Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037
In the fifth century B.C., Athens was one of the great city-states of Greece. Antigone takes place in Thebes during the Bronze Age (1200s B.C.), 800 years before the birth of Sophocles. The story Sophocles tells is based on the oral history, or genealogy, of the ancient rulers of Thebes. By removing the action of his play to the mythic past and using heroic characters, Sophocles was able to touch on the profound and significant issues of his day from a safe distance. Athens in Sophocles's time was one of the world's first experiments in democracy. Antigone represents the conflict between traditional government, which advocated following the laws of the state and the absolute rule of its leader, and democracy, according to which citizens obeyed a set of laws that they themselves had helped to institute. One school of critical thought argues that the figure of Creon, who abuses his power, may have been a veiled warning to Pericles and the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship. In the play, Creon stubbornly insists that Antigone suffer an awful fate for her actions. His refusal to listen to any line of reasoning served to remind the Athenian audience of the terrors that tyranny could bring. Other critics, however, insist that Creon behaves as he does precisely because of the democratic ideal. As Arlene W. Saxonhouse noted in her Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought: "Creon, the political leader, categorizes and simplifies; one female equals another.... In a perverse way, Creon's refusal to distinguish, to particularize, to see differences, may make him more the democrat than the tyrant." This difference of opinion serves to underscore how complex the play is. Whether one perceives Creon as tyrant or democrat, he meets a tragic end. Sophocles respects the gods, but tends to explore human characters rather than supernatural ones. Scholar Jacqueline de Romilly stated in an essay in her A Short History of Greek Literature: "The relation between men and gods ... is a major theme in Sophocles. But it is nothing like the relation between men and gods as described by Aeschylus. In the first place, the gods are more distant. In the surviving plays, they almost never appear onstage ... Likewise, their influence on human emotions is less immediate; and the principles by which they act are harder to discern." Unlike previous writers who used the gods as characters in their plays, Sophocles tends to focus on the human characters' actions and choices. When the gods do make their presence known in Sophocles, it is usually through oracles. It is Teiresias who makes the gods' wishes known in Antigone; through the prophet's examination of a ritual sacrifice, the god's displeasure with Creon is revealed. Creon's unwillingness to accept what Teiresias tells him leads to his downfall. De Romilly further remarked that Sophocles "respects the gods; and in his plays only the arrogant who are about to be struck down dare to doubt the veracity of oracles. Instead of revolt or doubt we find an overwhelming sense of the distance between gods and men. Among men, everything passes, everything changes.... The sphere of the gods, by contrast, is the sphere of the absolute, which nothing disturbs." Creon is struck down because he refuses to acknowledge the "unwritten law'' of the gods which is absolute and binding: that the dead should be respected and that those who defend this law are morally right. His further refusal to acknowledge his mistake when Teiresias gives him advice seals his fate and moves the gods to revenge.
Sophocles's characters are complex in terms of their emotions yet simplistic in terms of their moral code of conduct. De Romilly maintained that Sophocles's "characters have different mentalities because each embodies a different moral ideal, to which he or she adheres. Each knows the basis for his actions and defends his principles, making them his cause; each stands in contrast to those among whom he lives as on philosophy of life stands in contrast to others." Similarly, Richard C. Beacham, in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, declared: "Antigone is in one sense a play of conflicting moral principles in which both sides can marshal strong arguments in their support. Creon insists on the necessity of civil order and the primacy of the rule of law; Antigone claims allegiance to a higher law, that of religious and familial duty, which must, she insists, outweigh the demands of the state. Tragedy is inherent .. in the irreconcilable conflict between two moral imperatives each of which may be thought of as 'right.'" In other words, both characters make strong arguments but neither is able to compromise. The intensity of the tragedy in the play comes from the fact that both characters can be perceived as behaving in an appropriate manner according to the laws each is following. The audience is able to appreciate both points of view, and because both Creon and Antigone are destroyed, the play's emotional power over the audience is increased.
Antigone won first place in the Great Dionysia festival in Athens when it was first produced c. 442 B.C. The play has been celebrated since that first performance and praised by such writers as: John Keats, William Butler Yeats, George Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Cocteau. Noted literary scholar George Steiner, in his Antigones, explained: "Between 1790 and 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, [and] scholars that Sophocles' Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.'' The play is also extremely popular during times of war—most recently World War II—because of its clash between individual conscience and governmental law. French playwright Jean Anouilh adapted Antigone in 1946, and put the characters in a modern setting. According to Colin Radford in his essay in The International Dictionary of Theatre, "Anouilh has been much criticized for degrading the legend, for cheapening the significance of his subject, for turning the heroine into a stubborn willful adolescent." Though Anouilh was faulted for his interpretation of the ancient tragedy, his play is considered a masterful work of drama by many critics.