SOPHOCLES c. 442 B.C.
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the last play in the Theban Trilogy, Antigone, around 442 B.C. The Theban Trilogy consists of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, but the play considered the last of the three was, ironically, written first. Only seven of Sophocles’s one hundred-twenty-three tragedies have survived to the modern era—with the trilogy surviving the ages intact. These three plays are perhaps the most famous of the seven, with Antigone performed most often.
Antigone tells the story of the title character, daughter of Oedipus (the former king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, and who renounced his kingdom upon discovering his actions), and her fight to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebes. It is a story that pits the law of the gods—“unwritten law”—against the laws of humankind, family ties against civic duty, and man against woman.
Many playwrights in Ancient Greece used mythological stories to comment on social and political concerns of their time. This is what Sophocles may have intended when he wrote Antigone. Based on the legends of Oedipus, Sophocles may have been trying to send a message to the Athenian general, Pericles, about the dangers of authoritarian rule.
These tragedies were written to be performed at the Great Dionysia (a festival in honor of the god Dionysus, the god of fertility, theater, and wine) in Athens. Attending these plays was considered a civic duty, and even criminals were let out of jail to attend. Antigone won Sophocles first prize at the festival and was an enormous success. It is still performed today, and has been adapted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, who set the play during World War II.
Sophocles lived from c.496 to c.406 B.C., during the Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.), the Greek city-state of which he was a citizen. He was an active citizen, participating in the city’s infant democracy. He was involved in the war against the Samians and during the war became friends with Athens’s popular general, Pericles. He founded the Thiasos of Muses (a society for the advancement of music and literature), and was an ambassador to many foreign countries throughout his lifetime. He was also a priest of the healing god Amynos and kept the sacred snake representing the god Aeschulapius while his temple was being built. He was a very well-rounded citizen, not only leading an active political and religious life but also writing one hundred and twenty-three tragedies, of which only seven remain intact for modern readers.
Sophocles was married to a woman named Nicostrata, with whom he had a son, Iophon; he also had a son (out of wedlock) with Theoris of Sicyon named Ariston. He studied music under Lamprus and tragedy under Aeschylus before writing his own tragedies. His was a wealthy family and powerful in political and religious affairs. Of his seven plays to survive, Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) (c. 430 B.C.), Oedipus at Colonus (c. 404 B.C.), and Antigone (c. 442 B.C.), comprise the “Theban Trilogy,” three plays which deal with King Oedipus’s tragic fall from power and the ruin of his children. Sophocles also wrote Ajax (c. 450 B.C.), Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis) (440 B.C.), and Electra and Philoctetes (both c. 409 B.C.). The titles of ninety other Sophoclean dramas survive, including Triptolemos, which was honored at the dramatic competition the Great Dionysia c. 468 B.C., when Sophocles defeated his onetime mentor Aeschylus.
In Antigone, the title character asserts that the laws of Zeus and “unwritten law” justify her burial of her brother, Polyneices. The popular general Pericles himself addressed the issue of unwritten law. To many scholars the play was Sophocles’s message to Pericles on the dangers of authoritarian rule, and the playwright’s assertion of the general’s need to remain conscious of his duty to the citizens of Athens. It was the duty of playwrights in Athens to address social and political issues, and this play not only addresses authoritarian rule, but also familial duty and the status of women in society. When Antigone stands up to Creon she not only defies the edict, but also the traditional behavior of Greek women of the time.
During the Golden Age of Athens, Sophocles was one of the city’s most prolific and beloved playwrights. Antigone is still performed all over the world, and though it may seem different in theme and structure to modern works, it continues to move audiences just at it did when it was first produced. Many scholars have remarked on Sophocles’s ability to create dramatic, complex, and unique characters and situations, all of which have withstood the passage of time.
Antigone opens shortly before dawn outside of the palace at Thebes, where Antigone meets her sister Ismene. Together they grieve over the losses their family has suffered. First, their father, Oedipus, had unknowingly murdered his own father, ascended the throne, and married his mother. When Oedipus discovered this, he put out his eyes and wandered as an exile from Thebes until his death. Then their brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had killed each other in a battle between Thebes and the city of Argos. Now, because Polyneices fought against Thebes, Creon, the new king of Thebes, has ordered that his corpse remain unburied, thus condemning his spirit to roam the earth for one hundred years.
Grieved, Antigone calls on Ismene to join her in carrying out their duty to their brother in spite of the edict. Antigone appeals to her sister’s familial duty. Ismene, on the other hand, argues that, as women, they should not question the decisions of men—especially an edict from the king. Each fails to persuade the other and the sisters exit as the chorus of elders approaches.
Because Thebes has stood victorious in the battle against Argos, the chorus calls for a celebration. Then, as they begin to wonder why they have been summoned to the palace, Creon, newly crowned as king over the city-state, comes from the palace. He asks the elders to show him the same loyalty they had previously awarded Oedipus. He restates his edict that Polyneices shall not be buried, vowing that no foe of the city shall be his friend. The chorus seems uncertain about administering Creon’s edict and ask that younger men perform the task. One of the young men guarding the body of Polyneices comes forward.
The sentry guard tells Creon that someone has sprinkled dust on the body of Polyneices—an attempt at burial that violates Creon’s decree. An elder suggests that the act is the work of a god. Creon disagrees and warns the old man against such foolish proclamations. It is base, he argues, to defy the state, not the glorious act of a god. The king suspects that money has provoked someone to attempt
Polyneices’s burial. Creon tells the sentry that he will be held responsible for the crime until the guard finds the actual perpetrator. He sends the sentry back to his post, commanding that he find the lawbreaker.
The chorus praises the wonder that is man and the cunning by which he can capture all of nature, or, conversely, escape nature’s snares, all, that is, except death. Then the guard returns bringing Antigone as his captive. The guard reports that just after they had removed the dust from Polyneices, Antigone was caught trying to bury her brother a second time. When questioned by Creon, Antigone admits to both attempts at burial. Creon condemns her; Antigone asserts that she has done a noble deed by honoring her family and following the “unwritten law.”
Creon suspects that, due to her odd behavior earlier, Ismene may be an accomplice in her sister’s crimes. When she comes forth, the chorus of elders recognizes that Ismene is innocent; her tears are not of guilt but sorrow for her sister. Yet Creon demands her confession, and she gives it. Upon hearing
this, Antigone states that she acted alone, absolving her sister of guilt. Ismene pleads for Antigone’s life, reminding the king that not only is his prisoner family (Antigone is Creon’s niece), she is also betrothed to his son, Haemon. Despite this, Creon will not reverse his judgment.
As Antigone and Ismene are led away, Haemon appears. He appeals to his father’s ego, asking that he let Antigone go free to show the people that he is a kind and forgiving ruler. Though Creon briefly considers his son’s advice, when Haemon notes that citizens are concerned for Antigone’s welfare, the king sees that the argument is only made to free Antigone. He rejects his son’s proposal, stating that he will not have his laws questioned by a woman, nor will he accede to the desires of his son. He vows to execute Antigone in Haemon’s presence, but his son leaves, vowing that his father will never see him again. Creon decides to bury Antigone alive with enough food and water so that the city itself is not held to blame for her death.
Antigone is led to a cavern where she will be sealed inside of a tomb. The chorus of elders mourn for her, speaking of comparisons to Persephone, who also died young and without a husband. The chorus also seems to mock Antigone, however.
After Antigone has been led away, Teiresias, a blind seer, is brought before Creon. The prophet warns Creon that he is responsible for a sickness that has descended on Thebes. Polyneices’s unburied body has polluted the city and the gods will hear no more prayers. The body is also polluting the cities close to Thebes, causing ill will toward Creon’s city-state. Creon accuses the old man of trickery, stating that some enemy must have paid the seer to Page 5 | Top of Articlecome and upset him. Teiresias accuses Creon of tyranny and selfishness, warning the king that he will lose his son and great grief will befall his house.
After Teiresias exits, Creon becomes fearful. He decides to heed the advice of the elders, allow Polyneices to be buried, and set Antigone free. When he exits the elders pray to Bacchus for the safe-keeping of the city.
A messenger enters and reports that Haemon has taken his own life. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, comes from the palace to receive this information. She learns how Creon and his men first gave Polyneices an honorable burial, and how, when they came to Antigone’s crypt, they found that she had hanged herself. Haemon, in grief, tried to stab his father and, failing this, impaled himself. Eurydice bears this news in silence, returning to the palace.
Creon returns to the palace bearing the body of his son. He is grief-stricken over the results of his own stubbornness. He then learns that Eurydice has also taken her own life. Creon begins to rave, calling himself a rash, foolish man whose life has been overwhelmed by death.
Antigone, the daughter of Jocasta (sister of Creon) and daughter/half-sister of Oedipus (Jocasta’s son/husband, King of Thebes), is a strong-willed young woman who decides to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle Creon, the new king. Following what she calls “unwritten law,” Antigone buries her brother and performs the rituals of the dead. Creon, upon discovering her guilt, sentences her to die by being buried alive. When Creon goes to free Antigone from her early grave on the advice of Teiresias, he finds she’s already hung herself, and his son, Haemon, her fiance, commits suicide to join her in death. Antigone is a representative of allegiance to family and tradition. By defying Creon’s edict, she is showing her faith and sense of duty to her family. She personifies the belief that family and human relations should be placed above politics.
Antigone is committed to her ideals. When her sister Ismene refuses to help her bury their brother, she ends their relationship, and, when caught, she refuses to let Ismene share the punishment. When Creon tells her that she dishonors her dead brother Eteocles, she replies that he is dishonoring the gods by refusing to obey the unwritten laws of Zeus. Though she laments her fate, she later faces it defiantly. Antigone also represents contradictions, first defying her role as a woman, which is to remain silent and follow Creon’s edict, and then lamenting that she will never be Haemon’s bride. Yet her complex emotions and strength of conviction makes her unique as a Greek woman and have rendered her a compelling heroine for centuries.
The Chorus is another convention of Greek drama. They, in Antigone, act as older Theban nobles who comment on the actions of the characters in the play and underline moral points. They also fill in the background of the civil war that pitted brothers Eteocles and Polyneices against each other.
One of the choral passages in the play is called the “Ode to Man,” which glorifies humankind’s accomplishments but warns against ignoring the gods. The Chorus, however, supports Creon’s decisions until it becomes evident that his rule has resulted in tragedy. Creon reminds the Chorus that they too signed Antigone’s death warrant by supporting his policies.
Creon is Antigone’s uncle, brother of her mother, Jocasta. He was proclaimed regent (or ruler) after Oedipus’s tragic fall from power. He has raised his sister’s children as his own following her descent into madness. He was to rule Thebes until Eteocles and Polyneices could rule together as adults. After their deaths he was proclaimed king in his own right.
Holding on to power and suppressing rebellion of any kind are Creon’s main objectives when he orders Polyneices to remain unburied. When notified by a sentry that someone has defied his order, he holds the sentry responsible until the culprit is caught. Creon is unbending and will not listen to the advice of his elders (the Chorus) or Teiresias, the prophet. He is an autocrat, an absolute ruler.
Creon’s refusal to obey what Antigone calls the “unwritten laws” regarding honoring the dead leads to his downfall. As the body of Polyneices “pollutes” the altars of Thebes and its neighboring kingdoms, Creon refuses to listen to advice and further angers the gods by sentencing Antigone to be buried alive as punishment for her betrayal of his edict. Even the pleas of his own son Haemon, Antigone’s fiance, go unheard as he disowns his son for being less of a man for defending his love. Teiresias, the respected prophet, is branded a liar by Creon for predicting that this unbending stance will bring death to those he loves. Despite evidence that Teiresias has been right in the past, and is an honest man, Creon refuses to yield. It is only at the urging of the chorus leader that he relents but by then it is too late. Both Antigone and Haemon are dead by suicide, and their deaths are followed closely by the suicide of Creon’s wife Eurydice. Creon’s refusal to listen and to compromise lead to the loss of everything he loves, including power. He becomes a grief-stricken, broken man.
Eurydice is Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother. She appears late in the play, when she senses something is wrong with her family, and is then informed of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon by a messenger. She takes refuge inside the palace, and, as the messenger tells Creon: “She stabbed herself at the altar, then her eyes went dark . . . then with her dying breath she called down torments on your head—you killed her sons.”
Haemon is the son of Creon and Eurydice and is engaged to be married to Antigone. He tries desperately to persuade his father to see reason by allowing Polyneices’s burial and the release of Antigone, but Creon refuses and accuses his son of being a “slave” to Antigone. Disowned by his father, Haemon breaks into Antigone’s tomb and, upon finding her dead, kills himself in front of his father. Haemon responds to Antigone’s moral courage by sacrificing himself for her; his love and admiration for Antigone are so great that he cannot bear to live without her.
Antigone’s sister Ismene loves her sister and brothers, but she refuses to help Antigone bury Polyneices. She reminds her sister that according to their role as women, it is not for them to decide what is right or wrong. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is willing to share the punishment, but Antigone denies her sister’s involvement. Ismene is devastated by the loss of her siblings, but because of her belief in her lack of status, she feels powerless to act on their behalf. Ismene acts as a foil for Antigone; while she demonstrates a woman living according to the traditional rules governing the behavior and status of Athenian women, Antigone represents a pioneering woman who governs herself according to a sense of personal empowerment and self-reliance.
The Koryphaios is the chorus leader, who functions as an advisor to Creon. He expresses concern for Antigone, tries to support Haemon, and advises Creon to listen to Teiresias. He does, however, agree with both Creon and Antigone on some points, and support wavers between the two characters throughout the play.
The messenger brings the news of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to Eurydice and the news of Eurydice’s death to Creon. Greek tragedy demanded that the violence take place offstage; so a messenger served to inform the audience, and the other characters, of the action that has taken place offstage. The messenger in Antigone asserts to Eurydice that “Truth is always best,” sparing her—and any other character to whom he brings news—no details and providing the simple truth. Pointing to the Haemon’s body, and hinting at the death of the queen, the messenger tells Creon: “The grief that lies at hand you’ve brought yourself—the rest, in the house, you’ll see it all too soon.”
The sentry informs Creon at the beginning of the play that someone has buried and performed death rituals for Polyneices; he is held accountable for the crime until he goes back to the scene and catches Antigone in the act. The sentry then proudly brings Antigone to Creon, glad to have cleared himself of any wrongdoing. He claims to be concerned solely with his own welfare, though expresses regret at having implicated such a young woman.
A respected prophet, the blind Teiresias was well known to ancient Greek audiences from the Theban legends. He is led by his boy assistant to Creon’s palace to tell the king that he must reverse his edicts, bury Polyneices, and free Antigone. Using a ritual sacrifice, Teiresias determines that the “state is sick” and its altars “polluted” because Polyneices’s body has been left to be eaten by animals. The live burial of Antigone only adds to the anger of the gods.
Creon accuses the prophet of lying for money, calling him a “prophetic profiteer.” Teiresias counters by predicting the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice. He also predicts that the other nearby kingdoms will attack because of the pollution of their altars. Greek audiences of Sophocles’s time would have readily accepted and believed Teiresias and his predictions. Oracles, fortune telling, and ritual sacrifices and offerings to the gods were part of everyday life in Greece at the time. His predictions serve to heighten the tension in the play and to set up the events for catharsis, the purging of fear and pity brought about by the events in the play.
Antigone was written over two thousand years ago, in a land that is still considered the birthplace of democracy. Sophocles was a part of this democratic movement, but custom, tradition, and the rules of the gods also played an important role in Greek life. This is reflected in the themes present in the play: choices and their consequences; custom and tradition; gods and religion; and betrayal. These issues make Antigone constant in terms of its relevance to audiences of all times, as these issues represent some of the fundamental challenges faced by humankind.
Choices and Consequences
Just as in life, choices in Antigone have their consequences. From the outset, Antigone’s decision to bury Polyneices seals her fate. Her refusal to obey Creon’s edict to leave her brother’s body to be consumed by wild animals leads to her capture and to her death. Similarly, Ismene’s refusal to help Antigone ends her relationship with her sister. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is refused the honor of sharing her fate and instead is forced to live on alone, tortured by a loss of family and the knowledge that she may have made a cowardly choice.
Creon’s unyielding government and his choice to ignore both the advice of Teiresias and the pleas of Haemon result in the loss of both his son and wife—as well as bad relationships with neighboring cities. His refusal to bend to the will of the gods effectively ruins his life. All choices in the play—Antigone’s, Ismene’s, and Creon’s—are made freely, but the consequences are predicted by the prophet Teiresias and, therefore, are considered to be governed by fate. In Greek culture in the fifth century B.C., much emphasis was placed on fate; oracles (prophets) were commonly consulted and prophecies were made. Though the characters make choices of their own free will, the consequences of these choices are viewed as being controlled by fate, that is, determined by the gods.
Sophocles may have wanted to show that choices made for apparently logical reasons—Antigone’s burial of her brother according to “unwritten law,” Creon’s need to keep order after a civil war, and Ismene’s following of the traditional role of women—can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Though all three characters make the choice that seems right to him or her, the results are disastrous. Antigone dies, Creon loses his family and power over the state, and Ismene is doomed to live the rest of her life alone, knowing that she did not try to help her family.
Custom and Tradition
The Ancient Greeks were polytheists, which means that they believed in many gods, and each god represented a specific aspect of life. Zeus, however, was the king of the gods, and he ruled over all. Antigone invokes the name of Zeus several times in the play as she defends her burial of Polyneices. Greek custom and tradition dictated that the women in the immediate family of the deceased should carry out the burial rituals, which meant that Antigone and Ismene were responsible for the burial of both of their brothers. When Creon orders Polyneices left unburied, Antigone felt she was acting according to the “unwritten laws” of Zeus by burying him. To her, all dead should have the honor of burial, no matter what they did in life, and she felt she was justified in fulfilling this custom and obeying the law of Zeus.
Teiresias warns Creon that ignoring Zeus’s “unwritten law” would bring tragedy to his house. By ignoring the prophet, Creon disregards both the Page 8 | Top of Articlegods and the long tradition of prophets and oracles in Greece. This disrespect for custom and tradition, and his arrogance in presuming that he is “absolutely right” leads to his fall from power. Most scholars agree that Sophocles wrote Antigone as a warning against absolute rule and authoritarianism. Greece had just become a democracy after a long period of dictatorial rule, and this play, as well as others of its time, was meant to caution all of Athens against allowing that type of government to regain power.
God and Religion
Creon’s edict that Polyneices should go unburied invites disaster on Thebes. Teiresias tells Creon that “the gods reject our prayers and our sacrifices,” and pleads with Creon to listen, warning the king that the furies—agents of the god of death—are angered and will seek retribution. Teiresias further tells Creon: “You have dishonored a living soul with exile in the tomb,/hurling a member of this world below./You are detaining here, moreover,/a dead body, unsanctified, and so unholy,/a subject of the nethergods.” In other words, Creon has infuriated the gods by imposing his own set of laws instead of following the laws that they have set down for humankind to follow.
The conflict between Creon and Antigone becomes a sort of family versus state conflict that results from the betrayal each group perceives in the actions of the other. When Polyneices married into the royal family of Argos, Creon felt betrayed that one of his own should seek power in another state (and later fight against Thebes in a war), and Creon views Antigone’s burial of her brother as another act of betrayal. Antigone is betrayed both by Ismene’s refusal to help her bury their brother, and by Creon’s actions when he learns what she has done. Finally, Eurydice expresses betrayal by Creon, who failed to save their son Haemon from suicide and failed to take action to prevent the death of their older son in the civil war that began the tragic course of events depicted in the play. In his introduction to his translation of Antigone, Richard Emil Braun asserted: “Betrayal of faith and disregard of family bonds are the themes of Creon’s reign. Permeated with hate, life lacks cohesiveness; the polar opposite of life, the anti-world of Hades, must then contain love.” Creon puts the governing of Thebes before the needs of his family, precisely the opposite of Antigone’s choice to put her duty to her family before her duties to the state; both choices lead to death, which is portrayed as the only solution to the dilemma.
Ancient Greek playwrights in Athens wrote plays for the Great Dionysia festival that was held every Spring. It was a civic duty to attend these plays, as they dealt with moral and social issues important to the community. Sophocles based Antigone on the Theban myths of the legendary rulers of Thebes, using what was, even in his time, an old story to comment on such issues as the absolute rule of kings and the status of women in society.
Antigone is a traditional Greek tragedy. A tragedy is defined as a drama about a noble, courageous hero or heroine of excellent character who because of some tragic character flaw brings ruin upon himself or herself. Tragedy treats its subjects in a dignified and serious manner, using poetic language to help evoke pity and fear and bring about catharsis, a purging of these emotions. In the case of Antigone we have two characters at the center of the conflict—Antigone and Creon—who are both tragic figures. Antigone defies a royal edict to bury her brother and pays with her life, while Creon ignores the gods and loses his wife and son to suicide. Both characters evoke pity, and each meets a tragic end.
Catharsis is the release or purging of emotions of fear and/or pity, brought on by art, usually tragedy. It is an act that brings spiritual renewal. One of the conventions of Greek drama was to have all violence occur offstage and then conveyed verbally to the audience. This occurs in Antigone, as the messenger relates the story of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to Eurydice. The words of the messenger in Antigone are designed to provoke catharsis in the audience without directly exposing them to the violence of the events. With Antigone, Sophocles hoped to illustrate to audiences the emotional price of his characters’ actions, inspiring in his viewers new perspectives and a sense of caution regarding similar actions.
Another convention in Greek drama is the chorus. Strictly defined, a chorus is a group of actors who comment on and interpret the action taking place on stage. The Greek word choros means “dance,” and sometimes the chorus actually functioned as a character in the play, or portrayed a group of citizens very similar to the audience. In Antigone, Koryphaios, the chorus leader, is a character in the play; the rest of the chorus are Theban elders who alternately express loyalty to Antigone and Creon. The chorus’s indecision underscores the complex nature of the issues in the play.
Many scholars have expressed opinions similar to that of Braun, who argued in his introduction to his translation of Antigone:“Until new evidence appears, one must presume that Sophocles invented many events in the story of his Antigone: (1) the form of Creon’s decree; (2) the quarrels between Antigone and Ismene; (3) the double burial of Polyneices by Antigone and the final creation-burial by Creon; (4) the love of Antigone and Haemon; (5) the entombment of Antigone; (6) Teiresias’s intervention and Creon’s change of mind; and (7) the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.” These events are not present in other accounts of the Theban myths, only in Sophocles’s version of the story. The playwright’s use of “dramatic license,” or embellishment, serves to heighten the tension in the story, increase the complexity of the plot, and intensify the catharsis at the end of the play. Scholars disagree on the exact reasons for these additions, but most agree that the changes make the story more intense and immediate. Since few plays from Antigone’s era have survived, it can only be speculated that these events were fabricated and added to the story; however, no other known accounts of the Theban myths include this information.
Fifth Century Greece and Its Influence
The fifth century B.C. in Greece was a time of great advancement in philosophy, art, and government. Great writers such as Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles wrote plays, philosophy, and political tracts that would influence the world for thousands of years to come. Democracy was being established, and the “Hippocratic Oath,” written by Hippocrates the Great in 429 B.C., was being taken by the first doctors; this oath is the same oath taken by contemporary doctors. The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) was in full swing during Sophocles’s lifetime, and it was during this period in history that many ideals of the modern Western world first appeared.
Bronze Age of Greece
Antigone takes place in Bronze Age Thebes, sometime during the 1200s B.C. Sophocles uses the legends of the family of Oedipus (Antigone’s father) in order to explore social and political issues of his time. Attending the theater was a civic and religious duty in Sophocles’s time. By setting his play in a time period 800 years before his own, he could explore social and political issues without offending those currently in power. He uses the authoritarian rule of Creon and the strong-willed Antigone to warn against the dangers of dictatorship and to highlight the status of women in Greek society.
Civil and Moral Unrest
In 429 B.C. a great plague killed almost two-thirds of the population of Athens, causing civil and moral unrest and testing the bounds of democracy. Warfare was also common at this time in Greek society, as the city-states of Greece competed with each other for trade, commerce, and artistic superiority. This unrest is reflected in the events portrayed in Antigone, beginning with the civil war that pits Antigone’s brothers against each other and ending with the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.
Democracy and Government
Sophocles was not only a respected writer, but also a member of the government in Athens. Democracy was practiced differently in Ancient Greece than it is in the modern United States. Full citizenship, which included the right to vote, was only given to free men; women and slaves were not considered full citizens and so lacked the same rights as men. They were forced to follow a different code of conduct. Despite such inequities and restrictions, the foundations laid in the fifth century B.C. provided a framework for the founders of the United States—and other world democracies-when they sought to establish a free democratic government.
Playwrights and Drama
The writers of the fifth century B.C. established the traditions of both tragedy and comedy. The first three plays at the Great Dionysia festival were tragedies, followed by the satyr play, which poked fun at the characters and situations of the earlier tragedies; “satyr” served as the forerunner to the modern dramatic convention of satire, which uses humor to criticize or mock. The satyr plays were then followed by a comedy by another playwright, as the competition for comedic plays was separate from the competition for tragedies.
There were strict rules for tragedy in the Great Dionysia, and the plays were viewed as valued cultural commodities. To qualify—let alone win—dramatic works had to subscribe to a strict format that had been used for many years. To preserve this cultural jewel, a great deal of importance was placed on the passing of knowledge; it was as much a role of the playwright to teach as it was to compose. Aeschylus, a great writer of tragedy, was one of the teachers entrusted to teach younger writers the methodology of tragedy. Sophocles was one of his students (who would later defeat his instructor at the Great Dionysia), and he, in turn, also shared his knowledge with younger writers. Modern plays are evaluated according to the standards set forth by plays written in Ancient Greece, and contemporary playwrights look to writers such as Sophocles and Aeschylus for instruction and inspiration.
Athens in the fifth century B.C. saw the rise of a revolutionary group of teachers and philosophers called the Sophists. This group broke with tradition and focused more on the study of the actions of humankind than on the standard legends of gods and goddesses. Sophocles was one of these individual teachers, who, although differing in their views as well as their standards, agreed that the main subject of their teaching should be human actions. These middle-class teachers instructed the sons of the wealthy about politics and the practice of democracy with the full support of Pericles and other leaders.
In the fifth century B.C., Athens was one of the great city-states of Greece. Antigone takes place in Thebes during the Bronze Age (1200s B.C.), 800 years before the birth of Sophocles. The story Sophocles tells is based on the oral history, or genealogy, of the ancient rulers of Thebes. By removing the action of his play to the mythic past and using heroic characters, Sophocles was able to touch on the profound and significant issues of his day from a safe distance. Athens in Sophocles’s time was one of the world’s first experiments in democracy. Antigone represents the conflict between traditional government, which advocated following the laws of the state and the absolute rule of its leader, and democracy, according to which citizens obeyed a set of laws that they themselves had helped to institute. One school of critical thought argues that the figure of Creon, who abuses his power, may have been a veiled warning to Pericles and the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship. In the play, Creon stubbornly insists that Antigone suffer an awful fate for her actions. His refusal to listen to any line of reasoning served to remind the Athenian audience of the terrors that tyranny could bring. Other critics, however, insist that Creon behaves as he does precisely because of the democratic ideal. As Arlene W. Saxonhouse noted in her Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought: “Creon, the political leader, categorizes and simplifies; one female equals another. . . . In a perverse way, Creon’s refusal to distinguish, to particularize, to see differences, may make him more the democrat than the tyrant.” This difference of opinion serves to underscore how complex the play is. Whether one perceives Creon as tyrant or democrat, he meets a tragic end. Sophocles respects the gods, but tends to explore human characters rather than supernatural ones. Scholar Jacqueline de Romilly stated in an essay in her A Short History of Greek Literature: “The relation between men and gods . . . is a major theme in Sophocles. But it is nothing like the relation between men and gods as described by Aeschylus. In the first place, the gods are more distant. In the surviving plays, they almost never appear onstage. . . . Likewise, their influence on human emotions is less immediate; and the principles by which they act are harder to discern.” Unlike previous writers who used the gods as characters in their plays, Sophocles tends to focus on the human characters’ actions and choices. When the gods do make their presence known in Sophocles, it is usually through oracles. It is Teiresias who makes the gods’ wishes known in Antigone; through the prophet’s examination of a ritual sacrifice, the god’s displeasure with Creon is revealed. Creon’s unwillingness
to accept what Teiresias tells him leads to his downfall. De Romilly further remarked that Sophocles “respects the gods; and in his plays only the arrogant who are about to be struck down dare to doubt the veracity of oracles. Instead of revolt or doubt we find an overwhelming sense of the distance between gods and men. Among men, everything passes, everything changes. . . . The sphere of the gods, by contrast, is the sphere of the absolute, which nothing disturbs.” Creon is struck down because he refuses to acknowledge the “unwritten law” of the gods which is absolute and binding: that the dead should be respected and that those who defend this law are morally right. His further refusal to acknowledge his mistake when Teiresias gives him advice seals his fate and moves the gods to revenge.
Sophocles’s characters are complex in terms of their emotions yet simplistic in terms of their moral code of conduct. De Romilly maintained that Sophocles’s “characters have different mentalities because each embodies a different moral ideal, to which he or she adheres. Each knows the basis for his actions and defends his principles, making them his cause; each stands in contrast to those among whom he lives as on philosophy of life stands in contrast to others.” Similarly, Richard C. Beacham, in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, declared: “Antigone is in one sense a play of conflicting moral principles in which both sides can marshal strong arguments in their support. Creon insists on the necessity of civil order and the primacy of the rule of law; Antigone claims allegiance to a higher law, that of religious and familial duty, which must, she insists, outweigh the demands of the state. Tragedy is inherent . . . in the irreconcilable conflict between two moral imperatives each of which may be thought of as ‘right.’” In other words, both characters make strong arguments but neither is able to compromise. The intensity of the tragedy in the play comes from the fact that both characters can be perceived as behaving in an appropriate manner according to the laws each is following. The audience is able to appreciate both points of view, and because both Creon and Antigone are destroyed, the play’s emotional power over the audience is increased.
Antigone won first place in the Great Dionysia festival in Athens when it was first produced c. 442 B.C. The play has been celebrated since that first performance and praised by such writers as: John Keats, William Butler Yeats, George Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Cocteau. Noted literary scholar George Steiner, in his Antigones, explained: “Between 1790 and 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, [and] scholars that Sophocles’ Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.” The play is also extremely popular during times of war—most recently World War II—because of its clash between individual conscience and governmental law. French playwright Jean Anouilh adapted Antigone in 1946, and put the characters in a modern setting. According to Colin Radford in his essay in The International Dictionary of Theatre, “Anouilh has been much criticized for degrading the legend, for cheapening the significance of his subject, for turning the heroine into a stubborn willful adolescent.” Though Anouilh was faulted for his interpretation of the ancient tragedy, his play is considered a masterful work of drama by many critics.
Allbaugh holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. His essay discusses the issue of family versus community that pervades Sophocles’s play.
Literary criticism of a dramatic work can help readers in several ways. It can clarify difficult passages in the play itself. It can assist readers in identifying assumptions that they bring to their viewing or reading of a play. And it can point out important issues raised in the play that warrant more thought and/or discussion. When the play in question is Sophocles’s Antigone, criticism can be especially helpful concerning the preconceived notions a reader may have concerning the work. The play is an ancient tragedy and, as such, contemporary readers often have difficulty relating to the story and characters. A first time reader of Antigone may have assumptions regarding ancient classics that conflict with their own values and beliefs, assumptions that can color their reading of the play.
This is true concerning a number of issues in the play. For example, is Antigone a noble, heroic victim or a fanatical, willfully stubborn character who causes the deaths of two other innocent people? Wallace Grey noted in Homer to Joyce that Antigone
is “the first heroine of Western drama.” At the same time, he also called Antigone’s stubbornness a “wrong,” which, when combined with the wrong of Creon, does not make a right. In Grey’s words, Antigone is a “lone individual, isolated from the gods and from other people . . . the representative Sophoclean hero or heroine.” Another issue, in addition to the character of Antigone, concerns the dramatic conflict between Antigone and Creon. Critics themselves have been divided about how to understand it. Some read this conflict as one in which the rights of the individual are set in opposition to the rule of the state.
As Terence Des Pres suggests in the book Praises and Dispraises, reading the central conflict of Antigone as individual vs. the state does underscore the political elements of the drama. It sees Antigone’s determination to bury her brother as a private affair of the heart. This deeply individual concern, as Des Pres reads it, is set against Creon’s motivations, which are political. Noting that critics do not “ignore its political spirit,” Des Pres cites twentieth century retellings of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, and Athol Fugard as works that focus on this issue.
Yet reading the conflict as individual vs. the state has caused confusion over a key passage just before Antigone is led away to be buried alive. In this scene she makes a statement which many critics have felt is a contradiction to her character (if it is to be perceived as Des Pres describes it). It makes her appear less noble than she is in the opening scene and raises questions about her motives for burying her brother. In this difficult passage, Antigone claims that she would not make the same sacrifice for a husband or children that she is making for her brother and her father. “Never,” she cries, “had I been a mother of children or if a husband had been moldering in death, would I have taken this task upon me in the city’s despite.” This passage has bothered readers since the seventeenth century, causing many to speculate that Antigone’s motives are greater than mere familial loyalty. It has been considered a late addition to the play, though Aristotle,
a contemporary of Sophocles’s, attests to its genuineness.
In contrast to the view of the conflict as individual vs. the state, Robin Fox presented an argument which would appear to resolve the contradiction raised by Antigone’s statement above. Fox wrote in Anthropology and Literature, that the conflict in Antigone is one in which Antigone’s duties are not to individuality, selfhood, or to private affairs of the heart, but to her father’s family, and to kinship rites of burial. It is this duty which is in conflict with the state edict. It is her duty to her father’s family to which she is appealing in the questionable statement above, a blood tie which would be more important to her than her ties to a husband. In this persuasive argument, Fox accounts for an issue deeply important to citizens of ancient Athens, one in which the demands of kinship conflict with democratic rule of the city-state in the fifth century B.C.
Similar arguments about kinship and blood ties have been made to account for Antigone’s statement by Sheila Murnaghan (in the American Journal of Philology) and Charles Segal. Segal noted in Greek Tragedy that the conflict in this play is between “fundamentally different concepts of life,” between “Antigone’s fierce personal loyalties” and Creon’s “politicization of burial.” He writes that it is “through blood alone [that] Antigone makes the basis of her . . . loyalty,” or “friendship.” In contrast, the basis for Creon’s friendships is found through obedience to the state (as he stated to the elders in Scene II, no foe of Thebes is a friend of his). Like Fox, Segal argued that Antigone’s real concern with burying her brother demonstrates a valuing of kinship and blood ties, not individuality.
These ancient values of kinship and state would have been captured for Sophocles’s first audiences in the Greek words oikos, meaning house, and polis, a word for city. The concept indicated in oikos concerns everyone related by blood and servanthood to a father’s house. Connected to this is the issue that one must care for one’s own blood ties, and an important part of that duty, especially for women, includes burial rites. At the same time that these allegiances to family are important and can be seen in the play, so is Creon’s appeal to the welfare of the city-state. After all, the city itself has just come through a war in which one of its own—Antigone’s brother Polyneices—has led the enemy. The need for obedience to a ruler’s edict, to restore order and right governing, is understandable. These oppositions of these two powerful duties are the engine for the play’s compelling and complex dramatic conflict.
The central opposition in the play between Antigone and Creon, and, respectively, between a duty to one’s house and a duty to the city-state, is directly echoed in many images in the play. Examples include the image Creon uses of a ship to represent the state, which he believes must sail well for citizens to find the value of friendships. “If any makes a friend of more account than his fatherland, that man has no place in my regard . . . nor would I ever deem the country’s foe a friend to myself . . . our country is a ship that bears us safe, and that only while she prospers in our voyage can we make true friends.” Creon is shown here connecting the idea of friendship, of having “parcel of [another’s] thoughts,” as the chorus puts it, with the good of the state. In a revealing statement when he interrogates Antigone and Ismene, he vows never to allow Antigone, though she is his blood relative, to worship at the shrine of Zeus in his house. This shows him placing loyalty to the state over loyalty to blood members of his house.
That Antigone’s concern is with her father’s house and not with some individual, private concern is exemplified in her challenge to Ismene to fulfill her duties as a noble daughter of noble lineage. Underscoring her sense of kinship, Antigone refers to Ismene in the first scene as “dear sister,” as kin, when she appeals to her for help in burying their brother. After Ismene opposes this decision, Antigone calls her a foe. Similarly, after she has been condemned, Antigone states that she hopes by her actions to be welcomed to a home among the dead members of her family. In addition to these statements, a sympathetic image of the home is made in connection with Antigone by the guard who brings her captive to Creon. The guard claims first to have heard her cry bitterly like a bird, “as when within the empty nest it sees the bed stripped of its nestings.” Interestingly, he also calls her a friend, suggesting that he would, if Creon were not enforcing his will as state, act more sympathetically toward her. Though Antigone is increasingly isolated, she is not asserting individuality but the importance of performing her duties to her father’s house.
Many persuasive appeals are made in Antigone on the basis of kinship or the state. The deeply dramatic scenes of argument in the play make strong cases for both kinship and to patriotic allegiance. They form the basis on which one will find friends. Ismene’s appeal to Creon for mercy to Antigone is made on the grounds of his son’s love and betrothal to her. Creon has already rejected her as blood kin, and he also rejects this appeal, saying
that he will not have an evil wife for his son. She is evil, at least in Creon’s eyes, because she has violated an edict of the state. Haemon, after appealing to his father on the basis of the good of the state to spare Antigone, finally rejects his own father, leaving him to “such friends as can endure you.”
On the basis of Creon’s intractable adherence to his edict, the sisters’ relationship is strained, kindred connections between Creon and Antigone and Ismene are rejected, and, finally, Creon’s estrangement from his son. Sophocles’s position in Antigone is complex and situated within these deeply conflicted scenes, which show a group of elders, presented as the chorus of the play, who are unable to act or offer counsel until well after the dramatic action has moved toward tragedy. They are caught in Creon’s tyrannical rule, swayed between the opposing arguments of the principle characters in the drama, unable to decide finally how they should act. The dramatic movement toward discord, in which the concept of oikos seems rejected in favor of the polis, is shown as deeply wrong when Teiresias announces that the city itself has been polluted by Creon’s own edict. Finally, this word reveals that both house and state have been ruined by tyranny. The end result is the downfall of Creon’s own house.
As Fox suggested, citizens of early democracy in Athens encountered conflict over the issues of kinship and state rule. These issues raised in Antigone are issues with which modern audiences may have trouble identifying. We value the rights of the individual far more than the rights of families. Except in certain areas of the Mediterranean, blood ties are often considered weak social bonds. In the late twentieth century, we rarely use the word “kin,” unless we are referring to those we consider our “kindred spirits.”
Yet Antigone’s loyalty to her dead brother, her care for him, is inspiring. In Sophocles’s play, the functioning of the state oversteps into areas of the demands that kinship makes, and this boundary jumping raises significant questions. How far shall Page 16 | Top of Articlethe state go in determining the laws that previously concerned the family? Conversely, how far shall one’s family take precedence over the laws of the state and the people? These questions are not easily answered—even in modern society—and demonstrate why Sophocles’s play remains topical and important. While not providing a universal outcome of such a situation, Antigone offers one possible—and tragic—result of the personal and the political converging and conflicting. In this sense, the play has significant relevance to modern society and offers both an entertaining drama and valuable lesson to the contemporary reader of the play.
Source: Thomas Allbaugh, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt from an article that originally appeared in The Leader on March 29, 1856, Eliot interprets Antigone as the conflict between “the strength of man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection” and “the rules which society has sanctioned.”
Eliot was an English novelist, essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, and translator. She is regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of the nineteenth century, and is best known for her novels The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-72).
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Source: George Eliot, “The Antigone and Its Moral” (1856), in her Essays of George Eliot, edited by Thomas Pinney, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 261-65.
Walter H. Johns
In the following excerpt, Johns outlines Sophocles ‘s distinctive use of violence and strong emotion in Antigone.
The stern violence of the actors in the drama is to be seen throughout: Antigone knows that if she gives-Polyneices burial, she will be stoned to death. When Creon warns the members of the Chorus not to aid those who disobey his commands, the leader intimates that death would be the punishment and Creon agrees. When Antigone is revealed as the culprit, Creon regards her action as direct defiance of his commands . . . charges her with that tragic fault. . . .
When Haemon comes to plead with his father, the Chorus announce his approach with a comment on his mood of bitterness and grief. Their final word contains a foreboding note on the tragic excess of this grief. In the scene which follows, Sophocles gives one of many striking examples of his irony in the speech in which Creon bids his son reject Antigone and send her off “to find a marriage in Hades.” This foreshadows Haemon’s own doom, later described by the messenger, in which he is said to have “found his marriage in the halls of Hades,” i.e. with the dead Antigone. The dramatist, as usual, draws a moral from his doom—that the greatest evil which can befall mankind is . . . (want of judgment) —a Delphic utterance which as so often in Sophocles, can be applied in two ways, to Creon as well as to Haemon.
In the long dialogue with his father, Haemon gives a veiled warning that Antigone’s death may involve someone else. But Creon’s [want of judgement], another tragic flaw in his nature, makes him miss the hint. The most specific threat of all, however, is found in Haemon’s parting words—the last line he speaks in the whole play:
. . . thou shalt in no wise gaze upon this face of mine again, seeing it in thine eyes.
As he departs the Chorus say:
My lord, the young man has gone, swift in his wrath: the spirit of one so young, when it is pained, is fierce. . . .
As the drama moves on to its conclusion the promises and reports of violence continue. Teiresias foretells the death of Creon’s son. The messenger reports the death of Haemon by his own hand and once more brings in a reference to Haemon’s wrath at his father for the death of his beloved Antigone.
We now come to the passage containing the disputed phrase. The messenger describes the scene in vivid detail. Creon had sent his followers to explore the cell and they had found Antigone hanging by the neck and Haemon embracing her dead body “bewailing the loss of his bride who is with the dead, and his father’s deeds and his own ill-fated love.” Then Haemon hears his father’s voice and realizes that the cause of all his grief is close at hand. The effect on the young man is described by Sophocles in brief and vivid phrases. He is mad with rage; in fact his eyes are described as those of a wild beast. In a fit of blazing anger he momentarily blinds his father by spitting in his face, then tries to kill him. But his own furious anger and his father’s hurried flight foil his attempt and, instead of pursuing his father, he carries out his prime intention of suicide, turning his sword against himself and dying with his arms about the body of Antigone. Thus Sophocles has Haemon fulfil the vow he had made that his father’s eyes should never gaze on him again alive, and at the same time express his supreme contempt and hatred for his sire in a manner more familiar among Mediterranean races than among those of north-western Europe. The poet’s
phrase expressing his utter silence here strengthens the action instead of, as Bayfield suggests, serving as an anticlimax. And so to Haemon we must ascribe an act of fury and scorn, to Sophocles a carefully chosen expression which links two crucial episodes in the play: Haemon’s last words as he leaves his father (and the stage) and his last acts before his own suicide.
To many this explanation may seem fanciful in the extreme if not wholly offensive, but two major points must be borne in mind. The first is that Sophocles was the most careful of the ancient dramatists to knit his plots into a close fabric of lines in which tragic irony occurs again and again, and lines spoken early in a play are recalled in later scenes to form the climax of the drama. The significant lines are seldom idly spoken. So it is here. Haemon’s parting vow to his father prompts his own vicious action in the last moment of his life. Sophocles was never one to leave loose ends in his dramas.
The other point to be borne in mind is one which seems to have escaped Professor Johnson’s notice. He says:“For him to spit in his father’s face would. . . simply arouse disgust in the spectators.” [The Classical Journal 41 (1945-46) 371-374]. But it must not be overlooked that this did not take place on the stage; it was simply reported by the messenger. It was placed in its context to add to the pity and horror of the final meeting between father and son just before the latter’s death. It is an act of violence like the attempt of Haemon on his father’s life and his own suicide or the subsequent suicide of Eurydice. Such things Sophocles carefully bars from his stage.
Again Johnson speaks of Sophocles as “an artist and as a dramatist whose effects are regularly brought about by subtle and delicate touches.” But he did not hesitate to show on the stage the dead bodies of Haemon and Eurydice in the Antigone, the slaughtered animals in the Ajax, the dead body of Clytemnestra in the Electra, and Oedipus with blood dripping from his ravished eyes in the Oedipus Tyrannus. Surely these are no subtle and delicate touches. The violence which he presents off stage and depicts only in the description of a messenger is too familiar to demand recounting here. Haemon’s action is in perfect harmony with many similar instances elsewhere. . . .
Source: Walter H. Johns, “Dramatic Effect in Sophocles’ Antigone,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, November, 1947, pp. 99-100.
Des Pres, Terence. “Creon’s Decree” in Praises and Dispraises, Viking (New York), 1988, pp. 3-16.
Des Pres discusses Antigone’s isolation in the play in terms that are political. He alludes to recent retellings of the story by Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht.
Fox, Robin. “The Virgin and the Godfather: Kinship versus the State in Greek Tragedy and After” in Anthropology and Literature, edited by Paul Benson, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1993, pp. 107-50.
Fox presents an argument based on anthropology that Antigone’s conflict has to do with kinship ties, not with contemporary notions of individuality.
Grey, Wallace. “Antigone” in Homer to Joyce, Macmillan (New York), 1985, pp. 59-67.
In this short article, Grey challenges traditional readings of Antigone, in particular those which stress the conflicts of individual vs. the state, religion vs. the state, natural law vs. the state, and man vs. woman.
Murnaghan, Sheila. “Sophocles, Antigone 904-920 and the Institution of Marriage” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 107, no. 2, pp. 192-207.
Murnaghan discusses the controversial passage in which Antigone claims that what she does for her father’s house she would not do for a husband’s. Murnaghan suggests that Antigone’s claim has to do with her blood ties to her father’s house rather than exemplifying an act of self.
Segal, Charles. “Antigone: Death and Love, Hades and Dionysus” in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 167-76.
Segal provides a reading of the mythic allusions to Persephone which the chorus uses in reference to Antigone’s death at a young age. The critic also Page 19 | Top of Articlepresents a reading of the play which shows the heroine confronting a politicization of burial.
Beacham, Richard C. “Antigone by Sophocles,” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 21-3.
Braun, Richard Emil, translator. Introduction to Antigone, by Sophocles, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 5, 12.
de Romilly, Jacqueline. “Drama in the Second Half of the Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes,” in her A Short History of Greek Literature, translated by Lillian Doherty, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.
Radford, Colin. “Antigone by Jean Anouilh,” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 23-4.
Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Steiner, George. Antigones, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692600010