"Heaney has created something imperishable and great that is stainlessstainless, because its force as poetry makes it untouchable by the claw of literalism: it lives singly, as an English language poem." James Wood, The Guardian
The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigoneby Seamus Heaney, Sophocles
Sophocles' play, first staged in the fifth century B.C., stands as a timely exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual's human rights and those who must protect the state's security. During the War of the Seven Against Thebes, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, learns that her brothers have killed each other, having been forced onto
Sophocles' play, first staged in the fifth century B.C., stands as a timely exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual's human rights and those who must protect the state's security. During the War of the Seven Against Thebes, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, learns that her brothers have killed each other, having been forced onto opposing sides of the battle. When Creon, king of Thebes, grants burial of one but not the "treacherous" other, Antigone defies his order, believing it her duty to bury all of her close kin. Enraged, Creon condemns her to death, and his soldiers wall her up in a tomb. While Creon eventually agrees to Antigone's release, it is too late: She takes her own life, initiating a tragic repetition of events in her family's history.
In this outstanding new translation, commissioned by Ireland's renowned Abbey Theatre to commemorate its centenary, Seamus Heaney exposes the darkness and the humanity in Sophocles' masterpiece, and inks it with his own modern and masterly touch.
Heaney has created something imperishable and great that is stainless--stainless, because its force as poetry makes it untouchable by the claw of literalism: it lives singly, as an English language poem.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
The Burial at Thebes
A Version of Sophocles' Antigone
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2004 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
The scene is Thebes, in front of CREON's palace, just as the dawn is breaking. ANTIGONE and ISMENE enter hastily.
Ismene, quick, come here!
What's to become of us?
Why are we always the ones?
There's nothing, sister, nothing
Zeus hasn't put us through
Just because we are who we are —
The daughters of Oedipus.
And because we are his daughters
We took what came, Ismene,
In public and in private,
Hurt and humiliation —
But this I cannot take.
Here's what has happened.
There's a general order issued
And again it hits us hardest.
The ones we love, it says,
Are enemies of the state.
To be considered traitors —
How so? What do you mean?
I mean — have you not heard?
What I heard was enough.
Our two brothers are dead,
The Argos troops withdrawn
And the pair of us left to cope.
But what's next, I don't know.
That's why I came outside.
The walls in there have ears.
This is for your ears only.
What is it? You have me scared.
And right you are to be scared.
Creon has made a law.
Eteocles has been buried
As a soldier, with full honours,
So he's gone home to the dead.
But not Polyneices.
Polyneices is denied
Any burial at all.
Word has come down from Creon.
There's to be no laying to rest,
No mourning, and the corpse
Is to be publicly dishonoured.
His body's to be dumped,
Disposed of like a carcass,
Left out for the birds to feed on.
If you so much as throw him
The common handful of clay
You'll have committed a crime.
This is law and order
In the land of good King Creon.
This is his edict for you
And for me, Ismene, for me!
And he's coming to announce it.
"I'll flush 'em out," he says.
"Whoever isn't for us
Is against us in this case.
Whoever breaks this law,
I'll have them stoned to death."
He has put it to us.
It's a test you're facing,
Whether you are who you are,
True to your seed and breed
And generation, or whether —
What do you mean, a test?
If things have gone this far
What is there I can do?
You can help me do one thing.
And what thing is that?
His body ... Help me to lift
And lay your brother's body.
And bury him, no matter ...?
Are we sister, sister, brother?
Or traitor, coward, coward?
But what about Creon's order?
What are Creon's rights
When it comes to me and mine?
Easy now, my sister.
Think this through for a minute.
Think of the line we come from:
We're children of Oedipus —
Daughters of the man
Who fathered us on his mother —
The king they drove from their city.
No matter he didn't know.
No matter it was Oedipus
Brought his own crimes to light
And then reached into his eyes
And tore them out of their sockets —
Still they drove him out.
Oedipus had to perish.
And then his wife, the mother
Who had bared her breasts for him
In the child-bed and the bride-bed,
She hanged herself in a noose.
And now this last thing happens.
The doom in our blood comes back
And brother slaughters brother —
The two of them, dead in a day.
Are you and I to be next?
How do you think they see us?
How do you think we'd fare
If we went against the order?
Two women on our own
Faced with a death decree —
Women, defying Creon?
It's not a woman's place.
We're weak where they are strong.
Whether it's this or worse,
We must do as we're told.
In the land of the living, sister,
The laws of the land obtain:
And the dead know that as well.
The dead will have to forgive me.
I'll be ruled by Creon's word.
Anything else is madness.
You and the laws of the land!
Sister, let me tell you:
From now on, and no matter
How your mind may change,
I'll never accept your help.
I will bury him myself.
And if death comes, so be it.
There'll be a glory in it.
I'll go down to the underworld
Hand in hand with a brother.
And I'll go with my head held high.
The gods will be proud of me.
The land of the living, sister,
Is neither here nor there.
We enter it and we leave it.
The dead in the land of the dead
Are the ones you'll be with longest.
And how are you going to face them,
Ismene, if you dishonour
Their laws and the gods' law?
Dishonour them I do not.
But nor am I strong enough
To defy the laws of the land.
Live, then; and live with your choice.
I am going to bury his body.
I fear for you, Antigone.
Better fear for yourself.
Oh, stop! This must never get out.
No. No. Broadcast it.
Your cover-ups sicken me.
I have nothing to hide
From the powers that see all.
I'm doing what has to be done.
What are you, Antigone?
Hot-headed or cold-blooded?
This thing cannot be done.
But it still has to be tried.
You are mad. You don't have a chance.
Here and now, Ismene,
I hate you for this talk.
And the dead are going to hate you.
Call me mad if you like
But leave me alone to do it.
If Creon has me killed,
Where's the disgrace in that?
The disgrace would be to avoid it.
Nothing's going to stop you.
But nothing's going to stop
The ones that love you, sister,
From keeping on loving you.
Enter CHORUS of Theban elders
Glory be to brightness, to the gleaming sun,
Shining guardian of our seven gates.
Burn away the darkness, dawn on Thebes,
Dazzle the city you have saved from destruction.
Argos is defeated, the army beaten back,
All their brilliant shields
Smashed into shards and smithereens.
Like a golden eagle, the enemy came swooping,
Like an eagle screaming down the sky,
Hoping to set fire to the seven towers.
But the dragon of Thebes had grown teeth.
We overwhelmed him on the walls
And Zeus blasted his overbearing.
A god of war stiffened our will
And locked our arms, so the line held.
Glory be to brightness, to the gleaming sun.
Seven guardians at our seven gates
Bore the brunt and broke the charge.
Were struck down and stripped of their armour.
Their spears and helmets are the spoils of war.
We have hung their shields among the trophies.
But Polyneices and Eteocles:
The only trophies they took at Thebes
Were each other's lives. Their doom was sealed.
Their banners flew, the battle raged
And they fell together, their father's sons.
Glory be to brightness, to the gleaming sun.
Glory be to Victory. I can feel her wings
Fanning the air.
The joy in my eyes is like the joy in hers
Dazzling the city she has saved from destruction.
Race the chariots and run to the temples.
Drum the earth from early until late.
Give glory to the god of the dance.
Let Bacchus lead us and burn away the dark!
Glory be to brightness, to the gleaming world.
Enter CREON with his guards
King Creon. All hail to Creon.
He's a new king but he's right
For this city at this moment.
Now we will know what's what,
Why he has sent for us
To be privy to his thinking.
Gentlemen. We have entered calmer waters.
Our ship of state was very nearly wrecked
But the gods have kept her safe.
So, friends, well done.
You from the start have been a loyal crew.
You stood by Oedipus when he was at the helm
And when his sons stepped in to take his place
You stood by them as well. But now they're gone,
Two brothers badged red with each other's blood,
And I, as next of kin to those dead and doomed,
I'm next in line. The throne has come to me.
Until a man has passed this test of office
And proved himself in the exercise of power,
He can't be truly known — for what he is, I mean,
In his heart and mind and capabilities.
Worst is the man who has all the good advice
And then because his nerve fails, fails to act
In accordance with it, as a leader should.
And equally to blame
Is anyone who puts the personal
Above the overall thing, puts friend
Or family first. But rest assured:
My nerve's not going to fail, and there's no threat
That's going to stop me acting, ever,
In the interests of all citizens. Nor would I,
Ever, have anything to do
With my country's enemy. For the patriot,
Personal loyalty always must give way
To patriotic duty.
Is what we need. The whole crew must close ranks.
The safety of our state depends upon it.
Our trust. Our friendships. Our security.
Good order in the city. And our greatness.
Understand therefore that I intend
To make good what I say by what I do.
And hear this first. This ordinance is binding.
Concerning the sons of Oedipus:
Eteocles, who fell in our defence,
Eteocles will be buried with full honours
As a hero of his country.
But his brother
Polyneices, an exile who came back
To visit us with fire and sword, a traitor,
An anti-Theban Theban prepared to kill
His countrymen in war, and desecrate
The shrines of his country's gods, hear this
He is forbidden
Any ceremonial whatsoever.
No keening, no interment, no observance
Of any of the rites. Hereby he is adjudged
A carcass for the dogs and birds to feed on.
And nobody, let it be understood,
Nobody is to treat him otherwise
Than as the obscenity he was and is.
This is where I stand when it comes to Thebes:
Never to grant traitors and subversives
Equal footing with loyal citizens,
But to honour patriots in life and death.
Loud and clear, King Creon,
You have laid down the law.
You exercise the power.
Your regulations hold
For the living and dead.
And that is why I regard you from now on
As agents of the law.
Would be better for that job.
I don't mean
You should do work on the ground. Naturally
I have guards out there already as we speak.
Then why do you call us "agents of the law"?
I mean you're not to lend the least support
To anyone who'd go against the order.
But who'd do that?
Who would choose to be dead?
Death, yes, it would be. But you never know.
There's always money lurking and I never
Underestimate the lure of money.
Sir, I wouldn't exactly say I was panting to get here. Far from it. As a matter of fact, I was more for turning back. I was over a barrel. One part of me was saying, "Only a loony would walk himself into this," and another part was saying, "You'd be a bigger loony not to get to Creon first." It was "You take the high road, I'll take the low road," then "What's your hurry?" then "Get a move on." But when all was said and done there was only one thing for it: get here, get it out and get it over, no matter what. So here I am, the old dog for the hard road. What will be, says I, will be.
What has got you into this state, guard?
First off, boss, you must know I'm in the clear. I didn't do the thing, I didn't see who did it and so, in fairness, I shouldn't be blamed for it.
Why do you need such fences and defences?
Your news is hardly all that desperate.
Desperate enough to panic me, your honour.
Then get it out, man, as you say yourself,
And get it over.
Well, here's what it is. The corpse. Somebody has as good as buried it. Somebody's after attending to it right. Casting the earth on it and all the rest.
What are you saying? What man would dare do this?
That, for the life of me, I cannot tell. There wasn't so much as a scrape left on the ground. No sign of pick- work or that class of thing. No rut-marks from a wheel. Nothing but the land, the old hard scrabble. Whoever did it was a mystery man entirely. When the sentry showed us this morning, we were stunned. The corpse had actually gone and disappeared. But then it turned out it was only hidden, under this coat of dust. As if somebody had treated it, you know, just to be on the safe side. Somebody observing all the customs. There were no tears in the flesh, so it couldn't have been wild animals or the dogs.
And then the row broke out, everybody shouting, one man blaming the next and ready to fight to prove his innocence. We'd have put our hands in fire to clear ourselves. Swearing by this and that that we'd neither done the deed nor knew who did it. And then, when we'd more or less calmed down, one man speaks up and panics us again. And what he stated was the obvious: you would have to be told, the thing could be hid no longer. So that was agreed and I was the lucky man. I drew the short straw and that, sir, 's why I'm here. The one that's never welcome, the bearer of bad news.
Creon, sir, I cannot help but think
The gods have had a hand in this somewhere.
Enough. Don't anger me. Your age, my friend,
Still doesn't give you rights to talk such rubbish.
The gods, you think, are going to attend
To this particular corpse? Preposterous.
Did they hide him under clay for his religion?
For coming to burn their colonnaded temples?
For attacking a city under their protection?
The gods, you think, will side with the likes of him?
Here's something else for you to think about.
For a good while now I have had reports
Of disaffected elements at work here,
A certain poisonous minority
Unready to admit the rule of law
And my law in particular.
These people and how they operate.
Maybe they are not
The actual perpetrators, but they possess
The means to bribe their way.
Money has a long and sinister reach.
It slips into the system, changes hands
And starts to eat away at the foundations
Of everything we stand for.
Money brings down leaders,
Warps minds and generally corrupts
People and institutions. But in this case
Whoever took the bribe will pay the price.
You then: listen to this
For this is my solemn vow: if you do not
Apprehend, arrest and bring before me
The one who interred the corpse, I'll hang you out
And have you so carved up and pulled apart
You'll be pleading to be dead. You'll discover then
What interest your kind of money earns.
You can't, friend, have your palm greased and expect
To get away clean. Everything comes out.
Excerpted from The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 2004 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He lives in Dublin and he regularly teaches at Harvard University. His most recent book is Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2000 (FSG, 2002).
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Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone is amazing. The spare, rhythmic verse is beautiful all on its own--and it's all the more pleasurable next to the clunky literal translations of Greek drama that are all too common. In Heaney's version, the stark grandeur of the simple words and images set off the stoic tragedy of the play. All the characters bring their fates upon themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, and this inevitability is what is tragic. In the end, there are no villains: only noble and well-meaning mortals with single fatal flaws. Heaney lets us feel both the pathos of Antigone's young brave stubbornness and the despair of Creon, alone and broken at the end of the play. Completely faithful? Certainly not. But this is a most moving play.