“Justice, Justice, Justice,” I remember Julia proclaiming her lines as Shakespeare’s Isabella in Measure for Measure (v.i.29). My mind jumped to these words when I read Antigone’s line in The Burial at Thebes: “Justice, Justice” (Heaney 29). Both Isabella and Antigone are bold female characters that stand up for what they believe in, Isabella for chastity and Antigone for divine law and her brother’s body. Both women have a strong voice despite their inferior social status as women. Like them, I aspire to loudly proclaim, “Justice,” to fight for what is right and to not be afraid of death or fear.
When I was in Bryn Mawr College Shakespeare Performance Troupe’s (SPT) Measure for Measure with Julia, I learned a lot and became more confident and comfortable with my body and my voice. I played Juliet, an unmarried woman impregnated by Isabella’s brother. In one rehearsal, I think the directors noticed that I was feeling a little bit awkward as this extremely pregnant woman and decided that we should all pretend to give birth. At first, I was inhibited by ideas of social norms and appropriateness and my own internalized discomfort with pain and the process of birthing. Then, as we all joined together, I gradually began to push aside those inhibitions and I pretended to push out a baby. I made weird noises and we all laughed at each other. I learned to be more comfortable with my body and myself. And by focusing on body, on movement, I learned in deeper, richer, and more memorable way.
On the night of each show, the cast prepared with a vocalization exercise. We stood at the back of Rhoads Dining Hall in a line shoulder to shoulder. Starting quietly, we took turns voicing lines, practicing breathing from our diaphragms. As we got louder and louder, Airen (one of the actors) told us to shout so that students on the other side of campus could hear us. Learning to be comfortable with this exercise, to speak from my diaphragm, helped me to feel confident and find my voice on stage and off. I also prepared for the show with power-posing. I stood with my legs apart, my chest held high, and my hands on my hips. With a wide stance and feet firmly on the ground, the chemical balance in my body changed. I could feel the energy and confidence flow through my body.
As the pregnant Juliet, I was in constant fear for my fiance’s life. He was condemned to die for impregnating me out of wedlock. But it was consensual. We hadn’t completed the official marriage ceremony, because we were waiting for some money. But my pregnancy condemned Claudio--it was obvious that we had done the deed. At the same time, it protected me from death, because the authorities did not want to kill the innocent baby. When I found out about his fate, I proclaimed, “O injurious love,\That respites me a life, whose very comfort\ Is still a dying horror” (II.iii.40-43). The love, the baby that proteced me and comforted me is a source of horror as well for it condemns Claudio. Juliet cares about life--about Claudio’s life, her baby, and her own life and body.
Compared to Juliet, Sophocles’s Antigone is less attached to her life and the life of her loved ones. She has a strong voice and she is willing to sacrifice her corporeal body for what she believes in. But is she too eager for death? Antigone seems to crave death:
And if death comes, so be it.
There’ll be a glory in it.
I’ll go down to the underworld
Hand in hand with a brother.
And I’ll go with my head held high.
The gods will be proud of me. (11)
Antigone wants glory more than life. She also misses her dead family members and wants to be with them. Antigone’s eagerness for death manifests itself in her words to Creon:
Sooner or later I’ll die anyhow
And sonner may be better in my case:
This death penalty is almost a relief. (30)
To Antigone, death is a relief. Is Antigone’s willingness to die noble or callow? And how much are Antigone’s actions beyond her control? The chorus informs her that the “sullied bed” of her parents might require that she pay “perhaps, in your [her] life for the past life of your [her] father” (52). The chorus further describes Antigone as “headstrong and self-willed,” not the most admirable characteristics (53). Antigone’s struggle for justice and voice is at the expense of those who love her. Her decision to “close my eye on the sun… [and] turn my back on the light”--to die--affects not only herself, but the people who love her, Haemon and Ismene (53). Ismene, who says “nothing’s going to stop the ones that love you, sister, from keeping on loving you” (13), Ismene who kills herself when she discovers Antigone is dead. Ismene and Haemon both fight and die for Antigone, but their pleas fall on deaf ears--both Antigone’s and Creon’s. The tragedy of Antigone’s death is multiplied by the unnecessariness of it (she hung herself before the guards uncovered the stones and would have lived had she waited) and the other deaths that follow--Ismene, Haemon, and Eurydice.
I wonder if Antigone is a hero. Was she successful? We spoke in English class about the flawed tendency to both dehumanize and deify people. People are people. I neither want to take away someone’s humanity, nor prescribe them with superhuman power or importance. Perhaps, this is where I fall short in my understanding of Antigone. I want her to be the hero, to be perfect. But she is just a human. She has moments of nobility and moments of stubbornness. She fights for divine law and the dead, but at the expense of the living.
I see in myself a similar drive for justice, to fight to create the world as I think it should be. But my mom reminds me that I still need to do the dishes and clean my room and spend time with my family. I feel this tension between obligations to my family and to the greater world. In addition to thinking about my own body and voice and learning how to confidently channel them for good, I need to consider dialogue with others, especially with my mom. “Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people” (Friere 89, emphasis added). I believe that love is not finite like water, but constantly growing like fire and that I can and should love both the people in my life (like Juliet and Ismene) and the world (like Antigone). tzedek tzedek tirdof. not born in the wrong body but in the wrong world.