1. What was the influence of 5th Century Athens on the plays of Sophocles?
By the 460s B.C.E. when the great statesman, Pericles, ruled Athens, it had become the most powerful and prosperous city-state in Greece. It was a center of commerce, the arts, philosophy, and religion. Athens was known for its magnificent public monuments, like the temple to Pallas Athena, the Parthenon, on the acropolis. The Great Panathenaia, honoring Athena (goddess of wisdom), included recitation of the great literary works, such as Homer’s epics. The Greater Dionysia was a festival to the god Dionysos (god of wine and theater) that held a contest for playwrights, who entered their tragedies and comedies. Sophocles was in his long life a popular and winning playwright, who circulated many of the current ideas in philosophy and politics in his plays, such as the virtues of democracy and the humanist arts.
Athens was a democracy in which the 30,000 adult males could participate with equal rights under the law. Slaves and women were excluded. Pericles boasted of Athenian freedom in The First Funeral Oration, (taken from Thucydides, Chapter VI of The Peloponnesian Wars): “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes.”
Though Antigone takes place in a monarchical Thebes of antiquity, Haemon brings up democratic ideals when he tells Creon that the people oppose him and support Antigone. He explains to his father the value of public discussion in order to arrive at wisdom and consensus. Pericles had said: “instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” Haemon tells Creon that no one person should be expected to know everything.
Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.E.), a friend of Sophocles, did much to establish a humanistic spirit in Athens. Though a military leader, he studied with the great philosophers of the times, particularly Anaxagoras, who downplayed divine intervention in human life and promoted reason and inquiry in education. Athens was an important religious center, but the newer emphasis on freedom of discussion meant the glory of human thought was given equal honor. Antigone’s choral ode to the wonders of man (lines 332-375) emphasizes human accomplishment, which was visible in the statues, the architecture, the literature, the government, and education of 5th century Athens.
A prolonged plague and the ravages of the Peloponnesian War finished the Athenian empire two years after the death of Sophocles. His life spanned the glory of the empire, and his plays are a testament to the brilliance of a world that produced the great tragedians, the orator and statesman Pericles, the philosophers Zeno, Protagoras, and Anaxamander, and the historian Thucydides, all of whom became the inspiration for a later generation of Greek thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
2. How was Greek theater different from modern theater?
Greek theater originated in religious festivals to Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy. The festival was held outdoors in Athens in March. It included singing and dancing and speaking, something of a cross between opera and drama. The seats were tiered and almost circular around the stage or orchestra. Behind the stage was a dressingplace (skene) whose front wall was the proscenium with its painted scenery, but there were no scene changes. There were two, or later, three actors wearing masks, wigs, elaborate costumes and high boots to make them appear larger than life. Only men were actors, and they played multiple roles and were chosen for their loud voices that could project to a crowd.
The Chorus was a group of 12-15 actors who spoke or sang the poetic commentaries between scenes. They represented the populace and gave background information or the author’s themes. The choragus was the producer and director for the poet, who submitted his work in a competition with two other poets. The choragus had to fund the production and train the actors. Each dramatist presented four plays, a trilogy of tragedies on one theme (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the story of Orestes), and one comic satyr play.
Theater did not try to present everyday life. The plays chose mythic or heroic stories from Greek culture, exploring the place of humans in the cosmos. The stories were thus familiar to the audience, and the skill was in the individual interpretation and poetic treatment of the playwright.
The plays had dialogue but little action on the stage; violent scenes happened offstage and were reported to characters onstage. Foreshadowing in the plot through prophesies or choral songs underscored the dramatic irony; that is, the audience understood what was coming, but the characters did not. The characters were secondary to the plot structure, although Sophocles is noted for his complex characters. There were restrictions to the plot structure, called the unities of place, time, and action. The story usually took place in one twenty-four hour period in one place and developed one significant action from inception to climax to denouement.
The characters spoke their parts in meter (iambic trimeter or trochaic tetrameter), while the coral odes used various lyric meters. The play was not divided into acts but typically had certain parts: there was often a prologue spoken by one person; then came the parados, or entrance song of the chorus; three or four episodes of the action constituted the meat of the play; stasima or choral songs following each episode; and finally there was the exodus, the last action after the last choral song.
3. What are the characteristics of tragedy and who is the tragic hero of this play?
One of the most influential critics of Greek tragedy, Aristotle, in his Poetics, defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. . . in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.”
The tragic action has to have a certain magnitude or significance to be beautiful or worth contemplating. That is why the poet chooses stories from myth and legend. It has to be one action that can be viewed in a sitting, representative of the whole life. We do not see Creon’s whole history, for instance, but only his mistake about the burial of Polyneices. Character is revealed when a person must make a moral choice, and the tragic hero usually falls through hubris or pride.
In the most admirable plots, Aristotle says, there is a complex action where the hero goes from happiness to suffering because of a mistake in judgment (hamartia, or tragic flaw), thus arousing pity and fear in the audience at the hero’s fate. Aristotle felt that character was secondary to the plot. It is the plot that is the “soul” of tragedy because it demonstrates the nature of life in its sequence. The play should show one complete action, and the incidents should follow from causal necessity. Tragedy is not like history but closer to philosophy, because it shows universal truths.
The two most important aspects of tragic plot, then, are the peripeteia, the hero’s attempt to reverse his fate by reversing his stance; and the anagnorisis, or moment of recognition by the hero about what has happened. In Creon’s case, the peripeteia is when he decides to change his decrees against Polyneices and Antigone, though too late. The anagnorisis is a change from ignorance to knowledge, when Creon takes responsibility for what happened: “My own stubborn ways have borne bitter fruit” (line 1266).
The ideal tragic hero, says Aristotle, is not a good man who suffers, for that would seem unjust; nor is it tragedy to watch a bad man suffer, because he deserves it. The hero who arouses our pity and fear is the man who is in between, neither very good nor bad, but who has a human frailty like our own. It is when human error causes the downfall rather than some arbitrary Fate, that fear is aroused, for it shows that this could happen to us.
Is Creon the tragic hero of the play or is Antigone? Antigone’s fate arouses pity because it is undeserved, and Creon’s arouses fear because he makes an error in judgment. Antigone suffers a change in her condition, but she never reverses herself. She has a moment of recognition about what her bravery has cost as she goes to her grave “unwept” (line 876). It is made clear by the Chorus that Antigone is not entirely blameless for her fate: “Your self-willed pride has been your ruin” (line 875). She pushes Creon until he has to react. She is called “stubborn,” (line 930) the same word applied to Creon. Neither one will bend.
Self-knowledge, however, would not have changed Antigone’s course of action. Antigone gains fame for her heroism, but Creon is the tragic hero, because he learns wisdom too late.
4. How does the concept of catharsis tie in with the sacred origins of tragedy?
Catharsis means a purging or purification. It was a medical term that Aristotle applied to the effect of tragedy. Watching a tragedy was supposed to cause in the audience an emotional cleansing through considering the fate of the tragic hero, someone who was once fortunate, but through pride or error, falls. The lessons are learned vicariously by the audience, not through the intellect, but from an actual physical or emotional reaction. Aristotle mentions that pity and fear, the proper emotions to be aroused in tragedy, should come from the superior skill of the poet so that “who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity.”
This is not the modern idea of a horror movie that is trying to be sensational and entertaining. Catharsis carries with it the idea of healing. One is purged, just by watching Creon’s tragic fall, of the sort of egotism that destroys him. Tragedy makes the audience realize, “how insecure/ Is human fortune! Chance will overthrow/ The great, and raise the lowly; nothing’s firm/ Either for confidence or for despair” (lines 1153-56). One is warned not to be proud or stubborn or hold preconceived ideas, as the tragic hero mistakenly does.
It is no accident that the patron of tragedy was the god Dionysos, the god of wine. Traditionally, the devotees of Dionysos, in a drunken frenzy, would tear apart limb from limb some victim, usually someone who was proud or cursed by the gods. This is also the sort of sacrifice that happens in a tragedy. Someone who needs a lesson is literally dismembered and made an example. Oedipus loses his eyes; Creon loses all his family members. The fact that the punishment is overly severe or beyond human comprehension fills the onlooker with the awe and mystery of cosmic law. The tragedy cannot be understood, only witnessed.
The spectacle of this unthinkable suffering was somehow felt to be therapeutic to the witness, who sympathetically went through the process of dismemberment with the hero, and yet came through it healed and whole, having learned the hero’s lesson. Thus, tragedy produced a social cleansing or healing, as is suggested in Antigone when the Chorus sings to Bacchus (Dionysos) to “come with swift healing” because “a pollution holds/ All our people fast in its grip” (lines 1140-1142). The moral pollution of Thebes, generated by Creon’s mistaken decrees, is symbolized by the polluted altars and the plague that is raging in the city. The tragic hero is often a ruler whose sin is reflected in the suffering of his kingdom. To heal the sin, he becomes the sacrifice, the dismembered offering. When Oedipus or Creon are torn apart, the city is cleansed once more, and the people learn anew to live in harmony with the gods.
5. How does Antigone comment on the position of women in Greek society?
Creon mentions several times that he will not be bested by a woman. He compares Antigone, who is after all, a royal princess, to a slave, for women and slaves had the same legal standing in the patriarchal Greek society: “There is no room for pride/ In one who is a slave” (lines 478-79). True, an aristocratic woman could wield unofficial power among her relatives, but her “place” was to stay out of public sight and controversy, as is suggested in the Chorus’s praise of Creon’s wife. Eurydice, they say, has “true discretion,/ And she would never do what is unseemly” (lines 1249-50). The Chorus believes Eurydice even hides her grief for her son’s death, knowing she should not weep in public. Actually, this is the breaking point for Eurydice. Once a perfect and docile wife, she goes off stage to kill herself and curse her husband for their misfortune. The power of a woman’s curse is shown in Creon’s horror.
Eurydice and Ismene are foils to the rebellious Antigone. Creon believes in the absolute “obedience” of his household (lines 671-76). When Antigone is brought before him for her crime, he mentions two reasons he must punish her: First, “If I breed / Rebellion in the house, then it is certain/ There’ll be no lack of rebels out of doors” (lines 658-660); secondly, “Better far/ Be overthrown, if need be, by a man/ Than to be called the victim of a woman” (lines 678-680). To give in to Antigone would mean he was being controlled by a female member of the household and would threaten his position as a man and a ruler, in his eyes.
Haemon tries to show Creon a different interpretation of Antigone’s action, for the people approve. Even though a woman, she is a hero to them, for she exhibits courage and family loyalty. The people of Thebes do not consider her a traitor, and Haemon tries to get his father out of his narrow thinking about obedience being the only proper response. The Chorus, however, introduces the idea that Haemon is overly influenced by love: “It is Love that stirred up/ This quarrel of son with father” (lines 793-94). Most Greek marriages were business arrangements with girls marrying at the age of fourteen and bringing a dowry, so Creon does not feel sympathy for Haemon’s love. Antigone could be replaced with a more obedient wife, he thinks.
Antigone is a woman of principle who thinks for herself and does not consult her male relatives about what is right. She cannot get Ismene to join her. Ismene is attached to her traditional role: “Remember too that we/ Are women, not made to fight with men. Since they/ Who rule us now are stronger far than we,/ In this, and worse than this we must obey them” (lines 61-64).
Antigone is ahead of her time, but Athens had a contemporary example of a strong-minded woman like her who interfered in politics. Aspasia was an educated philosopher from Miletus and became the lover of Athens’ ruler, Pericles. Athenian women were not educated, and this left Aspasia vulnerable to criticism. Aspasia was, however, a great writer, orator, and teacher, an advisor to Pericles, and an influence on the great men of the day. Her example would have made Antigone a more believable and sympathetic figure to Sophocles’ audience.
1. What was the influence of 5th Century Athens on the plays of Sophocles?