A Matter of Principle
Consider the principles listed below, and rank them in the order of their importance to you. Which of the principles might you be willing to fight for—or willing to uphold if it meant making a sacrifice? Use your READER’S NOTEBOOK to record your responses.
• loyalty or obligation to family
• obedience to civil law
• loyalty to Christ
• protection of personal dignity
• protection of community or nation
Basis in Legend
Sophocles was one of the great dramatists of ancient Greece, and his play Antigone is regarded as one of the finest examples of classical Greek tragedy. The main characters in this play come into conflict because they stand firmly behind their principles—principles that are contradictory.
Most Greek tragedies are based on legends or myths that the audience of ancient Greece was very familiar with. Antigone is based on the legend of the family of Oedipus, the doomed king of Thebes. As the play begins, Antigone and her sister, Ismene, recall their dead father, Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and then married his own mother. Upon discovering the truth, Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile, where he was cared for by his two daughters until his death. After his death, his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, agreed to share the kingship of Thebes, ruling in alternate years. However, when Eteocles had served his first term as king, he banished Polyneices from Thebes and refused to relinquish the throne to him, claiming that Polyneices was unfit to rule. Polyneices then enlisted an army from Argos, a powerful city-state and a long-standing enemy of Thebes, to fight his brother. In the course of battle, the brothers killed each other. Their uncle, Creon, has become king and faces the task of restoring order in Thebes. As the new king he plans to honor one corpse and insult the other.
Literary Analysis: Classical Drama
Classical drama arose in Athens, Greece, from religious celebrations. These celebrations included ritual chants and songs performed by a group called a chorus. Drama evolved from these celebrations during the sixth century b. c., when individual actors began entering into dialogue with the chorus to tell a story.
The Theater: Greek drama was filled with the spectacle and pageantry of a religious festival. Attended by thousands, plays were performed during the day in an outdoor theater with seats built into a hillside. The action of each play was presented at the foot of the hill, often on a raised platform. A long building, called the skene, served as a backdrop for the action and as a dressing room. A spacious circular floor, the orchestra, was located between the skene and the audience.
Actors and Chorus: The actors—all men—wore elegant robes, huge masks, and often elevated shoes, all of which added to the grandeur of the spectacle. Sophocles used three actors in his plays; between scenes, they changed costumes and masks when they needed to portray different characters. The chorus—a group of about 15—commented on the action, and the leader of the chorus, the choragus, participated in the dialogue. Between scenes, the chorus sang and danced to musical accompaniment in the orchestra, giving insights into the message of the play. The chorus is often considered a kind of ideal spectator, representing the response of ordinary citizens to the tragic events unfolding in the play.
Tragedy and the Tragic Hero: During Sophocles’ lifetime, three playwrights were chosen each year to enter a theatrical competition in the festival of Dionysus. Each playwright would produce three tragedies, along with a satyr play, a short comic interlude. A tragedy is a drama that recounts the downfall of a dignified, superior character who is involved in historically or socially significant events. The protagonist, or tragic hero, of the work is in conflict with an opposing character or force, the antagonist. The action builds from one event to the next and finally to a catastrophe that leads to a disastrous conclusion. Twists of fate play a key role in the hero’s destruction.
Aristotle’s Theory of the Tragic Flaw
According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, a tragic hero possesses a defect, or tragic flaw, that brings about or contributes to his or her downfall. This flaw may be poor judgment, pride, weakness, or an excess of an admirable quality. The tragic hero, noted Aristotle, recognizes his or her flaw and its consequences, but only after it is too late to change the course of events.
Chorus Leader: Born near Athens in the village of Colonus, Sophocles was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of armor. In his youth, he received a fine education and was said to be skilled in wrestling, dancing, and playing the lyre. These skills and a handsome appearance apparently led to his being chosen to lead a chorus in a celebration of the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
Festival Winner: In 468 B.C., Sophocles defeated his teacher; the great playwright Aeschylus, in the Dionysian dramatic festival, an annual competition. That first-place award was followed by as many as 23 other victories, more than any other Greek playwright. Sophocles also was active in the political life of Athens. He was elected several times to the body of high executives commanding the military and was one of ten commissioners in charge of helping Athens recover after a severe military defeat in Sicily. In 406 B.C., the year of his death, he led a chorus of public mourners in honor of Euripides, a younger playwright who had often been his rival at the annual drama festivals.
Missing Work: Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays, although only 7 of them survive today. Antigone, which rivals Oedipus the King as his best-known play, was probably first performed in 442 or 441 B.C. Oedipus at Colonus, which shows the playwright’s affection for his native village, was written when Sophocles was around 90.
Strategies for Reading Classical Drama:
Use the following strategies to help you read classical drama.
• Imagine the spectacle of the play as staged, visualizing as you read. (A few pictures have been included in the play to help you, pictures of the stage, modern adaptations of costumes and masks, as well as pictures of ancient masks.)
• Try to understand the hero’s motivations and the qualities that make him or her a noble figure.
• Pay close attention to the causes of the conflict between the hero and his or her antagonist.
• Determine the circumstances or flaws that lead to the hero’s downfall.
• Consider how the words and actions of minor characters help you to understand the main characters.
• Notice how the comments of the chorus interpret the action and point to universal themes.
• Monitor your own reading strategies. Modify them when your understanding breaks down by rereading, using resources, and questioning.
As you read Antigone, apply the strategies listed above and stop to think about the questions printed in blue within the play.
Words to Know:
auspicious—promising success; favorable
lithe—limber; physically flexible
edict—an order put out by a person in authority
compulsive—having the ability to compel or enforce
perverse—willfully determined to go against what is expected or desired
lamentation—an expressing of grief
dirge—a slow, mournful piece of music; a funeral hymn
transgress—to violate or break a law, command, or moral code
defile—to make foul, dirty, unclean, or impure
READ ANTIGONE SCENES 1 & 2 HERE: