It remains a great privilege to be an English teacher- to facilitate students’ interactions with some of the most beautiful and profound works of literature ever produced. At the moment I am finding it quite inspirational to watch my Year 11 class attempting to write a 600 word coursework piece entirely in iambic trimeter and at the same time embellishing it with figurative and persuasive techniques. The piece is based on the translation of Sophocles’ great play “Antigone” by my favourite poet, the great Seamus Heaney. It has been wonderful to see the way the students have been inspired by the beauty of the language but even more striking to see the way in which they have found the values and issues of the play so relevant, millennia later. Let me offer a quick synopsis that will help explain:
Antigone’s brother Polynices has died in battle and because he was fighting against Thebes (led in battle by his own brother Eteocles) the new ruler of Thebes, his uncle Creon, partly to cement his new found position of power, has declared that his body is to be left on the battlefield to rot. Denying him a proper burial in this way means that, according to religious beliefs at the time, Polynices will be forever barred from entering the after-life.
Polynices’ sister Antigone, knowing full well that if caught she will be executed, attempts to bury her brother. She is caught and sentenced to death. Heartbroken, Antigone’s fiancé (Creon’s son, Haemon) commits suicide and when Creon’s wife Eurydice hears of this she too takes her own life. Creon is destroyed by these events and tells his own guards to carry him away.
So what has so struck the students about this?
- Loyalty to family is paramount
- Bullies should be stood up to
- Moral right is more important than following rules
- The greatest courage is to face, and still fight, insurmountable odds
- Those who are insecure are more likely to abuse power if they win it
- Some things are worth fighting, and even dying, for
- The choices we make have consequences in this life and the next
Of course academic attainment (in Year 11 mock exams, for example) is important but more important, I would contend, is that we challenge our young people to consider their own values and those of others in order to refine and shape a value-set that will stand the tests of time and fortune and decide what it is they believe is worth fighting for.