The Burial at Thebes is Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ play Antigone. I read it for my December World Party Reading Challenge book, for which the country was Greece.
About the Book:
Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, finds out that both of her brothers are dead, having fought on opposing sides of a battle. The one who fought for Thebes is given a proper burial, while the other is left, by decree of King Creon, uncovered and exposed, without his last rites. Antigone defies Creon’s orders, knowing she will be unable to live with herself if she allows her own brother to be treated in such a manner. The Burial at Thebes (or Antigone, as the play is typically titled) deals with Antigone’s fate.
I’ve never read Antigone in any translation but Heaney’s, which was lovely. It’s not a long play–only 74 pages in comfortably sized font and with generous margins and spacing–and I was surprised by how little actually happened. Most of the play is philosophical, with characters arguing with one another about the broader implications of Antigone’s actions. I actually preferred it this way. It was an interesting look at what the Ancient Greeks believed, and it was fascinating to think about how relevant many of the comments are even today.
There were a couple of lines that stuck out as especially good advice. The first comes from Haemon, Creon’s son, and the second from the Chorus:
If a river floods
The trees on the bank that bend to it survive.
If a skipper doesn’t slacken sail in storm
His whole crew ends up clinging to the keel.
So. Swallow pride and anger. Allow yourself
Bear with the present; what will be will be.
The future is cloth waiting to be cut.
Heaney’s translation is easy to read. He phrases the lines with a touch of poetry, so that they flow like especially articulate sentences. His version of Antigone did not feel stilted in the least. If you’d like to read or revisit Antigone, I’d highly recommend checking out The Burial at Thebes. I’m interested, now, to read another translation and see how they differ!
Do you have a favorite translation of a particular book?