The Classical Origins of Western Culture
The Core Studies 1 Study Guide
by Roger Dunkle
Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series
Copyright © 1986 by Brooklyn College, The City University of New York All rights reserved. Published 1986.

 

ANTIGONE

Production

The setting of the Antigone, as in the case of most Greek tragedies, does not require a change of scene. Throughout the play the skene with at least one door represents the facade of the royal palace of Thebes. Even when the poet shifts the audience's attention to events in the plain and the cave in which Antigone was entombed, there is no shift of scene. These events are reported by minor characters (here, a guard and a character specifically called a messenger) rather than enacted before the audience (245-277;1192-1243).1 Interior action is also reported by a messenger to characters on-stage for the benefit of the audience. The suicide of Eurydice, which takes place inside the palace, is reported to Creon (and to the audience) by a second messenger (1279-1318).2 The messenger speech eliminates the need for scene changes, which, due to the limited resources of the ancient theater, would have been difficult and awkward. Sophocles, like Aeschylus and Euripides, made a virtue of the necessity of this convention of the ancient theater by writing elaborate messenger speeches which provide a vivid word picture of the offstage action.

1The numbers are references to lines in the Antigone. All quotations from the Antigone are translated by the author.

2During the report of this messenger the body of Eurydice probably was displayed on the ekkyklema (1295).

Exercise for Reading Comprehension and Interpretation

Prologue (1-99) - Antigone and Ismene

The play opens with the prologue consisting of dialogue between Antigone and her sister Ismene. What is the dramatic purpose of the prologue? What problem does Antigone report to her sister (21 ff.)? What does Antigone intend to do? What is Ismene's reaction to this intention (49-68)? What is Ismene's view of the relationship between men and women (61-62)? Briefly analyze the characterization of these two women in the prologue. What dramatic purpose does the character of Ismene serve?

In the Greek text the word, philos, which can loosely be translated as `friend', is frequently used by the two sisters (10; 73; 99) in the prologue. Philos is related to the verb philein `to love' and can be used as we use the word "friend", but also can be applied to a blood relative and therefore often means something like our "loved one". To whom does Antigone apply this term in the prologue (73)? How far is Antigone prepared to go on behalf of her loved one (72-73)? Why does Antigone, employing an oxymoron3, say that she will "do holy things criminally" when she refers to her proposed deed (74)? What conflict of values is represented in this phrase?

3An oxymoron is a rhetorical figure of speech, which joins two contradictory terms for paradoxical effect, as in "a wise fool". The word itself is a combination of two Greek words meaning `sharp-dull'.

Parodos (100-161)

Although the events described in the parodos are presented rather obscurely in poetic language as is characteristic of choral songs, can you summarize in a general way in one or two sentences what the Chorus is describing? The "man who had come from Argos" refers in a collective sense to the Argive army which supported Polyneices in his attack on Thebes. Which side in the war does the Chorus favor and why?

First Episode (162-331) - Creon, Chorus and Guard

Creon in his first appearance in the play delivers a long speech outlining the philosophy that guides his actions and his edict (162-210). What human institution does Creon believe to be most important in life? Compare his beliefs with those of Antigone. On what specific points does Creon contradict Antigone (182-183; 187-188; 209-210)? Note the language of Creon's edict (206-207). What character in a work read earlier this term used similar language with reference to a denial of burial?

What is the Chorus's initial attitude toward Creon's decree (211-214)? What is the dramatic purpose of the character of the Guard? How is he characterized in this scene? What view of Creon does the Guard present to us (228-236)? What is Creon's reaction to the Guard's news (280-314)?

First Stasimon (332-372)

The first stasimon, often referred to as the "Ode to Man", is one of the most famous choral songs in Attic Tragedy. The Chorus begins by singing: "There are many wondrous things and yet nothing is more wondrous than man" (332). The Greek word for "wondrous" is deinos, which is ambiguous in its meaning. It can also mean "terrible" (i.e., "producing fear"). The Chorus obviously intends the meaning "wondrous" when it praises man for his mastery of nature by the development of civilized skills. This praise of man's achievement of civilization is undoubtedly inspired by Sophistic anthropological accounts of man's cultural development as a result of his own efforts. Like the Sophists, the Chorus views human progress in an optimistic way.

Make a list of man's civilized skills as enumerated by the Chorus.4 According to the Chorus is there any limitation to man's mastery of nature (359)? Does it view man's cleverness as unambiguously "wondrous" or is there also something "terrible" about it (368). Explain your answer briefly. To whom is the Chorus referring in the last stanza of the ode when it sings: "whoever due to daring cherishes evil is without a city" (370-371)? Who appears on-stage immediately after this ode? Connect the appearance of this character with what the chorus sings in the last stanza of the "Ode to Man".

4Note that Creon consistently uses metaphors (images) which link him with these skills and with civilization in general (189; 293; 476-478; 569). On the other hand, Antigone and the resistance to Creon's edict is generally represented by images connected with nature (423-425; 712-717; 825-830). Why do you think that Sophocles organized his imagery in this way? What meaning does this organization of imagery suggest for the Antigone?

Second Episode (373-581) - Guard, Antigone, Creon, Chorus and Ismene

The second episode presents the face-to-face confrontation of the two antagonists, Antigone and Creon. What is the attitude of the Chorus and the Guard with regard to the capture of Antigone (373; 437-438)? How does Antigone defend her defiance of the edict (450-455)? How does Antigone view the relationship between laws made by man and those created by the gods? What is Creon's view of the relationship between man and woman and the relative importance of blood ties vs. the ties of citizenship (484-485; 522; 525)? How does this contrast with Antigone's view of the same? What is Antigone's attitude with regard to her deed (502-503)? with regard to Ismene's attempt to share responsibility for the deed (538-560)?

Second Stasimon (582-625)

After the confrontation between Creon and Antigone, the Chorus sings of the misfortune that has come to Antigone and Ismene, who have been condemned to death. The Chorus puts this tragedy in the context of the calamities suffered by the House of Labdacus (592), the grandfather of Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother and whose sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, killed each other in a dynastic struggle. Who brought these disasters on the House of Labdacus (584-601)? Why has this family suffered so much and made such disastrous mistakes? (613-625)?

Third Episode (626-780) - Creon, Haemon and Chorus

How would the Athenian audience have received Creon's statement to his son Haemon: "It is necessary to obey him whom the city puts in charge even in small matters, whether they are just or unjust" (666-667)? How does the Chorus view this statement (681-682)? According to Haemon, what is the reaction of the common people to Creon's decree of death for Antigone (692-695)? What advice does Haemon give to Creon (707-711)? What is the point that Haemon is attempting to make to Creon by the analogies of the tree and the ship (712-717)? What criticisms does Haemon make of Creon (731-745)? What threat does Haemon make (751)? Why does Creon change Antigone's punishment from public stoning (36) to burial alive in a cave (773-780; see also 888-890)?

What is the main theme of this brief ode to Love? Since choral odes generally comment upon the action of the previous episode, explain what connection this song has with the preceding scene. Can you find any lesson for Creon in this ode?

Fourth Episode (801-943) - Antigone, Chorus and Creon

What new side of Antigone's character do we see in the kommos which begins the fourth episode (808-882)? Antigone compares herself to Niobe (Tantalus's daughter) who because of her grief turned to stone (825-826). What does Antigone say that she and Niobe have in common (831)? What difference and similarity between the two does the Chorus see (832-836)? Antigone's statement in 905-912 has disturbed many critics of this play. For this reason, this passage has been seen by some as an interpolation made soon after Sophocles's death.5 Other critics defend the authenticity of this passage by saying that these words are not as unfeeling as they seem: Antigone, on one hand, is talking about a real brother, who is now dead, and, on the other, a husband she has not yet married and children who do not yet exist. Which interpretation do you agree with? Why?

5This passage was in the text of the Antigone used by Aristotle in the fourth century.

Fourth Stasimon (944-987)

The fourth stasimon presents three mythical examples which comment upon Antigone's situation. What do the first two mythic personages, Danae and Lycurgus (the son of Dryas), have in common with Antigone (944-963)? The third example, Cleopatra, may have also shared the same characteristic with Antigone, but it is not mentioned. According to C.M. Bowra (Sophoclean Tragedy, Oxford, 1944, 105), these examples may indicate the doubts the Chorus has about Antigone. The Chorus has been alarmed by her defiant behavior, but it also has been impressed by her heroism. Bowra writes: "The three stories seem to suggest different interpretations of what is happening and to hint that any one of them may be right." Examine each example carefully and determine whether it puts Antigone in a favorable or unfavorable light.

Fifth Episode (988-1114) - Teiresias, Creon and Chorus

The fifth episode brings the appearance of the blind prophet Teiresias. What dramatic purpose does the character of Teiresias serve? What omens does Teiresias report (999-1011)? What do these omens mean (1023-1033; 1065-1090)? What is Creon's initial reaction to Teiresias's report (1034-1047)? How is this reaction characteristic of Creon (see 294-303)? Why does Creon finally change his mind about Teiresias (1065-1067; 1091-1093)? What course of action does the Chorus recommend to Creon (1100-1101)? What is Creon's reaction to this recommendation (1105-1106; 1108-1112)? What has Creon learned about law (1113-1114)?

Hyporchema (1115-1151)

Why in the hyporchema6does the Chorus choose to pray to Dionysus at this critical moment rather than to any other god? What request does it make of the god (1140-1142)?

6An unusual feature of the structure of the Antigone is the substitution of a lively dance-song called a hyporchema for the more stately rhythms of what would have been the fifth stasimon. The optimistic tone of the hyporchema has been occasioned by Creon's change of heart and is meant to emphasize by contrast the horror of Antigone's death and Creon's misfortune in the next scene.

Exodos (1155 to end) - Messenger, Chorus, Eurydice and Creon

Is the prayer of the Chorus in the hyporchema answered positively or negatively in the exodos? Why do you think that Creon goes to bury Polyneices first rather than to Antigone's cave, as he said he was going to do in the previous scene? What does Creon find when he arrives at the cave (1192-1225)? What is the result of Creon's confrontation with Haemon (1228-1241)? In his kommos Creon gives voice to one of the traditional themes of tragedy. See if you can identify this theme in 1271-1275. Why did Eurydice commit suicide (1301-1305)? What moral lesson does the Chorus see in the fate of Creon at the close of the play (1347-1353)?

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