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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 182-5.

According to an ancient tradition the election of Sophocles as one of the generals in the Samian expedition was due to the success of his Antigone. This account, if true, would fix the date of the play as the spring of 441 or 442 [B.C.]. But though an election on these grounds was not impossible, especially among the Athenians, yet the whole story is of a dubious character, and was probably invented by some critic who wished to establish a connection between the military and the poetical career of Sophocles. It bears a suspicious resemblance to the tale about the poet Phrynicus, whom the biographers appear to have first confused with the general of the same name, and whose election to the generalship they then proceeded to account for by the excellence of the "war-dance" in one of his tragedies. It may, indeed, be urged that even if the story is false, it proves at any rate the close connection in point of date between the Antigone and the Samian expedition. But the Greek writers were often so reckless of chronology, when producing an interesting anecdote, that not much stress can be laid on this conclusion.

As regards the order of its production, the Antigone stood thirty-second among the plays of Sophocles. Now if we could be certain that his dramas were all exhibited at the City Dionysia, in groups of four, it would follow that the Antigone must have been the last of its own particular group, and must have taken the place of the ordinary satyric play. This inference, however, fails to take account of the fact that Sophocles may have occasionally competed at the Lenaea, where the regulation concerning the number of dramas was not the same.

The subject of the tragedy -- the prohibition of the burial by Creon, and the self-sacrifice of Antigone -- is not found in any author before the time of Aeschylus, and appears to be inconsistent with the accounts of the Argive invasion given by several other writers. It may possibly, therefore, be an Attic invention, designed with the purpose of glorifying the Athenians, by whose humanity the Argive chieftans were eventually buried. It is used by Aeschylus merely as an episode, at the conclusion of his great Theban trilogy. Sophocles was apparently the first to write a whole play on the subject, and his example was afterwards followed by Euripides, whose Antigone, however, seems to have been of a more domestic type. As far as can be judged from the scanty notices, the love interest, in Euripides, was brought into much greater prominence. Antigone was discovered in the act of burying the body with the aid of Haemon, and the play ended happily with the marriage of the two lovers, and with a prediction, by some god, of the heroine's future fortunes.

The Antigone has always been one of the most popular of Greek tragedies. Though the incident on which the plot is based -- the resolution of Antigone to surrender her life rather than leave her brother's corpse unburied -- appeals less forcibly to modern than to ancient sentiment, yet the general motive of the play, the conflict between human law and the individual conscience, is one of deep and universal significance. Various doubts have been raised as to the moral purpose of the composition. Should Antigone, it is asked, be regarded as an innocent victim to the force of circumstances? Or is the balance of guilt more evenly divided, and are Creon and Antigone both deserving of punishment, the one for his contempt for the divine laws, the other for her defiance of established order? As to this latter view, it is difficult to see how it could ever have been maintained, except by those whose minds were biased by preconceived opinions concerning the proper functions of tragedy. The whole tone of the play is against it. From first to last our sympathies are enlisted on the side of Antigone, and in favour of the conviction that human ordinances must give way to the divine promptings of the conscience. No doubt the chorus are somewhat wavering in their judgment, and without actually approving Creon's decree, nevertheless rebuke Antigone for her contumacy. But this vacillation is not unnatural in a chorus of the Sophoclean kind, and makes the isolated greatness of Antigone all the more impressive. Moreover even the chorus, towards the end of the play, begin to see more clearly the truth, and inform Creon that he is the cause of his own misfortunes, and that "reverence for the gods must be preserved inviolate." And Creon's anxious reflection, just before the catastrophe, that "perhaps it is best to keep the laws of heaven," is a clear indication of the poet's intention. Antigone is one of those guiltless victims, whom Sophocles often makes the subject of his tragedies; and it was no part of his creed to show that the course of events on earth is always regulated by strict justice.

The character of Antigone is one of extreme beauty. Though she resembles Electra in unconquerable force of will, yet the cause of her actions -- her deep and undying affection for her kindred -- is a more attractive motive than Electra's craving for vengeance; and the stern grandeur of her disposition is relieved and softened by numerous little touches of a gentler kind. There is only one flaw in the picture. In her final speech she makes the startling assertion that no one but a brother could have moved her to such self-sacrifice. As for husband or children, she would have let them remain unburied. Why? Because she might have had another husband, and other children; but her parents being dead, she could never have a second brother. This frigid and sophistical piece of reasoning has been condemned by every critic, and is unworthy of Antigone's character and previous declarations. From the aesthetic point of view it is indefensible; and the lines must be regarded, either as an interpolation, or as an unexpected bathos on the part of Sophocles.

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