Family versus Community in Antigone

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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 contrast, the basis for Creon's friendships is found through obedience to the state (as he stated to the elders in Scene II, no foe of Thebes is a friend of his). Like Fox, Segal argued that Antigone's real concern with burying her brother demonstrates a valuing of kinship and blood ties, not individuality.

These ancient values of kinship and state would have been captured for Sophocles's first audiences in the Greek words oikos, meaning house, and polis, a word for city. The concept indicated in oikos concerns everyone related by blood and servanthood to a father's house. Connected to this is the issue that one must care for one's own blood ties, and an important part of that duty, especially for women, includes burial rites. At the same time that these allegiances to family are important and can be seen in the play, so is Creon's appeal to the welfare of the city-state. After all, the city itself has just come through a war in which one of its own—Antigone's brother Polyneices—has led the enemy. The need for obedience to a ruler's edict, to restore order and right governing, is understandable. These oppositions of these two powerful duties are the engine for the play's compelling and complex dramatic conflict.

The central opposition in the play between Antigone and Creon, and, respectively, between a duty to one's house and a duty to the city-state, is directly echoed in many images in the play. Examples include the image Creon uses of a ship to represent the state, which he believes must sail well for citizens to find the value of friendships. "If any makes a friend of more account than his fatherland, that man has no place in my regard ... nor would I ever deem the country's foe a friend to myself ... our country is a ship that bears us safe, and that only while she prospers in our voyage can we make true friends." Creon is shown here connecting the idea of friendship, of having "parcel of [another's] thoughts," as the chorus puts it, with the good of the state. In a revealing statement when he interrogates Antigone and Ismene, he vows never to allow Antigone, though she is his blood relative, to worship at the shrine of Zeus in his house. This shows him placing loyalty to the state over loyalty to blood members of his house.

That Antigone's concern is with her father's house and not with some individual, private concern is exemplified in her challenge to Ismene to fulfill her duties as a noble daughter of noble lineage. Underscoring her sense of kinship, Antigone refers to Ismene in the first scene as "dear sister," as kin, when she appeals to her for help in burying their brother. After Ismene opposes this decision, Antigone calls her a foe. Similarly, after she has been condemned, Antigone states that she hopes by her actions to be welcomed to a home among the dead members of her family. In addition to these statements, a sympathetic image of the home is made in connection with Antigone by the guard who brings her captive to Creon. The guard claims first to have heard her cry bitterly like a bird, "as when within the empty nest it sees the bed stripped of its nestings." Interestingly, he also calls her a friend, suggesting that he would, if Creon were not enforcing his will as state, act more sympathetically toward her. Though Antigone is increasingly isolated, she is not asserting individuality but the importance of performing her duties to her father's house.

Many persuasive appeals are made in Antigone on the basis of kinship or the state. The deeply dramatic scenes of argument in the play make strong cases for both kinship and to patriotic allegiance. They form the basis on which one will find friends. Ismene's appeal to Creon for mercy to Antigone is made on the grounds of his son's love and betrothal to her. Creon has already rejected her as blood kin, and he also rejects this appeal, saying that he will not have an evil wife for his son. She is evil, at least in Creon's eyes, because she has violated an edict of the state. Haemon, after appealing to his father on the basis of the good of the state to spare Antigone, finally rejects his own father, leaving him to "such friends as can endure you."

On the basis of Creon's intractable adherence to his edict, the sisters' relationship is strained, kindred connections between Creon and Antigone and Ismene are rejected, and, finally, Creon's estrangement from his son. Sophocles's position in Antigone is complex and situated within these deeply conflicted scenes, which show a group of elders, presented as the chorus of the play, who are unable to act or offer counsel until well after the dramatic action has moved toward tragedy. They are caught in Creon's tyrannical rule, swayed between the opposing arguments of the principle characters in the drama, unable to decide finally how they should act. The dramatic movement toward discord, in which the concept of oikos seems rejected in favor of the polis, is shown as deeply wrong when Teiresias announces that the city itself has been polluted by Creon's own edict. Finally, this word reveals that both house and state have been ruined by tyranny. The end result is the downfall of Creon's own house.

As Fox suggested, citizens of early democracy in Athens encountered conflict over the issues of kinship and state rule. These issues raised in Antigone are issues with which modern audiences may have trouble identifying. We value the rights of the individual far more than the rights of families. Except in certain areas of the Mediterranean, blood ties are often considered weak social bonds. In the late twentieth century, we rarely use the word "kin," unless we are referring to those we consider our "kindred spirits."

Yet Antigone's loyalty to her dead brother, her care for him, is inspiring. In Sophocles's play, the functioning of the state oversteps into areas of the demands that kinship makes, and this boundary jumping raises significant questions. How far shall the state go in determining the laws that previously concerned the family? Conversely, how far shall one's family take precedence over the laws of the state and the people? These questions are not easily answered—even in modern society—and demonstrate why Sophocles's play remains topical and important. While not providing a universal outcome of such a situation, Antigone offers one possible—and tragic—result of the personal and the political converging and conflicting. In this sense, the play has significant relevance to modern society and offers both an entertaining drama and valuable lesson to the contemporary reader of the play.

Source: Thomas Allbaugh, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Allbaugh holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition.

The Antigone and its Moral

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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 open to just blame for transgressing another; and it is this consciousness which secretly heightens the exasperation of Creon and the defiant hardness of Antigone. The best critics have agreed … in recognising this balance of principles, this antagonism between valid claims; they generally regard it, however, as dependent entirely on the Greek point of view, as springing simply from the polytheistic conception according to which the requirements of the Gods often clashed with the duties of man to man.

But, is it the fact that this antagonism of valid principles is peculiar to polytheism? Is it not rather that the struggle between Antigone and Creon represents that struggle between elemental tendencies and established laws by which the outer life of man is gradually and painfully being brought into harmony with his inward needs? Until this harmony is perfected, we shall never be able to attain a great right without also doing a wrong. Reformers, Martyrs, revolutionists, are never fighting against evil only; they are also placing themselves in opposition to a good—to a valid principle which cannot be infringed without harm. Resist the payment of ship-money; you bring on civil war; preach against false doctrines, you disturb feeble minds and send them adrift on a sea of doubt; make a new road, and you annihilate vested interests; cultivate a new region of the earth, and you exterminate a race of men. Wherever the strength of a man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon; such a man must not only dare to be right, he must also dare to be wrong—to shake faith, to wound friendship, perhaps, to hem in his own powers. Like Antigone he may fall a victim to the struggle, and yet he can never earn the name of a blameless martyr any more than the society—the Creon he has defied, can be branded as a hypocritical tyrant.

Perhaps the best moral we can draw is that to which the Chorus points—that our protest for the right should be seasoned with moderation and reverence, and that lofty words … are not becoming to mortals (pp. 264-65).

Source: George Eliot, "The Antigone and its Moral" (1856), in her Essays of George Eliot, edited by Thomas Pinney, Routledge, and Kegan Pau, 1963, pp. 261-65. Eliot was an English novelist, essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, and translator. He is regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of the nineteenth century, and is best known for his novels The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-72).

Dramatic Effect in Sophocles

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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 his own ill-fated love." Then Haemon hears his father's voice and realizes that the cause of all his grief is close at hand. The effect on the young man is described by Sophocles in brief and vivid phrases. He is mad with rage; in fact his eyes are described as those of a wild beast. In a fit of blazing anger he momentarily blinds his father by spitting in his face, then tries to kill him. But his own furious anger and his father's hurried flight foil his attempt and, instead of pursuing his father, he carries out his prime intention of suicide, turning his sword against himself and dying with his arms about the body of Antigone. Thus Sophocles has Haemon fulfil the vow he had made that his father's eyes should never gaze on him again alive, and at the same time express his supreme contempt and hatred for his sire in a manner more familiar among Mediterranean races than among those of north-western Europe. The poet's phrase expressing his utter silence here strengthens the action instead of, as Bayfield suggests, serving as an anticlimax. And so to Haemon we must ascribe an act of fury and scorn, to Sophocles a carefully chosen expression which links two crucial episodes in the play: Haemon's last words as he leaves his father (and the stage) and his last acts before his own suicide.

To many this explanation may seem fanciful in the extreme if not wholly offensive, but two major points must be borne in mind. The first is that Sophocles was the most careful of the ancient dramatists to knit his plots into a close fabric of lines in which tragic irony occurs again and again, and lines spoken early in a play are recalled in later scenes to form the climax of the drama. The significant lines are seldom idly spoken. So it is here. Haemon's parting vow to his father prompts his own vicious action in the last moment of his life. Sophocles was never one to leave loose ends in his dramas.

The other point to be borne in mind is one which seems to have escaped Professor Johnson's notice. He says: "For him to spit in his father's face would … simply arouse disgust in the spectators." [The Classical Journal 41 (1945-46) 371-374]. But it must not be overlooked that this did not take place on the stage; it was simply reported by the messenger. It was placed in its context to add to the pity and horror of the final meeting between father and son just before the latter's death. It is an act of violence like the attempt of Haemon on his father's life and his own suicide or the subsequent suicide of Eurydice. Such things Sophocles carefully bars from his stage.

Again Johnson speaks of Sophocles as "an artist and as a dramatist whose effects are regularly brought about by subtle and delicate touches." But he did not hesitate to show on the stage the dead bodies of Haemon and Eurydice in the Antigone, the slaughtered animals in the Ajax, the dead body of Clytemnestra in the Electra, and Oedipus with blood dripping from his ravished eyes in the Oedipus Tyrannus. Surely these are no subtle and delicate touches. The violence which he presents off stage and depicts only in the description of a messenger is too familiar to demand recounting here. Haemon's action is in perfect harmony with many similar instances elsewhere.…

Source: Walter H. Johns, "Dramatic Effect in Sophocles' Antigone," The Classical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, November, 1947, pp. 99-100.

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Critical Overview