Following a battle for supremacy, Eteocles and Polyneices, the two sons of Oedipus, kill each other, leaving Creon, the brother-in-law to Oedipus, as ruler of Thebes. Since Polyneices lead the attacking force against Thebes, Creon labelled him a traitor and denied him any funeral rites. Anyone who countermanded this law would do so on pain of death.
This is the backdrop to The Burial at Thebes, formerly know as Antigone, the last play in the Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles.
It is a play of desperate and wrenching simplicity. The eponymous Antigone, sister of Polyneices, is faced with a choice: to choose between obeying the dictates of family love, in giving burial to her slaughtered brother, or to obey the laws of the state, as represented by King Creon. Her choice is made without hesitation, to honour the dead and defy the state. This is done at a terrible cost. She not only relinquished her own life but also her betrothed's, Haemon son of Creon, who fell on his own sword when he saw her dead. Following Haemon's death, Creon's wife, Euripides, takes up Creon's sword and after cursing her husband kills herself. Creon ends the play a broken man. His pride, his stubbornness in refusing to rescind the death penalty, ultimately cost him his wife and only son.
Many elements of the play lend themselves to modern times and dilemmas, but unlike some other translators, Heaney has the sense to trust in the original, and adds little in the way of anxiously contemporary signposting. He keeps the lines taut and clear, making the effect of this play all the more powerful. Antigone contains some choruses which are among the most famous in all Greek tragedy, and Heaney gives a very impressive account of these, adding a kind of dark burnish to the verbal atmosphere of his translation.
If you are an admirer of Greek tragedy I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book. Also, if you enjoyed Heaney's Beowulf, you will like this too. It is another great reinvention of a classic.