As a high school teacher with a background in theater, I am always excited to teach a play in my English classes. It’s always a slightly different experience with each group of students. I always include a bit of context regarding theatrical festivals, Greek gods, and Greek philosophers, but I especially begin with the story of Oedipus. I want my students to have the joy of discovery as they understand references and make connections. I also have realized that this story is an excellent opportunity to introduce the theme of social justice. Similar to the connections I hope my students make between Antigone and its historical moment, I want my students to begin seeing how themes relevant to Antigone may relate to people in the world now.
This year, many students questioned the relevance of the play Antigone by Sophocles. We had this conversation on multiple days over the three weeks we worked with the play. At first, I spoke about the personal choices and experiences of being in conflict with family, with the government, and with the gods. I also told them about a conference on Antigone and social justice that was held at Trinity College Dublin in 2006. My students puzzled over this new information. A few were shocked that people would travel to another country in order to talk about this old play. One young lady, however, said that Antigone’s struggle to do what she believed was right is something that still matters. There was a general agreement that there will always be people in power who want to keep it and who will punish those who are defiant.
At the end of the unit, I asked the students to explain why this play was worth reading. Many students talked about the importance of family and honoring the dead. Some students talked about the importance of following personal beliefs even if there is opposition (especially if the opposition is as mean and biased as Creon). One young man gave a list of specific actions he learned to avoid: marrying your mother and having kids, stabbing out your eyes, refusing to bury the dead, punishing the messenger, rubbing your defiance in the face of the enforcer, ignoring your son when he gives you good advice, and killing yourself while you’re upset instead of waiting for help to arrive. When he read this list, many students laughed with him or made murmurs of agreement. We talked about his list and which lessons were the most meaningful. It seemed that, for this group, the aspects of defiance and giving up hope struck the deepest resonance in their lives.
One of my greatest joys as a teacher is seeing my students overcome initial rejection of difficult texts or concepts. This was most definitely the case with Antigone. Every student has walked away with some kernel of knowledge from this piece of classic literature and performance. Every student has considered the cost of defiance as well as the cost of refusing to hear reason. Most importantly, they got to hear their peers give voice to these characters and embody characteristics of someone a little different and yet, maybe, a little bit the same. They have gotten to see how someone in Ancient Greece could capture essential truths about human interactions that still move us in the US in 2013. When I teach this play again next year, I look forward to supporting and witnessing the discoveries of a new group of students. The cycle of teaching continues so maybe the cycle of injustice can find an end.
Contributed by Megan Murphy