Saturday, January 14, 2012

Antigone, by Sophocles

The shift from Aeschylus to Sophocles brings a variety of thematic differences.  There are certainly different views of women and of gods (which is not to say that they were of different beliefs, rather that they were of different points of view.  The God of Thomas Merton and the God of William F. Buckley look very different from one another, but both men were of the Roman Catholic church.)

This is the first Greek tragedy in our series in which the main character doesn't actually do anything wrong.  The tragic "heroes" of Aeschylus are people who do wrong for possibly understandable reasons and suffer the consequences.  Sophocles has Oedipus who makes a series of horrible mistakes, but for the most part they are simply tragic mistakes.  But Antigone, in fact, suffers punishment for doing right.  She buries her brother (twice actually) with no fear of consequences and is proud to admit it.  I might even mention the political undertone of what is right superseding what is law in behavior befitting a virtuous citizen.  Antigone herself is, I might argue, our first strong, good woman in our series of Greek tragedies.  She is a person of great conviction and integrity.

Also, it passes the Bechdel Test.

As an aside, there was a play by Jean Anouilh written in Nazi occupied France that was a retelling of the Antigone story, seemingly with a Nazi-style government as Creon's reign, but written ambiguously enough to pass the censors.  In college, I really wanted to mount a production of it, but, like so much of my theater stories, it never ended up happening.  In it, Antigone gives this famous rousing speech to Creon:
 "I am disgusted with your happiness! With your life that must go on, come what may. You could say you are all like dogs that lick everything they find. You with your promise of a humdrum happiness--provided a person doesn't ask much of life. I want everything of life, I do; and I want it total, complete: otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake offered for being a good little girl. I want to be sure of everything this very day; sure that everything will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl. If not, I want to die!"
It is an uncompromising vision, just as the Antigone of Sophocles.  I confess that I admire both Antigones.

The gods do not make an appearance in this piece, however I would like to point out an emerging trend that I am sensing.  There is a sense of "sin" in Greek mythology.  However, one of the key differences between sin to their gods and sin in Christianity is that their gods are not necessarily nice, fair, and certainly don't seem to have our best interests at heart.  It reminds me a bit of Shintoism in that above all one ought to do everything in one's power not to offend the gods.  There is an element of "sins of the father" in this play.

The sins of Creon seem to be two-fold.  He punishes Antigone for deeds that ought not be punished and his other major sin, I contend, is that he fails to listen to the wisdom of Tiresias.  It would seem likely to me that that would be a mortal sin in the Ancient Greek worldview.  All of his sins get jumbled in the stew, but the price that Creon pays is devastating.

It is my belief that the price that Creon pays indicates the author's belief about who was right and who was wrong in the piece.  It is also my belief that Antigone receives a really bleak sort of grey hint of a reward when her beloved and she are united in the Underworld.  I have to confess, whenever I read a Greek play, I always imagine that Hades is like it's portrayed in Sondheim's version of The Frogs.  This is probably grossly misguides my opinions.  I sing Pluto's song from that play while I'm working all the time! 

I would also confess that if I were Dionysus (and I am still waiting for my wife to paint a portrait of me as Dionysus) and I went to Hades to bring back the better playwright, I think I very well might bring Sophocles over Aeschylus.  In spite of the fashion sketches that the latter inspired.  Or maybe it's just that I find the world of Sophocles more compelling and accurate.  Aeschylus had a rigid sense of right and wrong, crime and punishment.  In Sophocles, people make horrible mistakes and good people suffer tremendously as well as the bad.  That seems more like the nature of the universe I've come to understand.


  1. The Greek tragedy continues with the present-day economic turmoil afflicting the 'Mother of Democracy' nation. But what, may i enquire, is the Bechdel Test ?

  2. Well put!

    The Bechdel Test comes from graphic novelist Alison Bechdel to determine the presence of women in a piece. If memory serves, the original test dealt specifically with movies and the gender biases that the test seeks to reveal. The idea is that simply applying this criteria to a piece reveals a strong gender bias in Hollywood specifically. It isn't even necessary for the women to be positive or negative characters in the piece, just simply if they are present as humans, rather than talking furniture. The criteria sounds very simple on the surface:
    1. It has to have at least two women in it,
    2. Who talk to each other,
    3. About something other than a man.
    A remarkable amount of films fail to meet these three simple criteria. Please do note that I am not offering an opinion one way or another over what I think of this test. I am simply stating that it is a thing which exists.