Antigonick by Sophocles; translated by Anne Carson; illustrated by Bianca Stone

Anne Carson and Bianca Stone’s Antigonick, from the play by Sophocles (Antigone, of the Oedipus triptych).

Where to begin?

If you read only one classical Greek play in your life, let this be it. Carson’s translation is a whirlwind, both a terror and a delight to behold. It will sway you to fall in love with poetry again — to fall in love with stage productions again. I wish I could buy dozens of copies and put them into the hands of high school students, to be read alongside older/”more traditional” translations, to be contrasted and compared, and marveled at. Antigonick is a work of art.

And, if you’ll pardon the pun, a work of heart. Antigone is, in my (purely personal and not particularly educated in the Greek classics) opinion, the most wildly passionate and of Sophocles Theban tragedies*, Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

The plot, minus major spoilers (SPOILERS WILL COME LATER IN THE POST): Antigone (an-TIG-oh-nee) and her sister Ismene are the only surviving children of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, and his late wife (also mother) Jocasta. Their two brothers have both just died in battle, on opposite sides. Their uncle, Kreon, now king, declares one of their brothers a hero, the other a traitor. The one is buried, as are the rest of Thebes’ defenders, but Kreon decrees that the other will lie unburied and denied funeral rites.

Ways to describe this play: a meditation on/exploration of defying the state. A warning of what happens when the state is unjust. A conflict between two laws, those given by the gods, and those given by the king. An extended family tragedy. The final disintegration of Oedipus’s lineage. The king versus the state. The death of a martyr. Consequences.

But while all those descriptions are good and true, and could be added to and examined extensively, that’s not why I fell in love with Antigone in grade twelve, and it’s not what makes Antigonick so formidably heart-ensnarling now. The play is about the people. So let’s look at them, briefly. (SPOILERS)

Antigone. The trouble-maker. Antigone is grief-stricken, barraged by sorrows from all directions. In the face of injustice, Antigone declares that a law is no law if it defies the law that the gods have given. Antigone is of all the characters by far the most difficult to describe, which is as it should be for a protagonist, even one who dies before the play ends. She is willing to give her life to do what is right, even eager to carry the punishment; but she is also passionately attached to living. She is razor-sharp and burning.**

Ismene. Meeker and milder than her sister, Ismene has bought more into convention. Yet she also deeply loves her family, even when they think differently.

Kreon. The king. Full of being king. Misogynist. It’s best that I pass over Kreon.

Haemon. Kreon’s son; Antigone’s fiance. Haemon is an understated character. When he first comes on stage, on page, he seems weak and yielding, his father’s toad. You think, Antigone is engaged to him? He’s not worthy of her! A few pages later, bam! You’ve seen Haemon enough to perceive that he is soft-spoken persuasion wrapped around a core of loving steel. Where Kreon is toxic, Haemon is a nice example of healthy masculinity. Probably the most fundamentally decent man in all the plays.

Teiresias. The blind seer. Sarcastic. Bitter. He knows people misinterpret his prophetic words because of his disability (aka their ableism) and he’s not having it here.

(There is so much to say about this passage it hurts to just keep going but I will trust you to think it for yourself, not needing my words.)

The Chorus. Old (states)men; the elders. Experienced leaders and counselors, they have a hand on the helm of state – at least they should have, if they hadn’t become feeble-willed and unable to speak against the powerful. They in many ways reflect the city/the general populace of Thebes. (More literally they are a select and privileged group and not representative of the general population.)

Like. Just read those pages aloud. This group of old men stands there, in Kreon’s hall, muttering to themselves, defining and redefining their position, their purpose, caught in agony at what is going on. The sentence structure of their monotone/monologue shortens, tightens, as it rises in pitch and intensity to a desperate plea and you believe, for a moment, that this is the turning point at which things must change —

And the outburst subsides, stillborn; the rhetorical crowd-stirring call to action collapses in on itself and the Chorus folds back into equivocation, extemporation, trembling inertia. The rest of the page is blank, like the slate of their deeds; the Chorus remains ineffectual witnesses, unable or unwilling to dare to act, more reporters than lawyers, until Teiresias, also an old man, strides onto the scene.

Other characters: A guard. He, honestly, is comic relief. (Or tragicomic relief.) Kreon’s wife, whose name I have forgotten, but anyway I didn’t like her; she blames everything on Antigone instead of on her freaking husband and maybe herself. It’s a miracle Haemon turned out as good as he did.

As you can tell, this translation/recreation doesn’t use punctuation. I don’t think the original Greek did, so technically this is a faithful, very old structure, ON THE OTHER HAND, it also feels extremely now. Tumblrspeak or, more precisely, slam poetry, intricate and flowing and emotionally as well as intellectually expressive. You can read sentences in more than one way, and both meanings are intended.

The language also flows between the formal, even archaic (Ismene: Go then but know you go as one beloved although you go without your mind), the authoritarian (Kreon: You knew it was against the law), and the raw (Antigone: Well if you call that law), and a span of voices in between, echoing the characters’s own natures as well as the mode and message of their speech. The tone of the language, so to speak, is in itself another expression of characterization and the subtle (and sometimes, blunt) permutations in that characterization.

The spacing, too, matters (see my mini-rant about the Chorus in the paragraphs above, heh). Blank space on the page and space between lines – this again, is poetry and meaning; stage directions (un)written. This play begs to be read aloud, or at least spoken clearly inside the privacy of your internal podium. The character voices leap from the page. They are vibrant, demanding, so fully human and intensely real that you cannot but feel for them. Even Kreon, in the end. Even the Chorus.

I would dearly love to reread Antigonick side by side with another translation, to see more closely where Carson imaginatively interprets and recreates the play (if that sounds like a cloaked insult, it isn’t; Antigonick is wonderfully, vividly alive, and I think Carson is a genius and a national treasure), compared to how other scholars have rendered the same passages, and what the respective effects are.

In case I’ve been too subtle: Antigonick is a work of art, beautiful, utterly extraordinary, somehow containing large elements of many art forms and media in one book; and extremely timely. (Then again, when would it not be?) Your heart will exult with every page.***

Highly recommended.

*In itself, Oedipus at Colonus isn’t a tragedy so much as the aftermath of one tragedy (Oedipus the King) and the pause in which, below the surface, events ramp up toward the next (Antigone).

**It is so tempting to sort the characters according to D&D alignment, better yet according to interpretation of what each of the alignments mean. Because you could say that certain key characters are paladins, but Lawful Good interpreted entirely differently. But/and also alignment can become just another hammer to whale people on the head with, or try to pin on like a label (or pin through like a transfixed butterfly, all safely named, boxed, dead), when the point of like all the arts is that people are people and things like alignment are merely useful tools and systems for beginning to describe the real things, and not Eternal Truths In And Of Themselves. If you are actually reading this far-too-long footnote, I’m so sorry for derailing what was meant to be a serious paean review this badly and will now quietly slither back to my nerd cavern. Please continue with the *actual review*.

***If you cry express emotion easily, you might want to bring another book if you’re reading in public, though, just in case. This play is so strong. Or you could put those non-reading moments to good use by memorizing lines 🙂


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