Antigone

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Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 1,947 words

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About this Work
Title: Antigone (Sophocles) (Play)
Published: January 01, 441 BC
Genre: Play
Author: Sophocles
Occupation: Greek playwright

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

  • Ichneutae (play) c. 460 b.c.
  • Aias [Ajax] (play) c. 450 b.c.
  • Antigone (play) c. 442-41 b.c.
  • Trachiniae (play) c. 440 b.c.
  • Oedipus tyrannus [Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex] (play) c. 425? b.c.
  • Electra (play) c. 425-10 b.c.
  • Philoctetes (play) 409 b.c.
  • Oedipus Coloneus [Oedipus at Colonus] (play) 401 b.c.
  • Women of Trachis (play) date unknown
Principal English Translations
  • The Tragedies of Sophocles, Translated from the Greek, with Notes Historical, Moral, and Critical. (translated by George Adams) 1729
  • Antigone, A Tragedy (translated by E. S. Werner) 1892
  • Antigone (translated by Alexander Harvey) 1924
  • Antigone of Sophocles (translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald) 1939
  • Antigone Translated into English Verse (translated by Clara Weaver Robinson) 1959
  • Oedipus the King and Antigone (translated by Peter D. Arnott) 1960
  • Antigone (translated by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore) 1970
  • Antigone (translated by Richard Emil Braun) 1974
  • Antigone (translated by Andrew Brown) 1987
  • Sophocles's Antigone: A New Version (translated by Brendan Kennelly) 1996
  • Antigone (translated by Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal) 2003
  • Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonus, Antigone (translated by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg) 2004

Introduction

One of seven surviving dramas composed by the famed Athenian playwright Sophocles, Antigone is, in terms of narrative chronology, the last of the three-part Theban cycle. It was most likely composed before the plays Oedipus tyrannus (425 b.c.) and Oedipus Coloneus (401 b.c.), probably around 442-41 b.c. Among the best known and most frequently performed of Sophocles's plays, Antigone is named for the daughter of King Oedipus of Thebes, a pious and determined woman whose wish to bury her slain brother results in a tragic conflict with her uncle, the Theban regent, Creon. While the sources of the story belong to the Greek mythological tradition, scholars note that Antigone showcases the characteristic dramatic skills of Sophocles, a writer who along with his contemporaries Aeschylus and Euripides, defined the golden age of classical Greek drama in the fifth century b.c. Admired over the centuries for its compelling characterizations, theatrical power, and moving evocation of the clash between the principles of filial love and civic duty, Antigone has long been considered one of outstanding works of the Western dramatic tradition.

Biographical Information

Sophocles was born in Colonus, near Athens, in approximately 496 b.c. A favorite at the Grecian dramatic festivals held in honor of the god Dionysus, Sophocles enjoyed his first triumph at the Greater Dionysia of 468 b.c.,--a victory that was reputedly followed by no less than seventeen other first prize awards in the ensuing decades. A model public citizen of democratic Athens, Sophocles is believed to have composed as many as 123 dramas prior to his death around 406 b.c., as well as numerous other works of poetry and prose, of which only scattered fragments survive. Both in his own age and in the present era his writings have been lauded for their brilliant focus on character, economy of speech and form, effective use of the chorus (a standard feature of classical Greek drama), and inexorable dramatic movement toward tragedy predicated on human conflict and the unbending dictates of fate. Stylistically, Sophocles's works are thought to fall somewhere between the dramatic grandeur of Euripides and the raw emotional power demonstrated in the plays of Aeschylus, and are frequently said to represent the aesthetic principles of Attic tragedy in their most perfect form.

Plot and Major Characters

In the prologue to the drama, Antigone, daughter of the now dead King Oedipus, pleads with her sister, Ismene, for assistance in burying their brother Polyneices, recently slain in a fraternal duel with Eteocles over the right to rule Thebes. In the aftermath of the assault, which cost both brothers their lives, Creon, Antigone's uncle and the new regent of Thebes, has proclaimed that the rebel Polyneices should not be allowed burial under strict penalty of death to anyone who would disobey his order. In the eyes of Creon, Eteocles was the rightful ruler of the city, and thus deserving of a hero's funeral, while the usurper Polyneices deserves no better than to be eaten by birds and wild dogs. Reflecting on the foolishness of crossing Creon, Ismene refuses to aid Antigone in burying their brother and counsels her sister against such a reckless act of disobedience of Creon. Antigone, however, argues that the exposure of Polyneices's corpse is not only a grotesque affront to humanity, but also a grave injustice, and a sin in the eyes of the gods. Thus, she endeavors to bury her dead brother in open defiance of Creon's edict--an act she views as her absolute moral obligation.

Upon learning of Antigone's attempt to bury Polyneices, Creon proclaims that his mandate of capital punishment be put into effect. The blind prophet Tiresias, meanwhile, warns Creon against the path he has chosen. Creon refuses to listen to the sage, and instead confronts his niece. Both Creon and Antigone are intransigent; Creon will not yield and Antigone refuses to offer him any opportunity to modify his decree and lessen her punishment. Still, rather than sentencing her to death immediately, Creon proclaims that she shall first be imprisoned for a time; she is shackled and led away to a cave. Thereafter, Creon's son Haemon appears. The young man is in love with Antigone and the couple are to wed, but Haemon's pleadings with his father for Antigone's life accomplish nothing. Inside the cave where she is imprisoned, Antigone hangs herself. When Haemon learns that his beloved has taken her own life, he, too, commits suicide. Shortly thereafter, Creon's wife, Eurydice, arrives and, overcome with grief at the death of her son, kills herself as well. Spiritually devastated by the suicides of his wife and son, for which he is ultimately responsible, Creon realizes the error he has made in condemning Antigone. Despairing for his loss, he prays to the gods for his own death as the play ends.

Major Themes

Despite the fact that there is little interpretive consensus regarding Antigone, most commentators agree that the work effectively dramatizes a tragic clash between the two rigid, uncompromising figures, Antigone and Creon. Each is thought to justifiably uphold the legitimacy of her or his own moral viewpoint, thus creating a situation of profound ethical ambiguity and a tragic conflict of mutually exclusive obligations. A central theme explored in the work is the necessity of protecting and serving the civic interests of the polis (city-state) and the need to demonstrate respect and love for one's kin. These dual commitments lead to a contradiction between familial loyalty and civic responsibility in the case of Polyneices's forbidden burial. Sometimes viewed as a tyrannical figure whose single-minded determination clouds his better judgment, Creon resolutely defends the ideal of civic duty and the rule of law in making his decree. The regent's calculating self-interest, egotism, and near complete failure to understand the workings of love, however, contrast with the piety of his niece, whose sensitivity to the unwritten laws of the gods and awareness of philia (love, kinship, and affection) are two of her defining characteristics. For Antigone, Creon's edict is an unforgivable act of sacrilege and an affront to the gods. Her actions, therefore, are typically interpreted as expressions of religious courage, faith, and filial love.

The irreconcilable conflict between the obligations of Antigone and Creon not only defines these characters as polar opposites--united only in their stubbornness--but also underscores a number of other salient thematic contraries in the drama. Among these, Creon and Antigone are thought to represent the tension between masculine and feminine principles, and between the sometimes incompatible dictates of worldly and divine justice. Other themes more specifically related to Creon include his lack of wisdom in failing to listen to Tiresias, his inability to realize that the laws of the gods must always take precedence over the will of men, and his giving in to political expediency and wielding personal power as a tyrannical ruler. Additionally, the thematic content of Antigone is said to draw upon both the Aeschylean tradition of examining generational guilt (in this case related to the house of Oedipus) and the more typically Euripidean probing of a woman's role in society. Nevertheless, such issues are generally considered secondary in the play, which instead focuses primarily on dramatizing the tragic potential of the individual. The willful destructiveness of Antigone and Creon, who both suffer from obstinacy, recalcitrance, and an inability to compromise, also relates to the drama's depiction of predestination--a motif Sophocles illustrates through deft inclusion of prophecy in the work, which at crucial moments complicates the idea of free will.

Critical Reception

While critical esteem for Antigone has been sustained over centuries, modern scholars have long debated the relative merits of the work and have particularly argued over the aesthetic unity of the play. Probably the most frequently asked question concerning the Antigone is whether Antigone or Creon should be considered the work's central protagonist. Commentators have also frequently remarked on the dramatic problem of Antigone's premature death, which occurs well before the end of the play. This fact has contributed to the contention that Creon occupies the major position in the play, leading to the orthodox, "Aeschylean" interpretation of Antigone as a drama that depicts the hubris and ultimate punishment of Creon, its tragic hero. According to this view, the work is a diptych that first records the fall of Antigone, and later that of Creon. But numerous contemporary critics have questioned such an assessment. S. M. Adams has argued that such criticism misguidedly endeavors to place Antigone within the aesthetic mold of Sophocles's dramatic masterpiece, Oedipus tyrannus, by interpreting the play according to the "tragic hero" formula, which Aristotle would append to it late in the fifth century b.c. Adams has asserted, instead, that with Antigone Sophocles composed a different kind of drama, one in which the story of Antigone is told through the lens of Creon's own hubris, and contending that despite her early death the narrative remains principally hers. In addition to such primarily aesthetic concerns, critics have also studied mythic elements in the play, which Sophocles (like all of the poets and dramatists of his age) adapted from the rich Greek mythological tradition. There have also been symbolic readings of Antigone, particularly mythological interpretations of the imprisoned Antigone as a representation of the virgin bride sent to marry Death (an echo of the Greek myth of the marriage of Persephone and Hades, as well as of other mythic formulations of this theme). The function of the chorus in the work has also attracted critical attention, with scholars probing the loyalties and sympathies of the Theban men who describe and interpret the action of Antigone as it occurs and introduce new themes into the fabric of the drama. Commentators have also admired several choral odes, including an ode to the blinding power of love and the famous ode to man ("Man subdues the sea and the earth") which are typically viewed as some of Sophocles's most outstanding lyrical work. Formal analyses of the play have also been undertaken, such as David H. Porter's evaluation, which underscores structural separation and division in the drama--a sharp contrast to the unifying principles at work in Sophocles's other Theban plays. Antigone has likewise been the subject of numerous psychoanalytical, particularly Freudian, interpretations that generally tend to evaluate the play in terms of its treatment of filial relationships and its characters' sublimated psychological urges. The multiplicity of critical approaches to Antigone has served to highlight the complex nature of this play, and has contributed to the work's status as one of Sophocles's finest and most compelling dramatic compositions.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410001548