“Antigone” by Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney

“The Burial at Thebes – A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone” translated by Seamus Heaney  (2004) – 74 pages

 When it comes to new editions of the great early Greek plays,  I have my favorites – Anne Carson, Ted Hughes, and now Seamus Heaney.  It is no mere coincidence that these writers are all poets, poets whose writing is simple and direct and forceful.

 I had previously read Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf, so I already knew that he could do excellent work with a new version of an ancient script.  About the only thing I can’t fully understand is why this book is given the downer title of “The Burial at Thebes” rather than the simpler “Antigone”.   Perhaps Heaney thought that the focus of the play is not only the woman Antigone, but also King Creon.  Perhaps Heaney thought that this play is part of a trilogy of plays about Thebes, and thus Thebes should be in its title.

Antigone and Ismene are children of Oedipus, “daughters of the man who fathered us on his mother”.  For breaking the natural law of the gods, Oedipus’ entire family is doomed.    Two of the sons were killed in the war between Thebes and Argos that has just ended.  One brother Eteocles fought for Thebes, and for him King Creon ordered an honorable burial.  The other brother Polyneices fought against Thebes, and King Creon ordered that his body not be buried but left out in the open for the dogs and birds and other animals to feed on.  Anybody who was caught trying to bury the body would be sentenced to death. 

 So the question is “Should you obey your King or should you obey the laws of the gods?”  If you obey the laws of the Gods, you disobey the King.  If you obey King Creon, you disobey the gods.     

                       “I will bury him myself

                        And if death comes, so be it.”  


King Creon’s son Haemon asks the King to reconsider his order.

                       “I ask you reconsider. Nobody,

                        Nobody can be sure they are always right.

                        The ones who are fullest of themselves that way

                         Are the emptiest vessels.  There’s no shame

                         In taking good advice.  It’s a sign of wisdom”  


Reduxion Theatre production of “Antigone” - Oklahoma City

Seamus Heaney’s language in “Antigone” is clear and powerful.  The play is highly moving.  The issue of the play, whether to obey your leaders or your conscience or your god or gods, is just as important today as it was 2500 years ago.  In an Afterword to the play , Seamus Heaney expresses one of his considerations when he decided to translate Antigone in 2003.  President George W. Bush had set up the same type of either/or situation as King Creon.  Either you supported the war in Iraq or you would be considered an enemy of the state in the war on terror.  Many people remain deeply troubled by the large numbers of Iraqi people as well as other people who were killed or severely injured in the unnecessary Iraq War.

“Antigone” is a powerful play, and this Seamus Heaney version  reinforces my love of early Greek literature.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I vaguely studied “Antigone” in school but thanks to a set of strange circumstances, I didn’t actually read the whole play but rather various scenes and snippets, but what I recall of it is brilliant. I’ve been wondering what translation to read and though I may just go for the Gutenberg.org freebies, it’s good to know that Heaney’s version is worthwhile.


    • Hi Biblibio,
      I’ve never gotten any of the Gutenberg freebies. Are they downloadable? Have you had good luck with them? What kind of machine do they play on? I need to investigate.


  2. […] Tony’s Book World on the Seamus Heaney translation of the Greek classic “Antigone” […]


  3. […] “Antigone” by Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney « Tony’s Book …Feb 3, 2011 … Locked in “Room” by Emma Donoghue … “The Burial at Thebes – A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone” translated by Seamus Heaney (2004) – 74 … […]


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