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“O dearest Haemon”: the passionate silence of Sophocles’ Antigone

Anyone reading Sophocles’ Antigone in the Oxford Classical Text of 1924, edited by A. C. Pearson, will sooner or later come across the following passage:


This translates as:

Ismene: But will you kill your own son’s bride?
Creon: Others too have fields that can be ploughed.
Ismene: But these other marriages would not be as suitable as this is for him and for her.
Creon: I hate the idea of evil wives for my sons!
Antigone: O dearest Haemon, how your father dishonours you!
Creon: You are paining me too much, you and your marriage!
Ismene: Will you really deprive your son of this woman?
Creon: It is Hades who will put a stop to this marriage.

Antigone has defied Creon’s decree that the body of her brother Polynices, who had recently fallen in battle when waging war against his homeland of Thebes, should be left unburied; discovered, she has been brought before the new ruler, whom she defies to his face, asserting the primacy of the gods’ laws over human ordinances and tauntingly urging him to exact his punishment. Her sister Ismene now intervenes, claiming (wrongly) that she too was guilty of the burial and asking to share the penalty; in the passage above, she begs for Antigone to be forgiven, reminding Creon that Antigone is betrothed to his own son Haemon.

Image Credit: From ‘Edipo re, Edipo a Colono, Antigone’, Adolfo de Carolis (1929). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Line 572 has troubled editors of the play for over half a millennium. In the mediaeval manuscripts it is attributed to Ismene–but manuscripts have no authority in such matters, since line attributions were added long after Sophocles’ death by people with no better knowledge of his intentions than we have. The first printed edition of Sophocles, the Aldine published in Venice in 1502, gave the line to Antigone, turning it into a sudden revelation of Antigone’s otherwise unmentioned love for her fiancé. This attribution proved long-lasting and popular; as well as in Pearson’s edition, it appears in the great commentary of Sir Richard Jebb (1900), in whose opinion “it seems certain that the verse is Antigone’s, and that one of the finest touches in the play is effaced by giving it to Ismene…This solitary reference to her love heightens in a wonderful degree our sense of her unselfish devotion to a sacred duty.” A memorable production of the play at New College, Oxford in 2016, directed by David Raeburn, gave the line to Antigone; its passionate delivery was a high point in the performance.

Yet on a formal level, it would be extraordinary for the line-by-line exchange between two characters (“stichoymythia”) to be briefly interrupted in this way by a third party: that doesn’t really happen elsewhere in Greek tragedy. Just as importantly, giving the line to Antigone involves a misreading of her character. In the words of the most recent commentator on the play, Mark Griffith, “it is…much more characteristic of the warm-hearted Ismene to express such concern, than of Antigone, who is already devoted to death and never utters a word about Haimon or her feelings for him.” Sophocles’ Antigone is focused on her brother alone and on the burial of his body. Giving the line to Ismene not only preserves the regular stichomythia–it presents us with an Antigone, usually the most eloquent of tragic characters, who remains purposefully silent, leaving to others the discussion of her marital prospects. As often, the highly formalised conventions of Greek tragedy do not constrain Sophocles’ artistry; rather, his artistry lies in putting those conventions to use.

The newer Oxford Classical Text edited by Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones and Nigel Wilson and first published in 1990 gives the line back to Ismene. But the Aldine’s attribution to Antigone has not disappeared altogether. It remains there in a note in the apparatus criticus, reminding readers of a dispute between scholars which has lasted centuries, and which all readers must attempt to decide afresh for themselves, without simply relying on the authority of any edition ­– or blogpost.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Antigone in front of the dead Polynices’ by Nikiforos Lytras (1865). National Gallery of Greece. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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