Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Thebes (theebz). Ancient Greek city located in Boeotia, a district northwest of Athens, Thebes was famous in the ancient world for its tragic royal family and the seven-gated wall surrounding the city. The long-standing enemy of Athens, Thebes was the setting of several Greek tragedies. Despotic Thebes seems to have served Athenian playwrights of the fifth century b.c.e. as a kind of inverted mirror image of democratic Athens, providing them with a context within which to discuss social and political issues that might prove too disturbing if dramatized within a contemporary Athenian setting. By setting Antigone in Thebes, in the remote, mythical past, Sophocles freed himself to explore the tensions between personal freedom and legal restraint, household and city, male and female—all tensions of keen interest to contemporary Athenians, whose radically democratic system of government involved a constant program of public discussion and debate.
Royal palace. Represented, probably with no attempt at physical “realism,” by a two-story wooden building at the rear of the stage. Athenian audiences would have been well versed in the tragic history of the royal house of Thebes, a history of internecine conflict, incest, and treachery, and may well have recognized the palace as a place where the two meanings of the word “house” mingle in interesting and problematic ways. The palace, as...
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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...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
1200s B.C.: The states in Greece are run by dictators who are members of the royal family. Power is transferred from father to son, and never to daughters. The citizens have no say in affairs of state.
400s B.C.: Democracy is taking hold in Greece. Athens, for example, is run by ten generals elected by the free male population. The citizens have a say in what actions their government takes.
Today.: Democracies flourish on all continents of the world. The most famous of these democracies, the United States, was founded on the Athenian experiments with democracy in the 400s B.C. Following the end of the Cold War (a state of nonmilitary aggression between democratic and Communist countries), many more countries are in the process of establishing democratic governments.
1200s B.C.: Greek society was "polytheistic," meaning that the Greeks worshipped many gods. Zeus was the king of the gods, with many other gods such as Hades, the god of death, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gathered with Zeus on Mount Olympus (the heavens). The Greeks believed that one must make offerings to the gods to appease them and that ritual sacrifice could influence the gods' feelings and actions regarding certain issues (such as harvests or wars).
400s B.C: Greek society was still polytheistic but as long as the city's gods were not neglected, worship was open to any god. Worship of the gods was still...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the ways in which arguments over such topics as abortion (both pro-choice and anti-abortion movements) or anti-government militia groups such as the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas concern conflicts over the rights of individuals and the role the state should play in determining ethical decisions. How much should the state be involved in determining or restricting the rights of the individual? How much should the rights of individuals be asserted over the good of the state and community?
Research the differences between the concept of the nuclear family, consisting of two parents and their children, and the extended families of other cultures, in which grandparents and other relatives play important roles in the lives of family members.
In the breakdown of what is perceived to be a traditional American family—particularly families without father figures-many young people living in urban areas find nurture and support by joining gangs. Research the ways, both positive and negative, in which young people find family values by being loyal to a gang. Based on this research, what alternatives to gangs can be suggested for youths seeking some kind of familial relationship?
Research how organized crime "families" are structured and show the ways in which this structure is in conflict with political structures in America and the world.
Explore the family unit during the 19th century western expansion of the...
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Antigone was adapted for a film directed by Dinos Katsourides. Starring Irene Papas and Manos Katrakis, the production is in Greek with English subtitles, released by Ivy Film, 1962; available through Ingram International Films.
Antigone was re-adapted for the stage in 1987; available through Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
Antigone: Rites for the Dead is a dance interpretation of Sophocles's tragedy. A filmed version was directed by Amy Greenfield, with music by Glen Branca, Paul Lemos, Eliot Sharp, Diamanda Galas, and David Van Tiegham, 1991
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What Do I Read Next?
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles's play written c. 430 B.C., years after Antigone, concerns the downfall of Oedipus, Antigone's father. As king of Thebes, Oedipus must remove the plague from the city of Thebes by solving the murder of Laius, who was king before Oedipus. In doing so he discovers that he has murdered his own father, married his own mother, and himself brought the plague on the city.
French playwright Jean Anouilh's Antigone presents a modern version of Sophocles's play, one in which the chorus is represented by a single commentator. The play was applauded by both French resistance fighters and German Nazis during World War II.
Alcestis, Euripides's play first produced in 438 B.C. presents a contrast to Antigone in terms of both substance and style. When considered next to Sophocles and his apparent devotion to religious ideas and to the gods, Euripides seems to be a realist. In this play, Alcestis, wife of Admetus, agrees to die for him and for his family. This action serves as a contrast to Antigone's claim that she would not die for a husband or for children.
Kurt Vonnegut's 1976 novel Slapstick presents a futuristic view of a longing for relationship and for kinship, and one character's political program to make sure that every American citizen has an extended family.
The Godfather, Mario Puzo's 1969 novel about an organized crime syndicate, describes a family...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beacham, Richard C. "Antigone by Sophocles." 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. 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." A Short History of Greek Literature. Translated by Lillian Doherty. University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.
Radford, Colin. "Antigone by Jean Anouilh." 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.
Des Pres, Terence. "Creon's Decree." Praises and Dispraises. New York: Viking, 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." Anthropology and Literature. Edited by Paul Benson. Urbana, IL:...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954. Addresses types and elements of Greek tragedies, and compares Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Discusses problems with the early exit of Antigone and argues that she is more than “mere antithesis to Creon” who is “more than the stubborn fool who kills her.”
Melchinger, Siegfried. Sophocles. Translated by David A. Scrase. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Provides a biography of Sophocles and explains Greek theater, chorus, staff, and actors, as well as each scene of Antigone.
Oudemans, Th. C. W., and A. P. M. H. Lardinois. Tragic Ambiguity: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Sophocles’ “Antigone.” New York: E. J. Brill, 1987. Applies Greek theology to Antigone and explains separative and harmonizing interpretations. One chapter explicates each episode of the play, another, the Greek tragic elements. A thorough study.
Segal, Charles Paul. “Sophocles’ Praise of Man and the Conflicts of the Antigone.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodward. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Focuses on the individuality of Creon and Antigone instead of, as many other studies do, on their contrasts and conflicts. Identifies aspects of Athenian...
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