Sophocles’ Antigone is a play that resounds through the ages. Forbidden by her uncle and king, Creon, to properly mourn her brother Polyneices, Antigone defies the law and her own family to bury him alone. She is taken prisoner and ordered to be buried alive but hangs herself before submitting to Creon’s punishment. Creon’s son Haemon is so distraught by the loss of Antigone that he commits suicide, and is followed by his own bereft mother. At the end of the play, Creon is left alone, chastised by the chorus- “too late, you see what justice means”.
Antigone has since been upheld as a feminist icon and a symbol of resistance. She has been written on by scholars as significant as Hegel, Lacan, and de Beauvoir, as well as playwrights as seminal as Brecht and Anouilh, whose Antigone was produced under Nazi occupation in France and is widely regarded as a symbol of solitary resistance against the state (though not by the Nazis, who were presumably persuaded by Creon’s arguments for authoritarianism and felt the audience could also benefit from them). Feminist scholar Judith Butler centred Antigone in her book Antigone’s Claim, where, amongst many other things, she repositions Antigone against “legally pliant” feminism, reminding us that all radical protest has been at some point in defiance of the law, which is in itself not a neutral instrument. Butler also draws a parallel between Antigone’s desire to bury her brother, the AIDS crisis and other “publicly ungrievable losses”.
And over the last three weeks, we have found ourselves again in the midst of publicly ungrievable loss. Antigone’s representation of strong, unapologetic, female defiance against the male state, divine law over civil law, the strength of blood and kinship, as well as her relationship with her sister Ismene, who warns her against burying their brother but later stands beside her opposed to Creon, raising questions over the weapons of the weak, the efficacy of direct action, and the act of feminine and familial solidarity as the ultimate act of honour, are all starkly relevant to the events of the last few weeks. Women across the country have stood in defiance of civil law to mourn the loss of Sarah Everard. She may not have been their kin, but she is representational of Butler’s “real and consequential loss”, even if transcendent of traditional views of blood kinship. The right to protest and the right to mourn have both acted as justification for gatherings in Sarah’s name, and are representational of a moral, divine or higher law that exists separately and out of reach of the government and the police. The legitimacy of power itself is thus called into question, and the question has been asked over and over by increased peaceful protest across the country, as well as, perhaps inadvertently, by the comparatively relaxed tactics of police forces outside of London in response to these gatherings. We are still waiting for an answer.
No decision that was made over the last three weeks was made without precedent or consciousness of its consequences. Mass protest under coronavirus legislation took place less than one year ago, yet no legislation was introduced to allow safe and legal protest under lockdown. And we should never be in doubt that these questions of public health, policing, protest and grief are answerable. The drama that is played out in literature even as ancient as the original Antigone, which has survived the ages and the regimes and the many attempts to reform and twist its messages, carries the weight of those intellectual and emotional processes that we agonise over now. We may like to believe we are living in times totally unprecedented but rarely do new moral dilemmas arise that are not addressed in all their complexity and humanity in literature.
In Antigone, Creon makes much of responsible, dutiful, but ultimately uncompassionate statesmanship. For all his logic, this is why he meets his downfall. Modern policing and governments, seemingly, still have yet to learn this lesson. There is no evidence the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer caused an upsurge in infection, but what did damage public safety was police officers charging protesters on horseback and kettling them into more tightly packed groups.
In a month where public, and particularly women’s, trust in the police has been grossly undermined by the charging of a Met police officer for a young woman’s murder, the last thing the police should be doing is waiting until it gets dark, then kettling and attacking groups of peaceful women simply wishing to “bury” their sister. Like Creon, whose enforcement of civil law over moral law resulted in the destruction of his own family and placed him in the position of grief we find Antigone and Ismene in at the beginning of the play, the government must acknowledge the role the Met’s actions played in turning these vigils to protests, and shift their priority to public safety. The pursuit of women’s justice has spent most of its life outside of the law. Forcing it back into the cold will do little to quell a centuries-old fight, but might just fell a government.
Illustration: Charlie Barnett