ALF Law and Literature Reading Group: Probing Greek Tragedies (Session 6 & 7, June 16 & 23, 2015)

The last few sessions of ALF’s Law and Literature reading group saw us continuing our exploration of Greek tragedy. Our investigation in Sessions 6 and 7 focused on Antigone by Sophocles, a play that rung the discordant note of dissent in a tyrannical regime. The play presents us with a series of contrasting ideas, both ancient in origin and contemporary in relevance. The screening of the 1961 movie of the same name directed by Georges Tzavellas on the 16th of June was followed an engaging discussion of the text of the play the following week.

It was noted at the very outset of the discussion that Greek plays are placed on the cusp of a significant event, which brings in an element of fate and inescapable destiny. The balance between the inevitable and the characters’ struggle to escape the inescapable adds to the theatricality of Greek tragedy.

Antigone sets the tone for a society that has just surfaced from the grind of a brutal war and is on the brink of re-establishment of order. As the third and final play of the Oedipus Cycle, Antigone tells the tale, interestingly, of a woman who is born into a cursed line, whose actions in life lead to her untimely death. Antigone’s opening words lament the suffering of the children of Oedipus, which makes her disaffection towards Creon’s order even more potent as she appears to have nothing to lose in challenging the authority of the State.
Antigone, as a work of literature, is extremely progressive and the tone of progress and refinement is brought out from the outset by its choice of protagonist. While other readings of the Law and Literature group observed the status of women as limited to merely being the carriers of the male seed, this play presents one woman as the sole defender of a higher law that has been overridden by the king. The contrast between Ismene and Antigone perhaps seeks to solidify Antigone’s radical nature. Antigone’s insistence that Creon’s law is merely the word of another human and can therefore be broken without any negative consequences from the Gods augments the idea that men are perhaps not quite as superior as they have been believed to be.

Another question the play puts forth is that of fate and whether someone taking stock of their life through choices can escape fate’s clutches. The face-off between dissent and submission to a higher authority, and if so which authority, is a contrasting theme we explored.

We observed in our discussions of the Oresteia how Greek tragedy traced the move from justice to law. Antigone revisits the quandary by returning from law to justice in its tussle between divine law and a man made law. Our discussion looked at the classic debate on the primacy of natural law over positive law or vice versa, beautifully captured in Antigone’s challenge of Creon’s order on the ground that she is bound by law older than man. Creon to a certain extent abides by the idea that the State is divinely ordained, and as the king, he exercises divine powers which raise his law to the same status as that of the Gods. The problem, as Antigone sees it, arises when the king’s law runs contrary to a divine law and it is here that dissent enters the picture. The role of civil disobedience in expressing one’s dissent is significant as it does not raise the question of violence that we were unable to resolve in our earlier readings. The differing importance Antigone attributes to the duty owed to the dead and the duty of allegiance owed to one’s king is central to her argument with Creon.

The role of repentance in determining guilt was another theme we looked into, demonstrated in the anger Creon feels in seeing that Antigone was not repentant for breaking his law. We also saw, ironically, how Creon’s own repentance towards the end of the play has no real effect on the tragedy that plays out. Towards the end of our discussion, we felt a measure of sympathy towards the man who was merely trying to re-establish order in his realm, but went about it in a questionable manner.

Interestingly, we found a certain similarity between the two opposing characters of Antigone and Creon insofar as both being stubborn advocates of their respective ideologies, both of which are not based on reason, but a strongly felt belief in a particular system. In this setting, Haemon, the son of Creon, is the only rational character striving to convince his father using pure logic. Thus, the play also introduces hints of a shift from belief to rationale. This is a theme, when combined with the idea of civil disobedience, could possibly sow the seeds for participation and democracy.

An important idea that coalesced through this discussion was that the ability to dissent was born of the privileged position that Antigone enjoyed. Despite being the daughter of a fallen king, she still lived under the care and protection of her uncle, Creon, who succeeded her father Oedipus as tyrant. The contrast is singularly evident in the servile and terrified language of the messenger who brings Creon the news of his law being broken and Antigone’s own fearless challenge of Creon’s authority.

The literary merit of the play is in no way shadowed by the multitude of themes it presents and our riveting discussion of Antigone was the perfect penultimate analysis of the Greeks.

Written by: Deeptha Rao
Published on: 15 July 2015