What’s so civil about disobedience

January 28, 2009

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door;
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun.

José Martí wrote these words in his poem “A Morir,” the year before he was killed while trying to free Cuba from Spanish rule. My immediate thought upon reading this was how similar it was to Antigone’s attitude toward her own somewhat revolutionary actions. Their two stories are incredibly dissimilar, and yet they share a fundamental belief in the rightness of their own causes.

When Antigone reveals her plan to bury Polynices, Ismene balks because she is afraid of the consequences should they get caught. She tells Antigone, “At any rate, disclose this deed to none: /Keep it close hidden. I will hide it too.” To which Antigone responds, “Speak out! I bid thee. Silent, thou wilt be / More hateful to me than if thou shouldst tell / My deed to all men.” But why? She knows that the penalty for disobeying Kreon’s edict is death, but as the saying goes, you’re only in trouble if you get caught. Even so, she makes no effort to hide what she is doing, although she avoids detection during the first burial, the suggestion being that it is due to divine intervention. One almost wonders if she goes back for the second burial because she didn’t get caught the first time, and could be dismissed as a liar if she tried to take credit for the act without proof.

Still, the question remains: why be caught? Why seek acknowledgment? She repeatedly claims that she is burying her brother because it is the right thing to do according to the gods’ laws, but it seems that she could just as easily do the right thing in secret as out in the open. Does she want fame? Glory? Moral support? Attention? Is she trying to make Kreon look bad by forcing a confrontation? Is she trying to foment civil unrest? Is she actually suicidal and finds this to be a convenient method of ending her life while she’s at her most pious?

I thought that one of my classmates had a good answer: none of the above. She said that maybe Antigone wanted to be open about her actions simply because she wanted to show that they were not shameful. If she had been secretive, it would have implied that she wasn’t secure in her convictions, that deep down inside she didn’t think she should be doing what she was doing. But of course, that wasn’t true; like Martí, she didn’t want to be “put… in the dark / To die like a traitor,” she wanted to “die with [her] face to the sun.”

Antigone did die in the dark, in a cave, alone. However, the chorus compares her to Danae, who was similarly confined in a dark place and was nonetheless visited by Zeus himself. Because she never hid her intentions or actions, in a way she died under the watchful eyes of the gods and her fellow Thebans, shedding light on Kreon’s “crime” even in darkness.

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