What are some differences between Sophocles' Antigone and Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In addition to the several excellent distinctions drawn in the previous post, we can take a thematic approach to distinguishing Julius Caesar and Antigone. While both plays deal with issues of loyalty to the state, each play provides a different context for civic loyalty.

In Antigone, one of the central thematic conflicts is a conflict between two kinds of loyalty. The character of Antigone is loyal to family and, furthermore, loyal to her duties to the gods. She insists on burying her brother because it is what the gods want and she will stop at nothing to achieve this end. Creon and others opt to be loyal to the state, placing civic duty above any duty to the gods.

This conflict can be read as a relatively straightforward, surface-level conflict of preferences and can also be read as a metaphorical expression of the existential problems faced by individuals grappling with the fact of death.

As her sister Ismene describes her, Antigone is "a loyal friend indeed to those who love [her]" and she sees this loyalty as an honor-bound duty. 

In an early exchange between the two sisters, the two sides of the central thematic conflict are articulated. 

Antigone: You have made your choice, you can be what you want to be. But I will bury him; and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy: I shall lie down with him in death, and I shall be as dear to him as he to me. 

It is the dead, not the living, who make the longest demands: We die forever...You may do as you like, since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you.

Ismene: They mean a great deal to me; but I have no strength to break laws that were made for the public good.

In this passage, Antigone expresses her allegiance to a sense of duty and, on a deeper level, intimates that humanity's necessarily limited knowledge of death creates a need for adhering to the dictates of religion.

Ismene, on the other hand, takes the side of civic allegiance. She chooses to act in the best interests of the state, which might be taken as a preference for the here and now. In a context of Greek drama wherein human hubris is so often placed in opposition to a recognition of human limitations on knowledge, we can see the thematic conflict here as one concerned with a kind of existential morality.

Should people live according to Faulkner's famous line from As I Lay Dying and spend a life getting ready to be dead for a long time? In doing so, the play suggests, people are acting with a proper humility and obeying the gods.

In choosing to raise the concerns of the living (and the civic body) above those of the dead, Antigone depicts a folly of pride even though this is a position that is clearly articulated by Creon and certainly understandable. How can the living go on doing the work of living if laws are not upheld?

Julius Caesar also poses questions about loyalty to the state, but the essential thematic conflicts deal with issues of what this loyalty really means. Rome is a concept, like republican democracy. It is also a society and, on another level, an actual city. When Brutus chooses to join the conspirators, he believes he is being loyal to Rome. But which Rome is he being loyal to?

Also, if Caesar is assassinated because he threatened to become a tyrant (by dissolving the senate), can Brutus honestly say that he is not seeking power or acting to defend his vote in the senate? Is Brutus acting in defense of an ideal or is he acting in defense of his own position and his own power? Where do his loyalties really point?

There is a possibility that Brutus himself does not have good answers to these questions. Maybe Brutus is troubled by this particular conundrum as he flees from the armies of Rome and is visited by the ghost of Caesar. Maybe, like Macbeth, Brutus was convinced of a prudence that was only a mask for a base will to power.

In any event, the thematic conflict in Caesar is not an existential question about how to live a good life and it is not a division between civic duty and religious duty. The conflict is directed toward a troublesome quandary about motivation(s) and self-knowledge.

A list of a few other differences on a more surface-level reading of these texts might include these ideas:

  • One play includes murder and suicide (Caesar) while the other play has no murder (Antigone).
  • The hero/villain relationship is clearly drawn in Antigone but far less clearly drawn in Caesar.
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first difference between the two is cultural context. Antigone was written almost 2,000 years before Julius Caesar, in a Greek city state that was a direct democracy, while Shakespeare was writing in England, which was a monarchy.

Both plays are historical dramas in the sense that they purport to present events that happened long before the playwrights' lifetimes. On the other hand, the events of Antigone are part of a mythological foundation story about Thebes, while Julius Caesar was a real person and Shakespeare's account is based on historical sources, especially Plutarch. 

In terms of dramaturgy, Sophocles' Antigone followed relatively narrow generic constraints. Three actors played all the individual characters in the play; there was also a chorus which would sing and dance. Actors wore masks and highly stylized robes. In Shakespeare's time, actors did not wear masks and wore ordinary clothes. There is no chorus in Julius Caesar and there are more than three actors. 

Read the study guide:
Antigone

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