It’s important to know Sophocles didn’t make the whole Oedipus story up. The myths had been around, so Sophocles’s audience would have been familiar with the tragic ending before the play began. This has a distinct impact on the tone of the plays. The actions of the characters take on a sense of irony and foreboding in this context.
Just check out Antigone's early love-note to death:
I would not welcome such a fellowship.
Go thine own way; myself will bury him.
How sweet to die in such employ, to rest,--
Sister and brother linked in love's embrace--
A sinless sinner, banned awhile on earth,
But by the dead commended; and with them
I shall abide for ever. As for thee,
Scorn, if thou wilt, the eternal laws of Heaven. (69-76)
Yeah, if that's not foreshadowing for what's about to happen, we don't know what is.
Also, because the play doesn't have a narrator, the tone is profoundly shaped by the commentary of the Chorus. The Chorus expresses genuine sympathy for the situations of the characters, yet at the same time is acutely aware of the upcoming events.
Antigone is one of the more famous tragedies ever to be written... and that's saying a lot. Sophocles' play has served as a model for countless other playwrights over the years. Interestingly, though, it does differ from the model that Aristotle sets out in his tragic how-to manual Poetics.
As we talk about in our "Character Roles" section, Antigone differs from Aristotle's model in that it is the antagonist, Creon, who experiences peripeteia and anagnorisis. This leads some to believe that he's the real tragic hero here instead of his niece. Some people even argue that they both are tragic heroes. The lack of agreement on this key issue makes it pretty clear that the play doesn't fit all that neatly into Aristotle's definition.
The play does, however, meet Aristotle's other criteria. The action of the play has universal ramifications. The characters are of proper stature for tragedy—they're bigwigs. Both Creon and Antigone are of noble birth and both fall hard in the play. Both characters have a hamartia, a tragic error or flaw. With both Antigone and her uncle, their immense stubbornness and pride bring about their downfall.
Antigone, like Oedipus the King, also has the distinct cause and effect that Aristotle so admired. Each event brings on the next. The action of the play is a neat and orderly progression to total catastrophe.
Well, the title is rather self-explanatory: Antigone is the heroine of this play.
Antigone, like Oedipus the King, is set in that disaster-prone city-state known as Thebes. And what happens in Thebes does not stay in Thebes.
Though most Greek playwrights were from Athens, their plays are hardly ever set there. This is not because they had no hometown pride. In fact, they weren't allowed to set their plays in Athens. It seems Athenians preferred a little objective distance when examining tragedy. Though the plays were set in other places than Athens, they did take on hot-button Athenian issues. For example in Antigone the clash between Creon and Antigone can be seen as symbolic of the many cultural clashes going on in Athens at the time.
Probably the most prominent Athenian culture clash we see in Antigone is the laws of the state vs. religious fundamentalism. Sophocles was a religious conservative and was a member of several cults. However, in his time, a group called the Sophists was on the rise. These men valued rationality over what they thought of as superstition. Any Athenian even moderately aware of current events wouldn't have missed the warning encoded in Sophocles' play. When Creon, the hyper-rational representative of law and order falls to the will of the gods, it's pretty clear where Sophocles stood on this hot-button issue.
Athenians also liked objective distance in terms of time. Tragedies were almost always set in Greece's distant past. Sophocles and his buddies adapted their stories from the Greeks' rich oral tradition. These tales of gods and heroes had been handed down for generations. Antigone was an ancient figure even to the ancient Greeks.
Most specifically the play is set in front of the palace of Thebes. This place has been the sight of much tragedy for Antigone's family. It's where her mother/grandmother, Jocasta, committed suicide, and where her brother/father Oedipus discovered his shame and gouged out his own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the palace represents the throne that her brothers have just killed each other over. There's really no more fitting place for Antigone to receive her own tragic fate.
The writing style of Antigone kind of depends upon whose translation you’re reading. Since the play is, you know, super old, there have been many translations of Sophocles’s original Greek through the years. Some of these have kept the play’s verse (poetic) form, some have translated it into prose (non-metrical sentences, instead of poetic lines), and some have even gone for a combination of both.
For now, we’re sticking with the Francis Storr version, which is why we can say this play definitely has its formal points when it comes to writing. Storr uses a lot of iambic pentameter in his lines, which will sound familiar to any of you who have ever read Shakespeare. The Bard himself also favored this poetic style, which features lines of five iambs (hence, iambic pentameter).
So, what’s an iamb? Good question! It’s a two-syllable combination with the stress on the second syllable, like the word “belong.” Say it to yourself. It sounds like “be-LONG.” So, a line of iambic pentameter would sound like daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Want an example? Check out these lines from Storr:
To me, Antigone, no word of friends
Has come, or glad or grievous, since we twain (I.i.10-11)
Listen to the rhythm of those lines in your mind’s ear (if you can picture where that might be). You might be thinking, “Why did Storr start a new sentence in the first line, then break it off after three words?” Well, iambic pentameter is your answer:
To me, Antigone, no word of friends
Has come, or glad or grievous, since we twain
While it may not be a total match with everyday speech patterns, clearly Storr is using this poetic form, which has a kind of regular, formal rhythm to it. Like Shakespeare, the presence of this form often (though not always) indicates that a person of royal or noble character is speaking. Iambic pentameter is reflective of their proper, some might say uptight, demeanor.
But—and this is a big but—it ain’t all daDUM, daDUM. When the Chorus comes on the scene, we get lines like:
Against our land the proud invader came
To vindicate fell Polyneices' claim. (I.i.107-108)
And suddenly, we're rhyming in heroic couplets. The effect is a bit jarring for the reader, but it’s an important technique in reminding us that the Chorus is separate from the other characters. Its job is to comment on the behavior that’s happening on-stage, and this shift to more sing-song-y style, is an effective indicator of that.
Much of the symbolism in Antigone lies in the characters themselves. Antigone and Creon represent a number of opposing forces: male vs. female, family ties vs. civic duty, man vs. nature, and man's laws vs. the laws of the gods. Also, there's the blind prophet Teiresias who could be seen as representing the will of the gods. Check out the "Character Analysis" section for more details on the larger symbolism of the characters.
Images of tombs and burials pop up a lot in the Oedipus plays. In Antigone, Creon causes all kinds of problems by bungling issues of burial. The prideful king has committed a double blasphemy by letting Polyneices's body go unburied, while entombing Antigone when she's still alive. At points we feel like saying, "No, no, Creon. It's the dead ones that go in the ground." The symbolic paradox of Creon's double blasphemy, shows just how far from sensible Creon's hubris has taken him.
Also, Antigone's fearless march to her own entombment and talk of being a bride to death suggests that she feels closer to her dead family members than to the living. She seems to have no problem at all leaving behind her sister Ismene and her fiancé Haemon, but talks of how swell it will be to reunite with Oedipus and her brothers in death. When Antigone takes her own life inside her tomb, it could be seen as symbolic of the fact that she's found the tragic fate she always knew awaited her.
There's tons of bird imagery throughout Antigone. For one, there's lots of talk of carrion birds making a buffet of Polyneices. The Chorus also describes Polyneices himself as a bird, a big mean eagle wreaking havoc on Thebes. This description seems to heighten the idea of Polyneices as fearful aggressor against his home town. The Chorus even goes so far as to describe Polyneices the eagle as feasting on their blood. This becomes pretty ironic when the birds are feasting on him.
Another instance of avian imagery is when the Sentry describes Antigone as hovering over Poyneices's body like a mother bird. Here the bird reference seems to strengthen Antigone's symbolism as both a maternal figure as well as representative of the ancient force of nature.
The biggest bit of bird symbolism comes from Teiresias. This is not a surprise, since the prophet is skilled in the magic art of augury or telling the future from the behavior of birds. The seer tells King Creon all about how the birds are fighting each other, which symbolizes the horrible imbalance the King has created in nature. Teiresias goes on to tell Creon that the birds won't talk about the future because they've gorged themselves on Polyneices's blood. (Yuck.) The birds have evidently also pooped all over the altars of Thebes. (A bad day for the altar cleaner.) All this foul bird imagery (pun intended!) seems to symbolize the corruption that Creon has caused by not burying Polyneices.
Antigone is hopeful and dedicated to serving her brothers. She is focused and confident.
Antigone dreams of giving her brother a proper burial.
Antigone defends her actions, and by further irritating Creon, essentially seals her fate. Well, for the time being at least.
Locked away in jail, Antigone realizes that she’s definitely going to die.
Unable to bear their circumstances any longer, the main characters all kill or injure themselves. This is sounding quite familiar.
This is what’s up at the beginning of the book. We even have a little bit of conflict right off the bat.
Antigone discovers that if she’s going to bury her brother, she’s going to have to go it alone.
Antigone’s situation gets worse. (You weren’t supposed to disagree with the King. Ever.)
We told you you’re not supposed to argue with the King. Antigone’s fate is sealed.
Although Antigone seems destined to die, there is hope again that she will be released.
Creon’s reversal of his decision offers final hope to Antigone.
Creon’s decision came too late. The play ends.
Antigone learns that her brothers are dead and that Polyneices is unburied. She asks Ismene to break the law with her and bury him. When Ismene refuses, she goes it alone.
Antigone successfully buries her brother but is caught. Antigone refuses to allow Ismene to accept any blame for the crime she did not commit. Antigone challenges Creon’s moral authority and he sentences her to death.
Antigone is locked away. Haemon, Teiresias, and the Chorus plead with Creon to spare her. Creon grudgingly agrees to let her off, but discovers that she has killed herself. Her fiancé (Haemon) and Creon’s wife commit suicide as well. Creon is in despair—sucks to be Creon.