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Study Guide

Study Guide

A STUDY GUIDE FOR SOPHOCLES’ ANTIGONE BY JAMES T. SVENDSEN

 

I BACKGROUNDS:

A. THE MYTHIC BACKGROUND: “ Sophocles’ mythic originality is far more significant in relation to the daughters of Oedipus. It is now generally agreed that he was the first to develop the story of the sisters and that he was the creator of the character of his heroine. Homer, Hesiod and Pindar do not mention the sisters at all, and the two scenes depicting them in Seven Against Thebes are now considered spurious imitations inspired by Sophocles’ play. Therefore, may we not assume that the myth concerning Antigone’s defiance of the king’s order was probably a local legend in Sophocles’ native Kolonos? Just as the apotheosis of Oedipus at Kolonos was probably part of a local tradition, so, too, local associations are probably the poet’s source for the girl’s act, the seed out of which his fertile imagination created the character of his heroine and the drama of her defiance.” Joan V. O’Brien

 

B. THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The traditional date for the Antigone, based on ancient testimonies, is 442/1 BCE, just previous to the Samian War in which Sophocles participated as general. “The connection between the aftermath of the Samian War and Antigone is further secured by the fact that Pericles delivered the oration at the public funeral for those killed in subduing Samos. The subtext of funeral oratory in a play about exposing corpses could well be addressing the suffering and savagery of the war that Pericles’ funeral oration and the public funeral were meant to soothe.... Greek tragedies are usually held to have addressed topical issues, concerns and events in only the most remote manner. Yet the audience of 438 B.C. would be hard- pressed not to make connections between the plot and language of the play and the recent events in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Kerameikos where the public funeral had been held only a few months before. The issues necessary for approaching the Antigone are, then, those of the public funeral and its effects on women and their traditional care for the dead of the family.” William B. Tyrrell & Larry J. Bennett 

 

C. THE DRAMATIC BACKGROUND: “Sophocles is one of the few poets whose reputation has remained consistently high to the present. Aeschylus has at various times appeared too difficult in his poetry and his theology. Euripides too philosophical or ironical; but Sophocles has seemed to hold a middle way, elevated, serious, moral. His plays remain towering monuments of ancient literature, touchstones for defining tragedy and the tragic. Most of today’s interpreters doubt Sophocles’ piety and his protagonists’ heroic nobility. Yet the virtues of his art remain clear: the complex weaving of character, circumstances and the question of life’s ultimate meaning in a world framed by those jealous, dangerous, and remote powers that the Greeks called gods; the supple clarity and allusive density in his poetic language; the appreciation of courage and integrity, even to the death; and the sense that it is our task to recognize our place in some higher pattern, and that the struggle to recognize this pattern may be the meaning of life.” Charles Segal

 

II DRAMATIC STRUCTURE: Bipartite: a tragedy of self-sacrifice followed by a tragedy of divine retribution: “Like many tragedies of divine retribution, the action has an hour glass shape (though not completely symmetrical) as the power flows from Kreon to Antigone. He is tested by a series of challenges until he is completely destroyed. In sending Antigone to her death in the cave, Kreon asserts his power, but the entrance of Teiresias shifts the balance back to Antigone.” Charles Segal

Tripartite: 1) opening set-up, exposition and problems set out in the prologue, parados and Episode I; 2) trial, conviction and death of Antigone; and 3) the tragic downfall of Kreon followed by a brief denoument

“The play is constructed so as to build towards three climactic confrontations: the first between Kreon and Antigone (441-525), the second between Kreon and Haemon (631-765), and the third between Kreon and Teiresias (998-1090). These three scenes, each containing a furious stichomythic exchange, represent the peaks of dramatic conflict, the points at which the tensions are stretched tightest and the stage action and bodily energy display themselves most forcefully.” (Mark Griffith)

“Finally, something should be said about the admirable structure of this drama, the very epitome of the classical simplicity and greatness which the German historian Winckelmann found characteristic of the Greeks. The raging course of the opening scene is mirrored in the manic pathos of the final scene. Sophocles’ dramatic technique is extremely concentrated. The climax of the play, Antigone’s farewell, is just over two- thirds of the way through.” Siegfried Melchinger

 

III KEY CHARACTERS: “In the opening scene Antigone not only sets out the main issues but also displays all the contradictions and dangers that define her character: her intensity of feeling, the single- mindedness of her devotion to family, her unbending will, her readiness to defy the entire city in the name of what she believes, her involvement with the dead, and her willingness to face death if necessary.” Charles Segal

“Many have found Kreon to be wholly at fault, his authority illegitimate, his edict impious and foolish, his behavior and language intemperate and vindictive. But to others he appears a well-intentioned ruler,sincerely committed to laudable political principles and civic piety, and reasonable enough to change his mind and rescind punishment - twice- when the error of his policies is pointed out: he is guilty only of misjudging the gods’ attitude toward non-burial, and of intemperate actions to what he sees as disloyal opponents.... He is presented as a well-meaning, unexceptional man, fatally corrupted and ruined by the exigencies of power.” Mark Griffin

 

IV CRUCIAL THEMES AND STRATEGIES:

“In crude and simple terms, three factors seem particularly important to Sophoclean drama: 1) a concern for plot, regarded as an organic sequence of events, with beginning, middle and end, linked together by an intelligible process of cause and effect; 2) a concern with the mutability of human affairs. No condition of life is ever stable; indeed the greatest prosperity is apt to be followed by an unexpected fall; and 3) an interest in exceptional individuals -the Sophoclean heroes- who are set apart from the common run of men, by their inflexible adherence to some principle.” Andrew Brown

“Greek attitudes toward the treatment of corpses of public enemies were by no means clear-cut or consistent, and, though it becomes clear before the end of the play that Kreon has acted wrongly in his treatment of Polyneikes and Antigone, the audience would not be in a position to be sure of this when first his edict is announced. Denial of formal burial, as a way of inflicting further revenge on a particularly hated enemy and his family, was an extreme and shocking measure, but not unheard-of or self-evidently inadmissible. In particular, the recognized penalty for traitors and temple-robbers in 5th century Athens was refusal of burial within the boundaries of the polis; and criminals were sometimes executed by being thrown down a cliff into ‘the pit’, where their corpses would presumably be left to rot.” Mark Griffin

“The most striking features of Antigone are her unique approaches to law and to love. Antigone obeys a law that she says belongs to ‘the gods’ unfailing, unwritten laws.’ We do know, however, that no surviving text older than Antigone refers to such a concept of unwritten law. The concept probably comes into light in the fifth century along with increasing awareness of potential conflicts between human law (nomos) and nature (physis). With these oft-quoted lines, Antigone inaugurates the tradition of natural law in European thought.” Paul Woodruff

“My purpose is to argue that Sophocles uses a double time scheme in Antigone. It, is of course, true that those Greek tragedies -the vast majority of them- whose represented time is less than a day tend to be crowded with incident; but in Antigone it is not simply the case that a great deal happens. Like Shakespeare in Othello, Sophocles appears to be working with two clocks. At the outset, the ‘short time’ of the Antigone is established with precision. And “short time’ leads the action to its conclusion without a break. Yet there is another more leisurely time scheme at work ... which finds room for the final destinies of not one but two tragic figures.” James Morwood

Gender lies at the root of the problems of Antigone. Throughout the play, the status and proper roles of women, the possibilities of female autonomy and subjectivity, and the limitations of traditional views of male authority and discipline, are repeatedly brought up as key issues; and in the figure of the young heroine, who refuses to be cowed by male authority, takes action against an unacceptable political order, speaks out on behalf of divinely sanctioned moral laws, and embraces a terrifying death rather than abandon her principles, Sophocles has created one of the most impressive female figures ever to walk the stage.” Mark Griffin

 

V DISCOURSE AND RHETORIC: Recurrence of imagery is a fact of the Antigone and one of the keys to the total structure, and it is a fact with which we will be concerned for the rest of the essay. It is of significance for us in several ways and on several levels.... Consider, for instance, the military terms in the opening speech of the play.... Another example worth noting is the sequence built on hyperbainein (to overstep, transgress) in application to law and religious principles.” Robern Goheen

“The six choral odes of the play are among the most poetically elaborate of those in the extant Sophocles and provide a commentary parallel to the main action on the ambiguities of Kreon’s controlling power and the atmosphere of doom surrounding Antigone. The parodos celebrates the city’s victory over its enemies and so sets the stage for Kreon’s entrance. Yet it Dionysiac language and the all-night civic choruses return with different meanings in the last ode, when something of the emotional violence and frenzy that also belong to Dionysus make their appearances.” Charles Segal

“Besides Aeschylus, Sophocles could draw on the vocabulary of Homer and the lyric poets. Many of the Homeric and lyric words, which are not found in Aeschylus, occur chiefly in Sophocles’ early plays. It is natural that Sophocles, the most Homeric of the tragedians, should borrow from Homer’s vocabulary.” T.B.L. Webster

 

VI OVERALL INTERPRETATIONS:

Antigone is the first, and remains the greatest, play in western literature about the consequences of individual conscience defying civil authority. In her clash with King Creon, as she defends the rights of the family, Antigone invokes ‘the unwritten laws of the gods’, whereas Creon rests his case on defending the safety and security of the state against anarchy. Both he and Antigone break their heads on the principle the other represents, one the law of the city, the other the family. In this play Sophocles suggests that a humane city’s laws should be based on the recognition of the rights of the family, and respect for the gods.” Marianne McDonald

“To return to the question raised as to whether the tragedy shows the conflict of two justifiable but limited ideals, the answer must surely be no. It is, of course, helpful to consider what can be approved in Creon’s stance and what is rebarbative in Antigone; but it is she who is the avatar of heroism and the palm of victory is hers. Creon discovers that he has become nothing (1329). Devoted to death Antigone may be, but her story is thrillingly life-embracing.” James Morwood

“Truly, there is a conflict in this play to suit every interest, and Antigone has fascinated intellectuals as a drama of ideas. Philosophers love this play and sometimes treat it as if it were a treatise on philosophical ethics in disguise. While historians are fascinated by the light it sheds on the history of ideas, anthropologists are intrigued by its treatment of gender and family issues. Literary critics remind us that the Antigone is poetry of spectacular beauty, as well as a drama constructed with extraordinary care. There is room

for all of these approaches and more in reading this play, but keep in mind that none of them has led to general agreement. The play is still open.” Paul Woodruff

“What sort of reading of Antigone can lead a critic to assert of Sophocles ‘In his plays the ideas expressed are conventional and conservative and we are not invited to reject them’? For it would seem rather that is it precisely through the limitations and contradictions of the conventional and conservative morality surrounding the terms philos and ekthros in juxtaposition with the values of the city that the tragedy of Antigone develops. After the complex interplays and dislocations of the moral language of relations we have read in this play, it seems to me difficult to see in what terms it would be possible to assert that Sophocles simply reflects a conventional or conservative attitude.” Simon Goldhill