Family versus Community in Antigone
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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