Antigone – in the Action
In the Action One of the most important characters in Sophocles’ Antigone is actually a group of individuals. The chorus consists of a group of Theban elders, and they serve as the voice of the people. These men are considered the wisest in all of Thebes. “Their attitude to what is going on is always shaped by their responsibilities and special interest of their position” (Kirkwood 3). The chorus is not attached to any one character specifically; it reacts to its own thoughts and emotions (3). The chorus is often used to create breaks in the scenes of plays, but in Antigone, the chorus serves a greater purpose then that of a segue.
It is seamlessly integrated into the play, which allows the chorus to become highly personal and dramatically active (1). It functions as peanut gallery of sorts, commenting on the action, making historical references and allusions, and even interacting with the characters. The chorus seems relatively insignificant at the opening of the play, but it later becomes an integral part of the action as the drama unfolds. The chorus often provides information vital to the understanding of the particular scene or dialogue. They often accomplish this through odes, or songs.
At the play’s opening, Antigone and Ismene discuss the death of their brothers. The chorus comes on to end the scene, but also to explain the history behind their battle and subsequent death, “Against our land he marched, sent here by the warring claims of Polyneices” (Sophocles 110-112). The group of old men does not think favorably upon the brothers of Antigone and Ismene, and this is reflected in the end of their story when they refer to the brothers as, “that pair of wretched men, born of one father and one mother, too – who set their conquering spears against each other and then both shared a common death” (Sophocles 170-173).
The chorus provides the background information necessary to understand the dilemma that the sisters now face in deciding whether to properly bury their “evil” brother. This opening song of celebration and victory also serves to contrast Antigone’s opening statement of her intention to defy the king and his laws. After the burial is discovered and made known to the king, the chorus sings on the theme of man’s rise to civilization, “if he treats his country’s laws with due respect and honours justice by swearing on the gods, he wins high honours in his city” (Sophocles 367-369).
The purpose of this ode is to justify the stand they have taken in supporting the edict. The polis depends on obedience to laws for its continued existence (Adams 53). The chorus initially values human laws over the laws of the gods, but this position will soon be reevaluated. The chorus is primarily “a part of the structure of the plays, an instrument for carrying forward or even introducing thematic or emotional elements that are essential to the dramatic action” (Kirkwood 1). The chorus does carry the plot throughout the play, but it does so as more than simply a part of structure. The chorus should be regarded as one of the actors . . . and should participate in the drama” (1). In Antigone, the chorus’ role as a character is as an adviser to Creon, the king. The men talk to Creon as a group of equals representing the lesser population of Thebes. “These are the men on which Creon can count most for support” (Adams 50). The chorus is not simply a group of old, rich Theban elders, but a group specifically chosen by Creon because of their loyalty to him and the crown. The term ‘Theban Elders’ implies the two characteristics that are most commonly agreed to define the chorus’ persona: age and devotion to Thebes” (Gardiner 83). Their devotion to Thebes implies their devotion to Creon as its king. The men placate Creon upon hearing his controversial edict, telling him, “Son of Menoikeos, if that’s your will for this city’s friends and enemies, it seems to me you now control all laws concerning those who’ve died and us as well” (Sophocles 242-244). The chorus submits to Creon’s will, albeit reluctantly.
They react as Creon expects, but only out of respect for his title as king (Adams 51). Had the chorus remained passive and in agreement with Creon’s every decision, it would not be a very important part of this play, other than as Creon’s moral support. The men are there instead to further the plot and heighten the dramatic action through their participation in the play. The chorus’ third defining characteristic is their piety and fear of the gods. This piety is displayed in the opening scenes of the play, when the chorus attributes Thebes’ victory in battle entirely to the gods.
In addition to showing the pious nature of the chorus, this ode shows a curious disregard for the human element of the battle (Gardiner 84). This disregard for human action and free will continues to appear as the chorus participates in the play, through its singing at times and through its acting at others. “After the guard’s report [that Polyneices has been buried] . . . the chorus offer the tentative suggestion that there is some divine influence at work, a remark that suits the attitudes . . . expressed thus far . . . of a tendency to attribute human acts to the gods” (86).
This obvious piety first influences the chorus to remain inactive, but later the group is spurred into action by their fear of the gods. In their piety, the chorus members make several moral observations of the characters. After Antigone is revealed to be the one behind Polyneices’ burial, the chorus sings an ode reflecting on what it has witnessed. In this ode, “the chorus [presents] . . . an ideal standard for moral conduct against which the actions of Creon and Antigone seem ignorant of inadequate” (Kitzinger 22). The chorus cannot judge their actions based on right and wrong, because the gods control human actions.
Antigone is deluded by the gods (Gardiner 90). “The gods lure a man’s mind forward to disaster, and he thinks evil’s something good” (Sophocles 621-623). The evil in this case is not made clear, whether it be the burial of the traitorous Polyneices or the defiance to Creon’s edict. The specific evil committed does not matter, because the chorus believes that the gods rule the will of the people entirely (Gardiner 90). This becomes the basis for its justification of Creon’s decision to put Antigone to death. The chorus justifies their support of Creon by blaming Antigone’s plight on the family curse.
The chorus originally refers to Antigone as the unfortunate daughter of an unfortunate father, but later the men refer to her as her father’s daughter (Adams 55). This subtle change of words implies that the chorus believes the curse of Oedipus has been passed down to his daughters, and Antigone can do nothing to prevent her downfall. During the argument between Haemon and Creon, the chorus’ role as a character begins to grow. The chorus functions as a third party observer with a strong bias towards the king of Thebes. Creon’s initial arguments impress the chorus, for they are steadfast supporters of the throne.
Creon argues that one “must obey whatever man the city puts in charge, no matter what the issue – great or small, just or unjust. For there’s no greater evil than a lack of leadership” (Sophocles 667-671). The chorus agrees with Creon and feels that their loyalty is justified through Creon’s statements to Haemon, the first logical argument from Creon in his own defense (Adams 56). The old Theban men finally begin to wobble in their steadfast support of Creon, “My lord, if what he’s said is relevant, it seems appropriate to learn from him, and you too, Haemon, listen to the king.
The things which you both said were excellent” (Sophocles 820-823). The chorus acknowledges that perhaps the rule of the land is inaccurate and not completely just. This acknowledgement opens the way for a complete change of heart in the chorus. In its next major role, the chorus holds a long discussion with Antigone, in which the men try to console Antigone with the promise of fame, “surely you carry fame with you and praise, as you move to the deep home of the dead” (Sophocles 817-818).
Moved by pity, the chorus members are carried beyond the law of loyalty to the throne as they weep and comfort Antigone (Adams 58). Although full of remorse and pity, they still do not defy Creon’s orders. After Tiresias’ revelation, however, the chorus can no longer remain on Creon’s side, “Since my hair changed colour from black to white, I know here in the city he’s never uttered a false prophecy” (Sophocles 1092-1094). They realize that the laws of the gods supersede the laws of man in all cases. Their fear of the gods spurs them into action, and from here on out, the chorus is the star of the show. Their expression of confidence in the seer’s infallibility throws [Creon] into consternation, and it is they who assume control and advise the practical steps which he must take” (Burton 89). The chorus tells Creon to be reasonable and advises him to “go and release the girl from her rock tomb. Then prepare a grave for that unburied corpse” (Sophocles 1100-1101). Creon is eventually convinced that he has made a mistake and acquiesces to the demands of the chorus. The chorus urges him to act “as fast as possible. Swift footed injuries sent from the gods hack down those who act imprudently” (11043-1105).
The chorus has undergone a transformation; “where once they believed that power takes precedence over piety, now they admit that the laws of the gods must not be dishonored” (Gardiner 97). The chorus, now as important a character as Creon, directly influenced Creon’s decision to release Antigone, although the old men’s delayed decisiveness may have cost Antigone her life. The chorus functions mainly to give historical context, comment on the events of the play, and to elaborate on its central themes. Antigone’s chorus achieves much more than that; it becomes a main character and driving force behind he plot. The group of men even undergoes character development like any other classic protagonist would. In the beginning the chorus focused on the all-powerful law of the land, Creon’s law, but it soon discovers that the law of the gods trumps all. “Their final statement, that wisdom is taught in old age, seems equally appropriate to themselves, since advanced age has been so prominently a part of their persona” (97). Word Count: 1748 Works Cited Adams, S. M. “The ‘Antigone’ of Sophocles. ” Phoenix 9. 2 (1955): 47-62. JSTOR. Web. 12 Mar. 011. Burton, R. W. B. “The Chorus in Sophocles’ Tragedies. ” New York: Oxford U. P. , 1980. Print. Gardiner, Cynthia P. The Sophoclean Chorus: A Study of Character and Function. Iowa City: Iowa U. P. , 1987. Print. Kirkwood, G. M. “The Dramatic Role of the Chorus in Sophocles. ” Phoenix 8. 1 (1954): 1-22. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2011. Kitzinger, Margaret Rachel. The Choruses of Sophokles’ Antigone and Philoktetes: A Dance of Words. Boston: Brill, 2008. Print. Sophocles. “Antigone. ” Trans. Don Taylor. Dover: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.