I have read a plethora of Sophocles Antigone retellings now and I welcome more! Seamus Heaney’s Burial of Thebes, a retelling of the original in verse almost seemed like it could have been the original — and perhaps better!
Antigone is an Ancient Tragedy that focuses on young Antigone who wishes to bury her brother despite King Creon’s orders against it. Her brother was a traitor in war and Creon consequently ordered anyone killed who performed burial rites on the body.
Strong-willed and independent, Antigone disobeys (unlike her sister). She thinks respecting her brother’s body is worth death. And death does come. Not just to her but two other deaths follow as a consequence. Creon is left to lament.
Although sticking to the original setting, Heaney effortlessly brings in some contemporary issues. Nonetheless, much of the themes and message are the same just showing how timeless the play truly is. In Heaney’s version, there was slightly more detail on the notion of a female disobeying a male. This was something I would have liked to see more of, but Smith and Shamsie provide a more feminist interpretation if that is what you want. But I think it is a play that sets up gender dynamics and defying them and gender could so easily be discussed as a major theme.
Heaney focused particularly on money and how it corrupts anything it touches. Although money is always an anxiety for Creon, money plays no part in the crime that he believes has been committed. Antigone only acts from love and compassion. It shows how money can blind the conscience.
Another major focus that also concludes Creon’s ending monologue is that of keeping your mind open. Creon is narrow-minded. He believes that if anyone is a traitor they will be punished. It does not matter that it is a young girl who is set to marry his son. He cannot see past politics to family matters and love. He’s so struck with keeping his status that he refuses to change his mind until it is too late. Heaney is telling us to be open-minded. Consider every possibility before acting. I think this is an incredibly important message (especially in contemporary society) and Heaney does well to draw this out of the original narrative.
The reason I gave it one less than five stars is that I was expecting a little more from the verse. I know Heaney is capable of some very good poetry, and it is no doubt harder to wrote Antigone in verse with its length. My previous experience of Heaney’s poetry is in his nature poems and I expected some of that to prevail here but it didn’t. I felt there were so many opportunities with bird imagery (that Smith hit wonderfully in her children retelling). There were some beautiful and captivating lines but I just felt that there could be that little bit more.
Whether you have read the original Antigone or not, this is an incredible and powerful short read. Maybe even start with this one — you get the original story with modernised themes. And really you can never go wrong with a bit of Seamus Heaney!