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Antigone and the tight coil of tragedy

To know the story’s final resting place provides a whole world of meaning in the genre where all good things must end.

You’re wearing new shoes. Blisters are forming on the soles of your feet, your left heel chafing against unworn leather. I can power through it, you say to yourself. You need only walk to the Holme Building from Redfern. It’s nothing – you’ve done it a hundred times. It doesn’t matter that it’s raining, or that relentless construction has left countless manholes along Butlin Avenue. A dull ache throbs at the back of your mind. You don’t see the warning A-Frame, and you slip . . . what do you do? You balance yourself with your dominant foot, of course. You decelerate your fall, obviously. You catch yourself, you never hit the ground, you keep walking.

But you’re not on Butlin Avenue, are you? You’re probably home, reading this on your phone; or you’re in Courtyard, catching up on Honi between classes. You don’t consider how quickly your heart skips a beat when you trip, you don’t even remember the last time you fell. 

You tell yourself you would never wear uncomfortable shoes to uni, or rush the walk, or make a careless misstep. You’re not a tragic hero: unlike Patroclus you would not wear Achilles’ armour into battle; unlike Hamlet you wouldn’t dither; unlike Othello you wouldn’t let the flames of jealousy overwhelm your rational brain. 

The first tragedy I studied was Antigone. ‘The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself,’ wrote Jean Anouilh in a 1944 introduction to the text. It taught me that tragedy is inevitable. It’s convenient – motions to set it in place are often as inconsequential as a smile at a passerby; a sidelong glance at someone you’ve had just about enough of; another nick of disrespect carved into a wound that can never start healing.

And then, as all endings do, it begins: dominoes fall, still water ripples, the blade falls on the expectant neck. The spring uncoils – everything else is seamless; death, desolation, and devastation follow like the thousand ships that set sail to Ilium.

I started writing as an angst-ridden preteen; I wanted my words to incite pain that would level worlds. Everything I wrote had to be larger than life – lovers who would go to whatever end, wicked witches, women scorned, eleventh-hour repentances. But tragedy doesn’t need melodrama in the way that weeds don’t need to be tended to; while melodrama has hope, the audience knows that tragic characters are doomed from the start. 

In a tragedy, heroes are predestined to succumb to their fatal flaws. They are created to collapse, be it an inevitability of hamartia or a result of circumstance. Anouilh wrote, ‘tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout.’ 

I understand now that tragedy doesn’t have to play out on cosmic scales. It doesn’t require in-depth descriptions of suffering and grief because mundane pain is a convention of the genre. When we recline and soak in the narrative, holding tightly to the preordained understanding of their downfall, the chronicle of a tragedy becomes all the more rich. To know the story’s final resting place gives the audience a whole world of meaning. Perhaps tragedy is the lone genre for which the end is always known, and the beginning is never foreseen.