Written ~440 BC
by Kamila Shamsie
Read Oct 2019
The Theban Legend of Oedipus King of Thebes and his family was well known before Sophocles wrote his Theban plays in the 5th century BC. This reader was educated in the legend through Sophocle’s Theban plays. This reader will not comment on Sophocle’s innovations or brilliance. Others are far better positioned to do so. This reader will only recount the overall plot of his first Theban play, Antigone.
Before the play starts, the sons of disgraced Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, have contended for the throne of Thebes, held by Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ widow and the person Oedipus charged to care for his children as he leaves for exile. Polyneices has attacked the city of Thebes while Eteocles fought to defend it, supported by Creon. The brothers have killed each other in direct face-to-face combat with each other. Creon, again firmly in charge of Thebes, has proclaimed that Polyneices, because he attacked Thebes, will not be buried but will be left to rot and scavenged by carrions while Eteocles will be buried per customs. The ruling against Polyneices is considered very harsh punishment.
Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and Ismene differ with regards to their willingness to obey Creon’s proclamation. Antigone declares her brother will be buried; Ismene promotes caution and is unwilling to war against the state. Antigone executes some burial rites defying Creon. She admits this to Creon and argues with Creon about the immorality of the edict and the morality of her own actions. Antigone and her sister are taken away for punishment although Antigone indicates Ismene is innocent. Creon’s son and Antigone’s finance, Haemon, arrives and initially indicates support for his father, suggesting he is turning against Antigone, but then argues for lenience for Antigone including that the people support Antigone’s actions. After arguing, Haemon leaves, indicating he will never again see his father. Creon decides to punish only Antigone and has her buried alive in a cave, to minimize wrath from the gods. After interaction with a blind prophet, Creon eventually decides to reverse his decision and orders Antigone released. Unfortunately Antigone has already hanged herself. Haemon kills himself when he finds Antigone’s body. Creon begins to blame himself for all that has happened but not soon enough as his wife, Haemon’s mother, has also committed suicide.
In the acknowledgements to Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie tells us she took up a suggestion to adapt Antigone in a “contemporary context”. This reader found her results stunning. This writer has decided not to reveal details of the adaptation and leave that for readers to discover themselves. However, this writer can indicate that the choices Shamsie made to exemplify Oedipus’s disgrace, Polyneices’ crime against the state, and the circumstances Creon creates for himself and his state allow us to experience the extreme situations that the ancient Greeks understood about the Theban Legend. The choices force us to experience the terrible dilemmas the characters face and to realize the answers seem obvious but aren’t.
Congratulations, Kamila Shamsie for enabling this reader to really understand the depth of the questions Antigone requires us to face.