Grecian civil disobedience

Antigone's challenge to her king is starkly relevant in the age of terror

Although it was first produced around 441 BC, Sophocles' masterpiece Antigone is no less relevant today than when Aristotle quoted it in support of his political arguments. The play explores what happens when citizens consider their loyalty to a principle more important than their loyalty to the state.

In the play, Antigone declares that she will disobey King Creon and bury her brother Polyneices, who fought against his own people in a recent war. She is captured in the act and condemned to death for defying Creon's commandment.

The play is largely a presentation of each side's justification. Creon declares that his order is just because of Polyneices' treachery; Antigone argues that loyalty to her family and the gods outweigh the demands of the state.

Given the American-led war against terrorism, the questions this play raises are strikingly relevant today. President Bush's statement that one is either with the United States or against it echoes Creon's declaration. Not surprisingly, that is one of the inspirations Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney draws upon in this new translation titled "The Burial at Thebes."

Modern audiences tend to be more sympathetic to Antigone's agony in seeing her brother's body defiled, but Creon also represents a moral force: The community can survive only if it is united. As Creon declares early in the play: "Solidarity, friends,/ Is what we need. The whole crew must close ranks./ The safety of our state depends on it."

However, he is a king unwilling to accept the wisdom and guidance of others, ignoring that the people of Thebes are inclined to judge Antigone lightly and that the gods are not pleased with his behavior. The play ultimately suggests that both Antigone and Creon do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

Heaney's accessible translation allows modern readers to wrestle with the play's potent questions again. The line dividing the individual from the state is no less blurry today than it was 2,500 years ago.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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