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Abandoned by the Chorus, Kreon fades into darkness.
(Stan Cohen as Creon.)







The Antigone of Sophocles

an adaptation for modern audiences
by Robert W. Bethune

The play and the playwright as seen by the translator

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Antigone: "...how can I fail to honor him? This is what he--that ruler there!--what he tells you is criminal."

The foundation of the play, the element without which we have no story, is a battle of two rights. It is essential that we understand the rights and wrongs of both sides; it is essential that we feel emotionally drawn to both sides. Watching this play is like watching two loved ones fight; both sides are painful.

For all his bluster, his temper, his harsh way of judgement and his rash pride, Kreon does have a grip on one essential fact: society does depend on a central authority for all that law brings that is of benefit. This city and these people are fresh from a fight to the death for their lives, their homes, and their loved ones. It is easy to forget this, easy to make Kreon into a parading villain. But if law is a good, Kreon sincerely believes in and eloquently speaks for something that is good. The tragedy of the play is that he cannot see, until it is too late, that he is not in fact serving that good.

For all her courage, for all her determination and fearlessness, for all her clarity of moral vision, Antigone is as harsh as Kreon, as uncompromising as Kreon, as willing to take law into her own hands--but the law she takes up is divine law, eternal justice. It is easy to make Antigone into a whining victim or a strident harridan; neither is right. In the name of that which is holy, she is as fearlessly, yet arrogantly unwilling to back down as is Kreon. In her own way, she as is full of hubris as he is.

The foundation of Sophocles' treatment of the play is simple, direct, completely focused clarity. There is not a word out of place, not a trace of bombast, fustian or turgidity. Too many writers who provide Greek tragedy in English think the language must be "mythic," meaning inflated. Sophocles is not "mythic" in language. He is beautifully clear in language; he rises to the mythic in meaning.

A modern audience is not likely to be very familiar with Greek myth. Sophocles makes many references to stories well known to his own audience, stories that had intense emotional resonsance for tham, stories virtually unknown to modern audiences. It is important to communicate the emotional essence of those stories without bogging down in unknown names and unfamiliar, ultimately irrelevant details.

Last but hardly least, there is an important philosophical dimension to the play, expressed poetically, not intellectually. The chorus bears the burden of that side of Sophocles' vision. Bringing that aspect of the play to a modern consciousness requires providing vivid imagery that recreates Sophocles' poetic message.

How the story is told

The first scene of the play, the prologue, is a dialog between Antigone and Ismene. Antigone has gone to some lengths to find a way to speak to Ismene alone. We do not know where they are; there is a suggestion of it being very early in the morning. But time of day is not what is on Antigone's mind; uppermost in her mind is the essential fact that is being violated: kinship. She calls on Ismene in the name of that essential relationship in one of the most magical and mysterious lines in all literature: o koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara.

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Antigone: "But not Polyneices. He will be left where he died."

Antigone

Ismene. Sister of my blood--the poisoned blood of Oedipus, our father and our brother. Hate and scorn and shame have followed us, we two, living with hell's own curse. Is there anything the gods can do to us they haven't already done? Now Kreon makes an enemy out of our own flesh and blood. Haven't you heard what Kreon has decreed? Haven't you heard anything at all?

She puts it to her in no uncertain terms. Kinship has been violated. Ritual has been violated. She is going to change that, and nothing can stop her. Will she help?

Antigone

Kreon has decreed our brother's fate. He buries Eteocles in sacred honor and holy ritual, with every mark of glory. But not Polyneices. He will be left where he died. Our brother's flesh must lie in the sun and rot. The dogs and the birds must eat him. No one is to prevent it. Giving him the least touch of kindness means public execution. Now you know. That's the edict. Creon has aimed it straight at us. The time has come. Our mother's blood runs in your veins and in mine. Show me what you are.

No. Ismene will not help. The risk is too great, the sorrow is to great, the power of Kreon is too great. She is overwhelmed. She begs and pleads with Antigone to see reason, to understand her position, to understand her feelings. Antigone is implacable, inflexible, unforgiving, harsh, even bitterly cruel to her sister.

Ismene

What you want is impossible!

Antigone

If it is impossible, I will fail, and you will be content.

Ismene

Don't. Please don't. You'll die. They'll kill you. I'll be alone.

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Antigone: "Bereft, friendless, unloved, I see the sun for the last time."

Antigone

You coward! Stop turning my love into hate! You know what I must do, and what you should do, and so do the dead. How can you deny it? I can't. Am I mad? So be it, let the madwoman go! At least I'll die without shame. You won't.

Ismene

Go then. No one can stop you, I see that. Do what you have to. Yes, you are crazy, but that doesn't mean I don't love you. Go.

There is an implicit change of scene as Antigone and Ismene leave and the Chorus arrives. From this point on, something very important is established in the play: it is an action carried out in public, in which the public is fully involved and implicated; essentially, it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the chorus. We learn the state of mind of the chorus as they enter, celebrating the end of the war between Eteocles and Polyneices:

Chorus

The sun! The sun! Brilliant and pure!
Light of the day shining on a seven-gated city!
Fair star, sweet light, gaze on us, victorious!
We raise our arms, we lift our feet,
We sing in the glorious day,
For we have survived!

Creon comes as the newly minted ruler, ready to give what amounts to an inaugural address. He is most concerned about one possible danger: corruption.

Trouble rears its head almost immediately. A very frightened soldier arrives with bad news.

Soldier

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Soldier: "So we drew straws--and guess who was the lucky one!"

Now listen! I didn't do it, I didn't see it done, I don't know who did it, so you shouldn't hurt me. Just remember that!

Kreon

That's a sturdy fort you're building for yourself.

Soldier

A frightened man builds a tall wall.

His story is detailed, but the essence is simple: the ritual Kreon forbade has been done. For all his fear, the Soldier stands up to Kreon remarkably well, especially when falsely accused of complicity in the act. When Kreon leaves, he knows what a narrow escape he's had, and he says he's leaving the city.

The Chorus reserves judgement, but comes down firmly on the side of law and order in the second choral ode:

Chorus

The world is prodigious
Beyond imagination
Where humankind is master.
We rule the raging sea,
We ride the soaring clouds,
We roam the fertile earth.

We snare the airy bird
And the fish of the silent sea.
We tame the wild beast,
The stallion and the bull.
With fire and tools and cunning
We make the world our own.

We use the gift of speech
To track the trail of thought.
We build a pleasant city
Against the bitter cold.
But do not be too proud,
For Death comes to all.

The mind is full of cunning
For evil, and for good.
We honor human law
We honor the law of god
We praise the honest man
But the sinner is cast out.

The flow of time changes here. It is understood by convention that this text bridges a passage of time. No sooner is it over than the Soldier returns, having spent a day with his unit setting up a trap for whoever performed the ritual. He marches the culprit in to face Creon. It is Antigone.

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Chorus: "He's come with a captive. I know her! Impossible"

He's come with a captive.
I know her! Impossible! Antigone!
Wretched woman, wretched,
Of wretched father born,
Why have you been taken?
What have you been doing?
Can it be that you are the one
Who has done the terrible deed?

Kreon and Antigone have their famous debate: law versus conscience, the rituals of the dead versus the political needs of the living, divine versus human law. Unable to prevail by persuasion, Kreon prevails by force.

His final remark brings up an important element: the role of men versus the role of women. Many Greek myths tell of the terrible things that happen when the boundary between two worlds, the male world and the female world, is transgressed. Both sides transgress here. Kreon has crossed the line; he has violated the rituals of the dead, rituals which are the province of women. Antigone has crossed the line; she has transgressed the business of the law and the city, areas which are the province of men. This element of mutal violation bodes ill; the Chorus focuses upon it:

Chorus

Blessed are they who live in peace,
For the hate of the gods is a raging sea,
Who can endure the storm?
A family, strong as a rocky cliff,
Is broken, shattered, beaten, destroyed,
By the ancient, mighty curse.

[...]

Holiness! High power divine!
Who can resist your law?
Let all humanity learn from you
To walk in the middle way.
The true course of human life
Lies neither high nor low.

Let the divine touch the divine.
Let human hearts know justice.
The vastness of divinity
Is the shortest road to sorrow.
Do not walk the road of the gods.
Stay in the bounds allowed to human kind.

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Haimon: "No! She won't die while I'm alive!"

Haimon comes; the second great debate of the play follows. Haemon is a consummate diplomat, skillfully trying to use the arts of persuasion and reason. He fails. Kreon is deep in the grip of hubris and cannot be reached. The Chorus sees another violation here: violation of family. Kreon is killing his own son's fiancee.

But when Antigone comes, the Chorus turns away from her again. Despite the sorrow and beauty of her lamentation for her own death--a painfully ironic idea, like being forced to dig your own grave--the Chorus will not help her against constituted authority. They decide to stay on one side of the line. She is on the other. It can't be helped. But after Kreon comes and enforces his death sentence upon her, the Chorus knows that no good can come of this, and they, in their turn, lament what is to come.

Chorus

We remember a woman imprisoned for her beauty
A god gave her sons in a shower of gold.
That hero, her son, he killed the woman's father
Unknowing what he did--but not by chance.

See how dark fate works in the world.
Wealth will not escape; war will not protect;
Fate is a dark sea, a fearsome storm,
No ship can ever escape.

We remember a man who cursed the gods,
He died alone, sealed in echoing caves.
His cries for mercy faded in the darkness;
Before he died he learned to know his god.

See how vengeance brings pain to the guilty.
We do as we will; we suffer as we must.
From the ends of the sea to the ends of the earth
Justice is deaf to a guilty voice.

We remember a man who blinded his sons,
In madness he believed they had betrayed him.
They hunted him, they haunted him, the fierce, relentless gods,
They killed him with the memory of sightless, bloody eyes.

See how every action bears its fruit,
How every step we take leads down the road.
When we come to the crossroad, what way shall we take?
Blessed is the one who is guided by a god.

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Chorus: "Gods of holy names, gods of highest power, bringers of peace to the quiet earth..."

All these we remember--rotted, destroyed,
Hunted from their homes to die, alone and far away.
They rose in pride and honor until fate struck them down,
In death, they were humble. Too late. Too late.

Again, time has passed as the Chorus shared its thoughts and feelings with us. Yet another element of the culture now comes into play: the divine voice, the voice of the prophet, the seer. Tiresias, the old blind mantic, has come, knowing how the fabric of the world is coming undone.

Tiresias

Hear me, and hear the omens I bring. I bear witness, and I tell the word of God.

I keep my seat where I can hear the voices of the birds. I know their speech. Today as I listened came a stranger among them, an eagle of terror, all talons and death. They screamed and fought, killing each other in terror, ripping each other with bloody beaks. Full of horror, I lit my sacrificial flame.

It would not burn! A black oil, dripping from the flesh, drained upon the altar. There it foamed and smoked, fouling the air, staining the holy stone. The bones of the sacrifice fell from the meat, and lay in the stinking fumes. This I saw with inner eyes as clearly as you see with outer ones.

Kreon! It is your edict brings this horror! The altars and the holy places stink, reeking of the flesh of that son of Oedipus whose rotting body lies upon the field. Birds and dogs carry his dead flesh to the holy places. The sacrifices are unclean. The gods will not touch the offerings. The worship we offer is polluted in their holy eyes.

Think upon it, Kreon! All humanity makes mistakes. But he who will not learn and he who will not repent are doomed, cursed, hated by the gods. The gods of death are waiting to be paid. Give them their due, and spare your enemy's corpse. The man is dead, you cannot kill him twice. Do justice to him. It cannot help but do you good.

Kreon, deep in the grip of hubris, cannot hear him. He hears only painfully mundane corruption and misfeasance. Tiresias, reluctant but determined, quite literally brings down the wrath of God on him. (The Greek word dios, by which we undertand "God," was the ordinary name of Zeus.)

Kreon

At least I am not for sale. I have my principles.

Tiresias

Hear me, Kreon. I speak of death.

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Tiresias: "The pollution of it fills this land!"

Behold, you have thrust a child of the light into the dark, forced a living soul into the grave. And yet behold, you keep one given to the earth in the light, foul in the sight of the sun. The pollution of it fills this land, poisoning the holy places, staining the holy altars.

In this you have no right. In this you do transgress. In this you cross the boundaries the gods themselves have drawn; you do what mortal man must never do. You steal the rights of the living and the dead, and for this the gods pass dreadful sentence on you.

Hear their will. Before you see another dawn, you will pay. The wailings of grief will howl in your house. The hate of the city will rise against you. You will give a son of your body to death for the body you keep from death. And because you tried to cram the jaws of death with love, death will feed upon you where you love the most. You will fall, and your fall will be hard, friendless, lonely in your grief.

Those are the shots I have for your heart. Come to me tomorrow, and tell me if these words were bought.

I go. Spend your rage on younger men. Learn to keep a wiser tongue, and a more temperate soul. Your lessons await you. Much good will they do you, blind fool.

This finally--at long last!--shakes Kreon's confidence. He decides to back off. The Chorus desperately urges him not to waste a single moment. He goes to save Antigone from the tomb.

The Chorus is terrified. If everything Tiresias prophesied comes to past, it means the end of stability in their world.

Chorus

Gods of holy names, gods of highest power,
You fill the raging sky with thunder,
You whip the howling night with lightning,
You shake the earth and split the mountain,
You throw the raging seas ashore,
Spare us! We hear your holy words!

Gods of holy names, gods of highest power,
You bring the sunlight, you bring the rain,
You raise the forest, you paint the dawn,
You spread the stars on a velvet sky,
You guide the mountain-running stream,
Save us! Give us your august voice!

Gods of holy names, gods of highest power,
Bringers of peace to the quiet earth,
Let us have light in the midst of our darkness,
Let there be peace at the end of the night,
Quiet and still in the breath of the dawn,
Heal us! Let all be well at the end of day.

The Messenger comes. Kreon was too late. Eurydice, Kreon's wife, enters to hear the black news. The Messenger does his duty. She turns to go, almost without a word; yet another highborn Greek woman will retreat into the domicile to die.

Kreon returns. So does the Messenger. It is not enough that Kreon know the death of his son and the woman, his niece, that his son loved. He must also hear the death of his wife. He knows now the full measure of his transgression.

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Kreon: "I will take her to the lonely graves of the dead and wall her up in a tomb."

Kreon

Give me death. I cannot ask to live.

Chorus

Your fate will be as the gods demand. Make no more prayers.

Kreon

Then take me away. Take away this rash, proud, foolish man, this man who killed his son, who killed his wife, who killed his future daughter. Where can I look? Who will help me? Everything I am is ashes now. Death feeds on me. Let him have his fill.

Chorus

Truly to be rich is to be wise,
Truly to be wise is to be humble.
Sorrow teaches wisdom to the proud.

The play ends: beautifully simple, elegantly complete, philosophically profound, emotionally rich. The humanity and profundity of the story ensure its immortality.

Production details:

There are eight named characters. The action of the play requires no properties. The locales are suggested, but not defined in the play; essentially, the play (except for the prologue) takes place in a public area near the palace. The chorus can be of any size desired; the choral passages in the text are written in rhythmic verse with the idea that they would be spoken as a true chorus.

Files available for download

A video clip on YouTube of the Messenger's speech in which he announces the death of Haemon. William Grant plays the Messenger.

A PDF file of the kommos, Antigone's lamentation for her own death.

A form you may use to request a royalty quotation and a full perusal script, either in hardcopy or as a PDF file.

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All text and images on this page are copyright 2005 Robert Bethune.

The photographs are of the production by Creative Theater Group, Monroe, New York.