Sophocles Antigone: 441-442bc
The period that Athens’ Sophocles lived in was a time of important changes to the traditional Greek ways of life. The most significant catalyst of change and concern of the period was democracy. From here stems ideas such as the nature, role and respect of and for the gods, and the individual. The drama of Antigone reflects these concerns in the context it was written through various ways. Athens in the middle of the fifth century BC was at the peak of its power. It attracted foreigners, writers and artists through its wealth, customs and more importantly the freedom of a democracy.
However, there was tension between Sparta and Greece. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, represented freedom, wisdom and moderation and strongly opposed to the tyrannical structure of Sparta. Sophocles wrote Antigone under the influence of the traditional Athenian mindset during 441-442 BC. The Athenians’ victory at Salamis as well as the story of Thermopylae is just two examples which demonstrate values such as intelligence, wisdom, innovation, independence and moderation. The character of King Creon in Antigone juxtaposes these qualities with the characteristics of a classic tragic hero.
Hubrisly, Creon challenges the gods by disrespecting the traditional laws of heaven. Despite his own professions “…that a king whose lips are sealed by fear, unwilling to seek advice, is damned,” Creon refuses the wisdom of his advisors until it’s too late to undo his foolish actions. Devotion to the gods was a very important value in Athens, but at the time was also challenged by parts of society. The sequence of events in Antigone that lead to Creons downfall and corruption, hence tragedy, suggest a warning to those who dare challenge the laws of the gods.
Furthermore, it proves that such behavior will infact be swiftly punished by the gods. It is betrayal of values that lead to such behavior. A good example is Creons impulsive decision to order Antigones execution. On top of the fact that Creon leaves Antigones brother, Polyneices unburied and left to rot, moderation deteriorates when he does the extreme act of gutlessly killing his brother’s daughter. However, Creon does not only disrespect the gods which is dangerous enough in itself, he arrogantly contradicts his won position of King over a democratic polis.
Through his selfish actions used for self-gain, Creon reduces the options in government to tyranny, therefore, belligerently ignoring the voice of the Demos. Hence, he demonstrates a complete disrespect for the traditional laws. Here, Sophocles emphasizes the absolute necessity of a democratic leader who listens to both sides of an issue, takes advice and hears the voice of the demos through the words by Creon-“The State is the King” and Haemons reply-“If the State is a desert. ”
Sophocles portrays Antigone as an outspoken female citizen. Whilst a woman’s position in Greek society was predominately at home, death and burial rites were a time when a woman came out in public, conversed with men and did the honorable act of mourning over the death of a family member. This important responsibility for a woman was one that not only Antigone knew was her own to fight for, but also the people of Thebes as well. Sophocles dramatizes this by gaining sympathy for Antigone through the Chorus.
Some examples of persuasive, personal and emotive language include the repetition of ‘my child,’ personalizing Antigone as ‘my daughter’ and the comparison of the two mythical figures suggesting that, Antigone, through her honorable sufferings will too be remembered for her legendary deeds. Wherever there is sympathy gained for Antigone, Creons actions appear to become more unreasonable and wicked, generating an increasing distrust of his authority. Sophocles uses this technique to emphasize the problematic issues of a tyrannical government and, furthermore, the Greeks’ attitude for a democracy.
Creons downfall is caused by his arrogance and stubbornness and disrespect for the gods. These characteristics coincidently connect to the enemy of the time: Xerxes. By this, we can see that Sophocles is reflecting his concerns about the tension between Sparta and Greece and that the best way to run a country is by carefully listening to the voice of the demos. As has been stated, democracy in Athenian cultural life had a huge impact. It was defined by the high-level of participation by citizens in the process of the government’s decision making.
Voices with opinions would not only be proudly and publicly expressed but would function traditionally with the structure of an argument and a counter argument; view and counter view; opinion and counter opinion. Sophocles effectively reflects this structure of Athenian expression through various episodes between characters such as Creon and Antigone, Haemon and Creon, Antigone and Chorus. These episodes also reflect the way Athenians could express concerns and issues through dramatic dialogue on stage.
Ideas such as political, religious and philosophical issues showed in such events. Here, in Antigone, the most prominent concern is the need for a democracy; thus, it has been said by critics that Sophocles Antigone is his most political play. An example of the polis speaking to one another over an issue in the city of Thebes is Haemons dialogue with Creon: ‘But I hear whispers spoken in the dark; on every side I hear voices of pity. ’ The use of stasimons and episodes are also used by Sophocles to dramatize the differences in points of view.
Contrast is created to separate the two main characters: Creon and Antigone, and furthermore demonstrates the use of parallels to establish both characters’ refusal to listen to others and self-will. The cause of both their downfalls is a result of pride, rashness and daring-all three juxtapose the traditional Athenian qualities: wisdom, moderation and respect. Sophocles is obviously reflecting his concerns for a leader to incorporate live and devote themselves to these virtues. He demonstrates the consequences for not doing so through the horrible fate of Creon.
Sophocles teaches us a similar lesson through the fate of Antigone. The Greeks saw Eros- passionate love with sensual desire and longing at the time as a potentially destructive force to one’s self and those around them. Foreshadowing is used through the ode spoken by the Chorus: ‘For the light that burns in the eyes of a bride of desire is a fire that consumes. ’ Sophocles uses this to foretell the destructive impact love will have on Haemon, Antigone and the households they live in.
Once again, Sophocles uses the Athenian political structure of view and counter view with the Chorus and Antigone to state the importance of observing tradition. The motif of Antigone as the bride of death exaggerates the sacrifice she is making to earn a name for her honorable actions, and that even though she is being unjustly punished, she will be remembered. Incremental repetition is used to clearly demonstrate the pathos of he death, it’s artificial flavour and the fact that a marriage and burial rites should be happening: No funeral hymn; no marriage music; no sun from this day forward; no light; no friend to weep at my departing.
As the Chorus gains sympathy for Antigone: ‘But here is a sight beyond all bearing, at which my eyes cannot but weep,’ Sophocles vigorously exposes the suffering to those under the judgment or leader who is corrupt by his own self-will and ignorance of the traditions. According to Sophocles, such a leader who exasperates tyrannical abuse onto his people, distorts the laws in heaven and traditions of Greece, especially Athens, and refuses to acknowledge advice from the wise, will inevitably pay for his actions. Sophocles effectively conveys these concerns of the period through the most respected political drama- Antigone.