Recognizing the True Issue in Antigone
The play Antigone begins with a very basic introduction to fifth and sixth century Greek theatre and gives the audience (or readers) a simple synopsis of the importance of Greek theatre at the time and by extension its ultimate value to the writers themselves. However, once those basic fundamentals are understood, Sophocles then turns our attention to the personality traits of the main characters pointing out their many admirable qualities and their faults as well.
However, there are some distinct irregularities in the story that do not blend well with the existing culture of the time. For one thing, Sophocles shifts our focus from a male dominated art by making the main character female, a very unusual move for the time. It also addresses the question as to whether or not god has given her special favor by making her a hero or whether that favor was removed by allowing her to die for her beliefs.
The setting for the play takes place in the City of Athens, a major center for intellectuals and artists alike. The culture is very affluent and because so many of the city at the time possessed great wealth, people had become accustomed to spreading out great feasts and festivals in a state of constant celebration. It is these free spirits that are forced to make a decision about the primary influences in their lives. Should they be governed by fate or by individualism?
Unlike other plays of the time, the main characters in Antigone could be gods or heroes or they could be unique men and women. Throughout the story, you find that the gods were constantly being questioned or challenged and talked about in some form or fashion. You get the sense that you really know and understand them even if they are not present in front of you on the stage.
This type of story telling is termed “history telling” and presents a problem for the audience as facts could change from one location to the next. And while the basic theme continues to run throughout, the individual vs. the government, you’ll find that many of Creon’s words in the play are often taken out of context and skewed to teach others about the importance of patriotism. One’s loyalty to their state must be stronger than even familial the bonds of love.
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The play looks at two conflicting sets of values from different points of view. Antigone, while she values her relationship within the gods unit sincerely believes that the laws of the gods should not take priority over any other more private aspects of her life, especially in more personal matters held within the household. Creon on the other hand feels that the superior law should be that of the government to the point that all other beliefs should be disregarded in preference to the state.
Creon reinforces his viewpoint by voicing his belief that Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, should not be buried because of his disobedience to the state when he attacked Thebes. To do so would be considered a betrayal of the state. While the conflict between Creon and Antigone is the main focus, Creon’s act instills fear into many people resulting in obedience by coercion and not by loyalty.
This fear is clearly seen when Ismene tries to convince Antigone not to go through with the burial of her brother. Ismene is torn between that familial loyalty and her obligation to the government. Her comment, “We must obey them…I yield to those who have authority” shows how strongly she felt that those who dishonored the law would have a fate worse than death; to die of shame.
The play leaves us all contemplating an age old question. Who should have the supreme authority over the people? We all may have different opinions on the very topic. Even today, the line is clearly drawn and you have people on both sides. The expression ‘blood is thicker than water’ is not a new one. It will continue to be debated far into the future. For Antigone, it is impossible for the king to possess more authority than the gods.
The Oedipus myth was well known even in Sophocles’ day, so his audience already knew what would happen at the end of Antigone. The contrast between what the audience knows and what the characters know sets up the tension, the dramatic irony. However, Sophocles uses dramatic license and adds events that are not found in any previous account of the myth, including the quarrels between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone’s two attempts to bury Polynices, Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon, the entombment of Antigone, Tiresias’s argument with Creon, and the suicides. These added events serve to intensify the play.
Although the last play in the Oedipus trilogy, Antigone was written first. The play won for Sophocles first prize at the Dionysia festival. It is still a popular play, with many stage and screen adaptations, including Jean Anouilh’s famous stage production Antigone (pr. 1944, pb. 1946; English translation, 1946), placing the story in a World War II setting, and Amy Greenfield’s 1990 stark, interpretive dance-film version (Antigone—Rites of Passion).
The conflicts within the play, represented by the conflicts between Antigone and Creon, are powerful human struggles that are still relevant today: the state versus the individual, the state versus family, the state versus the church, the old versus the young, and man versus woman. Although the Chorus delivers the moral of obedience to the laws of the gods before all else, the moral is not a tidy conclusion. Many questions remain unanswered, many conflicts unresolved. For example, when is family more important than the state? In ancient Greece, it was the duty of women to bury family members. Leaving Polynices unburied was a violation of not only the laws of the gods but also the laws of the family. In addition, Creon was willing to put his own niece, and his son’s fiancé, to death. After a brutal civil war, however, restoring order is the responsibility of the king. When, and to what extent, do the laws of the gods and of the state override the laws of the family?
Connected to the above themes is the theme of choices and consequences. The characters in the play have free will to choose, but the consequences of their choices are guided by fate—determined by the gods. To what extent, however, do the characters truly have free will? Antigone’s conscience is pressured by the demands of family tradition and obedience to the gods, while Creon is tasked with preserving law and order. How much is each bound by their position in society, or by their conscience? Both Antigone and Creon stick stubbornly to what they feel are logical choices—but they are limited in their knowledge and cannot foresee all the consequences of their choices. Too often they stubbornly refuse to listen to council, which tries to guide them in their choices. Had Antigone and Creon listened more, the tragedies may have been averted, but each would have had to sacrifice some pride as well as give up a little of who they are.
Antigone is a complex play, one that defies ready interpretation. It is a study of human actions, with complex emotions. Each character represents a moral ideal, a moral argument, and the play becomes a great debate. The two major debaters in the play, Antigone and Creon, are both destroyed at the end, leaving the debate with no clear winner. Antigone demands its audience to continue the debate.