within it the manifold, perhaps duplicitous, nearness of the gods.

In other great literature and in philosophic argument one or several of these binary ‘elementals’ are set out. Man and woman face each other in immensities of inadmissible and, therefore, destructive need in Racine's Bérénice, in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, in Claudel's Partage de midi (the three supremely monistic dramas after Sophocles). There is no deeper realization of the irreconcilable intimacies of love and of hatred between the old and the young than King Lear. Schiller's Don Carlos, Ibsen's Enemy of the People, Shaw's Saint Joan, are pre-eminent studies of the wars between conscience and community, between the inner light of the individual and the demands of pragmatic order. Could there by any more acute understanding than Dante's or Proust's—so akin in this respect—of the manifold ways in which the worlds of the dead reach into those of the living? Jacob wrestles with the Angel; in the novels of Dostoevsky, such characters as Stavrogin, Kirillov, Ivan Karamazov, are ‘God-duellists’, tight-knit, in loving detestation, to their adversary. But alone, it seems to me, in the Creon–Antigone confrontation, as it is enunciated and enacted in Sophocles’ play, is each of these ultimate pairings made equally manifest.

And they are made manifest with a perfect economy and natural logic. The dialectic of genders, of generations, of private conscience and public good, of life and of death, of mortal and divine, unfolds unforcedly from within the dramatic situation. Thus the structure of conflict is at once universal and local. It is inherent in the context yet wholly transcends it. The radical components of man's arguable humanity, arguable just because it must always be tested and delineated anew by means of its confrontation with l'autre, are concentrated into a single, specific collision. This concentration releases immense energies (modern particle physics speaks of ‘implosions’). The mature civic masculinity of Creon, his commitment to a rational mundanity and theocracy—the two (p.234) go readily together—define one half of the possible world; the other half is that determined by Antigone's femininity and youth, by her ‘organicism’ and privacy, by her intuitions of the transcendent and neighbourhood to death. Had we but this play left in literature, had we, perhaps, only this central scene, the primary lineaments of our identity and history, certainly in the West, would be visible. And because each in this set of five elemental antinomies is, as I have said, non-negotiable (as is one's breath, as is the irreducible core of one's identity), the encounter of Antigone and of Creon remains not only inexhaustible in itself, this is to say in its Sophoclean formulation, but productive of variants to this day.

Let us consider, summarily at least, each of these absolutes in conflict.

That which has in it the seed of all drama is the meeting of a man and of a woman. No experience of which we have direct knowledge is more charged with the potential of collision. Being inalienably one, by virtue of the humanity which distances them from all other life-forms, man and woman are at the same time inalienably different. The spectrum of difference is, as we know, one of most subtle continuum. There are in every human being elements of masculinity and of femininity (each encounter, each conflict is, therefore, also a civil war within the hybrid self). But at some point along the continuum, most men and women crystallize their essential manhood or womanhood. This gathering of the partly divided self to itself, this composition of identity, determines the gap across which the energies of love and of hatred meet.

To locate the sources of western drama, of all theatrical arts anywhere, in ritual, in mimetic ceremonies of a liturgical–civic character, is to focus on a late and formal phase. The original source of the dramatic lies in the paradox of conflict, of agonistic misunderstanding, in language itself. The roots of dialogue, without which there can be no drama, are to be found in the discovery that living beings using the ‘same language’ can mean entirely different, indeed irreconcilable, things. This paradox of divisive facsimile is present in all speech and speech-acts. It occurs persistently as between men as well as between women. But it is in the exchanges of language between men and women that the antinomies within (p.235) external concordance, the reciprocal incomprehensions within outward clarity, take on a formidable thrust. Even as practices of translation between mutually incomprehensible tongues dramatize the problems of communication inside a single language, so discourse between men and women dramatizes the central psychosomatic duality of all spoken exchanges. It makes palpable the dynamics of non-communication and mutual misprision inherent in the very act of articulation. Men and women use words very differently. Where their uses meet, dialogue becomes dialectic and utterance is drama. The androgyne, the hermaphrodite as Plato conceives of him in his fable of human origins, need speak only to him-/herself, in the perfect peace and transparency of tautology.

The most concentrated dramatic donnée in our experience is the meeting of a man and of a woman. It can take place in the most banal setting. The commonest daylight will do. There is no need of costume: when they incur the perils of dialogue, men and women stand naked before each other. Forests in motion, tempests, spectral apparitions, the bustle of crowds and battles are, in respect of tension, of compressed energy (Cleopatra's ‘mortal coil’), slight when compared to a man and a woman standing, very still, in a room. Even a chair is unnecessary. Or, rather, the question of whether a chair would not vulgarize, would not diminish to contingency, the absolute purity of collision, the blank space of the irreconcilable between a man and a woman, can itself become the nucleus of supreme drama (as it does in Bérénice). The high masters and purists of tragedy have always known this. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Tite and Bérénice, Tristan and Isolde, Claude's Ysé and Mésa, act out the finalities of human confrontation (the mortal ‘affront’ of our intimacy with otherness). The meetings between these men and women, the immediacies and incommunicados of the words which they speak, whisper, hurl at each other, take us to the heart of our divided and polemic condition. These encounters, because they represent the oneness of love and of hatred, of the need for union between man and woman and of the compulsions towards mutual destruction inwoven in that need, are drama in essence. They embody the Manichaean perception of human existence from which dialogue and drama spring.

Shakespeare's pluralistic vitalism, his profound bias towards (p.236) the tragicomic, incline to enfold the confrontations of men and of women in the rich, hybrid fabric of surrounding life. The urgent politics of Cyprus, the energies of plume and of trumpet, crowd in even on the withering apartness of Othello and Desdemona. Hamlet and Ophelia are persistently overheard by others. Shakespeare knows, he would have us know and remember, that mariners are counting their wages or vomiting below deck in the very instant in which Tristan and Isolde believe that they have annulled the world (an annulment which Wagner's text and music, in fact, bring about). This Shakespearean perspective may well be true to organic life itself. It will constitute the foundations of the novel. It is not, in the final analysis, that of absolute tragedy or of a tragic sense of the conflictual nature of human speech. In Shakespeare himself, though this is mere speculation, the part of man and of woman may have been so rarely poised, so harmoniously interactive, as to make it possible for him to unify language, to experience language as oneness. No such unification is conceivable between the speech-worlds of Creon and of Antigone.

We know pitifully little of the place of women in either archaic or classical Greek sensibility.1 The dismissive statements as to women's spirituality or aptness for public life which are perennially cited out of Aristotle and Thucydides are suspect precisely because of their vehement generality. What is certain is that we have no realistic insight into the inward history and tenor of sexual codes and reciprocities of perception between men and women in ancient Hellas. The ambiguous centrality of the erotic, as we know it, as it is manifest in western art, literature, music, and moral argument after the early Middle Ages, is, as has often been observed, a Christian phenomenon. The only primary, seminal myth that western man has added to the basic inventory of attitudes and recognitions set out in Greek mythology is, precisely, that of Don Juan (Faust is latent in Prometheus). Add to this what we know of Attic theatrical practice—the performance by men of all women's roles—and the question naturally arises as to (p.237) whether one can extend to Sophocles the tragic focus of sexual encounter as I have postulated it.

The answer does, I think, lie to hand. In Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, in the three ‘Electras’ that have come down to us, in Sophocles’ Ismene, Antigone, Deianeira, in Euripides’ Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Phaedra, Medea, Alcestis, or Agave—to name only the most obvious examples—Greek tragic drama presents in speech and in action a constellation of women matchless for their truth and variousness. No literature knows of more audacious or compassionate insights into the condition of womanhood. How this achievement relates to domestic and to civic usage, just what conventions or privileges attach to the stage-presentation of femininity in fifth-century Athens, we do not know. But the plenitude of perception is evident. There may be an analogy in the fact that neither the actual status of women in Elizabethan–Jacobean power-relations nor the masculine performance of feminine parts inhibited the range and genius of Shakespeare's treatment of women. But perhaps we can go further.

It may well have been the case that Greek tragedy, at least so far as we know it, was the particular medium in which female agents (though impersonated by masked men) could deploy their unrestricted ἐνθουсιαсµóс and humanity. It may well have been that those elemental rights of femininity, even of feminine primacy in certain capabilities and situations, which were denied to women in everyday life, in law, in Platonic politics and the Aristotelian classification of organic beings, were one of the impulses behind, and extraterritorial licences of, Greek tragic drama. If this supposition is right, it would tie in closely with the ultimate origins of drama in the dialectic of man and of woman as I have inferred it. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides retain their archaic force, their intimacy with the primordial, because in them the encounters between men and women reach back to the roots of dramatic form.

But whether or not this is so, there can be no doubt as to the fullness and authority of the realization of masculinity and femininity in the pivotal collision in Antigone.

In this scene, the five determinants of human definition which I have cited are implicit and explicit. But they are also deployed throughout the play. Lines 248, 319, and 375 direct (p.238) us to the unexamined assumption of Creon, of the Guard, and of the chorus that only a man's hand can have scattered forbidden dust on the corpse of Polyneices. Hence the specific touch of scandal, of psychological shock, when Antigone is led in, captive. Editors are uncomfortable about Creon's grammar and meaning in lines 484–5. The difficulty may arise precisely from the contracted vehemence of Creon's assertion of outraged masculinity. If Antigone prevails—‘if, to follow Dawe's suggested reading, ‘these actions shall lie unpunished’—a twofold inversion of the natural order will ensue. Creon will no longer be a man and, in perfect expression of the logic of reciprocal definition, Antigone will have become one. The word ‘man’ is said twice, giving to line 484 a threatening symmetry. The masculinity of Antigone's deed, the masculinity of the risks which she has incurred, a masculinity postulated a priori and, in consequence, perceived as self-evident by the ruler of the city no less than by his sentinels and councillors, fundamentally impugns the manhood of Creon.

In his indictment, Creon emphasizes Antigone's unbridled, juvenile femininity. Antigone is a recalcitrant filly whom the rider must master (the implicit metaphor of erotic and domestic power-relations is very nearly a commonplace in Greek lyric verse). Creon's verbal duel with Antigone ends on the word ‘woman’ (line 525). ‘So long as I am alive, no woman shall rule over me.’ This imperative and the stichomythia as a whole lay bare terrors and animadversions particular to Creon. Dramatically, it is he who is afraid of being thought or made ‘womanly’. But the hierarchy of values which he expresses is given a universal claim. The centre of argument comes in the great, difficult passage in lines 677–80. The gravity of Creon's dictum is underwritten by the echoes from comparable pronouncements in both the Oresteia and the Seven Against Thebes. Creon instructs the assenting chorus that ‘we’, by which plural he manifestly designates all the men of the city, all males in any given social organism, must ‘defend the cause of order, must support all measures taken to support order’. To do so is to make absolutely certain that man shall not, not at any cost, ‘yield to a woman’ or ‘be bested by a woman’, τοîс κοсµουµέοιс very probably signifies ‘the regulations’, the ‘edicts’ whereby order is defined and enforced. Possibly, the phrase can be read to designate the rulers, the (p.239) bringers of order themselves. What matters is the all-embracing reach and weight of ‘the cosmic’ as it is contained in the actual word κοсµουµέοιс. Those who speak, those who exercise, those who obey and thus preserve the principles of the social order, are in harmony with the fundamental hierarchies of the natural world. In so far as femininity incarnates the amorphous, the nocturnally anarchic, a woman's assertion of dominance utterly transcends any private, local quarrel. It challenges the rational cosmology of which a well-governed πóλιс is emblematic. It follows that it is infinitely preferable, as being more ‘natural’, as being more consonant with the disasters to which the cosmic and human order of things is prone, to ‘fall, to come to ruin by a man's hand’ (Creon's tag is Homeric), rather than to be worsted by a woman or to be seen to fall under her sway. Pentheus will say precisely this in the Bacchae.

Creon's rhetoric at this point is undoubtedly sententious; his hyperboles of fear and menace fall leaden. But the articulate seriousness of his position is evident. It strikes chords no less deep, no less demanding of reflection, than those which will, analogously, vibrate in Ulysses’ plea for order and degree in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

The furious debate with Haemon further intensifies, but also vulgarizes, Creon's doctrine of male prepotence. The right sequence of lines in the stichomythia has been the object of perennial conjecture and transposition.1 But the strident insistence by Creon on masculine as against feminine obligations and attitudes is perfectly obvious. By exact instinct or design, Sophocles assimilates Creon's vocabulary to that of warfare, which is the male art par excellence. It is abject, says Creon to his son, ‘to make of a woman one's ally’ in the struggles of public, political action. It is inexcusable ‘to place oneself at her command’ (somewhere, in obscure reach of this admonition and of parallel passages in Greek political theory and historical writing, may be the bizarre dream or nightmare of the Amazon myth). Haemon's espousal of Antigone's cause makes of him ‘a slave-thing’—in line 744 or 756, depending on editorial placement, δούλευµα is a neuter noun. γυναικὸс ὕсτερον (line 746) communicates a double outrage: Haemon has yielded precedence to a woman; now he stands morally, substantively, (p.240) lower than a woman. It is precisely against any such reversal that Creon had invoked the hierarchies of values in the cosmos. Through such submission, the dignity of man is wasted. ‘You shall not use wheedling speech with me,’ declares Creon, you shall not ‘cajole me by whining’. The verb is richly suggestive. It is used, in Anacreon, of a ‘twittering’ swallow. It has delicate but insistent overtones of excited, deceitful femininity. It may, indeed, evoke the Guard's earlier comparison of Antigone to a bereft bird. Haemon's mere speech is, according to Creon, no longer that of a man. It betrays that reversion to the spheres of animality of which woman is, enigmatically, an extension, and which, if allowed free play, let alone dominion, will undermine the city of man. The unsettling ambiguity in this division of the masculine and the feminine order is made brutal in Creon's taunt (if it is that) in line 569: should Antigone perish, Haemon will find ‘other furrows to plough’. Knife-blade and feminine–maternal earth; male will and supine, receptive eros. Creon knows that human life requires both. But to him and, one has every reason to believe, to the very great majority of Sophocles’ audience, the logic of coexistence is one of clear masculine primacy.

Antigone's stance is immeasurably subtler. It evolves, moreover, during the course of the drama. Antigone's entry into the configuration of male values and duties is twofold. She performs burial rites for her brother Polyneices. Such performance is, as we have seen, traditional to woman. Hegel makes of the burial and commemoration of the dead, to whom he always refers, by subconscious definition as it were, as ‘men’ (fallen in battle?), a defining attribute of womanhood. The reflexes of definition and expectation at work here seem to be deep-seated: what would be our response if Antigone were to undertake her mortal provocation on behalf of an unburied sister? Antigone, however, acts not only for, this is to say in the interest of, a man (Polyneices), but inasmuch as her action is political, is publicly agonistic, she acts as a man. She will emphasize that no other option was open to her. Oedipus and his sons are dead. Of the withered house, only she and Ismene are left. If the ‘Kierkegaardian’ touch in the much-disputed line 941 is to be trusted—and Sophocles’ Electra does come very close to making the same move—Antigone in fact becomes the sole survivor of the clan of Laius. Failing to join (p.241) their sisters in the perilous enterprise of justice and kinship, Ismene in the one case, Chrysothemis in the other, have ‘annulled themselves’. They no longer exist meaningfully.

Acting for and, in the perspective of the prevailing conventions of society and of politics, as a man, Antigone exhibits certain masculine traits. Ismene's repeated use of the verb ϕύω, with its immediate reference to ‘the natural order’, is explicitly contrastive. She is ‘by nature’ and ‘in her very ϕύсιс’ a wholly feminine being. Ismene's terrors, her stress on bodily weakness in the face of the task which Antigone would set her, the impulses of unconsidered sympathy, compassion, and grief to which Ismene yields as disaster looms, all these are characterized in the play as ‘womanly’. At the moment of her sovereign acquiescence in death, in line 464, Antigone refers to herself in the masculine gender. Editors point out that this usage is not infrequent where general or abstract propositions are stated. But taken in conjunction with parallel passages in tragic drama, in Euripides’ Medea for example, Antigone's syntax has a definite edge.

Yet as the play unfolds, and in a counter-motion of controlled pathos, Antigone's femininity is deepened and affirmed. In this development, Sophocles’ dramatic tact and poetry are matchless. Made victim, Antigone grows into essential womanhood. The delicate gravity of the paradox is this: Antigone dies virgin and, therefore, unfulfilled in respect of her sexual identity, of the implicit teleology of her being. Over and over, in her torment and lamentations, Antigone lays stress on this cruel unripeness, on that which shall prevent her from being bride and mother, the crowning conditions of a woman's existence. Lines 915 ff. come near to being unendurable in the precision of their mourning: it is not only the extinction of her young life which Antigone laments, it is the extinction inside herself of those other lives to come which only a woman can engender. If there is, in the symmetries of mortality, any counterpoise to a tomb, it is the bridal bed and the bed of childbearing (so often united in image and metaphor). There is, in the fourth stasimon, a strange, subsersive hint of consolation. The chorus cites crimes committed by mothers on their children or stepchildren. Motherhood may, by itself, be no guarantee of loving felicity.

But Antigone is already out of hearing. She has gone to what (p.242) the Messenger will, in his recital of catastrophe, evoke as a bridal chamber without blessing. Antigone's suicide has several facets of meaning. But feminine connotations may be present. Though practised also by men—witness Sophocles’ Ajax—antique sensibility very definitely attaches to suicide an aura of the feminine. In Antigone, such association is swiftly reinforced by the suicide of Creon's wife, Eurydice. Freely chosen death is a primordially feminine reply to the loquacious inhumanity or imperception of men. The symbolic values are, throughout the presentation of Antigone's incomplete yet profound womanhood, of the most demanding complexity. In the Christian order, virgin-birth is seen as the supreme manifestation of and salutation to woman. In the Antigone myth, and both Hegel and Kierkegaard seem to have sensed this, it is virgin-death which, by tragic paradox, leads to the chthonic centre of that which is woman.

Confrontations between genders are, in essence, non-negotiable. So they are, as well, between generations. No literature engages more penetratingly the complicities of love and of loathing, of intimacy and of estrangement between old and young, parent and child, than does classical Greek literature (the distant heirs to this depth of concern are Turgenev and Dostoevsky). Anthropology has a good deal to say of this intensity and constancy of awareness, of this self-consciousness in regard to kinship, which marks Greek sentiment in both the archaic and classical phases of social organization. But the ubiquity, the special power of the theme of fathers and sons, of sons and fathers, also has its express poetic source.

The more one experiences ancient Greek literature and civilization, the more insistent the suggestion that Hellas is rooted in the twenty-fourth Book of the Iliad. There are not many primary aspects of Greek moral, political, rhetorical practice which are not incipient in and, indeed, given unsurpassed imaginative formulation by, the night encounter of Priam and Achilles and the restoration to Priam of Hector's body. Much of what Greek sensibility knew and felt about life and death, about the acceptance of tragic fate and the claims of mercy, about the equivocations of intent and of mutual recognition which inhabit all speech between mortals, is set out (p.243) in this climactic, most perfect part of the epic. Already active in Iliad XXIV are those uncertainties, those feral lapses or spontaneous courtesies of heart in reference to the rights of the dead which are central to Antigone.

But, above all, it is the Homeric treatment of Priam's old age and of Achilles’ youth, of the inexhaustible interplay of enmity and love between two fathers, Priam and Peleus, and two sons, Hector and Achilles, which seems to generate the urgency and wealth of similar confrontations throughout Greek poetry and drama. The meeting in Achilles’ tent seems to inform the particular Greek perception of the dual, inescapably antinomian character of old age. It is seen as both a benediction and a curse. To be old is to possess an inherent right to honour, to the reverence of those who are younger (a trait which relates a number of Mediterranean conventions, the Hebraic and the Hellenic among them). But it is, at the very same time, to be infirm, to be lamed in civic strength and sexuality, to be at constant risk of ruin and derision—as Sophocles himself was reported to have been in high old age. Hector's death, moreover, and Achilles’ imminent doom, the two being, of course, intimately meshed, may have given to the classical Greek image of youth its death-shadow. Often in Greek thought and art death dwells closer to the young than to the old, in whom it has, as it were, lost interest. There have been many other societies and mythologies of doomed young warriors and youthful civic sacrifice. But none as incisively responsive as that of ancient Greece to the symmetries of waste and of glory in the death of the young. The nocturne which gives to the close of the Iliad its enigmatic yet coherent finality marks the whole Greek sense of the wonder and waste of generations.

The supposition voiced in Oedipus at Colonus that ‘it is best never to have been born at all, next best to die young, and that old age is the worst that can befall man’, is much older than its famous Sophoclean formulation. It dates back to the sixth century, at least, and the elegiac poet Theognis. It embodies, furthermore, only one element, perhaps a very late element, in the motif of the relations between old and young. There are, before Shakespeare and Turgenev, no more acute studies of the collision between generations than those we find in Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus. What we can gather from the (p.244) fragments of the lost plays suggests that this same theme is prominent elsewhere in Sophocles and that it belongs, distinctly, to the strongly Homeric tenor of his style. In Antigone, the clash between youth and age derives a special density from the fact that four parties are involved: Creon and the chorus of elders on the one hand, Antigone and Haemon on the other.

Again, we lack any certain knowledge of the constraints of expectation, of assumed normality, prevalent in Sophocles’ audience. How heavily does Antigone's youth, a quality so intimately inwoven with her virginal femininity, weigh in the overall scandal of her political and public insurgence? Did fifth-century Athenian sentiment register a specific offence in the mere fact that the deeds and words of Antigone are those of a young woman, almost of a child? Lines 471–2 may take us near the heart of this guarded play. Having listened to Antigone's great profession of defiance and of readiness for death, the chorus responds with a couplet which—deliberately, one suspects—arrests any ready understanding, let alone translation. Antigone has shown herself to be ‘the savage, the uncouth offspring of a savage father and sire’. The chorus uses two different words where one would, ordinarily, serve: γέννηµα signifying ‘offspring’, the ‘one begotten’, and παι̑с, the customary word for ‘child’. The suggestion that this duplication adds pathos or that it, in some manner, corresponds to the divided reflexes of the chorus at other moments in the drama is almost certainly inadequate. Oedipus is formidably present in the semantic and emotive context of the Creon–Antigone duel. The inverted word order in these two lines as well as the implicit discrimination between ‘offspring’ and ‘child’ do seem to point towards the monstrous singularity of incestuous begetting. Antigone is the daughter-sister of Oedipus, sprung of an act of generation outside the norms of kinship. But she is also, as she has been before returning to Thebes from Argos (in the myth), and as she will be in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the most ‘daughterly of daughters’, the most absolute of children, to an old father. Hence the tense conjunction of the two terms. ‘The offspring is savage from the savage father of the girl’ is the reading which one commentator proposes for Sophocles’ gnarled phrasing.1 ‘Savage’ here is ὠµóν. The chorus designates both Oedipus and (p.245) Antigone as ὠµοί. The word will recur only once in the play, in the compound ὠµηсτῶν (line 697). There it refers unambiguously to flesh-eating dogs, to those very dogs from whom Polyneices’ remains must be preserved. Why this appalling cross-reference? Is her obsession with Polyneices’ corpse not wholly innocent of a primal, nocturnal instinct distantly analogous to that of the beasts of prey and of carrion? Such is the obscure strength of these choral lines, so palpable are the ways in which vocabulary and grammar call attention to themselves, that it is difficult to believe, be it at a naїve level, that Sophocles’ profoundest moral intuitions were not uneasily implicated.

Creon's persuasions are woodenly patriarchal. In the mounting fury of his exchanges with Haemon, Creon invokes not merely his own manifest seniority, but also that of the chorus. Demanding to know whether men of his age are to be schooled by those of Haemon's, Creon includes the elders of Thebes in his rhetorical outrage. οἱ τηλικοίδε, ‘those of our age’, comprises both actual years and concomitant civic standing. The full meaning might best be rendered by ‘worthies’. Haemon argues the circumspect but not, therefore, negligible rights of youth. The chorus takes a characteristically mixed view of his impassioned exit. It warns, sententiously, of the fierceness which anger unleashes in the young. Some commentators find here an allusion to a possible political rebellion, led by Haemon; others see a premonitory hint at the possibility of the young man's suicide. Often in Greek epic and drama, the rage of the young is self-destructive, the fury of the old self-preserving.

Only one child actually figures in the play, and its role, that of leading aged, blind Teiresias, is purely functional (the pairing exactly mirrors that in Oedipus Rex). But the explicit fatality of the relations between young and old dominates the close of Antigone. After the double suicide of Antigone and Haemon comes the reference to the earlier death of Megareus. Scholars advert to textual uncertainties in lines 1301–5. And the plain question as to how many in Sophocles’ audience could, in full flight as it were, catch the passing allusion to Megareus/Menoeceus remains tantalizingly open. Was the dramatist relying on the expertness in mythology of a small portion of his public? If we knew the answer, we would (p.246) know far more of Greek classical tragedy than we in fact do. What needs to be noted, and has, so far as I am aware, been passed over in editions and commentaries, is the central importance of the Megareus reference to Sophocles’ entire design—an importance which far transcends the textual awkwardness of the passage.

In the moment of her suicide, Eurydice evokes the deaths of both her sons. One plausible reading has it that ‘the beds of both sons are now empty’. It is not clear whether or not the queen's lament attributes to Creon the guilt for Megareus’ sacrificial or self-sacrificial end during the battle for Thebes. The point is immaterial. What matters, what comes through with numbing import, is the epithet παιδοκτóνοс, ‘son-’ or ‘child-slayer’. Haemon's death is not the result of an appalling accident—of the fact that Creon reaches the rock-tomb a few instants too late—or of a single incidence of blind misjudgement. It is in the nature of the man Creon, in the nature of the power-relations and values which he proclaims and embodies, to bring on the violent deaths of his sons. We are faced, and this is the very key to Sophocles’ poised vision of the fated freedom of human action, with a prescriptive norm. Creon is the sort of man who will, who must, sacrifice the lives of his sons to what he deems to be, to what may in fact prove to be, certainly in the case of Megareus, the highest ideals of civic–political preservation. Megareus’ self-offering and Creon's acceptance of, or it may be, active participation in, that gesture meant salvation for the besieged city (consider Agamemnon's dilemma at Aulis). The condemnation of Antigone and the death of Haemon which it unwittingly entailed derive from an absolute sense of the rule of law and of those patriotic pieties which honour the guardian-hero and dishonour the traitorous assailant.

But motive, whether valid or illusory, fades before the particular, ‘infanticidal’, nature of the man. He is Κρέων παιδοκτóνοс. And because this is so, Sophocles will not allow us to localize the meaning and terror of his play in any special sequence of human error or divine malice. With Eurydice's reference to Megareus, the implications of universality overwhelm us. Creon is one of those men who grow old, who gather the instruments of political dominance into their ageing grip, by virtue of the capacity to send the young to their (p.247) several deaths. Creon's solitary outcry in line 1300, ‘o my child’, is at once raw and empty. It is in the nature, in the δαίµων of survival, of such older men as Creon to sacrifice to political and strategic abstractions the bodies of the young. This is the strict sense in which the edict of Creon against Polyneices’ corpse can be understood as central to his being and as extending well beyond immediate psychological or tactical reflexes. This edict is an exact symbolic and material prefiguration of the homicidal abstractions which Creon will visit upon Antigone and Haemon. There are not many pages in literature or in moral and political philosophy that tell us more of our history, of the ways in which elder statesmen and generals have dispatched the young to their graves.

It would be idle to suppose that one has anything new to contribute to the commentaries on the confrontations between conscience and state in Antigone. We have seen throughout this study that this confrontation, as it was ‘invented’ or formulated by Sophocles, has been a leitmotif in western philosophy, political theory, jurisprudence, ethics, and poetics. More than any other factor, it is the unbounded plenitude and depth of implication in the Antigone–Creon debate which have given to the play its immediate and enduring status. Lines 450 ff. are canonic in our western sense of individual and society. In so far as he is a ‘political animal’—the notion is, itself, Greek—it is in these lines that man comes of age. Every textual, historical, conceptual element in Antigone's reply to Creon has been the object of exhaustive inquiry and debate. We have seen what diverse magnitudes of moral and even of metaphysical construction have been put upon the elusive syntax and punctuation of Antigone's opening words. But every line in her discourse and exchanges with Creon solicits, and has often received, a comparable wealth of construction.

What I want to emphasize is simply this: this celebrated dialogue—is there a more intrinsically fascinating and consequential word-clash in any literature?—is, in fact, a dialogue des sourds. No meaningful communication takes place. Creon's questions and Antigone's answers are so inward to the two speakers, so absolute to their respective semantic codes and visions of reality, that there is no exchange. Where, in essence, does the chasm lie? Creon's idiom is that of temporality. Like (p.248) no other speaker previous, perhaps, to the Fourth Gospel, Antigone speaks or, rather, endeavours to speak, out of eternity. And this attempt raises the question: can intelligible discourse be extrinsic to time?

Translation cannot render nor commentary circumscribe the network of discriminations and contiguities which comprises the Greek terms Θέµιс, Δίκη, and νóµοс. The rough and ready equation with ‘right’, ‘justice’, and ‘law’ not only misses the shifting lives of meaning in each of these fundamental Greek words, but fails altogether to translate the interplay in both Θέµιс, and Δίκη of pragmatic or abstractly legalistic connotations on the one hand, and of archaic but active agencies of the supernatural on the other. The stucco or even marble allegories and statuary of our lawcourts give no corresponding sense of a transcendent and, at times, daemonic embodiment. Yet it is within the intensely energized terrain of values and application covered, bounded by these three terms, that the worlds of Creon and of Antigone collide.1

Linguistically, Θέµιс may be the most ancient and originally localized (northern Greece?). In Homer and in Hesiod, the ‘goddess in this word’ enunciates, is the high advocate for, the traditional, inherited right order of things. She seems to represent a primary comelineness in heaven and on earth. There are strong hints, throughout the poets and mythographers, that Θέµιс has intimate bonds with those exceedingly ancient, formidable, and inherently ambiguous incarnate concepts known as Eris (‘raging struggle’), Nemesis, and ‘Ανάγκη (‘necessity’). Θέµιс would appear to belong to levels of personification older than the Olympian pantheon. But it is Δίκη whom the epic poets, fabulists, and dramatists habitually designate as the ‘child of Time’. Again, translation falls short of the dynamic range of the word and of the images present in it. Δίκη is ‘animate Justice’, but also that which constitutes the aim and the principle of the judicial process as such. Symbolically and iconographically, the links of this configuration to the Antigone theme are direct. Δίκη appears quite often on funerary urns in the guise of a virginal young woman (p.249) of grave, indeed fierce, mien. For she is an intimate of Hades and one concerned, certainly in a number of representations and references, with the just treatment of the dead, νóµοс would seem to be the more secular term in the triad. Its relations to the divine or absolute order are not self-evidently intrinsic or figurative. They need to be argued. It may well be that ‘the law’ is the expression, on the mortal and mundane level, of the cosmology of order and due process which is in the keeping of Θέµιс. Δίκη could be conceived of as presiding over and being fulfilled, more or less perfectly, in the νóµοι prescribed and practised by just, law-abiding men. But any such ‘triangulation’ atrophies and vulgarizes what must have been, to judge by the texts of Greek thinkers and poets, the problematic subtlety of the three clusters of meaning and the wealth of interaction between them.

Θέµιс is, vividly, an Aeschylean word. When used in lines 880 and 1259 of Antigone, it has a somewhat pale and formalistic cast (something in the vein of our ‘if it is right’ to do or say this). The Creon-Antigone polemic turns explicitly on Δίκη and νóµοс. Much of the depth of provocation in lines 450 ff. lies, precisely, in the transformative pressures which Antigone brings to bear on Creon's use of νóµοс, and on the equivalence which she puts forward as between the subterranean authority of Δίκη and the sphere of law among mortals in the πóλιс. Antigone, as we know, attaches to her usage of νóµιµα the famous epithets ‘unwritten’ and ‘not subject to overthrow or revocation’. Such usage may well contain a strand of antique authority. In one fragment of Heraclitus, if the translation is at all indicative, the ‘law’ is held to be such only if it is in accord with the divine principle, only if it shares with the divine order the self-evidence of eternal rectitude. Elsewhere, connotations are unsteadier. In the Protagoras, 337 d, a passage almost always referred to by scholars when they comment on Antigone's ‘unwritten laws’, νóµοс is perceived very much as if it were, indeed, Creon's instrument, i.e. as a potential ‘despot over mankind’ and as an agency that can do violence to nature (ϕύсιс). But in the Laws, when using the phrase πάτριοι νóµοι, Plato gives to the notion of public law a wholly positive sense. There are laws which must, which do, animate and determine the true spirit of civic existence and mature conduct. In the context, it is made clear that such laws (p.250) can be promulgated by those in responsible power, and that their temporal and written character need in no way derogate from their worth.

When Aristotle, in turn, cites Antigone in the Rhetoric, he inflects her words towards what was to become the whole doctrine and politics of ‘natural law’. Bridging the very gap opened in the Protagoras, Aristotle equates Antigone's ἂγραπτα νóµιµα with those ‘laws of nature’ or ‘natural laws’ shared by all civilized communities. Yet it is not to ϕύсιс that Antigone would bind the true validity and everlastingness of the law: it is to Δίκη. Or, rather, it is to ‘nature’ in a very special and non-temporal sense. To put it another way: it is only when nature is made free of the compromise of time and change that νóµοс, under the direct guardianship of Δίκη, can enter the realm of absolute justice which is that of Θέµιс But we ask (with Creon, as it were): can there be such re-entry in the temporal order of human existence, or only in death?

Time is, truly, of the essence. At the catastrophic close of the action of the play, Creon will, as Teiresias foretells, race vainly against time. Antigone, who has made of herself the accuser of Creon, proclaims that no temporal edict can overrule laws which are immeasurably older than man's willed instrumentalities (such as writing). She postulates a ‘natural eternity’ of which Δίκη is custodian. She does not flinch from the antinomian inference that that which underwrites the timeless, unalterable legitimacy of ‘the unwritten laws’ is the sanctified status of the dead. Antigone, in her great counter to Creon, does not name Polyneices. A man's name, however immediate to her cause, belongs to the province of place and of circumstance. Anonymity is, at this point in her challenge and apologia, a tactic of universality. Many have asked: ‘If those “laws” invoked by Antigone are of manifest universality and eternity, why should they not be incised in Creon or the chorus as evidently as they are in her?’

The answer is that for Antigone the πóλιс and the category of the historical—of rationally organized and mastered timeliness—have obtruded, irrelevantly and then destructively, upon an order of being, call it ‘familial’, ‘telluric’, ‘cyclical’, in which man was, literally, at home in timelessness. Such at-homeness before or outside history makes of ϕιλία, of ‘loving immediacy’, of ‘unquestioning care’, the rule of human (p.251) relations. It is in this very definite sense that the unwritten laws of loving care which Antigone cites, and which she places under the twofold aegis of Olympian Zeus and chthonian Δίκη, are ‘natural laws’. They embody an imperative of humaneness which men and women share before they enter into the mutations, the transitory illusions, the divisive experiments, of a historical and political system.

Creon does not and cannot answer. For time does not answer or, indeed, bandy words with eternity. There is no possibility of fruitful dialogue between moral conscience in a condition of timeless (Kantian) ethical imperatives, and the morality of the state which must, by honest definition, be timely. The whole force of the Hegelian revision of Sophocles’ Antigone lies in Hegel's attempt to redress this unbalance and to achieve that form of dialogue which is known as the dialectic. Hegel is determined to give to the necessary timeliness of politics its own rights in eternity.

No such equilibrium is established in the play. As the dialogue of non-communication proceeds, Antigone's refusal of temporality—she will not ‘temporize’—takes on an ever more explicit and self-destructive point. Creon's death sentence is, to her, immaterial. It pertains exclusively to the servile sphere of secular time. The sentence of death passed on Antigone is invalid in exactly the sense in which Creon's so closely related edict against Polyneices’ remains is invalid. Antigone's death is not that which Creon purposes and proclaims—a distinction which Heidegger's doctrine of the existential specificity of individual death helps clarify. The death which Antigone freely, knowingly chooses, has axes of meaning wholly beyond Creon's will or understanding. The Antigone in Sophocles’ play is, as it were, the young woman who had learnt at Colonus that only the full acceptance of death can yield a mortal iastingness (the archaic word ‘durance’ would be most accurate). She has no inkling, she would refuse any such, of that other eternity or suspension of time which is dynamic in the life of institutions and which connects successive generations in and by virtue of an evolving πóλιс (a far greater adversary than Creon would be Edmund Burke). Listening to Antigone, we hear the primal, feminine world recorded, in a more modern guise, in Salvatore Sana's novel, Il giorno del giudizio. It is a world outside political (p.252) time, in which the unmarried and the childless are darkly at home.

The presentation of Antigone's anarchic lawfulness in lines 450 ff. is incomparable. But the questioning of temporality to which the text compels us is far from being circumscribed by Antigone's eloquence and heroism.

The subtleties, the metrical variousness of lyric modes available to the tragic chorus, more especially in that musical and choreographic ensemble now lost to us, could transpose, qualify, enrich the discursive argument of a play (or, indeed, as in the Oresteia, create an immensely complex ‘play within the play’). With the chorus, we move from the overt rhetoric of dramatic oration and exchange, from the temporal directness of narration, into a more ‘imagistic’, metaphoric, and contrapuntal register. Thus it is that the major choral odes in extant Greek tragedy set into free motion the fundamental undecidabilities of man's condition. Past speech, music and dance contain, though they do not resolve, the contrary currents of myth. The chorus has open to itself both discourse in unison and the option of dialogue via internal division, an option enacted in the responsions of strophe and antistrophe. In consequence, a chorus can be more economical in depth than any other poetic–dramatic instrument that we know of.

Voiced, mimed, sung, and danced, the choral proposition, query, or commentary, the choral expression of ecstasy or of anguish, enlists the whole range of mental and bodily expression. It achieves a semiotic totality. It is, therefore, in the parodos and in the five choral stasima of Antigone that the issues of conscience and state, of the individual and of the πóλιс, of nature and of history, are given their highest pressure of uncertainty. If there is a Sophoclean bias, it is in the sung and danced thoughts of the chorus that we shall find it.

A significant discrimination is incipient in the brilliant turbulence of the chorus's evocation, one can almost say mimicry, of the battle for Thebes. The celebrated simile of the shrill-screaming eagle, ravening at the city gates, the ritual enormity of the duels to the death between the seven assailants and the seven champions, give to the report of the struggle a deliberately inhuman tenor. The delicate touch, in lines 131 ff., whereby the chorus does not name the giant Capaneus, enforces a sense of superhuman, but also of primitive, almost (p.253) bestial, onrush. The battle for Thebes is, truly, a ‘giganto-machia’. The throbbing anapaestic beat, the wild poetry of the language of birds, of fire, of hatred blasting like a tempest, together with what must, one presumes, have been the mimetic vehemence of the chorus's movements, set the whole episode in the twilit zone outside, prior to, civic reason. The world of the Seven Against Thebes, as it is reflected in Sophocles’ parodos, is that of titans and half-gods, of miracles and monsters.

But even before Creon's entrance the ode modulates into a historical and civic key. Νίκη, the goddess Victory, is distinctly a political emblem and a civic presence. ‘Thebes of the many chariots’ is, undoubtedly, an epic formula, but it also infers the material means of ordinary warfare. As Creon nears, the leader of the chorus twice uses the adjective ‘new’. A ‘new king’ enters, one on whom a ‘new destiny’ or a ‘new status’ has bestowed power. The hour is that of sunrise, and the chorus guides our imaginings out of a world of titanic and totemic violence into the daylight of the πóλιс.

In the second choral ode or first stasimon, as we know, these polarities are incommensurably deepened. As scholars have pointed out, the πολλὰ τὰ δεινά ode can be understood as contributing to a stream of philosophic–poetic meditation which was, very possibly, initiated by Anaxagoras and by Solon.1 Anaxagoras saw in the foundation of the law-governed city the most eminent of human devices, the crowning act in man's wondrous assumption of mastery over the natural realm. No less than Sophocles, Solon, in his elegiac poem to the Pierian Muses, celebrates the manifold pursuits of mortal men, their skills as fishermen, ploughmen, craftsmen, and healers. Solon's sense of society is haunted by the fear that the accumulation of wealth will bring with it disaster. Yet although fatalistic—Destiny, says Solon, presides over all actions, and it is Zeus who, in ways often obscure to us, distributes good and ill fortune—Solon's is, fundamentally, a promise of εὐνοµία, of a progressive harmony. Sophocles’ reading is far more intricate.

In the human inventions which the first stasimon extols, there is a constant oscillation as between solitude and community. The winged vessels on which men cross the perilous (p.254) seas point to collective design and manœuvre. The ploughman is both alone and a part of an agricultural system. The snaring of fowl and of fish can be, and customarily is, the act of a man alone; as can be the taming of horse and bull in the wild of the hills. Yet these accomplishments, also, tell of a social order not too far distant. The ambiguities are resolved by the invention of speech. Like the Eleatic thinkers before him, like Isocrates, Sophocles sees in the evolution of human discourse an immediate step towards political society. Lines 354–5 (in Dawe's numeration) entail almost a political theory of speech. Out of language, out of the capacity of language to communicate thought to others, come the installation and organization of the state. Aristotle's well-known analysis of the intimate bonds between human discourse and the moral fabric of a political society, in Politics, 1. 2. 12, reads like a gloss on Sophocles. The gains which come of the foundation of the city are decisive: man now finds proper shelter and is armed against the visitations of hostile nature. Only death shall unhouse him. It is this increase in man's strength of being via the πóλιс in which Anaxagoras and Pericles exult.

At once, however, and with a gnomic concision available only to supreme poetry, the second antistrophe adverts to the undecidable finalities of conflict at work in Antigone and beyond it. As lucid as will be his great student, Freud, Sophocles knows that civilization (the condition of the civic) breeds its mortal discontents. He knows that the very construction of a social order, through the genius of speech and of the moral–political reflection which speech articulates, generates constraints. It is now, by unsparing inference, the civic order which ‘tames’, which ‘entraps’, the legacy of aloneness, of organic wildness and freedom in man, as did the nets and snares evoked in the first antistrophe. Torn between opposing needs and impulses, man's cunning, his acumen of spirit, may impel him to choose evil and self-destruction rather than good. Such a choice has consequences far beyond individual fate. The cardinal terms of the play are now densely meshed: νóµοс, Δίκη, ‘the gods’, and, above all, in paratactic sequence, ὑψίπολιс and ἄπολιс.

Few words outside Scripture have drawn more intense commentary or had a more diverse legacy of theoretical and existential enactment. Speculation rises to the ambivalence in (p.255) both (the first may well be a Sophoclean coinage). He who stands by the laws which he has sworn to uphold, he who honours the civic contract, will ‘uphold’ the city and/or be ‘eminent’ within it. Does this signify that Creon's legalism and eminence are representative of a right moral choice? The lawbreaker, the evildoer, on the other hand, is ἄπολιс (and we remember Heidegger's draconian gloss on this expression). Yet, once more, the connotations are multiple and potentially contradictory. For the ‘cityless man’ can be either a culpable pariah, as in line 255 of Euripides’ Medea; or a political exile and temporary victim of political bad luck, as in several uses of the word in Herodotus; or he can be that most innocent and maltreated of guilty men, Oedipus at Colonus (line 1357). Being ἄπολιс, finally, may signify that a man has, by his breach of the social contract, not only left his city but been its destroyer. This being so, can one, in the seven closing lines of the stasimon, altogether escape the hint at Polyneices?

Already, the tension of meanings is extreme. It is pressed even further by the adjuration of the chorus: ‘May no such man’ (ἄπολιс) ‘share my hearth’ or be a partner ‘to my thoughts’. The concentric pattern of the lyric is moving both inward and, temporally, backward. The hearth is a more ancient, familial focus than the πóλιс. It tells of an earthy centrality and of the feminine rites and custodies so resonant in the person of Antigone (in the ancient Mediterranean pantheon, the divinity which presides over the hearth is feminine). A man's thoughts, from whose intimacy the ἄπολιс is to be banished, are the inmost (‘the hearth’) of his being. Moreover, as the chorus has sung, speech and shared thought are the builders of cities. Yet solitary thought need not be impotent or base. It can be the life-spring of moral finding and moral decision. Whom, then, shall we keep from our hearth: Creon or Antigone? Which of the two is truly ἄπολιс?

When the chorus sings again, after the Antigone-Creon ἀλών, its register is even more Aeschylean than it was in the famous echo of the Choephoroe at the outset of the first stasimon. Behind Aeschylus, in turn, stood the language of the epic and, more particularly, one assumes, that of the Theban cycle and its narration of the doom of the House of Laius. The bearing of this third choral ode on the central matter of conscience and of state, of the world prior to the πóλιс and of (p.256) the civic system of values, is oblique but, I think, unmistakable. The seminal division is made explicit in the vocabulary and contrapuntal structure of the two strophic pairs. The keywords in the opening movement are those which designate or refer to man's lineage, to his roots, to that which binds him to house and hearth. Line 593 contains the crucial term ἀρχαîα which Jebb translates ‘from olden times’. The second strophic pair invokes time present and time to come. In the midst of resigned prophecy comes the word ‘hope’ (ἐλπiс). The supernatural agencies of anathema and chastisement, as they have come upon the Labdacidae in the two initial strophes, seem to belong to the archaic spheres of night, of blood-vengeance, of an aggressive underworld. The Zeus of the second strophic set is no less overwhelming in his retributive justice, but he ‘dwells in the radiant light of Olympus’, and there obtains as between human conduct and human suffering the rationale of guilt, of ‘trespass’. In the archaic logic of Necessity, of inherited malediction, as it weighs upon and annihilates the clan of Oedipus, unwitting crime (Oedipus’ parricide and incest) carries the irremediable consequences of accomplished fact. There is no escape from the paradox of innocent guilt. There is no escape either, to be sure, from the judicial omnipotence of Olympian Zeus or the self-destructive illusions of human ambition, endeavour, and hope. If the extremely difficult text of lines 614 ff. can be so read, the man or woman whom the gods inspire to action is, by that very inspiration, unavoidably exposed to overweening. But there are deep differences between the ancient and the new or humanistic dispensation. A normative principle and truth is now at work. Heredity does not doom the individual, though it may still predispose him to exemplary vulnerability, γένοс, which, as commentators point out, signifies ‘parentage’ and ‘kinship’ at the beginning of the stasimon, has, by its close, and in direct reference to Haemon, taken on a more individualized, secular, and social tonality. The ebb and flow of ironies, of self-delusion, and subconscious insight on the part of the chorus are multiple. They are of a polyphonic indeterminacy consonant with music and dance. If, as one commentary puts it, ‘The first strophic pair seems to pardon Antigone, the second to condemn her’,1 the vivid evocation of hubristic energy (p.257) and of the inescapable vengeance of Zeus points, perforce, to Creon.

But the choral inferences, tantalizingly apposite as they are to the given moment in the play, extend much further. Only under Olympian aegis, only within a fabric of rational law—both νóµοс and сοϕία or ‘rational wisdom’ figure in the second strophic pair—can there be an advance beyond purely genetic criteria of blood-guilt or innocence. No less than in the Eumenides, to which, internally, this second stasimon does appear to address itself, we have here a meditation, albeit instinctive and darkly metaphoric, on the transition, ambiguous yet progressive, from a purely solipsistic and familial code of human relations to one of historicity and civic reason. What is demanded of us is the attempt to think through or, rather, to bring to full life in our moral imagining the enigma whereby the ‘cursed’ deed of Antigone seems to embody the ethical aspirations of humanity whereas the civic legalism of Creon brings devastation. But to bring an enigma to felt life is not to resolve it. Nothing in the text refutes the implicit, positive motion towards a rational criterion of politics and social order (a motion which would be emphatic if the uncertain third word in line 614 was, indeed, πάµπολιс—but this is doubtful).

In his in memoriam to Freud, W. H. Auden calls on ‘Eros, builder of cities and weeping anarchic Aphrodite’. No summons could, even if by contrast, take us nearer the ambience of the third stasimon. In one antistrophic pair, the chorus, in the sharpening grip of contrary intuitions and of a wildness of feeling which will mount to full force in the closing ode, hymns Eros. The implicit cosmology, as often in moments of passion and bewilderment in Greek tragedy, is archaic, pre-Olympian. Eros is omnipotent. The echoes of the first stasimon are almost ironic: man's uncanny wit has mastered land and sea, has netted or tamed the beasts of the field, the fish, the creatures of the air—but Eros, mastering man, has mastered all. It enslaves, it maddens the man who dwells apart (ἂπολιс) as well as the citizen. In its pulsing enormity, Eros overpowers even the immortals. In the preceding choral song, Zeus was hailed as all-powerful in his intelligible, moralistic sovereignty. Now Eros and wilful Aphrodite emerge as supreme.

Lines 796–800 are full of textual and syntactic pitfalls. Are we meant to picture Eros as enthroned beside, as on the same (p.258) elevation as, the ‘supreme laws of the world’? Are we, more concretely and hyperbolically, to think of Eros as ‘assessor in the high tribunal of universal law’? But the general thrust of lyric argument is plain. Eros, the begetter of madness and strife, the light in the eye of the bride, the incendiary of hatred between fathers and sons, is beyond good and evil. Again, we seem in reach of a Sophoclean intuition so central that it will not translate adequately out of the elided logic of lyric-choreographic expression and metaphor. Fullness of being, teaches Sophocles, attaches to itself a charged potential of destruction and self-destruction. The quality of action which springs from such fullness—there is no authentic human plenitude without action—does have intense bearing on the morality or immorality of man's conduct. But, in the final analysis, this bearing is secondary. It falls short of a certain criterion, of a certain mystery of lived intensity. Where it is great enough, this intensity entails privileges of heroic perception and ‘privileges’—again, this same word is paradoxically justified—of transgressive fatality outside, beyond the ethical domain. It is some such intuition of the moral extraterritoriality of pure intensity (an intuition very close to Blake's sense of the holiness of energy) which sets Eros ‘beside’ or even in judgement over ‘the eternal laws’.

How, then, are we to interpret this placement in reference to Antigone's invocation of these very laws? Reflection suggests that Antigone's abstinence from sexual initiation and fulfilment, with its concomitant espousal of death, represents the only way open to mortals if they would escape or defy the tyranny of Eros. But such escape or defiance, Sophocles intimates, is, in its own turn, radically aggressive and wilful. Antigone's ideal of ϕιλία is, for all its aura of humanistic morality or, rather, by virtue of this aura, an offence to life. Unncrvingly at work in the third stasimon is the Sophoclean suggestion of an irreconcilable dialectic between eternal moral law and vitality. But in what ways does the omnipotence of Eros in the bounds of the living world relate to the conflict between conscience and state, between the ego of the individual persona and the rights of the πóλιс? Answers to this question, implicit in the choral ode, will be sketched and tested throughout the remainder of the play.

The fourth stasimon is, perhaps, the most elusive in Greek (p.259) tragedy. The ode connects, though at many points only tangentially, to the confrontations between man and woman, old and young, the living and the dead, men and gods, which determine the architecture of Antigone. But it does not, I think, contribute to the Antigone–Creon polemic, to the debate on family and city, as such. It is in the last choral song, in the vertiginous fifth stasimon, that the fundamental issues in this debate are raised to an ultimate pitch and dimension.

The Theban elders are inebriate with hope, that very narcotic of which they gave warning to themselves and to us in the second stasimon. The dramatic misprision and effects of irony are manifest; the ode looks to joy at the moment in which disaster is imminent. The device is one which Sophocles uses also in the Ajax, in the Women of Trachis, and Oedipus Rex. But this dissociation between mood and fact is only the surface element. Teiresias has prophesied unambiguously. At the rational level, the chorus is cognizant of the doom which must now descend on both Creon and his tragic adversaries. But what matters in this stasimon is the literal ecstasy, the dithyrambic state of mental and bodily possession, in which the old men find themselves. The insinuation into their own psyche of trance-like clarities of insight, of a pounding choriambic beat inside, as it were, their very being, has been strengthening since the third choral ode. Now the god is fully upon them. Every formal component in lines 1115–52 contributes to our sense of this possession. The binary structure of the antistrophic pairs, of which the first enacts the onrush of the god and the second becomes a prayer for the cleansing of the city, plays antiphonally against the triadic organization inside each set of strophe–antistrophe. The vowel sounds interact in a veritable chromatic crescendo.1 Sophocles’ poetry in this ode is of a precise magic. But nowhere in Antigone is our total loss of its musical and choreographic matrix more drastic. Here, as in Nietzsche's ideal of argument, thought of fierce rigour and depth was danced. The ritual, the processional images and references in the actual words, must have leapt into motion, setting language ‘beside itself’ in a wild clarity of tone and of gesture.

Dionysus is ‘myriad-named’ precisely because the common (p.260) logic of designation cannot comprise his transcendent, internally antinomian manifold of phenomenal presences and functions—Dionysus, who is ‘also Hades’, said Heraclitus (if we translate rightly). In this last choral ode in the play, the sixth, Dionysus (as in the Bacchae) has the potential and attributes of both life and death, of instauration and of devastation. He finds expression both in trance and in lucidity. Dionysus is, as we saw previously, termed the ‘master of or ‘the one who presides over the cries in the night’. This enigmatic nomination can evoke either the nocturnal sorrows of Antigone or the salute to daybreak in the opening parodos, or both. The chorus now adjures the god to come to Thebes, his city, the place of his birth. Its dance would have simulated the enormous tread of that homecoming. Yet the allusions to Dionysus’ mother, Semele, and the reference to his ‘attendant Thyads’, signifying the ‘delirious ones’, recall, past overhearing, the dread first homecoming of the god to his city, with the consequent frenzy of the Bacchae and killing of wretched Pentheus. If the epiphany of Dionysus can bring purification, it can also bring ruin.

This duality is, as Hölderlin taught, incipient in the mere meeting of god and mortal, in the implosive unison of eternally distinct polarities. The fire imagery in the stasimon makes this clear. The lightning-bolt which consumed Semele gave Dionysus lambent birth (hence the epithet, at once festive and menacing, of ‘loud-thundering’ Zeus in line 1116). The god moves, fire-like, over mountain-crests and seas. The sacrifices brought to him are burnt offerings. The festivals, the ritual processions, which, literally, ‘dance him into the city’, are torchlit. The stars which Dionysus leads perform a twofold dance: the circular, harmonic choreography of the cosmos, the ‘great dance of being’ which was to fascinate Neoplatonism and the Renaissance, and a wild counter-dance, mirroring that of the mortal acolytes. Both are πûρ πνεíοντεс. There is immensity in this word. It tells of the fire-breathing dragon whom Cadmus slew when he founded Thebes. It images (cf. Prometheus, line 917) the homicidal and life-giving lightning loosed on Semele. It makes of the ‘burning stars’ torch-bearers to Dionysus. Compellingly, moreover, it takes us back to the beginning of the play. Polyneices, declares Creon, had come expressly to put Thebes to the torch—πυρí, ‘fire’, is the (p.261) emphatic climax to line 200. Fire cleanses, but cleanses by destruction.

Thus the entire cosmology of the fifth stasimon is that of Heraclitean fire. But how can such divine incineration be legitimately invited and brought into the city of man?

πάνδαμοс πóλιс : the phrase, in line 1141, is unambiguous. The whole city is polluted. The body politic is infected, as by pestilence (though grammatically difficult, ἐπὶ νóсου clearly means this). Catharsis now lies beyond pragmatic and civic resources. It is not the flames set by invading Polyneices which could have brought purgation. It is the god Dionysus who must blaze through the seven gates and the stars in his train who must set alight the altars. At this summit-moment in Antigone, Sophocles confronts the limitations of the city of man, of the state as the genius of man has devised it, with the homecoming of the god, a homecoming compulsively inherent in religious ritual and in the extremity of human supplication. Such epiphany is the ecstatic expectation, the desideratum of the human spirit when this spirit aspires to its own fulfilment, when it strives to return to its own pre-civic sources of being (a striving explicit in Heidegger's metaphor of Behausung, of the indwelling of man within but also beside himself). But how, except in a destructive fire-storm, is Dionysus to inhabit Thebes? Can there be any coexistence, other than suicidal, between transcendence and civitas?

The more one endeavours to live with, to ‘live’, the parodos and the five inspired stasima in Antigone, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the belief that Sophocles is educating our feelings and understanding towards a specific terror. His dramas, the poetry of his thought, so far as we know them, are penetrated throughout by a sense of the fragility of human institutions. The sources of menace are threefold. Man's animality, the creative-destructive atavisms of the organic and animal kingdom inside his own evolved person, threaten to restore to archaic solitudes and exposures the fabric of human existence. They threaten to subvert and deconstruct the edifice of society and of rule-governed civilization (a word which, of course, has ‘the city’ within it). At the opposite extreme of the spectrum of perils lie the visitations of the divine. Gods have played diverse, sometimes ambivalent, roles in the foundation and erection of cities—witness the instauration of Troy, of (p.262) Rome, of Thebes itself. They are tempted to visit or revisit them. Without the potential of such visitation, the lives of mortal citizens may become merely urbane. But the coming of the gods is a consuming favour. The fabric of man's institutions may prove too weak to contain its callers. Like St Augustine after him, Sophocles brings a great weight of questioning to bear on the status of ‘the city’ in the central simile or contrastive pairing which binds the ‘City of God’ to the ‘city of man’.

The third source of danger is the most difficult to define. It is implicit in virtus, in man's bias to action, in the realization that excellence springs from action. From such excellence, in turn, derive ὕβριс, the self-deceptions, the fratricidal rivalries, the dogmatic collisions which can reduce to ash the profoundly beneficent but always labile constructs of communal life. Sophocles’ imagination, his vision of the place of man in the context of significant reality, was, so far as we can judge, possessed by intimations of radical fragility. Bestiality and transfiguration, the antithetical yet concomitant threats of the monstrous and the divine (a fusion of contraries embodied in the Sphinx), cast their hungry shadows over human institutions and the hard-won terrain of reason. This is the constant perception in Sophocles’ treatment of the madness of Ajax, of the ruin of Heracles in that drama of vengeful animality, the Women of Trachis, in his account of the clash between primitive solitude and the politics of collective need in Philoctetes, and throughout every facet of the story of Thebes and of the House of Laius. Only Dante, perhaps, manifests a comparable focus on the fragile, externally and internally threatened, wonder of civility. Both he and Sophocles are overcome by the realization of how appallingly easy it is for man to be either reduced to less, or transported to more, than himself—both motions being equally fatal to his just identity and progress.

One comes to grasp that it is not the Hegelian hope of an evolutionary synthesis between the values of conscience and of state in a πóλιс cleansed, educated by the Antigone-Creon catastrophe, which best expresses the Sophoclean sense of the play. The fundamental question is not whether Thebes can contain both Creon and Antigone or whether it would be a just and stable city if it housed only Antigone or only Creon (though these subsidiary questions are, indeed, posed). The (p.263) final, inescapable question is whether it can, whether it should, contain either. But if the answer is No, how, then, is man to test the bounds (the ‘city-bounds’) of his condition? And how, then, is he to be host to the gods?

There is, in Sophocles, no resolution of the dilemma. But there is much in Antigone to suggest that Sophocles regarded man's testing of boundaries and man's offer of the hospitality and freedom of his city to the gods as inevitably destructive of the middle ground. And it is on this middle ground, if I apprehend Sophocles rightly, that man labours to acquire the immensely demanding arts of living with his own kind. Sophocles’ piety, which encompasses but extends beyond the Antigone-Creon options and collision, is that of a haunted humanism. Behind Antigone, behind the fire-breathing ecstasy of the ode to Dionysus, smoulder the never-cooling embers of Troy.

Many, besides Kierkegaard, have observed that the play is death-crowded. Hardly any notable utterance or action by the living does not occur under pressure of the dead. The literal framework of Antigone is a battlefield strewn with the slain. The immediate cause of the drama is the corpse of Polyneices. Dead Oedipus and the terror of his leaving overshadow the events of the play from the outset. The successive complications and enrichments of awareness among the characters and ourselves are of a kind to draw the dead nearer and nearer to the sphere of the living.

Starting with Antigone's first speech, the dead are made animate both in their place of darkness and at the uncertain frontiers of life. Eteocles is pictured as receiving his due welcome from the dead (line 25). It is this welcome which properly removes him from Antigone's further anguish and all but cursory mention. Ismene's awesome necrology of the House of Laius, in lines 49–60, achieves a twofold effect. It evokes a massive counter-presence to the living agents in the play, a counterpoise of alternative values and obligations. Secondly, it gives to the ostracism of dead Polyneices, to that decree which inhibits his homecoming to the welcome of the Labdacidae, a particular pathos and isolation.

Antigone's resolve to lie in death beside her brother (lines 72–3) initiates a closely woven sequence of rhetorical and (p.264) symbolic moves whereby the distance between the quick and the dead is gradually effaced. By line 83, the centres of emotional and of moral gravity are shifting: in her polemic with Ismene, Antigone uses ‘life’ and the business of continued living as terms of scornful reproach. The dead are rising into action. Ismene (lines 93–4 are textually problematic) will be ‘subject’ to the hatred of Polyneices, or will have made of him an active enemy. Creon, also, is conscious of the claims of the dead to a notable place in the hierarchy of civic affairs—a claim which will be the central motif of ironic dramatization in Sartre's Les Mouches. In lines 209–10 Creon carefully conjoins ‘the living and the dead’; both are to be honoured and held in prestigious remembrance if they have shown devotion to the public good. With Creon's edict (lines 217–22), death enters the play, not only as the objective-symbolic pivot—dead Polyneices is to be left unburied—but as the coiled spring of imminent tragedy, for whoever defies this edict shall be subject to death. The words νϵκρóс, θανϵι̑ν, θανóντων crowd the language of Creon, of the Guard, of the unsettled chorus. But these words are losing the aura, the numinous resonance, won for them, by virtue of utmost poetic and moral insight, in Book xxiv of the Iliad. Antigone's task, throughout the remainder of the play, could, concisely, be defined as that of restoring to the vocabulary of death the Homeric, the Socratic dignity of which Creon's political vitalism has stripped it. In the flawless economy of Sophocles’ design, it is exactly this ‘stripping’, this legalistic making naked, which is pressed home by the Guard's account (410 ff.) of the malodorous and decaying condition of Polyneices’ remains.

Antigone's riposte and exaltation of death are central to her stance. Her eloquent espousal of early death, in lines 462 ff, is more than a provocation of Creon. It is, at once, a defiance of the living, of those who set life above the eternities of moral law, even where, especially where, the font of these eternities is the abode of Δíκη in Hades, and an assertion of personal freedom. To choose death freely, to choose it early, is to retain mastery and self-mastery in the face of the only phenomenon against which man knows no remedy (line 361). We are not far here from the heroic absolutism which we find in the world of Corneille or in the Hegelian allegory of Master and Slave. It is this declaration of ontological liberty which generates the (p.265) momentarily anguished, if also contemptuous, query in line 497: ‘Would you now do more than seize and slay me?’ Confronting Creon's vainglorious fury, Antigone wonders whether it is in his power somehow to demean, to trivialize by arbitrary pain, the death which is hers, which she has freely chosen.

But as the debate intensifies, Antigone's exaltation of the ethical and visceral demands of death carries all before it. It is not only that Hades requires equal rites/rights for all the slain, whatever the discriminations grossly made by mundane politics (line 519): it is that ‘loving care, the loving humaneness of mortal solidarity’ or ϕιλíα, while bridging the ultimately trivial gap between life and death, has its foundations in the realm of eternity. It is ϕιλíα which ensures the salutary pressure of transcendence on the living. There is a spasm of radical impotence in Creon's taunt (lines 524–5): ‘If you must love, go love the dead’ (ϕíλει κεíνουс). But once more, the tensed equity of Sophocles’ treatment of the conflict arrests us. In line 555, Antigone flings at Ismene a climactic dichotomy: ‘Your choice was to live, mine to die.’ With its emphatic connotations of superiority, Antigone's accusation has in it more than a touch of the absolutism, of the pride, which blind Creon. Prematurely, Antigone arrogates to herself the infallibilities of death.

The second half of Sophocles’ Antigone is a set of variations on the theme of death as elaborate and sustained as any in devotional, baroque, or Romantic literatures. I will look further at Antigone's death-song, the κομμóс, and at Teiresias’ apocalyptic vision. But it is worth recalling briefly Sophocles’ dramatization of the tidal advance of the dead on the dissolving society of the living.

All of Antigone's clan are now guests of underworld Persephone (line 894). It is simply because she is still so markedly of the living that Ismene has, in the context of the children of Laius, ceased to exist. More and more, the hospitality of Hades reaches irresistibly into daylight. It draws after it Antigone, Haemon, Eurydice, and, by implacable association, Megareus. In a play which contains many moments of terror, the crowning enormity is that of line 1173: the Messenger, who has spoken nothing but death, asserts that to be ‘of the living’ is to be the killer of the dead. Surely, there is here an echoing inversion of the Servant's murderous reply to unknowing Clytemnestra in the Choephoroe: It is the dead (p.266) (inside the house) who have returned to kill the living.’ The barriers between the worlds of the living and of the dead, barriers whose fragility, whose inadequacy as a safeguard to the secular city are, as we have seen, a recurrent and fundamental Sophoclean concern, are now broken. ‘Corpse embraces corpse’ (κεîται δὲ νεκρὸс περὶ νεκρω̑ι). This line (1240) fulfils fatally Creon's derisive injunction to Antigone. A difficult play on words in line 1266 may imply not only that Haemon has died young, but that Death itself, in implicit contrast to Creon laid waste, is ‘new’ and ‘young’. The Messenger's successive revelations rain down on Creon like homicidal blows. But it is a man ‘already dead’ or ‘as dead’ (line 1288) who is being struck anew. Creon himself calls wildly on Death. To die now would be both consummation and final, supreme (ὕπατοс) release.

Sententiously, the chorus, old men who are, however, yet lodged in life, denies him such solace. Closely echoing Creon's own admonition to self-blinded Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, the chorus bids Creon desist from imperious prayer. The acts and discourses of human will end in doom. This rebuke enacts a dread symmetry: Creon, who denied burial to Polyneices, is now himself barred from entry into the house of the dead. The ostracism he pronounced against Polyneices has become his. This equilibrium of fatality is quintessentially Sophoclean. But it reaches back, as well, to more ancient intuitions of tragic harmony. In the most famous of the citations ascribed to Anaximander, at the outset of metaphysical thought, we learn that all things compensate each other, by force of retribution, for the ἀδικíα, for the ‘injustice’ which, inevitably, attaches to their temporal existence. It is a riddling proposition. But its doctrines of a symmetry of suffering and of the mystery of inescapable injustice implicit in human actions do seem to foreshadow the commerce between life and death in our play.

The fifth of the great axes of encounter is that between men and god(s). A Greek tragedy was performed around an altar. The religious dimension is explicit in the actual presentation of the play and implicit in the mythology which is, with very few exceptions, its material. And even in those rare instances in which the subject is drawn from recent and secular history, as it is in Aeschylus’ Persians, historicity is made mythical (p.267) and the logic of the supernatural applies. Comparative anthropology has been tempted, certainly since the late nineteenth century, to expound analogies between the supplicatory, theophanic, quasi-liturgical elements in Greek tragic drama and such genres of religious dance-drama or sacral mimesis as they are found in India, in south-east Asia (the narrative dance-plays of Bali), or in the medieval Mystery Cycles of western Europe. Such comparisons turn out to be misleading. The fact is that the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and what little we can gather of the dramatic texts of their immediate predecessors and successors, are like no other performative act or art, like no other aesthetic realizations of enacted intellect and feeling, of which we have knowledge. It is not even certain that inventions at all like them were made and applied beyond the narrow confines of Athens and of Attic culture.

This singularity relates, unquestionably, to the religious-ritual character of dramatized lament and heroic commemoration at it began on Attic ground with, tradition has it, Thespis. Aristotle's suppositions as to the precise nature of this background are, already, uncertain and, it may be, erroneous. That the presence of the religious and of the supernatural in classical Greek tragedy was, at once, functionally vital and unstable, or, indeed, frankly problematic, is suggested both by the uniqueness of the Aeschylean-Sophoclean-Euripidean format, and the extreme brevity of its creative phase. Only some seventy years separate the innovative genius of Aeschylus from the last tetralogies of Sophocles and the rapid decline which, according to ancient witness, set in with the fourth-century epigones. The tension between ritual literalism and internalized, even subversive or questioning, religiosity, between the epiphany of the god and the metaphorization or humanization of his divine powers, between the deus and the stage-machina from which he steps in his overwhelming but also questionable shape, could be sustained and made formally constructive only briefly.

So far as we are able to judge, the tragic–satyric tetralogy embodies and realizes a profoundly fruitful modulation from conventions of empathic, mimetic, perhaps therapeutic (cathartic) rites to a context of metaphysical–political debates and critiques. The tragic mode itself passes out of collectivity (p.268) into the radical solitude of poetic doubts and inventions. Roughly, one can place Solon at the inception of this unique motion of spirit, and Socrates at its coda. The notion of brevity, moreover, attaches to the religious substance of Greek tragedy not only in a historical, but also in a formal sense. The axiomatic possibility of divine intervention, the proximate pressure of the gods on mortal words and gestures, allow a rare economy. A Greek tragic trilogy can be almost of the length of a single Shakespearean play. There are tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides which do not exceed the length of a single act in Hamlet, King Lear, or Troilus and Cressida. Each major Shakespearean tragic drama or tragi-comedy must define and communicate its thematic context and, where this applies, the quality of supernatural or theological inference proper to itself. The categories of immanent limitation or transcendence are, always, local. The conveyance to the audience of these particular prescriptions (particular to the given play), the establishment in the actual level and idiom in the play of the relevant categories of speculative enlistment, take time and expository insistence. Witness the expositions of the Ghost in Hamlet or of the disincarnate orders in The Tempest. A Greek tragedy, in contrast, has at its disposal economies of symbolic deployment as immediate as those of the Mass.

In the brief flowering of a tensed and concise art form, the position of Sophocles is, nearly schematically, median. His treatment of the divine dimension, as we find it both in the extant plays and fragments, does not match the Aeschylean sense of man's close neighbourhood to the gods, a neighbourhood which is, itself, still a function of a ‘titanic’, pre-civic stage in human evolution.1 On the other hand, Sophocles seems to avoid—though he comes close to it in the Athena of Ajax—the Euripidean duplicity whereby the gods are either irrationalized, made ethically and spiritually more ‘archaic’ than their mortal victims, or ironized by the play of inquisitive and sophistic uncertainties. Available to Sophocles’ temper, so far as we have textual evidence, is neither the direct monumentality of divine struggle and epiphany as we find it in the Oresteia nor the disconcerting pathos of man's judgement on and valediction to the gods as these are dramatized in (p.269) Euripides’ Hippolytus or Bacchae. The interrogative meditation on the very nature of a ‘playhouse of the gods’ (the theatre of Dionysus), on the price which a πóλιс and a literary genre must be prepared to pay if they are to enfold the gods—a meditation manifest in the Bacchae, and which seems to make of this drama the reflexive finale to Greek classical tragedy—lies to one side of Sophocles’ sensibility.

As we saw, Sophocles views the potential actualization of divine vicinity, realized in Aeschylus, as one of the ebbing yet still menacing currents of archaic and anarchic pressure on civility and the slow ripening of reason. No less acute, however, is his notice of the hubristic crescendo of immanent energies, of will, of proud positivism, which threatens mankind in a world either emptied of the gods or in contact with them only by courtesy of ritual practice. It is, therefore, Sophocles’ particular art to suggest the proximity of the gods while, already, giving to this proximity the incipiently metaphoric, psychologized status of personal and private consciousness. Neither Aeschylus nor Euripides could, I think, have achieved (even if they had wished to do so) the mystery of Oedipus’ transfiguration at Colonus, that persuasive radiance of suggestion as it unfolds between contrasting polarities of naked supernaturalism and of rational inquiry. The mediate miracle in the sacred wood springs from an intimation, already almost Virgilian, that the primal intimacies between men and gods are fortunately/unfortunately receding out of all but eccentric or, in some sense, scandalous reach. It was as if the very incest committed by Oedipus was a dark reminiscence of the greater incest in the original commerce between gods and men. Hence my definition of Sophoclean pietas as ‘a haunted humanism’.

It has been argued that the theatre of Racine depends on a deus absconditus as its hidden spectator. In Sophoclean tragedy, the ‘hidden god’ is a central agent. He makes his appearance early in Antigone: in lines 278–9 the leader of the chorus asks whether the enigmas which seem to mark the first ‘burial’ of Polyneices have not been ‘divinely willed’ or even ‘divinely performed’.1 As we have seen, this hint broadens in the (p.270) cognitive and dramatic equivocations on the possible intervention of the supernatural in the ‘dust-storm’ around the second burial. Yet the very outset of the play also suggests to us a distancing of and from the gods. Antigone does not appeal for divine help in the execution of her pious design. No supplication either to Zeus or to the eternal custodians of the dead graces her resolve. The successive invocations of ‘eternally all-seeing Zeus’ (line 184) comes from the lips of Creon. It is he who, in his denunciation of city-burning, sacrilegious Polyneices, introduces into the drama the pantheon of civic deities and their pillared shrines. But the ritual proprieties of Creon's formulations are undermined by the pomp and grammatical torsion of line 304: threatening the Guard with cruel death if the men ‘who did this deed for hire’ are not found, Creon swears by ‘Zeus who still has my reverence’ or ‘as he still has my reverence’. The Greek does not translate to full clarity. But the hint of menace, covert though it be. masked as it is by the furious pitch of Creon's rhetoric, cannot be overheard.

Creon's view of his relations with Zeus is one of utilitarian reciprocity, of invocations and honours proffered in the expectation of condign reward. Now we have noted that a civic order of religiosity, that the encompassing of worship in the general politics of decency, are a positive element in the Sophoclean vision of Tightness. The impulse which cheapens and betrays this vision stems from the coercive nature of Creon's oath, as well as from the simple fact that this oath is set in a context of imperious error and injustice. Creon's warning to Zeus, veiled, as it were, in the syntax of line 304 and in that arrogant touch of temporality (‘still’), lays the ground for subsequent blasphemy. Already, both Antigone's omission of prayer and Creon's hectoring fluency of adjuration keep the divine at a distance. And it is precisely this distance—the gods are drawn irresistibly towards vacant ground, they cluster near negation—of which Sophocles is master.

One need not adopt Hölderlin's reading of Antigone as an Antitheos to be made aware of the extreme sparseness of reference to the divine in her apologia, πρὸс θϵω̑ν, the formula of supplication so frequent in Sophocles’ other plays, occurs only once in Antigone (in line 838 or 839, depending on editorial numeration, and there in a polemic context). Zeus (p.271) and Dike are cited only once in Antigone's great defence, in an argument whose logic and grammar are, in fact, negative: ‘it was not Zeus…these are not the laws prescribed by Dike.’ The transcendent absolutes to which Antigone appeals in her debate with Creon are, in a radical sense, secular. They are those of parity in death and of those indiscriminations between past good and evil which give to the dead their claim on familial solidarity. If there is a divine presence in the advocacy for Polyneices’ bestowal, it is that of Hades. But here, as well, Antigone's register is one of almost perfunctory self-evidence. We are worlds away from any Homeric or Aeschylean stress on the imminent substantiality of the preternatural. Antigone draws about herself an ethical solitude, a lucid dryness which seem to prefigure the stringencies of Kant. She is abstemious in respect of the transcendent. This, too, is part of her implacable discretion.

Again, and with incomparable dramatic-psychological finesse, it is through the mouth of Creon that Sophocles points to the ambiguous proximities of the divine. Ζεὺс ἑρκεîοс, as Creon calls upon him in line 487, is metonymic of the very essence of ‘the family’. His altar stands in the courtyard of the house, the family dwelling (ἕρκοс) enfolds it. It is to this specific incarnation of Zeus that the family prays or offers sacrifice in a shared rite which, in turn, defines its own cohesion and identity of kinship. There is, therefore, a complex impropriety in Creon's appeal to the god. He tells us that even if the culprit were nearer to him in parentage than those who worship Zeus at the familial altar, he or she shall not escape doom as prescribed by law. As in line 304, Zeus is harnessed to an act of arbitrary vindictiveness. The ‘Zeus of the family’ is being invoked, almost parodistically, against those specific ties of kinship and domesticity which he safeguards. But Creon's impropriety or even indecency is made complex and double-edged just because Ζεὺс ἑρκεîοс has not been invoked by Antigone in what would have been a most natural turn of spirit and of speech. Once more, Creon seems, instinctively, to appropriate and exploit an emptiness left by Antigone.

The persistently strategic and opportunistic impulse in Creon's religiosity is underlined in lines 658 ff. He yields to Antigone the ‘Zeus of blood-kinship’ whom he had himself earlier sought to enlist. It is now Zeus βαсιλϵύс, monarch and (p.272) patron of civic-masculine domination, whom Creon adduces in his own (Creon's) exact image. Yet Haemon's counter-arguments are as distant from the immediacies of the divine as were Antigone's. The allusion to the ‘honours due to the gods’ (line 745) is made in passing, and the deities of the underworld, θϵω̑ν τω̑ν νϵρτέρων, whom Haemon cites in line 749, are, in the context, well and truly ‘hidden’.

Throughout the major part of Sophocles’ Antigone, in short, the dramatis personae keep the gods at arm's length. It is, as I have tried to show, the choral odes which both solicit and make probable the coming of the divine. This coming upon man grows palpable as the actions of the protagonists in the drama veer out of control. The inadequacies of immanence, be they those of Antigone's moral monism or be they those of Creon's selective and officious ‘established church’, are revealed, terribly, in the fourth stasimon. Here, I believe, is the fatal hinge of the play.

Through the elusive turbulence of the ode, the pertinence of whose three mythological cameos to the present fate of Antigone has been interminably and inconclusively argued, pierces the theme of catastrophic intimacies between gods and mortals. The dread, the uncanny power of fate—and (μοιριδíα τιс δύναсιс δεινά are, it seems to me, the four words which concentrate the finalities of Sophocles’ vision and art—spares neither the high-born nor even those of divine ancestry. On the contrary, it is upon them that it focuses its terrors. Zeus’ golden visitation incarcerates Danae in a chamber secret as the grave. Lycurgus of Thrace is hideously chastised for having doubted the divine birth of Dionysus. Like Pentheus in the Bacchae, he had foolishly striven to define and maintain the pragmatic demarcations between the world of the gods and that of the πóλιс Now Dionysus, himself the mysterious offspring of an ecstatic-destructive encounter between immortal Zeus and mortal Semele, crosses the barrier in vengeance. The bearing of the horrors which befall Thracian Cleopatra on the choral logic is obscure (Sophocles appears to have dealt with this savage myth in at least two lost plays). But again, the motif of intercourse and generation between gods and men appears. Cleopatra is a child of Boreas, the divine North Wind. She was nursed in his cavern of tempests. If the passage is not corrupt (see Jebb's annotation to line 970), the (p.273) implication is that Ares watches the blinding of Cleopatra's children with ‘cruel joy’.

Antigone, who has denied Eros, who has interposed a sterile purity of moral will between herself and the uncertainties or dilatoriness of divine aid, has been led to her death. In its heightened state of manic perception, the chorus cites, dances, three terror-myths each of which refers to that most intimate and fateful of encounters between gods and mortals, the erotic. As sacrificial blood draws to daylight the spirits of the dead, as honey draws bees, so human conflict and the representation of such conflict in the theatre draw the gods, and hybrid Dionysus in particular. The point is crucial to our grasp of Attic tragedy. The gods are present in the enunciation and miming of the myth. But they come also to the altar in the amphitheatre. Dionysus is present in his playhouse and at his festival. He returns to Thebes not only in the summoning of the chorus's sententious finale (lines 1349–50), but in the greater guise of the play itself, of the terrors and demands which Antigone enforces on us.

It is as if this wild stasimon had burst open the secular gates. Supernatural agencies now throng Creon's city. The birds at the place of sacred augury are frenzied and scream barbarously (there is here, perhaps, a sinister echo of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, line 1051). Hephaestus, the fire god and, by metonymy, the sacrificial flame itself, refuses his presence. The flame will not kindle. The fat, the entrails do not burn. Such is the macabre rebuke of the gods to those who would honour them in polluted Thebes. The civic altars as well as those of the private hearth have been sullied with carrion ripped by the birds from the unburied flesh of Polyneices. The spasmodic, diffuse causalities and contiguities which normally operate in human affairs have yielded to an instantaneous and implacable symmetry. The birds and dogs whom Creon bade devour the corpse of loathed Polyneices are infecting the πóλιс with obscene droppings. The flames denied to the son of Oedipus are now denied to the altars. Creon, who, like Oedipus before him, has seen in Teiresias a corrupt augur, one whom mutinous citizens have bribed with gold so that he shall traffic treacherously (marchander renders the precise flavour of the original) with the truth, must now confront the physical omens of divine disgust. He must grapple with the apparent abrogation (p.274) of the contract of public piety between himself, as legitimate ruler, and the supernatural presences whom he had personally invoked on terms of reciprocity. Creon does so in what I take to be one of the central passages in our text.

In Jebb's version, lines 1039–44 read as follows:

but ye shall not hide that man in the grave—no, though the eagles of Zeus should bear the carrion morsels to their master's throne—no, not for dread of that defilement will I suffer his burial—for well I know that no mortal can defile the gods.

Robert Fagles translates:

  • You'll never bury that body in the grave,
  • not even if Zeus's eagles rip the corpse
  • and wing their rotten pickings off to the throne of god!
  • Never, not even in fear of such defilement
  • will I tolerate his burial, that traitor.
  • Well I know, we can't defile the gods—
  • no mortal has the power.

And Mazon:

Non, quand les aigles de Zeus l'emporteraient pour le manger jusques au trone du dieu, même alors, ne comptez pas que, par crainte d'une souillure, je vous laisse l'enterrer, moi. Je sais trop que souiller les dieux n'est pas au pouvoir d'un mortel.

This is not the place at which to do more than merely draw attention to the considerable differences in intonation and literal understanding which these three versions exemplify. It is evident that the Greek resists unequivocal paraphrase. There may be textual problems in line 1040, and various clarifying emendations have been proposed. Some commentaries labour for ambiguity. Creon will not bury Polyneices’ remains even under threat of pollution; or, should the eagles bear carrion to the omnipotent throne, the burial would none the less result only from Creon's decision, and not have been imposed on him by Teiresias’ portents or mendacities.

But this strikes one as strained elaboration. The pulse of baffled rage—the gods whom he has honoured and whose temples he has victoriously defended against the incendiary Argives are now turning on him—and the blasphemy that erupts out of Creon's fury are emphatic. We have seen how (p.275) subtly they are prepared for by the undercurrent of unctuous blackmail in line 304. And again, a dire symmetry is at work. Although lines 855–7 are notoriously difficult to interpret, the chorus sees Antigone as overweeningly close to the plinth and throne of Justice, seeking either to embrace it imperiously or even to thrust against it. Mirroring this image, Creon's blasphemy now reaches out, with crass impurity, to the very seat of Zeus.

But, so far as I am aware, no commentary has perceived the challenging depth of Creon's justification—θεοὺс μιαíνειν οὔτιс ἀνθρώπων сθένει.

Theologically, psychologically, within but also far beyond the context of the drama, this is a tremendous postulate. Jebb reads the line as a sophism ‘of the kind with which a stubborn and wrong-headed man might seek to quiet his conscience’. Others see the statement as evidence that fury has momentarily overcome Creon's prudential piety. Citing, in contrast, the profoundly serious use of this maxim in line 1232 of Euripides’ Hercules Furens, some exegetes qualify Creon's utterance as purely hypocritical. Thus Erasmus in his Adagia (v. 1): ‘sententia pia est sed a Creonte impia anima dicta.’ Do these readings do justice to the probing, unsettling psychology of Sophocles’ construct? Ought we not, rather, to welcome the suggestion put forward by Lewis Campbell, in his edition of Sophocles of 1871, that Creon's sovereign scepticism is genuine and that it anticipates that of the Epicureans?

We must, I think, ponder the context closely. Creon's political theology had officiously gauged the conventionalized and due degrees of contact as between men and gods. Now the rules have been broken by the wild ingress into the city of mystery and hostile portent. Has Creon discovered, in the bleak clairvoyance of his rage, the abyss of ‘non-relation’ between mortal and divine? Does he now realize, even if only in a barren flash of insight, that his desecration of Polyneices’ corpse was a meaningless gesture because man's fate in respect of the transcendent cannot be determined via ritual or the denial of ritual? For if no human pollution can defile the gods, then the non-burial of Polyneices is a trivially immanent act. And Antigone's agonistic reflex becomes simultaneously excessive and reducible to a wholly private, sentimental impulse. The tragedy need not have been.

(p.276) Arguably, this is to place on line 1044 too great a charge of suggestion. Yet the grandeur of the statement does stand. It echoes forward to attitudes as philosophically and morally consequent as are the ethics of caritas and compassion announced by Antigone. And it is just this touch of self-destructive parity as between certain of Antigone's foresights and those of Creon which persuades one.

But it is, of course, too late. Zeus, Dionysus, Hephaestus, and Pluto are abroad in the city of man.1 It is their presence which gives to each successive disaster its edge of meaning. As Creon and his servants pause to bury the remains of Polyneices, they pray for mercy to Hecate, goddess of crossroads—how fatal are crossroads in the affairs of the House of Laius—and to Pluto, lord of the underworld. As we know, this moment of penitential piety serves to make doubly sure that Creon will no longer reach the rock-tomb in time. It is at the altar of Ζϵύс έρκϵι̑οс, that Zeus of the familial hearth whom Creon had tactically invoked earlier, that his wife Eurydice now kills herself. Creon's outcry in line 1284 offers difficulties. Some read it as signifying that no sacrifice can appease all-devouring Hades. Others, more tellingly perhaps, interpret the passage to mean that there is no haven for Creon in death, that the victims he has sent to Hades now choke and pollute its longed-for entrance. What is certain is the overwhelming presentness of the vortex of the underworld. It drags Creon after it into blackness.

It is the meetings between gods and men in Antigone which are, finally, the most destructive. Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse, said Goethe. Sophocles knew better. The attempts of the protagonists to keep the divine at a moral or a diplomatic remove fail utterly. At the last, the gods arrive, and civility and the fabric of reason succumb.

But each of the great determinants of collision as they are set out and spring from the debate between Creon and Antigone—between man and woman, between old and young, between society and the individual, between the quick and the dead, between gods and mortals—is, in the final reckoning, non-negotiable and always recursive. It is this timelessness of (p.277) necessary and insoluble conflict, as Greek tragedy enacts it, which invites us to assimilate the condition of man on this earth to that of the tragic.


Antigone's progress towards death (lines 806–943) comes close to constituting a play within the play. The successive parts of this fourth ἑπειсóδιον are interwoven with consummate art. We have Antigone's lament (the κομμóс), the contrapuntal responses of the chorus, Creon's brutal intervention after his entrance at line 883, Antigone's final oration or rhesis in lines 891–928, and the brief invocation which she speaks at her exit. The diversity of metrical means, the manifold virtuosities of rhetoric which characterize Antigone as a whole, are concentrated and deployed to their highest pitch around Antigone's rite of death.

It is plausible to suppose that Greek tragic drama evolved out of proto-dramatic exchanges between a chorus and a solo voice. Tensions between organic collectivity and the aloneness of the individual, as he steps out of or against this collectivity, are, therefore, built into the very structure of Greek tragic forms. It is, moreover, probable that these archaic lyric choruses and beginnings of dialogue commemorated the heroic dead in the locale associated by myth or monument with the hero's burial. Thus a κομμóс in a Greek tragedy may literally take us back to the ceremonies of lamentation and to the mimetic recall of the hero's fate which lie at the roots of drama. We are taken back to the origins of the dramatic genre also by the fundamental interaction between the choral community and the emergence into contour and apartness of the individual persona.

Sophocles is a master of solitudes. Not before Shakespeare's Timon, the most classically and uncompromisingly tragic of his creations, do we find studies in human isolation to match Sophocles’ Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes, or Oedipus at Colonus. Nowhere in literature or moral thought is the existential terror of aloneness, of severance from communitas, more acutely rendered than in the ‘Ode on Man’ in Antigone. Thus, more than any other episode in ancient tragedy, excepting the (p.278) closing, mutilated scenes in the Bacchae, Antigone's κομμóс comprises in a single recapitulation and unfolding both the actual source of the tragic theatre and its poetic fulfilment.

The δαíμων of Antigone has been one of self-isolation. Hence, we saw, the depth of Kierkegaard's identification with her. When Ismene fails her, the premisses of trust which underwrite intimate relationships lapse. Antigone reverts to the solipsistic grammar of Oedipus, the syntax of the ego. The crux in line 941—Antigone's reference to herself as the last child of Oedipus—is a profound dramatic-psychological provocation. By proclaiming herself to be the sole surviving offspring of the Labdacidae, Antigone annuls Ismene from the living. To Antigone, life itself has become equated with a total commitment to the duties and fatalities of kinship. Yet throughout the play Antigone has asserted that these same duties and fatalities transcend good or evil conduct, that they lie outside the shallow jurisdiction of reason or of hatred. How, then, can she deny to Ismene that sense of ϕιλíα which embraces Polyneices and gives validity to her own death? Sophocles gives no answer.

But the play, and the κομμóс in particular, direct us towards a feeling of estrangement in Antigone so drastic that her reflexes of isolation affect not only all other human presences—Eteocles, Ismene, Haemon, the chorus—but also herself. Antigone's lament and farewell can best be understood as a desperate endeavour to come home to her own sole truth of being. This endeavour will enlist pathos and sophistry as well as a surpassing nakedness of appeal. If Antigone does not wholly succeed, it is precisely because the vehemence of her dissociations, of her cumulative exits from the compromising fabric of erotic, social, and civic life, have finally made her something of a stranger even to the initial certitudes and firmness of her own ego.

Jebb cites the exquisite paraphrase of Antigone's farewell to the sun in Swinburne's Erechtkeus:

  • People, old men of my city, lordly wise and hoar of head,
  • I, a spouseless bride and crownless, but with garlands of the dead,
  • From the fruitful light turn silent to my dark unchilded bed.

The scissions she must suffer from organic and social fulfillment (p.279) are mercilessly set out. Antigone will not know marriage, and her κομμóс is, as it were, the mirroring antistrophe to a ὑμέναιον or bridal song. By virtue of supreme irony, Antigone is herself to be deprived of those rites of burial in which she has perceived the only consecration, the only dictate of comeliness, appropriate to her doomed house. The manner of her death will consign her to monstrous limbo: in the lightless chamber, Antigone will be neither of the living nor of the dead. The motif of ostracism, densely foreshadowed by the word ἂπολιс in the first stasimon, modulates from a philosophical-political register into one of ontological finality. Though there are textual difficulties, the underlying sense of lines 850–2 is inescapable: Antigone has a home neither on earth nor in the underworld, she can find dwelling neither in the city of the quick nor in that of the departed. The famous keyword is μέτοικοс, ‘the half-breed’, ‘the hybrid stranger’.1 Yet the alienation and exile from social normality which the half-caste condition comports are as nothing when compared with the expulsion out of life-and-death, out of the bounds of primordial humanity, entailed by Antigone's live burial.

Possessing, possessed by so graphic a vision of her impending fate, Antigone is no longer in trusting touch with the springs of her action. Her closing speech, spiralling upon, darting against itself, has the wild truth of contradiction. At the same time, it belongs to the topos of a last flinching before a willed, accepted self-sacrifice. Similar movements occur in the Gospel narratives of the agony in the Garden or in what we know of Joan of Arc's momentary recantation. Without this flinching, there would not be the self-knowledge (αὐτóγνωτοс) which gives to self-sacrifice its lucidity and meaning.

Creon is on stage during Antigone's monologue. But her words are directed neither at him nor at the chorus. Antigone addresses those who cannot or will not hear her—the guests of Persephone in the night-world. She speaks to herself and to her dead. Three times in lines 898–g Antigone intones varying forms of her talismanic word, ϕíλοс. In line 902, and this is the only time she does so in the play, Antigone calls directly and by name on Polyneices. There follows the arch-disputed ground of philological, stylistic, and psychological controversy. No lay (p.280) reader will have anything to contribute to the arguments and counter-arguments which have, since 1821, divided scholars, textual critics, and students of Greek tragedy as to the authenticity or interpolation of lines 904–20. What the layman will note is the light which this irreconcilable debate throws on the limitations of both scholarship and intuition.

My sense of the passage, a sense drawn in part from having seen some productions of the play which included it and others which omitted it, is that it belongs. Antigone is struggling fiercely to keep at bay the inrush of doubt and of despair. Neither subterranean Persephone nor beloved Polyneices has come to her aid. She knows nothing of Haemon's rebellious support. The chorus has queried not only the legal and ethical propriety of her act, but its meaningfulness. In this extremity, it is, in fact, the forced logic and concreteness of Antigone's ‘Herodotean’ plea, it is the sophistry whereby she would prove the unique status of a dead brother as against all other losses, which ring true. On the knife-edge of total solitude, Oedipus’ child reaches towards that shallow but momentarily dazzling rhetorical ingenuity which marked her father's style. And could interpolation really account for δϵινὰ τολμα̑ν (line 915), that great echo from the ‘Ode on Man’, which signifies ‘to dare terribly’?

But whether or not these lines are genuine, whether Aristotle is right in quoting them as Sophocles’ or Goethe in finding such ascription intolerable, what matters is Antigone's manifest incapacity to find peace of mind. The coercive logic (and this, too, is suggestive of authenticity) of her apologia leaves Antigone finally bereft. The ‘Gethsemane moment’—Hegel's audacious analogy is not baseless—is upon her.

In a theological scenario, the ‘dark night of the soul’ precedes intimations or epiphanies of redemption. The theological construct is, in essence, one of melodrama: abandonment, the temptations of despair, come in Act iv. Absolute tragedy is so exceedingly rare a form precisely because it negates the up-beat, the pendulum-swing towards hope which seems to be ingrained in human sensibility. Absolute tragedy, which comprises a handful of Greek tragedies, Marlowe's Faustus, Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (there are ambiguities of compensation at the close of Lear), Racine's theatre of Jansenist retribution, tests the reflex of Capaneus, (p.281) the blasphemer among the Seven against Thebes, who, even in Dante's Inferno, scorns salvation. Tragedy perceives the world as does Ivan Karamazov when he sends back to God his ‘ticket of admission’. It extends to Act v the logic of damnation. In very rare instances—and it is these which human imagining finds close to unbearable—tragedy confronts the possibility of nothingness (nothing and never are, of course, the keywords in Lear). Such extension, such probation, make of lines 921–8 in Antigone a touchstone of tragedy.

Every word repays attention. Antigone is δύсτηνοс—‘doomed’, ‘star-crossed’ in the Shakespearean sense of one predestined to wretchedness. She is ‘god-abandoned’. But Sophocles articulates the discourse so as to compel Antigone to ask herself, and to ask of us, whether it was not her ‘autonomy’ which chose to do without the gods or, at least, without the Olympians. Formally, δαιμóνων δíκην (line 921) may be the equivalent of θϵω̑ν νóμιμα. Both signify those rules which, according to Antigone, emanate from divine and everlasting justice. But the first phrase, which is the one she actually uses, inevitably connotes her bias towards chthonian night, towards a cosmology older, more ungoverned, than that of Zeus. Antigone harbours no solacing certitudes as to the nature of Hades. As in Ajax, so in Antigone, the reticence of Sophocles’ art is such as to leave open the possibility of ‘nihilism’, of that abyss of nothingness after life which western religiosity, metaphysical idealism, and the common pulse of the imagination would deny. Antigone envisions herself as entering either upon blank and inconceivable extinction—something like Baudelaire's ‘grand trou | Tout plein de vague horreur, menant on ne sait ou’—or as seeking uncertain reunion with the clan of the self-destroyed and fratricidal dead. No Elysium beckons, no Socratic grove.

With the self-lacerating clarity which also characterizes Oedipus when fatality strikes, Antigone spells out, urges the paradox of her undoing: her piety has harvested both the designation and fruits of impiety. Her just deed has generated hideous injustice. Now what moral right, what pragmatic motive, has she to call upon those gods whose manifest failure to intervene on her behalf is either incomprehensible or a signal that Antigone has acted in error? Unspoken, yet in range of Antigone's bitter casuistry, is the third, most terrible, (p.282) alternative: that the gods are unjust or impotent, that mortal man, if he insists on acting ethically, according to reason and conscience, must leave the gods ‘behind’. We find this view, if the text can be adequately reconstructed, stated all but explicitly at the close of Euripides’ Bacchae. I take it to be outside Sophocles’ world-view. Nevertheless, it is a distant inference which seems to press on the inhuman solitude and self-torment of Antigone's finale. Nothing in her acquiesces in an Aeschylean theodicy, in the acceptance, proposed by the chorus, of unmerited doom or of the absence of divine help in consequence of some hereditary malediction. She wants to know. She is Oedipus’ child, rebellious in knowledge.

No translation does justice to the grim pathos and casuistical provocation of the closing lines. At one level, there is desperate doubt: if the gods have found for Creon, if she has been truly doomed for impiety, Antigone will ‘know her error’. It is not that Antigone has ceased to believe in the fundamental Tightness of her conduct. But to term lines 926–7 as ‘at most scornfully concessive’, as J. C. Kamerbeek does in his commentary, is to miss the authentic terror of Antigone's position and to overhear the intimations of futility and nothingness which dog her. Chillingly, παθóντϵс in line 926, allows the possibility that Antigone will convict herself of error after she has been done to death. Before her may stretch an eternity of punishment and self-punishment, άμαρτάνουсι (line 927) is fatally ambiguous: it means either the commission of an unwitting, excusable fault, or the perpetration of a culpable deed, or both.

But having turned the double-edge upon herself, Antigone now turns it on her cruel enemies. If they have sinned, if the άμαρτíα, here understood as deliberate, as criminally wilful, is theirs, then may they suffer ‘no greater evil’ than that presently being meted out to her. The rhetorical twist—‘may their punishment not exceed mine’—the touch of legalistic equivocation at such a moment, are uncannily apposite. It is Antigone speaking, a young woman whose sombre and probing intellect keeps desperation at bay (it is, I have suggested, this same Antigone who fences dialectically in lines 904–20). She is of Oedipus’ mettle, even now, in the ‘storm-winds of her soul’ (line 929).

It is the House of Laius into which Antigone appears to reenter (p.283) in her lyric farewell (lines 937–43). Figuratively, this homecoming corresponds precisely to her descent into the rock-tomb. The emblematic terms are πατρω̑ιον, προγϵνϵι̑с, βαсιλϵιδα̑ν. Thebes is now and above all the land of Antigone's fathers, the patrimoine of her race. She, who is being haled away to vile death, is the last ‘of the blood royal’. Let the πóλιс of Laius witness at whose base hands Antigone suffers execution (in sovereign contempt, Antigone does not designate Creon byname). Fearful of heaven, she has cast out mortal fear. In Antigone's parting words, the note of confidence is not one of transcendent faith, but of the heroic temper. Come night or nothingness, Antigone is, at the last, every inch regal. But no splendour is allowed to mask or diminish the abyss. Instants before, in line 934, Antigone has cried out in terror when hearing Creon threaten the guards for their slowness in carrying out his sentence. In Sophocles, heroism does not blunt tragedy. It makes it more wasteful.


We have seen throughout these readings that much remains unrecapturable. Consider what might be our full sense of Antigone's final exit if the relevant music and motion were available to us; or if we could clearly visualize the conventions of a theatre of masks in the Greek tragic mode. Appeals to Sophocles’ intentions, as one finds oneself making them more or less consciously, are, at best, conjectural. Quite apart from the hermeneutic crux as to whether or not the author's intentions, even where there is good evidence for them, carry any prescriptive authority, the attempt to establish what a fifth-century Athenian dramatist had in mind at this or that point in his plays can never be realized. Hence the characteristic modern resort to the notion of'constraints’. Philology, classical scholarship, schooled reading, seek to determine the limits of possibility within which an Attic mentality of the Periclean age may reasonably be supposed to have operated. They seek to narrow the areas of textual and semantic uncertainty by delimiting the constraints on language, on syntax, on poetic or philosophic statement functional in contemporary discourse and feeling. Historical learning and (p.284) ordinary common sense do lead us to believe, indeed they almost compel us to do so, that there are things which neither Sophocles nor his dramatis personae could have meant, felt, or said in c. 440 BC.

Where reference to actual objects and practices, say in agriculture or manufacture, is involved, or where actual historical occurrences and institutions are alluded to, such constraints are self-evidently present and worth noting. But these are only the most primitive elements of context. A major poet is an innovator in language as well as in sensibility. He may attach to the words which he uses connotations, tonal values, even meanings outside and often critical of the usages current in his society. A character in a play may exhibit categories of perception and modes of expression radically eccentric to the norm. Drama has been, time and again, the testing-ground for lost or future potentials of human utterance and behaviour. Where they are applied to such crucial nuances and ambiguities as those we have been looking at—Antigone's possibly contrastive attitudes to Eteocles and to Polyneices, the religiosity of Creon, the status of masculine and of feminine styles of being in the myth and in Sophocles’ treatment—arguments from constraint turn out to be intuitive and approximate. If this were not the case, how then could one account for the open-ended disputations between scholars of the same rank, between equally equipped connoisseurs of the text on (to cite the obvious case once more) the authenticity or spuriousness of lines 904–20? One need only have heard a Winnington-Ingram and a Bernard Knox take diametrically opposite views on this or other points, and argue their irreconcilable persuasions with equal wealth of supporting evidence, to know how little we know.

But the reading of a classical text can also elicit exactly the contrary difficulty. The work or passage will press on us a claim of seeming immediacy. Far from sounding archaic and unrecapturable, the Homeric, Aeschylean, or Sophoclean words, images, and gestures strike us as overwhelmingly pertinent. They foreshadow, they symbolize, they speak nakedly to our present condition. Under pressure of ‘relevance’, the intricate mappings of distance between reader and classical text, on which responsible interpretation depends, are annulled. Now obviously it has been successive experiences of (p.285) immediacy, successive compulsions of identification between ancient and modern, that make up the afterlife of Hellas. Ciceronian Atticism, the Platonism of the Renaissance, the neo-classicism of the ancien régime, the ‘Sparta’ of the French Revolution, Victorian Hellenism, are characteristic examples of willed recognition. A later climate of feeling, of aesthetics, of political theory or individual style, discovers in ancient Greece that which is most germane, most immediate in depth and justifying precedent, to its own present needs. Marathon and Salamis, observed Matthew Arnold, were more actual to the governing culture of nineteenth-century England than was the Battle of Hastings.

In the twentieth century, such foreshortenings and claims to relevance have taken on peculiar force. I have alluded often to Heidegger's sense of the yet-to-be-apprehended presence of the pre-Socratics in the birth of authentic modern thought. From Frazer to Lévi-Strauss, comparative anthropology and ethnography have, consciously or not, done much to render our view of culture and ritual synchronic. Ancient Greece is made to ‘feel’ as near to us as, perhaps nearer than, any other anthropologically and sociologically analysable community. Psychoanalysis, after both Freud and Jung, has literally fed on Greek myths. It has made of the archaic the raw material and substance of the continuities of the human psyche. We are, proclaim psychoanalysis and structural anthropology, les enfants d’Œdipe. Thus the modern dramaturgy of consciousness and symbolic identifications bids us recognize in Oedipus and Narcissus, in Prometheus and Odysseus, man semblable, mon frére. More and more, we can come to understand in the modernist movements in the West a hunger for ‘beginnings’, for a return to archaic, essentially Greek, sources.

This will to homecoming, to the fusion of past and present, has been vivid in the representations of the tragic politics of our age. The burning of cities in 1939–45 was seen, almost at once, as cognate with the destruction of Troy. Euripides’ dramatizations of defeat and enslavement, of the survivors and the deported, particularly as these are enacted in the lives of women, took on a fierce pertinence. For Sartre and the Living Theatre, during the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, such figures as Andromache, Hecuba, and the Trojan women provided a code of universal presentness. The ‘counter-culture’ of the (p.286) addict and the flower-child, of the manic and the schizoid, found in the Bacchae an immediacy of self-recognition, a fullness of articulate realization, far beyond those in any contemporary text. Throughout this study, we have seen something of the lives of Antigone and of Creon in our time,

That such sensations of overlap, indeed of identity, between past and present are guarantors of the continued vitality of a classic is evident. That a text recedes from literature into epigraphy or mere historical documentation when it is no longer experienced as somehow relevant, is equally certain. Walter Benjamin's hermeneutic conceit whereby there is that in an ancient text which awaits our discovery, that vital texts perform a millennial pilgrimage towards recognitions and interpretations yet to come, contains a real methodological truth and incitement. Nevertheless, the obstacles which relevance poses to understanding are not to be discounted. Immediacy sets sensibility ablaze. By the same token, it can make blind.

Let me illustrate this point, briefly, with reference to lines 1064–76.

Editors point to textual problems (notably in lines 1068–71). They suggest that Teiresias’ prophecy is at once precise and indistinct. It is precise in its foreknowledge of imminent ruin. It is indistinct in that it kindles in Creon the false hope that evil may still be undone, that the prompt entombment of Polyneices will save the royal house and the city. Teiresias knows, of course, that it is already far too late. Creon can no longer satisfy the demands of the nether gods for compensation for the ‘absence’ of Polyneices, nor that of the gods above who will demand restitution for the slaying of Antigone. In this double and symmetrical exaction, the deaths of Haemon and of Eurydice are implicit. Such is the central enormity of Creon's actions that Teiresias hardly alludes to Antigone (is she not, to his clairvoyance, already a corpse?). In the dread equilibrium of crime and of punishment Antigone has become almost fortuitous. Creon's evil deeds must be paid for by Creon's own flesh and blood.

The potential of blinding relevance lies in Teiresias’ summation of what it is that Creon has actually brought about. Fagles translates strongly: (p.287)

  • you have thrust
  • to the world below a child sprung from the world above,
  • ruthlessly lodged a living soul within the grave—
  • then you've robbed the gods below the earth,
  • keeping a dead body here in the bright air,
  • unburied, unsung, unhallowed by the rites.

An emendation may be needed in this difficult passage to get exactly the right nuance: ‘you keep, here on earth, one of those properly belonging to those below.’ But the meaning of Teiresias, the circle which he draws, are clear.

Creon has not committed some local, limited crime, however savage, He has, in a way one might not have deemed possible to a mortal man, inverted the cosmology of life and of death. He has turned life into living death, and death into desecrated organic survivance. Antigone is to ‘live dead’ below the earth; Polyneices is to be ‘dead alive’ above. The wheel of being has been turned obscenely full circle. Greek perception as a whole, and that of Sophocles more especially—witness the great monologue to the sunlight in Ajax—intimately associated light and life. To be alive is to see and to be seen by the sun; the days of the dead are unlit. Creon has done final violence to this equation. Alive, Antigone is thrust into blackness; dead, Polyneices is left to rot and to reek in the light of the sun. Teiresias suggests to us the twofold, subtly equivalent, nature of the outrage. For if the sun is sacred, so is the dark of Hades. Creon has polluted both the light and the dark, both the day and the night. ‘Death and the sun’, said La Rochefoucauld, ‘cannot face each other.’ Concomitantly, the darkness must not be made host to the agony of living sight.

No poet or thinker, I believe, has found a greater, a more comprehensive, statement of ‘the crime against life’. None has found a more total image of the continuum from individual to cosmic evil. Teiresias’ words are, none the less, embedded in the language and the context of the play. When Teiresias tells Creon that the Erinyes are ‘lying in ambush for you’ (line 1075), the formula is Homeric. At work throughout the prophecy are such specific questions as to whether or not the Olympian gods have any share in the destiny of the dead, and as to whether, in the perspective of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the Furies which wait on Creon are specially and vengefully attached to the errant spirit of Polyneices. Any attempt at (p.288) careful reading ought to take these elements into precise account.

Yet I find myself almost unable to do so. Teiresias’ (Sophocles’) vision of the inversion of the worlds of the living and of the dead has taken on for us, today, an overwhelming actuality. It is the lucid delineation of a planet on which massacres or nuclear warfare have left the numberless unburied dead, and in whose subterranean shelters, caves, or conscripted catacombs the living wait in blackness for their end. Henry Moore's ‘shelter drawings’, to which I referred earlier, already draw us uncannily close to the imaginings of Antigone. But they are as pastoral ornaments compared to the prospects of death-in-life, of life-in-death, now open to mankind. It is these very prospects, the murder of life itself by the politics of the living, politics which, like Creon's, have their undoubted claims to dignity and to rationality, which Teiresias enunciates. The relevance of his saying negates all cautionary distance between us and the ancient text. The full meaning of Creon's deeds (errors) has come home to us as it cannot have to any spectator or reader before our present danger. It is not ‘the light’ which, to reverse a compelling image in Christopher Logue's imitations of the Iliad, ‘screams to us across three-thousand years’, it is the dark.


In respect of any text longer than a short lyric, the concept of total grasp is a fiction. Our minds are not so constructed as to be able to hold in steady and complete view a language-object of the dimensions and complexities of Sophocles’ Antigone. We cannot, for purposes of rounded inspection and mental reconstitution, circumvent a work of literature as we do a piece of sculpture. The angles of perception from which the play can be approached, the principles of selection or emphasis which are brought to bear on the text's multiple components when one seeks to arrive at a working model of unity, are as diverse as are the linguistic sensibilities, the cultural inheritance, the pragmatic interests, of different individuals.

Even where drafts, preliminary sketches, or statements of intention survive, we can hardly hope to reconstruct the (p.289) inward process of assemblage and unification as it is experienced and reported (amost invariably after the fact) by the artist himself. Such famous admissions as that of Tolstoy in reference to the ‘unexpected’ and ‘unwilled’ evolution of the character of Anna Karenina in the novel suggest that the genesis of poetic forms is, at certain points at least, productively resistant and opaque to the previsions and control of the writer. At some moment in the dynamics of the subconscious, witness Henry James's notebooks, the initial ‘germ’, the incident, memory, felt configuration, from which the work develops, modulate into a vision or programme of unison. But whether the poet, dramatist, or novelist truly sees his text as an interactive whole, or whether the claim to such perception is, where it is made, itself a necessary fiction, remains uncertain. We cannot hope to describe what Antigone was, what it became in the course of composition or retrospection, to Sophocles.

Stanislavsky's work-notes and those of other producers show that the means whereby a particular staging of a play is given its unifying style, its performative coherence, are the result of intricate, fluid adjustments between the producer's internal ideal and the theatrical resources in fact available to him. The method is one of compromise and of choice between practical options. Even the most comprehensive production, the production most intentionally faithful to the text, will elide certain aspects in order to emphasize others. From the nearly boundless range of conceivable constructs, the producer selects a dominant shape, a key-note and instrumentation. The neo-classical harmony which Tieck strove for in his staging of Antigone differs, conceptually and empirically, from the view of the play taken by Max Reinhardt in 1900. The actor's sense of the drama is, in its turn, a fascinating collage. Centred on his own part and on the immediate context of his memorization and stage-movements, the actor's Antigone is an angular, fragmented digest of a larger, partly hidden text. Creon's play is never the same as Antigone's; neither will have the same sense and remembrance of pace or proportion as we would find it in the play of the Messenger. Drama is more subject to such varieties of deconstruction than is any other literary genre (a fact on which Stoppard's brilliant conceit in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is founded).

It is in the face of such fragmentation and selective (p.290) practicalities that the scholar, that the philologist, will advance his claim to a total view. Working letter by letter, word by word, line by line, the philologist and textual scholar aims to exclude nothing and to insinuate no arbitrary priorities. He would see and present Sophocles’ Antigone ‘as it stands’. Yet there is a sense, going far beyond the problem of scholarly disagreements, in which the neutral, disinterested assemblage by the philologist decomposes a literary text more drastically than does any other approach. For in ways which are at once a banality and an enigma, a literary text, a work of art that has in it any genuine authority, is not only more than the sum of its parts. It is, in a palpable sense, the denial of its own assembling. The organic nature of a great poem or play is, to be sure, seen metaphorically. We cannot define rigorously, let alone quantify, the felt analogy to living forms. But we know it to be justified; and we know that the agencies of autonomous being in literature and in art act beyond and even in repudiation of any anatomy of discrete thematic, structural, or technical features. There can be no enumeration of that which makes up the vital whole of Sophocles’ Antigone. But in their impartiality towards detail, in their obligatory reduction of substance to material embodiment (sense is brought back as closely as possible to lexical-grammatical instrumentality), philology and textual scholarship are enumerative. The philological perspective is precisely that which postulates an equation, arduous to resolve but fundamental nevertheless, between the totality of significant presence and the aggregate of distinct formal units. This is why there is an inherent conflict between thought and scholarship, between the positivism of the philological and the recreative, metaphorically underwritten aims of hermeneutics.

This does not mean that the literary critic or the ‘slow reader’—whose interests I have sought to represent throughout this study—have any privileged access to a unifying vision. There is no insurance of clear-sightedness in criticism. We have seen that critical readings of Antigone are under direct or oblique, implicit or explicit, pressure of occasion, of particular epistemologies, of theoretical and practical orders of priority. The eye of the critic is personal; his focus will be argumentative and strategic, most especially where it invokes alleged principles of canonic generality. The categories of meaning (p.291) which critical analysis and valuation graft on a text are, at best, clarifying models. They make salient and throw into relief. Honest literary criticism is simply that which makes its purposed constructions most plainly visible and open to challenge.

The successive compositions and decompositions, elucidations and shadings, fragmentations and compactions which the act of reading brings to a written text, are of such delicate multiplicity that we have no normative or verifiable account of them. The pragmatic context, material as well as cultural, is as much a part of the dynamics of reading as is the psychology of the individual reader. Both context and psyche are, in turn, in constant and interactive motion. Rereading the identical passage or book, we are already other than we were. As we recollect or forget, sequent notices and internalizations of a text, layers, sediments of expectation and surprise, of recognition and spontaneous reaction, are deposited not only in the conscious mind, but in the subconscious where the reception of language probably exfoliates and dissolves into a more general coding of images, symbols, and phonetic associations. In the deep-seated and involuntary circulation of consciousness, these more diffuse semantic forms return, as it were, to the surface, to illuminate or obscure the more overt processes of understanding. Master readers are, so far as we can tell, no more frequent than major critics (I would guess that they are, in fact, rarer). And even in a Montaigne or a Borges, the introspective analyses of inspired reading, the testimonials of disinterested encounters between text and consciousness, remain sparse and metaphoric.

It is my own impression that two contrary currents are operative in serious reading, in that (lesser) work of art which is the product of a lecture bienfaite. As concentration deepens, as noise and scattering are excised, to a greater or lesser degree, from the narrowing beam of attention, it is local detail that forces itself into the foreground of notice. This foreshortening, which is indispensable to our observance of singularity, of executive techniques, of stylistic specificities, inevitably fragments the text. But a counter-current of recomposition is also at work. Even as the eye looks away momentarily from the written passage, even as the local unit of textual material—the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the stanza in the poem, (p.292) the scene in the play, the chapter in the novel—is receding into more or less retentive recollection, an erosion towards unity occurs. The detail is made less distinct as it enters into a largely subconscious, provisional construct of the whole. A memory trained to art will include within itself the skills of forgetting; it will smooth the sharp edges of the particular as our fingers smooth the edge of the stone before inserting it in the mosaic.

None the less, in even the most scrupulous of slow readings, the view which emerges of the text as a whole is ‘angled’ and selective. Where it exceeds the bounds of the verse lyric or prose vignette (it is the calculated observance of such dimensions which makes immediately unforgettable and irrefutable certain parables of Kafka), no literary work is held whole and unwavering in attention and memory. With each rereading, moreover, a new construct, a new assemblage is made. Details previously privileged are set in the background or elided; elements previously slighted or altogether unnoticed move into prominence. The sense of the whole may be strong, but it remains kaleidoscopic and subject to change. Tests have shown that the summaries which even the most attentive of readers gives of a work whose organic shape, whose coherence, are vivid to him will, on each occasion, differ.

Several ‘Antigones’ precede, underwrite, but also contradict the play which I have read in this chapter. There is the Antigone ‘story’ as my father told it to me when I was a very young child, an ‘Antigone’ made mesmeric, as I recall, by the matter of live burial. There is the ennobling myth of heroic Antigone as I first read it for myself in a young person's manual of Greek and Roman mythology, whose precise title and the name of whose editor I cannot remember, but whose olive-green binding and endpapers decorated á l‘antique remain in my mind's eye. An eccentric, hectoring teacher taught me ancient Greek at the French Lycee in New York during the Second World War. M. B's true passion was seventeenth-century metaphysics, and Descartes in particular. He ranked the Attic philosophers and orators above the poets (the orations of Andocides fill me still with resentment and self-reproach). But the ‘Ode on Man’ in Antigone and Teiresias’ prophecy did seem to M. B to possess a moral weight and philosophic reach beyond those of mere literature. He taught (p.293) these texts tightly and unforgettably to his three cowed charges on long Thursday afternoons. What is more, he knit Sophocles’ text to the news of war and of occupation, of hostages and the unburied dead which, in that school and at that time, came daily. One of the three grécisants, the old proud designation which goes back to the school syllabus of the Renaissance, left New York more or less clandestinely to join the Resistance. He died in the premature, hopeless battle on the heights of the Vercors. This death (was A.S. more than seventeen?) lives for me in the play and, emphatically, in Haemon's impatience.

Anouilh's Antigone swept through the schools, colleges, universities, as well as the amateur and professional theatres of the post-war period. Its corner-of-the-mouth disenchantment, its anti-heroics and leather coats, precisely captured both the hysterics and the embarrassments of unmerited survival. The apparent simplicity of Anouilh's idiom, the fact that the play can be staged in everyday dress and with a minimum of décor, made of Antigone the house-favourite of ‘French clubs’, teachers of French, and little theatres across the Anglo-American spectrum. I saw, I had some part in, too many productions. Anouilh's version came to seem to me a libel on Sophocles. It is not. It is a highly reductive variant, innocent of awe, but with an intelligence and argumentative poise of its own. It is, at this point in time, difficult and, perhaps, artificial, to focus on Sophocles’ Antigone without keeping Anouilh's critique of the myth at alert distance.

I then returned to the Greek text both as student and teacher, and am not certain of being able to order chronologically the ‘Antigones’ which followed. It was at a bookstore in Zurich that I acquired one of the first modern printings of Hölderlin's translation. The impact of darkness, of doors closed against me which I then experienced, is with me still. But also the sensation of an overpowering presentness which, as I began struggling with this incomparable recasting, drew me into the lives of Antigone throughout German poetry, philosophy, and politics. I came to Hegel and to Heidegger. I heard Carl Orff's strident, mechanistic, yet at its ‘Creon-points’ defensible, setting of Sophocles-Hölderlin to music. In turn, it is against this version of hammers and cymbals that I can, having seen it performed while already at work on this book, invoke the Antigone of Honegger and Cocteau. Its choral sweep, (p.294) its rhetoric of protest and of freedom, are inseparable for me from the grey and soft-lit city of Angers where the work was staged. Now ‘Antigone's sad song’ as Chaucer imagined it retains an accidental but enduring touch of the Loire. What I am hoping for next is a revival or recording of Andre Jolivet's Antigone music, knowing him to be a composer of exceptional rigour and invention.

The world of textual scholarship, of recension, of philological commentary, is, obviously, of access and of interest mainly to the specialist. But it is a world. We have seen how exegesis breeds exegesis, how commentary engenders commentary, how edition follows on edition in augment, correction, and polemic. The energies of scholarship are disputatious and self-generating. Philology and text-criticism are, by their very nature, inflationary. The history and catalogue of previous emendations and opinions are a necessary part of the argument even, and particularly, where this argument seeks to break new ground (as this study goes to press, classicists at Oxford have announced that they are preparing a text of Antigone which will improve on Dawe's edition).

I remarked at the outset that a bibliography of the scholarly, monographic publications on Sophocles’ Antigone would, of itself, constitute a voluminous enterprise. At every stage, moreover, we have seen that philological and contextual analyses are not value-free. Even at their most severely lexical or grammatical, glosses on Antigone are acts of more or less conscious, of more or less declared, restatement and interpretation. Academic conventions tend to be arcane. I recall the ironic insistence with which a great classical scholar, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, set out to persuade me that it was solely in footnotes to footnotes that the truth was to be found. But the specialized and the esoteric do exercise a persistent, cumulative influence on general literacy. In the case of any classical text, this influence is, in the final analysis, causal. Take the ‘worst’ edition, the sloppiest translation, available of a classical Greek tragedy; take the paperback version off the rack of some book or stationery emporium. It may have few notes, or notes which are wildly misleading. It may be riddled with textual errata and mistranslations. Nevertheless, such a text does result, at the ignoble end of the spectrum, from acts of selection and derivation whose ultimate (p.295) source lies in the history of scholarship. Behind even the most populist version extends a continuum of philology and exegetic criticism. A comic-strip Antigone can exist because classical studies have, since the Renaissance, ensured the transmission and canonic status of Sophocles’ drama.

But the influence of commentary, particularly where it is of a philosophic or political tenor, also acts indirectly. Not very many general readers will have come across Hegel's Antigone interpretations at first hand. But the Hegelian reading of the play as a dialectical conflict of equal opposites has been widely disseminated in the climate of literacy as well as that of theatrical presentation. Jacques Lacan's remarks on Antigone (in the seminar sequence entitled L’Èthique de la psychanalyse) may not, as yet, be generally accessible. But his view of Creon as the ‘denier of desire’, as one whose refusal of the discours du désire entails the choice of death, will, by osmosis of fashion, be diffused.

The question is this: to what extent is one's personal experience of Sophocles’ Antigone a product of the palimpsest of commentaries and judgements which now overlie the ‘original’, to which, indeed, we owe what personal access we have to this ‘original’? Is there any way of going upstream to the source?

Again, the answer must vary with each individual reader/spectator. The absolute grammarian—and he knows ecstasies as intense as any described in current theories of the jouissance, of the eros of reading—may come to conceive of, to love, even a text such as Sophocles’ Antigone as the locus of cruces. The play will come to life in his sensibility by virtue of the syntactic or metrical problems and debates to which it has given prestigious rise. At the opposite pole stands the ‘innocent’, the man or woman who chances across an extract from, a performance of, Antigone, unaware of the concentric spheres of commentary and text-criticism that surround it. The reader of the play, the theatrical audience for whom I am writing, would, I presume, find themselves somewhere past the centre of the scale. They are nearer to philology than to innocence, but will (this, of course, being my own case) have had no hand in the conservation and establishment of the Sophoclean canon.

As I have pointed out, however, there is no complete (p.296) modern innocence in the face of the classics. The mere notion of the ‘classic’ tells us as much. No twentieth-century public or reader comes upon Sophocles’ Antigone wholly unprepared. The play is, unavoidably, embedded in the long history of its transmission and reception. Because this history is so extensive, because variants and adaptations have been both so numerous and of significant quality, Sophocles’ text runs the danger of receding into context. It can only be by a deliberate and, more or less, fictive exercise of purification, not unlike that of a restorer removing levels of varnish and previous restorations from a canvas, that one can attempt to isolate the Sophoclean play from the interpretations and uses made of it. The analogy with the restorer is, moreover, deceptive. It is quite often possible to bring the original design and coloration back into view. But no Ur-Antigone can exist for us. No stripping away of interpretative accretions can take us back to the premiére of the drama, to the phenomenology of its purpose and impact in the 440s BC.

It is, I believe, far more realistic for the ‘slow reader’ to acknowledge that judgements and uses of Antigone, from Aristotle to Lacan, will form some part of his own experience of the work. Even as Freud's ‘Oedipus complex’ and Levi-Strauss's anti-Freudian account of Oedipus as a hero limping between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ have become active elements in the myth, so the ‘Antigones’ of Hegel or of Kierkegaard or of the clandestine feminine ‘brigade’ which, in Germany, is seeking to avenge the refusal of the authorities to return to their families the bodies of slain Baader and Meinhof (Boll's treatment of Antigone springs from this identification) are more than merely extrinsic to Sophocles. The currently modish term would be ‘metatexts’. But this term communicates nothing of the symbiotic processes whereby a strong commentary, an inspired staging, an act of symbolic-political montage, a setting of Sophocles’ Antigone to, as it were, the present music of the mind, become a living extension of the original. It is these processes which allow us to define ‘a classic’.

The classic is a text whose initial, existential coming into being and realization may well be unrecapturable to us (this will always be true of the literatures of antiquity). But the integral authority of the classic is such that it can absorb without loss of identity the millennial incursions upon it, the (p.297) accretions to it, of commentary, of translations, of enacted variations. Ulysses reinforces Homer; Broch's Death of Virgil enriches the Aeneid. Sophocles’ Antigone will not suffer from Lacan.

The development of metamorphic unity is open-ended. New textual and critical readings of Antigone, new scenic, musical, choreographic, and cinematographic renditions, new variants on and adaptations of ‘the story’, are being produced at this very moment. But each in turn will have to test the strength of its being against that of its Sophoclean source. And very few will survive to become that enigmatic but undeniable phenomenon, an echo that has life.

My understandings of Antigone are provisional. They will change with age, with my renewed experience of the text, with my encounter with fresh critical opinions and productions of the play. But such changes are no guarantee of a clearer, more adequate grasp. Insights are lost or spuriously amended (the young Hegel is sometimes a more observant witness to Sophocles than the later philosopher of religion and of power). It is of the nature of the study of philosophy and of the arts—distinct, in this regard, from that of the sciences—that time and age do tend to bring with them a better-informed, a more balanced, view of their object. But neither the questions one poses nor the answers one puts forward are necessarily progressive. The work, that at which we worry and which worries us, becomes more inward to our perceptions. But this intimacy can become one of possession, and thus lodge too deep for clarity. Consciously or not, we may confuse our personal involvement in a great work and the impact of this work on our memories and self-representation with the facts of the case. To reread is to recollect subjectively, across the interpositions, as it were, of the self. It is to ask again or to formulate new questions. These need not, as in the logic of the exact or natural sciences, be ‘better’ or more economical.

As I come to the formal close of this monograph, whose inadequacies, at least, are now plainer to me than they were during work in progress, a further ‘Antigone’ invites awareness, indistinctly as yet, but with a hint of compulsion, as might an image when it starts to acquire contour and mass in the developer in the dark-room.

I sense in Sophocles’ play an undeclared tragedy of the (p.298) dissociations between thought and action, between understanding and practice. The ascription to action of manifest pre-eminence, of an existential worth greater than any other, is a marked element in Periclean and Aristotelian concepts of human conduct. Drama itself, as has often been said, is a stylized expression of this preference. It locates in the individual person those privileges and fatalities of ‘doing’ which the preceding, generative tradition of epic poetry had, assuredly at its origins, placed in ethnic and collective enterprises (the clans of Greece sailing to Troy). But experiencing and re-experiencing Antigone, I find it difficult to dismiss the possibility that Sophocles queried this morality of the deed; or, more tentatively, that there are not within the play as we know it certain aspects, traversed, left behind, but consequent, of a critique of action.

I mean by this that Sophocles tested the cost of deeds which, whatever their intrinsic obligation and merit, overrule and dissociate themselves from the provisional largesse of thought. Nothing, to be sure, is more banal than the notion of actions performed in blind or coercive contradiction to better insight. The very word ὕβριс would seem to point in some such direction of generic human infirmity. I have in mind something more specific. It is Sophocles’ probing of the ways in which dramatic form, the play as a construct of discourse and of deed, isolates the very different, possibly irreconcilable functions of intelligibility on the one hand and of the abstention from adequate understanding on the other (an abstention which makes action possible).

The unmatched economy of terror in Oedipus Rex stems from the enforced homecoming of Oedipus to his naked identity. The etymology of ‘persona’ (itself not Greek) relates directly to ‘mask’. In Sophocles’ Oedipus, the masks by which we necessarily live, the ‘personifications’ through which we maintain a customary distance both from our stripped selves and from others, are successively flayed away. Oedipus’ self is made one with his skin and with that beneath the skin which civilization, shame, the need for a certain Lebensraum—literally a space for the manœuvres and evasive actions of a social being—would have us conceal from ourselves as from others. In Oedipus, this dread reversion to the naked centre proceeds by virtue of a perfect but also unnatural coincidence between understanding (p.299) and action. The action performed by Oedipus is his progressive understanding of his actual self. The normal separations between total intelligibility and performance which, in the common order of life, is selective, tentative, self-deceiving, are annulled. Oedipus’ questing mind breaks through to its own springs of motive. He thinks his acts to inescapable finality; he acts his thoughts to the liminal logic of absolute self-perception which is, also, and of necessity, blindness. There is in this perfect intellection, of which Freud's self-analysis was a conscious mimesis, an incest more radical than that of blood. It is only in the Oedipus at Colonus that Oedipus’ mastering thought yields to the summons of mystery, of that which, very precisely, lies beyond the intelligible; and that Oedipus’ virtus, his δαíμων for action, surrenders to passivity, to the trance-like motion which transports him beyond doing. It is only in the sacred wood that understanding and deed are again set apart and given peace.

It is the particular genius of these two plays which induces one to ask whether there is not in the Antigone a latent challenge to the received wisdom enunciated in a famous line of Euripides’ Hippolytus. As Phaedra says: ‘We understand what is right and proper, we know it, but we do not perform it in our acts.’ But ‘challenge’ is too peremptory. There is, rather, the very delicate yet insistent possibility that Creon's intelligence is of a kind which might lead him to apprehend the necessary claims of Antigone's stance; that Antigone is possessed of a force of empathy which might lead her to perceive the rationale of Creon's position. I do not suppose for a moment that Sophocles could have subscribed to the conclusion arrived at by Coleridge when he wrote in a notebook entry for 1802 ‘there is something inherently mean in action’. But the waste of unheeded persuasion in Antigone seems, at moments, to exceed any rhetorical art or tactic of theatrical symmetry. The behaviour of the protagonists, and this is true also of Haemon, does seem almost extravagantly wasteful of the opportunities for reciprocal intelligibility offered by the dramatic discourse.

In reach of the tragedy as we know and experience it, there lies (or so I now sense) an intimation of inaction, of the deed arrested by the acknowledged gravity, density, and inhibitions of mutual insight. Such a play would not be a ‘drama’ in the proper sense, the very word, as we have seen, signifying (p.300) ‘action’. The suspension of the deed, the abstinence of the doer in the face of the complexities and doubts revealed, proffered to him by thought, would make for a kind of stasis, for a kind of lasting hesitation alien to the dramatic (before, say, Milton's Samson Agonistes or the immobilities of Beckett). Perhaps only drama set to music, music-drama in the true sense of the word, can realize the suspension of the existential compulsion to choose, to be partial, to narrow and sharpen consciousness towards action. The exchange of clairvoyant, undeceived generosities at the close of Mozart's Figaro exactly illustrates what I have in view. We need only recall this scene, and the role of the Countess in particular, to know that such mercy of understanding, and the renunciations of action which it brings with it, have their own infinite sadness.

It may be that subterranean to Sophocles’ most demanding play is a meditation on the tragic partiality, on the fatal interestedness, of even the noblest deed. An untapped stillness of understanding is present in Antigone, in the aura of that secrecy which has drawn to her poets, artists, philosophers, political thinkers. But there may be hints of such a stillness, of a perceptive weariness also in Sophocles’ Creon. As I move nearer the play, leaving behind aspects emphasized in this study, it is the laying waste of stillness, of understanding heard but not listened to, that is beginning to feel central. A phrase out of the Book of Daniel, ostensio secretorum, ‘the showing of the secret’, presses on me. As yet, I can put it no other way.


Why the unbroken authority of Greek myths over the imagination of the West? Why should a handful of Greek myths, that of Antigone among them, recur in the art and thought of the twentieth century to an almost obsessive degree? Why is there no end to Oedipus, to Prometheus, to Orestes, to Narcissus, no laying to rest in archaeology? Explicitly and implicitly, this has been the question underlying this study.

Poets, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and even theologians have answered. Many of their answers are fascinating. Because Greek myths encode certain primary biological and social confrontations and self-perceptions in the history of (p.301) man, they endure as an animate legacy in collective remembrance and recognition. We come home to them as to our psychic roots (but why, then, are they not, strictly speaking, universal and of equal import to all cultures, East or West?). The very foundations of our arts and civilization, we are assured, are mythical. Having taken from ancient Hellas the essentials of western rationality, of political institutions, of aesthetic forms, we have taken also the mythology from which these essentials drew their symbolic history and validity. Theologians say that the epiphany and passion of Christ represent the crowning symbolic act of the western imagination. After Christ, who is the Word, God does not address the mortal imagination directly; but because Christ is also the truth, his boundless inheritance is that of belief, of iconic representation, of personal imitatio, rather than that of myth.

One can also theorize on a humbler level. Greek literature is the first we recognize and experience as such. Its identification with myths is so immediate and fertile that Greek mythology has become a constant centre or pivot of reference for all subsequent poetic invention and philosophic allegory. The Greek myths are a shorthand whose economy generates unlimited variations but which does not, in itself, need to be reinvented. Compare our alphabet or numerical notations. There are addenda: the symbol for zero, the Don Juan motif. But these are exceedingly rare. Heidegger puts it more simply still: for western man, ‘myth itself is Greek’.

But why? Why, to adapt Nietzsche's image, this ‘eternal return’?

When a question proves too difficult, it may be possible to blunt the fact by asking an equally or even more difficult one. But I do believe that some access to the central, canonic permanence of Greek myths may be found, contrastively, if we consider Shakespeare.

Very close on four centuries have passed since his works were created. Much about Shakespeare has the aura of the anonymous, of one concerning whose personal individuality little is known or needs to be known. In many respects, Shakespeare's inventions and speech, his dicta, similes, symbols, pervade our whole culture. But although there are—in Musset's Lorenzaccio, in German and Russian poetry and prose fiction—a considerable number of transpositions from Hamlet, and although (p.302) Edward Bond's Lear is a telling experiment and lonesco's Macbett has its moments, the world of Shakespeare remains his. It has engendered no afterlives, no reprises, of the manifold, continuous kind or quality we associate with the legacies of the Oresteia, of Euripides’ Medea or Hippolytus, of Sophocles’ dramas on Oedipus and Antigone. Ought there not, I have asked, by now to be a legion of ‘Macbeths’, of ‘Othellos’, of ‘Lears’?

The sovereignty of Shakespeare is among the very few genuinely taboo subjects in our cultural discussions. No real doubts can be argued, except on the plane of angry perversity (Tolstoy) or on that of merriment and exhibitionism (Bernard Shaw on Cymbeline). The extreme unevenness in Shakespeare, the puerility of many episodes and intrusions, notably in the comedies, the verbal prolixity of texts which producers cut almost as a matter of evident routine, are problems observed, as it were, in passing. The supremacy of the Shakespearean achievement as a whole is felt to be such as to override, indeed to transmute into strengths, what would, in any other writer, be serious failings. Because the Clown in Othello is so patently intolerable, he is simply elided from commentary and production.

Only a man to whom the articulation of personal convictions is a moral absolute can set down fundamental perplexities about the begetter of Hamlet or of Lear. In his Vermischte Bermerkungen (published, it is true, posthumously), Ludwig Wittgenstein notes that he has never been able ‘to make much of…to understand’ Shakespeare. The clamorous universality of adulation fills him with profound distrust. ‘War er vielleicht eher ein Sprachschöpfer als ein Dichter?’ The distinction is very difficult to translate. It is, in essence, that between a supreme virtuoso and creator of language, of expressive devices, and one whose work leads to ‘the truth’. ‘Er ist nicht naturwahr,’ says Wittgenstein of Shakespeare, ‘not true to nature’ or, perhaps, ‘of a natural truth’. No one could speak of'Shakespeare's great heart’, as they can of ‘the great heart of Beethoven’. It is, according to Wittgenstein, Shakespeare's ‘supple hand’ which, incomparably, has invented new ‘Naturformen der Sprache’, ‘natural forms’ or ‘species of language’, rather than producing what Wittgenstein would recognize as substantive, truthful presences.

It may take a very long time to elucidate fairly, to place in (p.303) their whole context, Wittgenstein's observations (though, already, their relation to the Kierkegaardian distinctions between the aesthetic and the ethical, and their echoing of Tolstoy, are evident). But the main point is this: Wittgenstein concedes to Shakespeare a unique command over language. This command does not ensure, indeed it may militate against, the striving after and statement of ‘truth’, be it philosophical or theological. The Shakespeare-world is impartial, perhaps indifferent, in regard to God. It is remote from that which Walter Benjamin posits when he says that ‘the theological’ is, both in language and supreme art, the only guarantor of felt meaning.

In Greek tragedy, the dimension of transcendence is of the essence. It is openly deployed and addressed in both Aeschylus and Sophocles; it is sometimes subverted, sometimes overwhelming, in Euripides. Myth embodies the potential of finality while postponing, through ambiguity, error, and conflict, its fulfilment. In myth there is always an ‘awaiting’ of meaning, messianic or anti-messianic—witness the Bacchae, witness that anonymous ‘Annunciation’ in the Brussels Museum in which there is, behind the Virgin, as she receives the angelic message, a painting of the crucifixion.

This unresolved expectation gives rise to Greek tragedy and makes it inexhaustibly open to our needs of understanding. Shakespeare drew on history, folklore, legend, the fairytale, the fait divers in chronicles of passion. He did not, with the problematic exception of Troilus and Cressida, draw on myth. Some marvellous intuition kept him from doing so. His pluralism and liberality, his tragicomic bias, his attention to the child in man, refuse any unification of reality and with it the intolerant immensity of the mythical moment. The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, the Bacchae, but also Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, lie outside Shakespeare's kaleidoscopic, secular humanity.

But it is myth and its commitment to transcendence which generate, which compel, the dynamics of recursion, of repetition (that ‘asking again’) across time.

The other direction in which I want to look is that summarily stated in a previous chapter: my hypothesis that the principal Greek myths are imprinted in the evolution of our language, and of our grammars in particular. If my hunch is (p.304) right—and here everything remains to be shown—we speak organic vestiges of myth when we speak. Hence the indwelling in our mentality and culture of Oedipus and of Helen, of Eros and of Thanatos, of Apollo and of Dionysus.

But these are conjectures and books as yet unwritten. All I can be certain of is this: what I have tried to say is already in need of addition. New ‘Antigones’ are being imagined, thought, lived now; and will be tomorrow.


(1) The reader who, in respect of Antigone, seeks ‘the art of reading slowly’ (an expression coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Gerschenson) will want to avail himself of the following: editions of the play by R. C. Jebb (3rd edn., Amsterdam, 1962); A. C. Pearson (first published in 1924, and reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1955); R. D. Dawe (Leipzig, 1979). He will want to consult F. Ellendt, Lexicon Sophocleum, revised by H. Genthe (Olms, 1958). All serious editions deal with textual problems. The most recent collation is that of R. D. Dawe in Studies on the Text of Sophocles (Leiden, 1978), 99–120. Commentaries, on the play in general as well as on points of detail, are, as we have seen, numerous. I have found the following of particular help: G. Müller, Sophokles. Antigone (Heidelberg, 1967); J. V. O'Brien, Guide to Sophocles’ Antigone (Southern Illinois University Press, 1978); J. C. Kamerbeek, The Plays of Sophocles. Commentaries, Part in. The Antigone (Leiden, 1978). Seth Benardete's three-part ‘A Reading of Sophocles’ Antigone’,Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, iv. 3, v. 1, v. 2 (1975), is stimulating and invites fruitful disagreement. I have already cited, throughout this study, the discussions of the play by Karl Reinhardt, R. P. Winnington-Ingram, H. D. F. Kitto, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, C. H. Whitman, and Charles Segal.

(1) S. Benardete, ‘A Reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, I’, p. 148.

(1) R. D. Dawe, Studies on the Text of Sophocles, p. 99.

(1) Paul Mazon's readings of Creon can be related to that constant debate about and revaluation of the personage which, as we have seen in the previous chapter, is characteristic of modern feeling in French scholarship and literature.

(1) S. Benardete, op. cit., II, p. 4.

(1) Cf. M. Delcourt, Œdipe ou la légende du conquérant (Paris, 1944, 1981), ch. 111.

(1) Cf. S. B. Pomeroy, ‘Selected Bibliography on Women in Antiquity’, Atethusa, vi (1973); P. E. Slater, The Glory of Hera (Boston, 1968); S. B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves (New York, 1975); M. R. Lefkowitz, Heroines and Hysterics (London, 1981); M. R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant (edd,), Women's Life in Greece and Rome (London, 1982).

(1) Cf. R. D. Dawe, op. cit. 109–10.

(1) S. Benardete, op. cit., II, p. 13.

(1) The literature here is extensive. I have found the following of particular help: R. Hirzel, Themis, Dike und Verwandtes (Leipzig, 1907); M. Ostwald, Nomos and the Beginnings of Athenian Democracy (Oxford, 1956); J. de Romilly, La Loi dans la pensée grecque (Paris, 1971), 26–34; E. A. Havelock, The Greek Concept of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1978).

(1) Cf. P. Friedländer, ‘πολλὰ τὰ δϵινά (Sophokles, Antigone 332–375)’, in Studien zur antiken Literatur und Kunst (Berlin, 1967), 190–2.

(1) S. Bcnardete, op. tit., II, p. 27.

(1) Cf. G. Müller, Sophokles. Antigone, p. 250, for an illuminating analysis of the metrical effects.

(1) Cf. the general discussion of this point in W. Bröcker, Der Gott des Sophokles (Frankfurt-on-Main, 1971).

(1) Cf. A. Maddalena's argument in Sofocle (2nd edn., Turin, 1963), 69–72. Maddalena sees the first burial as a trap, an ambush (una trappola…una reta, un inganno) set for Antigone by the gods. If, argues Maddalena, the gods have trapped Creon, the net which they have cast over Antigone is even ‘worse’.

(1) H. D. F. Kitto's comment, in Sophocles, Dramatist and Philosopher (Oxford, 1958), 40—‘The gods are active in these final scenes of the Antigone’, but they belong to ‘the natural order of events’—is clearly inadequate.

(1) Cf. the influential study of this entire concept in M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, Les Ruses de l'intelligenceLa Métis des Grecs (Paris, 1974).