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  • Sophocles

Antigone - critical review

Antigone, by Sophocles, is one most famous tragedies from ancient Greece and is still performed today all across the world. Sophocles was born (it is estimated) in 495BC and died in 405BC. He was thirty years younger than Aeschylus, his earlier playwright 'rival'. Notably, Sophocles had a high status in Athens and knew a lot of important people. He became general of Athens in 441BC and therefore an experienced politician: holding responsibilities and office of the city of Athens, therefore controlling the politics of around 300 thousand people. Therefore, through Antigone, we seem to see his own political philosophy coming through in the play. Notably, all these plays would be performed once a year during 'The Dionysia' in which, in theory, every male citizen was present and they would watch these plays for three days before deciding which one was the most favoured. After the three days, they would then vote on important matters of the state: for example whether to go to war. Therefore, the plays were hugely significant in influencing the politics of the region, and Sophocles clearly tries to guide people's perception of what it means to be a good ruler and attitudes to laws through his tragedy 'Antigone.' The play is set in Thebes, which is a days journey away from Athens (where it would have been performed) and was unique in the way it wasn't a port city: which creates a sense of claustrophobia and heightens the intensity of the play, since it was a city of tyrants in which the generals were not elected but instead one family held power and tried to stay on to it. Creon, literally meaning 'the ruler', is portrayed by Sophocles as an archetype of exactly NOT what a good ruler should be. He only comes into power because of Antigone's brothers both dying, and therefore does not win it through democracy (which was the method in which was taken in Athens.) Not only was Thebes geographically unique in the way it was not close to the sea, but this claustrophobia is symbolised in Antigone through having no other people from different cities, which not only makes Antigone unique to other Greek Tragedies but further exaggerates the hostility of having a dangerous ruler in Thebes since there was no influence from another city. Therefore, by Sophocles using a state in which is very confined to the ruling of a biological family, whom he suggests are not rightful rulers, accompanied by the setting of which there is no democracy and it seems no escape, Sophocles is showing the people of Athens what should be avoided and the importance of democracy and freedom. The main topic of the novel is the conflict between laws of the state in conflict with a higher, external and eternal law of the Gods. This conflict is symbolised by the two most notable characters of the play: Antigone, who refuses to go against the eternal law that one should bury their relatives' bodies, and Creon, who symbolises the importance of law you can make in the state. Therefore, it becomes a political play for what should be illegal and legal and how that is decided. Sophocles was famous for 'divided catastrophe', in which the protagonist dies in the middle but the play goes on. In Antigone, however, obviously not only are their many deaths but the most notable death of Antigone's brother Polynices happens before the play even begins: and therefore the whole play revolves around the consequences of death and if the means to get to it influences what happens after it. The fact that Polynices fights for the conflicting side of Creon makes him decide that he should be denied the right of being buried that all men are granted. Sophocles stresses the importance of this eternal law and the fact it is higher than the state not only through the character of Antigone, who refuses to submit to Creon's contrasting law but also through the Chorus. In the middle of the play, the Chorus talks about all the achievements of man: stating that man is the greatest being, however, argues that if one should forget about the Gods, then he will fall from his high place and status. This urges that although man's achievements and their existence itself should be celebrated, they should not try and overcome the laws of the Gods. This is shown through the plot by the tragic ending of Creon losing his last child and his wife, which symbolises Zeus' striking his thunderbolt at Creon, who disobeyed these unwritten laws that a higher than those of the state. Furthermore, not only does Sophocles display the importance of eternal law, but also displays the means of deciding laws of the state through the idea it should be very inclusive and democratic, which contrasts with how Creon determines rules and his failure determines that this egotistic strategy fails. Creon says that he is a strong leader and being a leader is superior to friendship, and his decision to decide that Polynices should not be buried is a way of him displaying his superiority, perhaps not only to the state but also against the Gods. He decides death sentences and laws without talking of summoning the chorus, court or any people of the state: without any core beliefs or philosophy that he uses to justify his decisions (Aristotle, in his 'poetics', argued that he was 'consistently inconsistent'), apart from his urge for power. Sophocles was very interested in how far human moral decision making affects predestined fate. Creon seems to have no predestined fate, but his tragic end is completely brought about by his attitude as a leader. Sophocles therefore, shows that humans are powerful, but not necessarily in a positive way, as they can bring out such a tragic end that not even the Gods predestined. It argues that even if humans aren't predestined life of tragedy, they can determine their own fate with this ending if they act in this hedonistic manner. In the last scene, Creon recognises this, saying that his wrong judgement causes the tragedy, which is a way of Sophocles reminding those watching of this dangerous attribute of humankind and that it can lead to destruction. This political theory of the positivity of collectively instead of individuality is further pressed by Haemon, Antigone's fiance, who it has been argued represent Sophocles views on politics the most out of all the characters. Within the play, his speech of political theory advocating the importance of rulers compromising with people and having collective agreement juxtaposes Creon's attitude to being a ruler, which ends in his destruction. Therefore, both through speech and through the plot, Sophocles reminds those watching of what it takes to be a good ruler, which is especially significant due to the aftermath events of the performances in which decisions were made about rulers, laws and wars by the people. With a teenage girl at the centre of the play, one cannot ignore the theme of gender. It is unusual to have a teenage girl at the centre of the play, especially with such authority and fighting for the importance of the immortal Gods. The Greeks believed that teenage girls suffered from almost lunacy until they were married off, and believed that their wombs attacked and affected their decisions. I thought Sophocles however, through Antigone's hysteria and crudeness, although possibly overwhelming and controversial, was him defending that they should not be dismissed as mad and unimportant, as the argument that Antigone puts forward is extremely significant. Antigone's defence of the higher natural law is at the centre of the play and therefore Sophocles was not dismissing her importance at all, but rather heightening it. He did include a sense that she was more overwrought than the other characters, especially the other female characters such as the wife of Creon, but I thought that in a sense, he was defending this lunacy view of teenage girls, through portraying her justice and her loyalty to the God's, in comparison to the ignorance of Creon. Overall, the play shows the dangers of humankind in terms of their possible egotism and strive for power. It reminds the spectators of the power and influence of the Gods, and that men should make decisions of the state together and considerably in alignment with that of the unwritten, fixed, natural laws that are universal to all states.

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