Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Citing the Law in Sophocles's Antigone

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Citing the Law in Sophocles's Antigone

Article excerpt

The citizens of fifth century BCE Athens who wrote, produced, performed, watched, and judged Greek tragedy accepted certain anachronisms in the depiction of a mythological past that focused on the catastrophic lives of a few royal families. Among the most striking of these anachronisms is how democratic law making processes familiar to the Athenian audience (and a relatively recent political system) are retrojected into the monarchies of myth and legend. In Aeschylus's Suppliant Women, King Pelasgus, responding to the Danaids's petition for sanctuary, insists on seeking the approval of the assembly of Argive citizens, whose voting practices are pointedly emphasized in the text (607). Of course, King Theseus, the archetype of democratic principles, emphasizes the judicial processes of Athens (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1051-53), and consults the Athenian populace when he decides to champion the cause of Argive mothers (Euripides, Suppliant Women 404-408). Less benign is the Argive assembly who vote to stone their prince Orestes for matricide (Euripides, Orestes 440-42), or the Greek army at Troy, whose motion to sacrifice the captive Trojan princess Polyxena, reproduces the enactment formula that preceded the decrees passed by the Athenian democratic assembly of the fifth century (Euripides, Hecuba 107-108).

When tragedy mirrors the legislative processes of Athenian democracy, it makes the heroic world of mythology more familiar and accessible to the fifth century citizen audience (Easterling 2-3), but it is important to note that the legal practices of Athens are not embedded in its drama in any simplistic or merely self-congratulatory manner. Law is represented as a complicated and sometimes precarious power. Tragedy gives careful consideration to how the language of law can create the social world: the decrees engendered by the legislative bodies represented in drama are all examples of what philosophers of language such as J.L. Austin and John Searle have identified as speech acts or illocutions. In classical Athens, some of the most authoritative speech acts were collectively voiced by citizens in the legislative assembly and law courts. Their edicts and decrees exemplify Sandy Petrey's synthesis of the performative utterance as "a combination of language and social practice," which functions "within the conventional interactions that characterize a given sociohistorical group" (13).

The homologies of Athenian law and its theatre have often been noted--their shared audience and actors, their rule-governed scripts (Lanni 183; Allen 379). Like a dramatic text, a law or decree is programmatic; it prescribes what people say or do. A legal speech act, such as a decree, functions in tragedy as a potent generator of plot and action. To use Austin's terminology, the tragic events that emanate from an edict (for example, the sacrifice of Polyxena) are the perlocutions of the speech act (Austin 101). Oedipus's decree condemning the murderer of Laius (Oedipus Tyrannus 223-51) replicates Athenian legal procedure for investigating and prosecuting a homicide (Carawan). It sets in motion a series of perlocutionary consequences that cause the edict to recoil on its author, who turns out to be that murderer. Tragedy, it would seem, not only echoes the performative language of law, but exposes its fallibilities as well. In this respect, Sophocles's Antigone holds a special place in any consideration of the representation of law in tragedy, since it poses fundamental and disturbing questions about the capacity of language to create law, the relationship between law and force, and specifically, as this paper will argue, about the role of the citizenry in lawmaking.

I do not intend to argue that this tragedy represents any specific political situation in fifth century BCE Thebes, or Athens, although, as Richard Seaford notes, Sophocles's Theban plays might have reassured Athens that the "horrors of tyranny are projected onto the mythical past [. …

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