CLAS 095  TAP: Greek Tragedy   

Sophocles' play Antigone is set in Thebes, but produced for an Athenian audience. Thebes was an oligarchy in historical times, and a monarchy in the mythical times of the play. Athens on the other hand was a democracy in historical times and a monarchy in mythical times (Theseus). Thebes had medized in the Persian war (i.e. it had gone over to the Persian side), whereas Athens spearheaded the resistance and won. Athens had welcomed the god Dionysus, but Thebes had initially rejected him (read Euripides' Bacchae).

Polyneices and Eteocles were the two sons of Oedipus. When Oedipus went into exile, Creon ruled as a regent, because the two boys were too young. But then they laid claim to the throne, and fought. Eteocles won and Polyneices took refuge in Argos, where he raised an army (the famous seven against Thebes) and attacked Eteocles. He lost, but Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other. Creon treated Polyneices as a traitor and forbade burial, normal treatment for a traitor.

The Athenians were familiar with a myth that Creon had not allowed burial of the dead of the entire army who had attacked Thebes, and that Theseus, the Athenian king, had led an army to force Creon to allow burial of the dead.  But the individual story of Antigone and her brother Polyneices was not as familiar.

The matter of civil war was constantly in Greek minds, for there were so many city-states with so many factions that at any given moment, there must have been several city-states in civil war. Athens suffered putsches, assassinations, restorations, etc. in recent history, and would face more in the coming century, so the issue was a live one for Sophocles' time. It was extremely important to avoid civil war, as it was a horrible situation, brother killing brother. It was proper for Creon to take all reasonable measures to prevent its recurrence.

Creon was essentially saying that Polyneices was a traitor to Thebes: that the city-state was the most important community unit and was due the greatest loyalty. His name means "ruler." He is not ambitious: rather, he is custodian of the city. Creon stands for the rule of law: the importance of obedience to the law. As a principle, it is a strong and fundamental one for civil society. He took that principle to an extreme of absolutism, which allowed for no flexibility.
Creon's decree was not an unusual one and was normal treatment for traitors. Not allowing burial, however, brought pollution on the land. In such cases, there were ways to allow for disposal of the body while still forbidding full burial rites.

In all, however, "Creon is a living illustration of power subverting good judgment" (Woodruff intro. P xx)
In the end, he yields, but it is too late. His son Haemon is the one who identifies Creon's fault: inflexibility. Haemon does not at all address the moral problem of burial vs. obedience to the law. In opposing his father, Creon is breaking with the traditional subservient role of sons.

Antigone, on the other hand, felt that blood-ties create the most important interpersonal bonds and community and are due the greatest loyalty. Blood, not family (which includes those who are married and so not connected by blood), was her primary loyalty. The issue of traitors and city-state health and rule of law paled in comparison to her duty to her blood kin.

Thus this play is a problematization of justice and loyalty. To whom does one owe greatest loyalty?
Hegel thought that Sophocles had created a tension between ties to state and ties to family that was unresolvable: both ties are strong, but the characters are wrong to be one-sided. They should recognize and allow for the opposite side.

Antigone has attracted attention as a woman. She has been claimed by feminists.
It is not clear whether she would have been seen by Greeks as bad, but it is clear that she is taking on a role that was not normal for a woman, but there was no man left in the family to bury Polyneices. She rejects male authority. She is, however, cruel to Ismene, and does not consider Haemon's interests. She claims that there is an unwritten law about burial and also that she has a particular obligation to her brother, but the concept of unwritten law seems to be a Sophoclean invention, and it was normal to leave traitors unburied. See lines 456ff, 904 ff.

The Chorus:
The "Ode to Man" (332-75) of the first stasimon is Sophocles' most famous chorus. It is based on a humanist theory that was intellectually innovative.
The second stasimon (582ff) sings of ate, that blinding force which is at the root of tragedy.
The third stasimon (781ff.) is about sexual love.
The fourth stasimon (944ff.) evokes myths of death and premature burial: meant to comfort Antigone?
The fifth stasimon (1115ff.) is a hymn to Dionysus, which occurs at the crisis of the play (Creon has relented but too late).

Sophocles: produced this play in 442-1. Was general of Athens with Pericles in 441. Treasurer in 443. Later, after the great Sicilian disaster, in 413, he was one of the 10 advisors chosen to steer the city-state thru the crisis.

What of Ismene, who seems to be the traditional subservient woman (59ff, 67ff., 84), but then tries to share Antigone's fate (540ff.)