Cairns’ little book on Antigone is a very fine example of a very difficult genre. “An accessible introduction,” the goal of this series, requires the author not to diverge too far from common views of the play, if such exist, but if the author does not have ideas of his/her own, the book is probably going to be dull and lifeless. It is also tricky to read historically while maintaining the relevance of the work; Cairns distinguishes the ancient Athenian from the modern spectator, but is probably wise not to emphasize cultural distance at the expense of engagement. I have learned from this book, but I would also recommend it without hesitation to students.
The opening chapter, “From Myth to Plot,” briefly surveys the evidence about the date and the legend before Sophocles and summarizes the play. This information is succinct and well presented, although, being of vulgar mind, I missed any mention of the circumstances of Tydeus’ murder of Ismene. The summary, however, is exceptionally good, because it pays close attention to staging, particularly noting that Creon is onstage during the second stasimon and probably remains there until 1114.
The second chapter, “Tragedy and Sympathy,” is a lucid presentation of a nuanced discussion of how members of the original audience are likely to have reacted to the characters, and how we should. Cairns first argues that there is no single “tragic hero,” but that the play is about both Antigone and Creon, with sympathies that shift from one to the other. He then addresses how members of an Athenian audience could have responded to the issue of burial, and shows that the play demands that the audience recognize that Creon was wrong, whatever their beliefs about the treatment of dead traitors in actual Athenian practice. Then the discussion turns to the way in which Antigone is a difficult character. Here, and elsewhere, Cairns draws attention to issues of gender, again in a judicious and nuanced way, neither ignoring Antigone’s transgressiveness nor overemphasizing it. I especially enjoyed a comment (p. 45) about how sympathy with literary and dramatic characters is relatively easy, since it carries none of the costs that such sympathy could bring in “real life.”
“Progress and Pessimism” considers the first and second stasima in relation to each other. Cairns has a long-standing interest in atê, and offers a rich treatment of the importance of atê for both Antigone and Creon, and of the different levels of explanation that the play offers. 1 “Love and Death” addresses the internal contradictions in both the main characters’ assertions about their own beliefs and feelings. Antigone stands for the natal family but rejects Ismene (Cairns acknowledges that there are signs of a less hostile attitude in their final scene, but in my view gives these slightly less weight than they deserve.) Creon, similarly, is destroyed by the ties of family that he has undervalued. That comparison is familiar, but Cairns makes a fine comparison between Creon’s insistence on the mere functionality of women (569: Haemon can plow a different furrow) and Antigone’s argument that husbands and children can be replaced (904–15; Cairns briefly but firmly argues that the passage is genuine). Finally, the chapter considers the marriage-to-death theme, and Antigone’s intense attachment to Polynices in particular. Cairns seems to waffle a bit on this point, seeing Antigone’s feelings about her brother as somehow erotic, although he does not agree with those who attribute incestuous desire to her. The chapter brings out how Antigone and Creon are both failures in their social roles, Creon as a ruler and father, Antigone as a potential wife and mother.
The final chapter deals with reception. Here, again, even the experienced scholar of Sophocles may win some new clarity. Wisely, the discussion makes no attempt at being comprehensive. Instead, after a brief look at ancient and early modern adaptations, where Statius is more influential than Sophocles, Cairns turns to “Our Antigone.” This section has a very clear and useful overall structure, with a section on Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger and postmodernism, a treatment of some the most important adaptations. The play was surprisingly popular in Nazi Germany. Cairns points to the complexity of Anouilh’s version, and to Brecht’s importance in making Antigone a heroine of resistance to oppression (although in Brecht’s version, Antigone has been complicit for too long). Finally, there are sections on Irish and African versions. Cairns’ own responses emerge most clearly in his treatment of Paulin’s The Riot Act, which he evidently likes very much on its own terms although its reading of Sophocles is reductive. He seems to agree with those who admire the poetry of The Burial at Thebes but think that it does not quite work as a play.
The treatment of the philosophical Antigone is the one part of the book that I fear is too difficult and compressed for its intended audience. There is a rare slip on p.123, when Cairns quotes Hölderlin’s “Du scheinst ein rotes Wort zu färben” and does not adequately explain to the reader without German or Greek what is strange in the line. On Hegel, he usefully explains why the common ascription to him of an interpretation that simply sets family and state in opposition is oversimplified. But as he moves past Hegel to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray, and Butler, while the student will certainly appreciate how important the play has been, the reader who lacks earlier acquaintance with this territory may feel lost. High theory, no matter how clearly presented, is not easy to understand in brief summary. The conclusion to this section, though, is clear and significant: the philosophical Antigone, however abstract and remote from the text it may be, is based on the tragedy of Sophocles, not a later ancient, medieval, or early modern composite. And the later parts of this chapter beautifully point out how the Antigone so accessible and familiar to us, the emblematic fighter against oppression and injustice, is a very modern reading. I was strongly reminded of a conversation I was lucky enough to have with Athol Fugard following a performance of “The Island” in Ann Arbor; he said that he would like to direct a performance of the play with a more complex and sympathetic Creon, and to play the role himself.
The book does not really discuss the fourth and fifth stasima, apart from passing references to Lycurgus and Danae and the need to purify Thebes of the Labdacids. Cairns does not consider the possibility that Antigone changes her mind about the advantages of death compared to marriage, although I think that such an interpretation of her lament would support his comparison of Antigone to Creon. No short introduction can do everything, however, and this one is remarkably informative and stimulating for so small a package.
1. Compare his introduction to his edited volume, Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought. Swansea and London: The Classical Press of Wales, 2013.