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Considered by many the finest Greek tragedy ever produced, Antigone unquestionably won over ancient audiences, capturing first place in the Great Dionysia festival in Athens circa 442 BC. Sophocles set the play in Thebes in the Bronze Age, about eight hundred years before his time, and populated the play with heroic characters. In doing so, Sophocles was able to touch dramatically on some of the most significant themes and political issues of his own day, such as the primacy of the city-state in Athenian society, without calling attention to them directly; the setting of Antigone created for his audience a comfortable distance from the subject matter. A classic Greek tragedy in form, Antigone presents not just one but two heroes felled by their own tragic flaws. A young woman of unshakable integrity, Antigone suffers for defying a royal edict and flaunting the laws of man, while Creon, the king, shows disrespect to the gods and is brought down by his hubris in defending the power of the state. Also in traditional fashion, all of the considerable violence in the play occurs offstage; charac- ters bring reports of it into the drama, allowing audiences to experience catharsis.
Thought to have penned more than 120 plays during his career, the great Greek dramatist and poet Sophocles is survived by only seven. Antigone is one of three based on the saga of Thebes, the “city of the seven gates,” along with Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colunus. Though it is speculated that the plays were not written in chronological order—and each play certainly stands alone—it can be helpful to the modern reader to understand the context of Antigone in a mythology that is both complicated and tragic.
Taken together, the plays tell Sophocles’s rendition of the Theban saga in which Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, are told by Apollo at Delphi that any son they produce will kill his father. Frightened by the pronouncement, they send their infant son out to die. However, a kind shepherd takes pity on the boy and delivers him to the childless king and queen of Corinth; the child is named Oedipus. Upon learning from Apollo that he is meant not only to kill his father but also marry his mother, Oedipus leaves Corinth for good. Unwittingly, he kills his real father, Laius, in a dispute and, again unknowingly, marries his widowed birth mother Jocasta after solving the riddle of the Sphinx and saving Thebes.
Oedipus has four children with Jocasta, two sons and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After discovering his true identity, Oedipus blinds himself and curses his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, pronouncing that each will kill the other. Antigone opens after the two brothers have clashed in battle, Eteocles defending Thebes against the invading army from Argos led by Polynices; each brother has killed the other in a fight to the death, with Thebes ultimately repelling the attack from Argos. Creon, Jocasta’s brother and now ruler of Thebes, refuses to allow Polynices’s burial, even though Polynices himself once helped rule the city. To bury the traitor to Thebes, Creon decrees, is a deed punishable by death. However, prompted by duty to her family and wishing to honor the will of the gods, Antigone defies Creon’s order. The play begins with her brazen declaration that she will bury her brother Polynices.
While some critics see Creon as a veiled warning about the dangers of dictatorship, others posit that Creon is the ultimate symbol of democratic leadership in that he holds the needs of the city-state above those of any individual, including himself. Most critics agree, however, that the initial decisions made by Creon and Antigone are moral choices, honorable and true, each doing service and duty to different masters. Additionally, both Creon and Antigone are undone in part because of their inability to compromise or to consider other points of view. Although Antigone is heralded for her commit- ment to honor and her unwillingness to compromise her principles, there is something lacking in any of us, Sophocles seems to say, when we exhibit passion without wisdom, a failing as evident in politics today as in Athenian society. Where man’s civility and ancient tradition meet, there are no absolutes, nor easy solutions to complex problems. A singleness of purpose and blind conviction might, in fact, be the best indicators not that we are right, but that more deliberation is needed to arrive at the best and most responsible course of action.
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