The three Guardsmen are interpolations into the Antigone legend, doubles for the rank-and-file fascist collaborators or collabos of Anouilh’s day. The card-playing trio, made all the more mindless and indistinguishable in being grouped in three, emerges from a long stage tradition of the dull-witted police officer. As the Chorus notes, they smell of garlic and beer, concern themselves with the mundane, and are in general not bad people. Serving as a spokesman of sorts, the First Guard gives voice to their thoughts: they follow orders, and they cover for themselves when things go wrong. They are eternally indifferent, innocent, and ready to serve whatever powers that be. In other words, they have no particular loyalty to Creon. As the Chorus indicates, they would arrest him if need be. This indifference makes them brutal and dangerous. Some critics have taken Anouilh’s guards, which stand in contrast to the royal heroes of tragedy, as the clearest manifestation of his “aristocratic pessimism.”
Importantly, the Guards also figure as inappropriate spectators: men left entirely untouched by the tragedy that unfolds before them. The Chorus makes this especially clear in the prologue and epilogue, where the trio appears idly playing cards. As the Chorus notes, the tragedy is “no skin of their backs.” In this respect, the indifferent trio recalls the guardsmen from Anouilh’s other tragedies, such as the guard whose chatter about the harvest close his Medea.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Nature of Tragedy
Halfway through the play, the Chorus appears on the scene to announce that the tragedy is on. His speech offers a meta-theatrical commentary on the nature of tragedy. Here, in apparently a reference to Jean Cocteau, tragedy appears as a machine in perfect order, a machine that proceeds automatically and has been ready since the beginning of time. Tension of the tragic plot is the tension of a spring: the most haphazard event sets it on its inexorable march: in some sense, it has been lying in wait for its catalyst. Tragedy belongs to an order outside human time and action. It will realize itself in spite of its players and all their attempts at intervention. Anouilh himself commented on the paradoxical nature of this suspense: “What was beautiful and is still beautiful about the time of the Greeks is knowing the end in advance. That is “real” suspense…” As the Chorus notes, in tragedy everything has “already happened.” Anouilh’s spectator has surrendered, masochistically, to a succession of events it can hardly bear to watch. “Suspense” here is the time before those events’ realization.
Having compared tragedy to other media, the Chorus then sets it off generically, specifically from the genre of melodrama. Tragedy is “restful” and “flawless,” free of melodramatic stock characters, dialogues, and plot complications. All is inevitable. This inevitability lends, in spite of tragedy’s tension, the genre “tranquility.” Moreover, it gives its players innocence as they are only there to play their parts. Though Creon will later accuse Antigone of casting him as the “villain” in her little melodrama, the players are embroiled in a far more inexorable mechanism. Again, note the incommensurabilities between Anouilh’s theory of the tragic and political allegory. The latter is necessarily engaged in the generally pedagogical passing of ethico-politico judgment, the arbitration of innocence, guilt, and complicity. Though tragic players face judgment, they do so on rather different terms.
The Sisters’ Rivalry
As with Sophocles’ sistes, Ismene and Antigone appear as foils and rivals. Ismene is “reasonable,” timid, and obedient, full-figured and beautiful in being a good girl. In contrast, Antigone is recalcitrant, impulsive, and moody, sallow, thin, and decidedly resistant to being a girl like the rest. Though the Chorus emphasizes the play’s distance from conventional melodrama, it is interesting to note how, in revision the opposition in Sophocles’ version, it perhaps imports the good girl/bad girl structure typical of this genre, not to mention a number of rather “sentimental” scenes. Ismene advises moderation, understanding, and capitulation. They must take Creon’s obligations into account.
Anouilh develops another form of rivalry between the sisters with regards to femininity. Whereas Ismene is the appropriate, beautiful girl, Antigone curses her girlhood. Antigone in particular manifests her hatred for the ideal of femininity Ismene incarnates in their childhood, brutally binding her sister to a tree to stage her mutilation. Anouilh attributes Antigone’s hate and envy in Ismene’s capacity to figure as an object of desire, as the woman men want. Thus, in attempting to seduce Haemon and become “his woman,” Antigone steals Ismene’s goods—lipstick, rouge, perfume, powder, and frock—in another act of sisterly dismemberment. Through Ismene, Antigone would be a woman; as we will see, however, such “human” pleasures are not meant for her.
In Greek tragedy, the Chorus consisted of a group of approximately ten people, playing the role of death messenger, dancing, singing, and commenting throughout from the margins of the action. Anouilh reduces the Chorus to a single figure who retains his collective function nevertheless. The Chorus represents an indeterminate group, be it the inhabitants of Thebes or the moved spectators. It also appears as narrator, framing frames the tragedy with a prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, it directly addresses the audience and is self- conscious with regards to the spectacle: “we” are here tonight to take part in the story of Antigone. Like its ancient predecessor, Anouilh’s Chorus prepares a ritual, instructing the audience on proper spectatorship. The Chorus then reappears throughout the play, marking its another turning points and futilely interceding into the action on “our”—that is, the spectators’ and Theban people’s—behalfs.
As noted above, Antigone’s insistence on her desire makes her monstrous, abject. At the same time, her abjection is her tragic beauty. Antigone announces this beauty throughout her encounter with Creon. Specifically Oedipus emerges as its model. Oedipus’ moment of beauty comes at his moment of total abjection, the moment when he knew all and had lost all servile hope and passed beyond the human community in his transgression of its founding taboo. Like Oedipus, Antigone will become “beautiful” at the moment of his total ruin. As Ismene notes, Antigone’s beauty is somehow not of this world, the kind of beauty that turns the heads of small children—be it in fear, awe, and otherwise.
The Tomb/Bridal Bed
A number of commentators have cast Antigone as a figure “between two deaths,” what we will refer to here as her death as a social or even human being and her death as her demise. The space between two deaths is most certainly materialized her tomb, the cave in which she, as a tabooed and abject body, is to be immured to keep her from polluting the polis. Her death sentence makes her more wretched than animals; such is her “Oedipal” beauty, a beauty in her inhuman abjection. As she appears to sense, however, she will not die alone. Her “tomb” will also serve as her “bridal bed,” Antigone ultimately bringing Haemon with her to the grave. Strangely, another of the tragedy’s victim—Queen Eurydice—meets her demise in another tomb that doubles as bridal chamber. Eurydice dies in her bedroom—bedecked by familiar, comforting feminine accoutrements, appearing as a maiden queen of sorts, having scarcely changed since her first night with Creon. The wound in her neck appears all the more horrible in marring her virgin neck. Her death would appear all the more tragic because she dies in all her “feminine” purity.
The Gray World
Upon sneaking in from her brother’s burial, Antigone tells the Nurse that she has come from a “gray world.” Like many of Anouilh’s heroines, Antigone wanders in this gray “nowhere,” a world beyond the “post card” universe of the waking. This world is breathless with anticipation: it doubles the stage, set apart from the human world, upon which Antigone’s tragedy will ensue. At the same time, the world of the living does not lie in wait for Antigone: she is meant to pass onto another.
Anouilh symbolizes Antigone’s transcendence of state power with Creon’s assault on her person during their confrontation. Enraged by her proud defiance and his inability to sway her, Creon seizes Antigone and twists her to his side. The immediate pain passes, however: Creon squeezes to tightly, and Antigone feels nothing. Thus Antigone passes beyond the reach of state power and the realm of men.
As the Chorus remarks, Queen Eurydice’s function in the tragedy is to knit in her room until she dies. She is Creon’s final lesson, her death leaving him utterly alone. In the report of her suicide, Eurydice will stop her knitting and the stab herself with her needle. The end of her knitting is the end of her life, evoking the familiar Greek myth of the life-thread spun, measured, and cut by the Fates.
Antigone is a Greek Tragedy written by Sophocles. It was written in 441 B.C.
Setting of the Play: Ancient Greece
Antigone’s Twisted Family Tree:
A brave and proud young woman named Antigone is the product of a really messed up family.
Her father, Oedipus, was the King of Thebes. He unknowingly murdered his father and married his own mother, Queen Jocasta. With his wife/mother, Oedipus had two daughter/sisters and two brother/sons.
When Jocasta found out the truth of their incestuous relationship, she killed herself. Oedipus was pretty upset too. He plucked out his eyeballs. Then, he spent his remaining years wandering through Greece, being led by his loyal daughter Antigone.
After Oedipus died, his two sons (Eteocles and Polynices) battled for control of the kingdom. Eteocles fought to defend Thebes. Polynices and his men attacked the city. Both brothers died. Creon ( Antigone’s uncle) became the official ruler of Thebes. (There’s a lot of upward mobility in this city-state. That’s what happens when your bosses kill each other.)
Divine Laws Vs. Man-made Laws:
Creon buried Eteocles’s body with honor. But because the other brother was perceived as a traitor, Polynices’s body was left to rot, a tasty snack for vultures and vermin. However, leaving human remains unburied and exposed to the elements was an affront to the Greek Gods. So, at the play’s beginning, Antigone decides to defy Creon’s laws. She gives her brother a proper funeral.
Her sister Ismene warns that Creon will punish any who defy the law of the city. Antigone believes that the law of the gods supersedes a king’s decree. Creon doesn’t see things that way. He is very angry and sentences Antigone to death.
Ismene asks to be executed along with her sister. But Antigone doesn’t want her by her side. She insists that she alone buried the brother, so she alone will receive punishment (and possible reward from the gods).
Creon Needs To Loosen Up:
As if things weren’t complicated enough, Antigone has a boyfriend: Haemon, the son of Creon. He tries to convince his father that mercy and patience are called for. But the more they debate, the more Creon’s anger grows. Haemon leaves, threatening to do something rash.
At this point, the people of Thebes, represented by the Chorus, are uncertain as to who is right or wrong. It seems Creon is starting to feel a little bit worried because instead of executing Antigone, he orders her to be sealed inside a cave. (That way, if she dies, her death will be in the hands of the gods).
But after she is sent to her doom, a blind old wise man enters. He is Tiresias, a seer of the future, and he brings an important message: “Creon, you made a big stupid mistake!” (It sounds fancier in Greek.)
Suspecting the old man of treason, Creon becomes infuriated and refuses Tiresias’ wisdom. The old man becomes very cranky and predicts bad things for Creon’s near future.
Creon Changes His Mind (Too Late):
Finally scared, Creon rethinks his decisions. He dashes off to release Antigone. But he’s too late. Antigone has already hanged herself. Haemon grieves beside her body. He attacks his father with a sword, misses completely, and then stabs himself, dying.
Mrs. Creon (Eurydice) hears of her son’s death and kills herself. (I hope you weren’t expecting a comedy.)
By the time Creon returns to Thebes, the Chrous tells Creon the bad news. They explain that “There is no escape from the doom we must endure.” Creon realizes that his stubbornness has led to his family’s ruin. The Chorus ends the play by offering a final message:
“The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate.”
Written by Sophocles around 440 B.C., the title character in Antigone represents one of the most powerful female protagonists in theatrical history. Her conflict is a simple yet poignant one. She gives her dead brother a proper burial against the wishes of her uncle, Creon, the newly crowned King of Thebes. Antigone willingly defies the law for she devoutly believes that she is doing the will of the Gods.
In this monologue, the protagonist is about to be entombed in a cavern. Although she believes she goes to her death, she contends that she was justified in offering her brother his funeral rites. Yet, because of her punishment, she is uncertain about the ultimate goal of the gods above. Still, she trusts that in the afterlife, if she is at fault, she will learn of her sins. However, if Creon is at fault, the fates will surely inflict revenge upon him.
The following excerpt is reprinted from Greek Dramas. Ed. Bernadotte Perrin. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904
ANTIGONE: Tomb, bridal chamber, eternal prison in the caverned rock, whither I go to find mine own, those many who have perished, and whom Persephone hath received among the dead! Last of all shall I pass thither, and far most miserably of all, before the term of my life is spent. But I cherish good hope that my coming will be welcome to my father, and pleasant to thee, my mother, and welcome, brother, to thee; for, when you died, with mine own hands I washed and dressed you, and poured drink-offerings at your graves; and now, Polyneices, ’tis for tending thy corpse that I win such recompense as this. And yet I honored thee, as the wise will deem, rightly. Never had I been a mother of children, or if a husband had been moldering in death, would I have taken this task upon me in the city’s despite.
What law, ye ask, is my warrant for that word? The husband lost, another might have been found, and child from another, to replace the first-born; but, father and mother hidden with Hades, no brother’s life could ever bloom for me again. Such was the law whereby I held thee first in honor; but Creon deemed me guilty of error therein, and of outrage, ah brother mine! And now he leads me thus, a captive in his hands; no bridal bed, no bridal song hath been mine, no joy of marriage, no portion in the nurture of children; but thus, forlorn of friends, unhappy one, I go living to the vaults of death. And what law of Heaven have I transgressed?
Why, hapless one, should I look to the gods any more–what ally should I invoke–when by piety I have earned the name of impious? Nay, then, if these things are pleasing to the gods, when I have suffered my doom, I shall come to know my sin; but if the sin is with my judges, I could wish them no fuller measure of evil than they, on their part, mete wrongfully to me.
Antigone’s Defiant Monologue
Here Sophocles has created a dramatic female monologue for his powerful protagonist Antigone
The brothers of Ismene and Antigone battle for control of Thebes. Both perish. One brother is buried as a hero. The other brother is deemed a traitor to his people. He is left to rot on the battle field. No one is to touch his remains.
In this scene, King Creon has just learned that Antigone has defied his laws by providing a proper burial for her disgraced brother.
Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
They were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.
I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown,
To disobey these laws and so provoke
The wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
And if in this thou judgest me a fool,
Methinks the judge of folly’s not acquit.
In one of the most dramatic female monologues of Ancient Greece, Antigone defies King Creon because she believes in a higher morality, that of the gods. She contends that the laws of Heaven overrule the laws of man.
Translated by F. Storr (Published in 1912)
Creon’s Monologue from “Antigone”
Considering he appears in all three plays of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, Creon is a complex and diverse character. In Oedipus the King, he serves as an advisor and moral compass. In Oedipus at Colonus, he tries to negotiate with the blind ex-monarch in hopes of gaining power. Finally, in Antigone, Creon has attained the throne after a long civil war between two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. Oedipus’ son Eteocles died defending the city-state of Thebes. Polyneices, on the other hand, dies trying to usurp power from his brother.
In this monologue, placed at the play’s beginning, Creon establishes the conflict. The fallen Etecles is granted a hero’s funeral. However, Creon decrees that the traitorous Polyneices will be left to rot in the wilderness. This royal order will stir up a singular rebellion when the devoted sister of the brothers, Antigone, refuses to abide by Creon’s laws. When Creon punishes her for following the will of the Olympian Immortals and not the rule of the king, he incurs the wrath of the gods.
The following excerpt is reprinted from Greek Dramas. Ed. Bernadotte Perrin. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904
CREON: I now possess the throne and all its powers, by nearness of kinship to the dead. No man can be fully known, in soul and spirit and mind, until he hath been seen versed in rule and law-giving. For if any, being supreme guide of the state, cleaves not to the best counsels, but, through some fear, keeps his lips locked, I hold, and have ever held, him most base; and if any makes a friend of more account than his fatherland, that man hath no place in my regard. For I–be Zeus my witness, who sees all things always–would not be silent if I saw ruin, instead of safety, coming to the citizens; nor would I ever deem the country’s foe a friend to myself; remembering this, that our country is the ship that bears us safe, and that only while she prospers in our voyage can we make true friends. Such are the rules by which I guard this city’s greatness. And in accord with them is the edict which I have now published to the folk touching the sons of Oedipus; that Eteocles, who hath fallen fighting for our city, in all renown of arms, shall be entombed, and crowned with every rite that follows the noblest dead to their rest. But for his brother, Polyneices–who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers and the shrines of his fathers’ gods–sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery–touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.
Ismene’s Monologue from “Antigone”
This dramatic female monologue is a selection from Act One of Antigone by Sophocles.
The brothers of Ismene and Antigone battle for control of Thebes. Both perish. One brother is buried as a hero. The other brother is deemed a traitor to his people.
When the corpse of Antigone’s brother is left to rot out on the battlefield, Antigone is determined to set things right, even if it means defying the laws of King Creon. Her sister Ismene is not as headstrong. She is sad for the death and dishonor of her brother. However, she does not want to risk her life by upsetting the “powers that be.”
Bethink thee, sister, of our father’s fate,
Abhorred, dishonored, self-convinced of sin,
Blinded, himself his executioner.
Think of his mother-wife (ill sorted names)
Done by a noose herself had twined to death
And last, our hapless brethren in one day,
Both in a mutual destiny involved,
Self-slaughtered, both the slayer and the slain.
Bethink thee, sister, we are left alone;
Shall we not perish wretchedest of all,
If in defiance of the law we cross
A monarch’s will?—weak women, think of that,
Not framed by nature to contend with men.
Remember this too that the stronger rules;
We must obey his orders, these or worse.
Therefore I plead compulsion and entreat
The dead to pardon. I perforce obey
The powers that be. ‘Tis foolishness, I ween,
To overstep in aught the golden mean.
Ismene is a fascinating character. In this dramatic monologue she conveys grief and shame as she reflects upon her father Oedipus’ sad history. She also warns that Antigone’s fate and her own might be worse is they disobey the laws of the land. She is at once melancholy, fearful, and diplomatic.
Character Foil, Parallel Character, or Catalyst?
Each of the minor characters played an important role in Sophocles’ play, Antigone. The minor characters are Ismene, Haemon, the Sentry, Tiresias, Eurydice, and the Messenger. Each character was a foil, parallel character, and/or a catalyst. The foil has an opposite personality of one of the main characters, the parallel character brings out the theme in a larger way, and the catalyst starts trouble.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, Ismene is considered to be the foil to Antigone. Compared to Antigone, Ismene is cowardly; Antigone is brave. Antigone showed courage by standing up to Creon whilst Ismene wanted to obey the law instead of showing family honor. When she tried to be a part of Antigone’s plan, Ismene’s resistance backfired because Antigone became just as stubborn to not let her help after the first lost cause.
Haemon was a character foil to Creon and also a catalyst. Haemon was calm compared to how Creon overreacted repeatedly. He was a catalyst due to the fact that he killed himself after Antigone hanged herself. When Haemon committed suicide, his mother, Eurydice, stabbed herself to death because by this time both of her sons were dead. Eurydice blamed everything on Creon.
The Sentry was a catalyst. The Sentry told Creon that Polyneices recieved a proper burial. At first they had no clue who did it, but then the Sentry saw Antigone by the burial and caught her red-handed. This caused Creon to give Antigone the death penalty.
Eurydice was a parallel character. Bringing on more death just enhanced the theme. She was also a catalyst because she brought more grief to her husband, Creon.
The Messenger was a catalyst which is pretty much self-explanatory. The messenger alerted the kingsmen that Antigone and Haemon transgressed suicide. Eurydice overheard that news and in turn went to the altar and stabbed herself to death.
Tiresias was both a parallel character and a catalyst. He was a parallel character because he was a blind prophet. He knew exactly what would happen and what the outcomes would be; he told Creon what was going to happen. Tiresias was a catalyst for a few reasons. For one thing, he indirectly put Creon onto the throne when he told Oedipus that he killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus was banished and so were his children, so, indirectly, Creon obtained the throne and became king. Because Creon became king and was a prideful jerk, Polyneices was not allowed to have a proper burial, leading to Antigone needing to break the law. Also, Tiresias caused Creon the be in fear of the gods for not giving Polyneices a proper burial. In turn, Creon buries Polyneices and tries to free Antigone, but he was too late for she had hanged herself.