Teaching Notes: On Justice and Rage in Tragedy

We have been thinking about justice and rage through the tragedies.

For the last class discussion on The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides, I wrote in big, bold letters on one side of the chalk board, “What is justice?” and “Whose justice?”

The students were divided between their love for and deep mistrust of Clytemnestra. Their love was for a sharp, strategic woman in a seat of power and as a central character who inspired fear and hate. Their mistrust was connected to her son Orestes’ own misgivings about his mother’s love for her children when she assumed the seat of power.

When we discussed how new stories about a single character can shift an audience’s perspective, some students pointed out that all their previous encounters of her story was from the mouths of others (i.e., in the Odyssey in which a dead Agamemnon and his living comrades narrate her story as that of a woman’s betrayal and sexual desire while her husband suffered in war).  The moment Aeschylus introduces the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter for his success in war, several students claimed an immense shift in empathy and perspective regarding Clytemnestra’s crimson rage and desire for justice. They  could better identify with her. The scene of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, narrated by the chorus, is placed immediately before Clytemnestra’s entrance and they sing, “Justice tilts her scale so that those only/ learn who suffer; and the future/ you shall know when it has come.” Although the stage time for the story is short — it is just enough for students to question the impact of its strategic absence in the Homeric epics that forms the basis of Agamemnon’s misogyny. Two students in separate classes compared the scene and its effect on the audience/readers to the sacrifice of Princess Shireen in Game of Thrones — a child who is publicly burned to death before all her father’s soldiers for the gods and war.

When we arrived at the Eumenides, students were also split on the subject of the Furies and their rage at the court of Athena. One student stated he liked the Furies and thought they were getting bamboozled by Athena’s offer to ceremoniously bury and institutionalize them. When I asked if they could think of any modern examples of the state treating a figure as a threat and then post-humously celebrating that same figure, a student brilliantly brought up the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States.

Another student decided if he were to design Apollo’s costume, the character should be in a suit because “he was an obnoxious corporate-type.” Regarding Athena, many saw her as a representative of the state. They viewed her position in the trial as an expression of her primary commitment to the state’s own preservation and stability rather than justice. In this case, a commitment to Justice – for the dead and the living – and a commitment to State Security are at odds. They are not the same thing. At the same time, a student argued that personal revenge is also not the same thing as Justice.

——————

During our class on Antigone, I first asked the students about what they knew of Oedipus the King. I allowed them to spend some time building the context for Antigone as a collective. If they asked me questions, I filled in the gaps. While they did that for ten minutes, I asked them to focus on the role of prophets like Cassandra and Tiresias and in particular, the meanings of blindness and sight/insight as embodied by the characters.

Then we shifted to our close reading of Antigone. I mentioned to the students that I had recently attended an adaption of the play entitled Antigone in Ferguson. Michael Brown’s high school teachers were not only involved in the production development, but they performed solos as a part of the chorus of citizens. The adaptation incorporated Christian notions of love as the higher law and the black church choir experience of collective participation. Sharing a little about the production and the impetus for it set the tone for our class discussion. It gave the students context and precedence for asking questions that clearly supported and gave permission to relate their reading of the ancient play to their experience of contemporary politics.

I organized our discussion around questions about how the students define betrayal and treason; what is the difference between good governance during a time of political instability and tyranny; why is burying the dead so important; and how and why is it possible for dead bodies to threaten powerful institutions like the state.

A LOT of things came up.

Students discussed Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. They discussed the contentious burial of Osama bin Laden. One student brought up the funeral of Emmit Till and his mother’s decision to keep her son’s casket open for the world to see what was done to him. They considered what it meant for the state as represented by law enforcement to leave the body of Michael Brown lying on a street for hours, visible to the public, visible to his immediate community.

We thought about protest politics. We talked about the invocation of long and short term strategy. We talked about long and short term justice.

In reference to Creon’s vision of a good statesman in which he says, “You cannot learn of any man the soul,/the mind, and the intent until he shows/ his practice of the government and law,” I asked the students on their views of Creon’s statement and whether a person’s character was important for good governance.

When one student raised her hand and I called on her, she pulled back and decided someone else should talk. I said I’d really like to hear what she might be thinking. She responded she didn’t want to “get political” – and I said please do, I don’t mind, I am asking questions of politics, and this text is clearly political.

The student quietly noted it reminded her of the debate and rage surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Like her, it reminded many of us — including many of my colleagues — that there are those who took the position that his past is irrelevant for being a good judge; and there are so many others enraged by what they saw as an intentional and unjust neglect of what a person’s character means for decision-making in the highest court in the country.

At this point, I should say my experience of teaching is always a learning experience. I learn by actively listening to my students and paying attention to my own responses. At that moment, I learned from my response of surprise that my understanding of what it means to “get political” is different. What I learned from the student is that there are conversations students are hearing/participating in outside the classroom that even consider the mention of events that happen in the realm of political institutions as political speech. This not only effects how they view what is or is not political — but it also means they are experiencing the policing of social acceptability in those conversations.

When we read Tiresias admonishing Creon “What use to kill the dead a second time?” I asked the students what they understood that to mean – that is, to kill the dead twice. In the case of citizens challenging the state for its violence, one student responded, the state “kills the dead a second time” in order to justify its actions. Another student brought up how the media will find and retell stories about the “bad character” of black victims of state violence to shift focus away from the perpetrators of violence. She reminded us of a black man who was recently shot to death in his own apartment by a police officer who was off duty and who walked into his apartment mistaking it for her own — and how later the media reported he had weed in his apartment.

The discussion on killing the dead a second time reminded me of a scene in The Hate U Give in which the protagonist Starr is interviewed as a witness to her friend getting shot to death by a police officer. When she is asked about her friend’s connection to gangs and drugs, she asks why there is so much interest in the criminality of the dead victim and no questions are being asked about the killer.

In the end, the students were conflicted about the meaning of Antigone’s death and whether her choice to challenge Creon’s decree — even if he was punished — really mattered. To end the class, we read together Antigone’s last speech in the tomb. Antigone herself wonders what is divine justice and why she is being punished. I wrote the word “martyr” on the board and asked the class how they understand the term and whether Antigone is a martyr and if so, for what?

The students disagreed on whether Antigone could/should be considered a martyr — and even if she was, they were uncertain whether her martyrdom changed anything to bring about Justice. The students who didn’t see her as a martyr asked — what was the larger cause that her principled choice and her death forwarded?

In the end, the play is a tragedy. No character is protected from injustice and punishment in the world of the play. Along with Creon’s son and wife, brave Antigone — although her killer comes to recognize his error — was still dead.

CHORUS LEADER Woman, be sure your heart is brave; you can endure much.

CASSANDRA None but the most unhappy ever hear such praise.

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