Our strongman leaders have been behaving like stubborn, intransigent kings in Greek tragedies, crashing blindly up against justice, convinced that they are right and all others are wrongby Charlotte Higgins / July 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
Sometimes I look at Boris Johnson and wonder, did we really have the same education? Did we really study the same classics course at the same Oxford college, learning from precisely the same teachers? It’s true that I did not attend Eton—perhaps this is where my advantage lies—but, rather, an obscure and ordinary grammar-turned-independent in north Staffordshire. But still, why can’t he see it? Why won’t he see what’s staring him in the face, straight out of Euripides and Sophocles?
As news of Dominic Cummings’s trips to Durham and Barnard Castle set off a nationwide bout of bewilderment in May, playwright Zinnie Harris remarked on Twitter that she felt as if we were watching a Greek tragedy play out. She was absolutely right. Harris, who knows her way pretty well around Greek drama—her recent trilogy, The Restless House, is a reworking of Aeschylus’s Oresteia—had spotted that Johnson was behaving uncannily like a stubborn, intransigent king in a Greek tragedy, crashing blindly up against justice, convinced that he is right and all others are wrong. Exhibit A of this literary type is Creon, King of Thebes, who forbids his niece Antigone from burying her brother Polynices. Exhibit B is Pentheus, another Theban king, who simply will not believe that the young man who has turned up in the city is an emissary (or more?) of the god Dionysus.
The plays in which these characters appear—Sophocles’s Antigone and Euripides’s Bacchae—are not simplistic right against- wrong clashes; they are subtle and sophisticated literary masterpieces. However, things end very badly for both of these blinkered kings. After walling up Antigone in a cave as punishment for disobeying his edicts and burying Polynices, Creon eventually changes his mind and realises that he’s gone too far; that he needs to retract. But he’s too late. His niece is already dead, and so is his own son; then his wife kills herself in grief, too. Pentheus is gruesomely torn apart limb from limb by a band of ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus, including his own mother.
Johnson, of course, isn’t the…