Sunday, April 13, 2014

Throne of troubled blood: the game of Thebes

Jebb, whose translation of Antigone is used by the Perseus edition, has a note on the proclamation speech of Creon. It's the speech by which the new ruler imposes heavy penalties on anyone who would bury the body of Polyneices. (An aspect of that speech is discussed here.)

Jebb finds a clear parallel between Creon's decree and that which Oedipus delivers after learning that the murderer of Laius must be found to lift the plague afflicting Thebes. "There is a general dramatic analogy," Jebb says, "between this speech and that of Oedipus in O. T. 216 - 275."
In each case a Theban king addresses Theban elders, announcing a stern decree, adopted in reliance on his own wisdom, and promulgated with haughty consciousness of power; the elders receive the decree with a submissive deference under which we can perceive traces of misgiving; and as the drama proceeds, the elders become spectators of calamities occasioned by the decree.
One can extend the parallel a bit further: For both kings, their proclamations set up a form of doom that ends up crashing down upon themselves. Oedipus believes he's speaking as a stranger to the murder of Laius when he says of the murderer:
And I pray solemnly that the slayer, whoever he is, whether he alone is guilty or he has partners, may, in the horrible way he deserves, wear out his unblest life. And for myself I pray that if he should, [250] with my knowledge, become a resident of my house, I may suffer the same things which I have just called down on others. (Oedipus Tyrannus)
In like manner, Creon says:
if anyone who directs the entire city does not cling to the best and wisest plans, [180] but because of some fear keeps his lips locked, then, in my judgment, he is and has long been the most cowardly traitor. And if any man thinks a friend more important than his fatherland, that man, I say, is of no account. Zeus, god who sees all things always, be my witness— [185] I would not be silent if I saw ruin, instead of safety, marching upon the citizens. (Antigone)
Built into the ironies of the Antigone is the troubling fact that before he became king, Creon learned from Teiresias that only the death of his son, Megareus (also called Menoeceus), would placate Ares and enable Thebes to withstand the seven Argive generals. That scene is fully played out in Euripides' Phoenissae, and is worth reading (as is that entire play in relation to the Antigone). In sum, immediately before the battle begins, Teiresias tells Creon of the one way to save Thebes: One of Creon's two sons must die to appease Ares. Haemon cannot, as he is engaged to marry Antigone, but Megareus -
this tender youth, consecrated to his city, might by dying rescue his country . . . Phoenissae 947-8
Creon immediately makes arrangements to save Megareus by spiriting him out of the city secretly:
[970] But come, my son, before the whole city learns this, fly with all haste away from this land, regardless of these prophets' reckless warnings; for he will tell all this to our rulers and generals [going to the seven gates and the captains]; [975] now if we can forestall him, you are saved, but if you are too late, we are ruined and you will die.(Phoenissae)
Megareus plays along with his father, but in fact does exactly as Teiresias prescribed. He kills himself to save Thebes.

Creon appears not to know all this, both when it comes to uttering his decree (above) and when he reiterates it to Haemon:
I will not make myself a liar to my city. I will kill her. So let her sing of Zeus who protects kindred blood [ξύναιμον]. If I am to foster my own kin to spurn order, [660] surely I will do the same for outsiders. For whoever shows his excellence in the case of his own household will be found righteous in his city as well. But if anyone oversteps [ὑπερβὰς] and does violence to the laws, or thinks to dictate to those in power, [665] such a one will never win praise from me. (Antigone)
Uncannily, the very word he uses to mock the union of blood kinship, ξύναιμονis inscribed with the name of Haemon (Αἵμων). Furthermore, Creon is lying. He has overstepped. Sophocles used the same legend that Euripides later drew on for the Phoenissae, and makes sure we know it. It's found in how Creon is told of the suicide of Eurydice, the mother of Haemon and Megareus:
By the altar, with a sharp-whetted sword, she struck until her eyes went slack and dark. Before that she bewailed the noble fate of Megareus who died earlier, and then the fate of this boy [Haemon], and also, with her last breath, [1305] she called down evil fortune upon you, the slayer of her sons. (Antigone 1301ff)
Creon and his decree echo that of Oedipus, but with a difference. Oedipus could suspect he himself killed Laius, but at this moment had no certain knowledge of it. Creon could hardly forget he had tried to protect his son; Euripides has him say:
I will never come to such misfortune as to devote my son to death for the city; [965] for all men love their children, and no one would give his own son to die. Let no man praise me, and kill my child at the same time. I myself, for I am in the prime of life, am ready to die to save my country. (Phoenissae 964 ff)
Creon could never dream of sacrificing his child, yet even as he claims his kindred blood ties to Antigone are what legitimate his claim to Kingship, he assumes a power that has nothing yielding about it.
in no way can we let a woman defeat us. It is better to fall from power, if it is fated, by a man's hand, [680] than that we be called weaker than women. (Antigone 678-80)
κοὔτοι γυναικὸς οὐδαμῶς ἡσσητέα
κρεῖσσον γάρεἴπερ δεῖπρὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐκπεσεῖν
κοὐκ ἂν γυναικῶν ἥσσονες καλοίμεθ᾽ ἄν. 

State power as pure command, law, is at odds with the tenderness of love, but this not just a complication between Creon and Antigone. It's trouble between the King Creon and father Creon. It's trouble within Creon, who is not all of a piece, and trouble within the polis. Trouble is in the torque of the conflict of blood and political power.

Witnessing Creon's soulless rejection of Haemon, the chorus will sing of the strife born of radiant desire and the mighty primordial powers. They sit enthroned πάρεδροςside by side, and the game of thrones cannot trump the game of eros. Dancing they will sing:
[791] You seize the minds of just men and drag them to injustice, to their ruin. You it is who have incited this strife of men whose flesh and blood are one [ξύναιμον]. [795] But victory belongs to radiant Desire glimpsed in the eyes of the sweet-bedded bride. Desire sits enthroned in power beside the mighty laws. [800] For in all this the god plays her irresistible game, Aphrodite. (Antigone)
σὺ καὶ δικαίων ἀδίκους φρένας παρασπᾷς ἐπὶ λώβᾳ
σὺ καὶ τόδε νεῖκος ἀνδρῶν ξύναιμον ἔχεις ταράξας
νικᾷ δ᾽ ἐναργὴς βλεφάρων ἵμερος εὐλέκτρου νύμφας
τῶν μεγάλων πάρεδρος ἐν ἀρχαῖς 
800θεσμῶνἄμαχος γὰρ ἐμπαίζει θεὸςἈφροδίτα. 

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