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The Burial At Thebes — The Study Guide

Table of Contents

About the Playwrights

Sophocles (495-406 B.C.)

There were many playwrights in Ancient Greece, but most of their plays were lost over time. Plays from just three Ancient Greek dramatists—Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—have been found. Sophocles wrote 123 plays during the course of his life, but only seven survived: Ajax, Trachinian Women, Oedipus the King, Electra, Philoctetes Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

Like all playwrights of his time, Sophocles entered his plays in the theater contests that took place during religious festivals like the City Dionysia. He was by far the most successful playwright to compete.  He entered around 30 competitions, won 24, and never received lower than second place.  The next most successful playwright was Aeschylus who won only 14 times.

His most famous tragedies are those in the Oedipus Cycle.  They are Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Since Antigone is the third part of the story, it is important to know what happened in the other two plays.  For more information, see page NUMBER in this study guide.

**City Dionysia—A religious festival in Ancient Athens in honor of the god, Dionysus, that included sacrifices to the gods, parades, feasts, and a playwriting competition.  In the dramatic contest, three playwrights each showed four plays, and judges chose a winner.

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Seamus Heaney (1939-present)

Seamus Heaney, who translated The Burial at Thebes, is a famous poet from Northern Ireland.  He has won many awards for his poems, including the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 2003, he decided to translate Antigone after falling in love with the rhythm and beauty of the original poetry, but he also recognized a connection to current events.  In his introduction to the published play, he writes that George Bush’s argument for war in Iraq was “if you don’t’ support the eradication of this tyrant in Iraq and the threat he poses to the free world, you are on the wrong side of ‘the war on terror’.”  Similarly, in the play, Creon essentially tells the chorus that if they support Antigone, they oppose the government.  With both the ancient beauty and the contemporary relevance of the script in mind, Heaney decided he “wanted to do a translation that actors could speak as plainly or intensely as the occasion demanded” but also one that maintained the poetry of the original as much as possible.

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A poem by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slab
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

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Translation and Adaptation

The director and dramaturg of the UMass Amherst Department of Theater production of Burial at Thebes chose Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Antigone storybecause of its accessible yet fierce poetic beauty.  While staying true to Sophocles’ imagery and dramatic structure, Heaney explores the rhythms of his poetry in very interesting ways.  Each character has a very specific rhythm to his or her speech that defines who that character is and distinguishes him or her from everyone else.  The result is a dramatic and powerful script full of individual voices in conflict with one-another.

Discussion Questions:
In the case of a very popular play like Antigone, there are often many different translations to read.  Why do you think this is?  Why might two translators come up with different versions?  What do you think are some important decisions a translator might have to make?

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The Characters

Family Tree


Above is a family tree of the royal family around which the action in this play revolves. Bolded characters appear in the play.

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Default: simple slideshow

Gallery requires the Flash Player plugin and a web browser with JavaScript enabled.

Images of the characters. Above is a slideshow of the costume designer's rendering of some of the characters. Mouse over the image to read more information in each caption.


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Previously in the Oedipus Cycle

Burial at Thebes is the last part of a three-part series of plays. In order to best understand what happens in the play, you have to know what happened before the play begins.

Before Oedipus was born, his parents, Queen Jocasta and King Laius, heard a prophesy that their son would murder his father and marry his mother.  To keep this from happening, the king and queen planned to leave baby Oedipus on a mountainside to starve.  The shepherd sent to get rid of the baby saved him instead, and he grew up in Corinth, where he was raised by another king and queen.
Later on, Oedipus heard the same prophecy Laius and Jocasta did. Determined to outwit fate, he fled home.  On his way, he met a stranger on the road and killed him.  He ended up in Thebes, where he saved the city from the Sphinx, and married the queen.  They had four children, Polynices, Eteocles, Ismene, and Antigone.

Then the gods brought a plague on Thebes, demanding justice for the murder of the previous king.  Oedipus, determined to rid the city of the plague, sought out the murderer. Through his efforts, he discovered that the stranger he murdered on the road was the king of Thebes, making him the guilty one.  To make matters worse, the king he murdered was also his father, Laius and the queen he married was his mother, Jocasta. 

Overcome with grief, Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus poked out his own eyes.  Oedipus  banishes himself from Thebes, and Antigone goes with him to aid in his journey.  Eventually, Oedipus dies and Antigone returns to Thebes.

Meanwhile, Jocasta’s brother, Creon, decided to make both of Oedipus’ sons kings.  He declared that Polynices and Eteocles would take turns being king for a year.

After the first year, however, Polynices refused to step down as ruler and was banished.  He raised an army, and returned to Thebes to take over the city by force.  In the resulting war, Eteocles and Polynices killed each other in battle leaving Thebes in Creon’s control. 

It is at this point, that Burial at Thebes begins.


Imagine that a friend has asked you to explain the Oedipus story to them.  In a small group, put together a short play version. Start by choosing just the most important events. Can you tell the whole story in two minutes?  One minute?  Thirty seconds?  Now compare your version of events with other groups.

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Cultural Context

Burial Customs in Ancient Greece

Creon has forbidden anyone to bury Polyneices, but Antigone does so anyway.  This is because burial was a very important rite for the Ancient Greeks.  The soul of anyone left unburied could not move on to the afterlife.

The Greeks believed that at the moment of death, the spirit left the body as a little puff of wind.  Provided a body was given a proper burial, the soul would then pass down to the underworld, called Hades.

A proper burial required very specific rituals. Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, led these rituals. First the body was washed three times and anointed with oil. Since passage into Hades required crossing the river Styx or Acheron, Ancient Greeks always placed a coin was placed in their loved one’s mouth so that he would have money to pay the ferryman, Charon, to take him across.  The unlucky soul who arrived at the river without this coin was doomed to wander for 100 years.

Next, in a ritual similar to a wake or visitation, the body was laid out high bed within the house so that relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects.  This was called the prothesis.  The deceased was then brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn.

After the burial, the grave was marked with a large mound of earth, a rectangular tombs, or an elaborate marble statue.

Discussion Questions

Antigone and Ismene have a long argument about whether to follow the law or to bury their brother anyway.  Why does Antigone want to bury Polynices?  Why does Ismene think she shouldn’t?  Who do you think is right?  Which decision would you make?

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The role of women in Ancient Greece

In the play, Creon looks down Antigone and Ismene for being women.  This is because in Ancient Greece, were considered inferior to men.  Many Ancient Greek philosophers believed that women had strong emotions and weak minds.  For this reason they had to be protected, but they also had to be kept from harming others.

Every woman in Athens had a guardian who was either her closest male relative or her husband. Her guardian controlled everything about her life.  She couldn’t own property or sign a contract.  The only things she was allowed to purchase were inexpensive items like clothing or jewelry.

Love and affection usually played little or no part in an Ancient Greek marriage. A wife's duty was to have children and to manage the household.  She was expected to remain inside her home except to go to funerals and festivals specifically for women.  A woman seen outside on her own was assumed to be a slave, a prostitute or so poor that she had to work.

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Youth Culture in our Production of The Burial at Thebes

The director of Burial at Thebes, Dawn Monique Williams, grew up surrounded by youth culture (in the form of hip-hop, skate, music, dance, graffiti, rap, spoken word poetry).  In her experience, the various artistic movements that form a part of this culture were used as a direct substitute for physical violence.

While 30-40 years ago, youth culture was just developing (hip hop in the South Bronx, skate in the beach towns of Southern California), the generation of students now in high school and college grew up in a culture saturated with the images and sounds of these movements. So much so, in fact, that some people believe that youth culture has become mainstream.  In doing so, it has lost touch with the original intention of forms like hip-hop: youth-oriented social consciousness.

Meanwhile, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Antigone uses accessible and varied voices in a way that reminded Dawn of contemporary youth culture.  The current “voice” of youth culture has completely permeated our society, but it is still, in some ways, at odds with mainstream ideas. Heaney writes a voice that will not be silenced, a voice that fights for right in the face of impossible opposition. It is the voice of Antigone and all those who have made their choice of what is truly important and worth fighting for.

By creating a youth-culture influenced chorus in addition to the adult chorus, Dawn hopes to demonstrate onstage a group of young people reconnecting with the vitality and social consciousness of various youth-oriented means of artistic expression, especially demonstrating, in stark contrast to the war raging outside the walls of the bunker, artistic substitutions for violence.


Imagine you are the director of Burial at Thebes, using youth culture as part of your production.  Choose some examples of youth culture (if you don’t know any, you should do some research on our website).  What part of the play might your examples fit into?  Why?  Are there common themes or stories? 

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For Further Reading…

If you want to continue reading about these and other topics, the following book and websites are excellent resources:

Greek Mythology:
Greek Myths. by Lucilla Burn (1998),
Univ. Texas Press.

Seamus Heaney:
The Cambridge Companion to
Seamus Heaney. edited by
O!Donoghue (2009), Cambridge
Univ. Press.

Hip Hop Culture:
Can!t Stop, Won!t Stop: A History of
the Hip Hop Generation. by Jeff
Chang (2005), Picador USA.
Hip Hop, by Steven Hager (1984),
St. Martins Press.
It!s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of
the Post Hip Hop Generation. by
M.K. Asante Jr. (2009), St. Martin!s

Skate Culture:
(original magazine
articles about the Z-Boys)

Additional Trends in Youth Culture
and Art:


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