Antigone was written during the fifth century B.C.E. by the Greek playwright Sophocles. In this play, Sophocles focused on the ancient and mythic dynasty of Thebes, which he also explored in the plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. Click here to see the family tree of the Royal House of Thebes.
Antigone takes place in the city of Thebes shortly after a political struggle between Antigone’s two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. The power sharing arrangement between the two brothers was broken when Eteocles failed to cede authority of the city to his brother at the agreed upon date. After going into exile, Polyneices returned with the aid of a foreign army and attempted to take control of the city through military action. The brothers ended up killing each other in combat and Antigone’s uncle Creon took over as ruler of the city.
The play opens with Creon issuing a decree that the body of Polyneices is to be left unburied as a political message. Creon’s decree states that anyone caught attempting to bury the body will be put to death. Antigone feels compelled to perform burial rites for her brother; her efforts to do so and the rest of her family’s reactions to these efforts comprise the primary actions of the play. For more analysis and background, click here.
About the Playwright: Sophocles
Sophocles lived during the fifth century B.C.E. (496-406) during the time of Athenian democracy. Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides are the only Ancient Greek tragic playwrights whose full texts exist today. Although he wrote more than one hundred plays, only seven of Sophocles’ full texts have survived: Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Trachinae, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. Unlike the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ inter-related plays were not performed during a single festival as a cohesive trilogy.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex the ideal tragedy and used it to explain the form and purpose of the genre in The Poetics, his treatise on Greek literary forms. Aristotle extols Oedipus Rex as a superior play because the main character recognizes his error, or tragic flaw, although he does not do so early enough in the action of the play to stop the reversal of his fortune. In Antigone, Creon has a similar experience of recognition and reversal. Aristotle believed that the inclusion of moments of recognition followed by a reversal in a character’s fortune caused the audience to experience feelings of empathy and catharsis, and that those feelings were the basis of a satisfactory and productive theatre-going experience.
Although Greek tragedies are based on mythological events, Sophocles’ plays explore such themes as: pride over principle; the individual versus the state; conscience versus the law; divine law versus human law; equality or lack of equality for women; and the use and abuse of political power. These great themes are still very much with us today.
Theatre in Ancient Greece
The practice of tragedy in Ancient Greece was formalized during the sixth century B.C.E. when the Athenian government sponsored theatrical productions and contests as part of the City Dionysia, a religious festival honoring the Greek god Dionysus.
Many theatre historians believe that Greek tragedy evolved out of the choral recitation of epic poetry and/or the choral singing of hymns called dithyrambs.
All existing tragedies today come from the fifth century B.C.E. Common features of the extant thirty-one tragedies include: a chorus that dances, appeals to the gods, comments on the action taking place, and usually represents the viewpoint of the citizens in the city in which the play is set. The main characters in Greek tragedies often represent the ruling class and there is usually at least one prophet or priest included in the cast of characters. The dialogue between the characters and the chorus frequently revolves around issues of political leadership, spirituality, and collective responsibility for the health of the community as a whole.
The actors in ancient Greek tragedies wore masks. This particular performance convention is not always used in contemporary productions of ancient
Greek tragedies. Other Greek performance conventions include the dancing of the chorus, the presentation of three tragedies and a comedic satyr play, the ritual sacrifice of animals, and the inclusion of athletic events as part of the activities of the festivals in which these plays were performed.
Written by the 2011 Theatre Heritage I class