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...
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The Antigone has every quality of a fine tragedy, and fine tragedies can never become mere mummies for [critics] to dispute about: they must appeal to perennial human nature, and even the ingenious dulness of translators cannot exhaust them of their passion and their poetry.
E'en in their ashes live their wonted fires.
[Matthew Arnold] said that the dramatic motive of the Antigone was foreign to modern sympathies, but it is only superficially so. It is true we no longer believe that a brother, if left unburied, is condemned to wander a hundred years without repose on the banks of the Styx; we no longer believe that to neglect funeral rites is to violate the claims of the infernal deities. But these beliefs are the accidents and not the substance of the poet's conception. The turning point of the tragedy is not, as it is stated to be in the argument prefixed to [an 1855 school] edition, "reverence for the dead and the importance of the sacred rites of burial,'' but the conflict between these and obedience to the State. Here lies the dramatic collision: the impulse of sisterly piety which allies itself with reverence for the Gods, clashes with the duties of citizenship; two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each (pp. 262-63).
It is a very superficial criticism which interprets the character of Creon as that of a hypocritical tyrant, and regards Antigone as a blameless victim. Coarse contrasts like this are not the materials handled by great dramatists. The exquisite art of Sophocles is shown in the touches by which he makes us feel that Creon, as well as Antigone, is contending for what he believes to be the right, while both are also conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves...
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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...
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