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Free Study Guide-Antigone by Sophocles-Free Online Summary Booknotes
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LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION

To understand a classical play like Antigone it is essential to have a general idea of Greek tragedy (as a form of drama) as well as specific information about the ill-fated House of Cadmus, whose tragic family history comes full circle with the death of Antigone.

Greek Tragedy:

It was originally associated with religious festivals like that of Dionysus, the god of wine. It was often solemn, poetic and philosophical. It told the tale of a central character (the protagonist), who was an admirable but not necessarily flawless person. S/he was confronted by hostile forces and often had to make difficult moral choices in trying to resolve these conflicts. The protagonist’s struggle ended mostly in defeat or death.

Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and consisted of a series of dramatic episodes interspersed with choral odes chanted by an on-stage chorus of ten to fifteen people. This chorus often commented on the dramatic action or analyzed the pattern of events in its own way. They sang, danced and recited the odes to the accompaniment of musical instruments like the lyre, flute or drums. The main episodes were performed usually by not more than three actors appearing simultaneously on stage. Men played the women’s parts, and the same actor appeared in multiple roles. The performers in Greek tragedy wore masks to depict the kind of characters they were enacting.

In his critical work, The Poetics, Aristotle deals with the major elements of Greek tragedy. For Aristotle, the most important part of tragedy was the plot (or action). He felt that any tragic action must be long enough to depict a dramatic change in fortune (from prosperity to misfortune) of the protagonist. In Antigone it is the antagonist, Creon, who at the start of the play has just become king. By the end of the play, Creon has lost both his wife and son and is left despondent. Aristotle holds that character is the second most significant feature which gives drama its moral dimensions. The central personage in Greek tragedy must be morally good, of a heroic stature, true to life and consistent in his/her actions. The change in fortune of the main personage is often the consequence of a fatal flaw in his/her character, or an error of judgment called “hamartia.” The failure of the hero (or heroine) is also due to his/her “hubris,” a false sense of pride in his/her own secure position.


The tragic dramatist must choose suitably heroic characters and place them in a well constructed plot, which aims at representing actions that will invoke “pity and fear” in the audience. Tragedy ideally evokes these dual emotions. The downfall of a noble, well- known, prosperous and moral person naturally evokes one’s pity (in reaction to the hero’s misfortune) and one’s fear (that such misfortune can overwhelm human beings). This leads finally to an effect of catharsis, the purgation of these emotions of pity and fear. This gives tragedy a psychological dimension, as it provides an outlet for undesirable emotions that humans inevitably experience.

Aristotle also pointed out two important devices of the plot: “peripeteia” and “anagnorisis.” “Peripeteia” is often wrongly translated as “reversal of fortune,” but more accurately, it refers to a reversal of the situation: the action turns in a direction opposite from its original course. “Anagnorisis” refers to a person’s realization of a situation. It is a change from the state of ignorance to that of enlightenment. Such changes wrought through “peripeteia” or through “anagnorisis” must occur within the limits of probability and help to create the effect of dramatic irony.

The Ill-Fated House of Cadmus:

Antigone is virtually the last in the line of Theban royalty belonging to this family of Cadmus, who was the founder of Thebes. The story of Antigone can be read and understood entirely only when one takes into account all the tragic consequences that troubled the family of the founding father, Cadmus.

Cadmus was the legendary founder of the Greek city of Thebes and the son of Agenor, King of Tyre. Cadmus’ sister, Europa, was carried off by Zeus in the disguise of a bull. Cadmus, who went in search of Europa, discovered instead the site of Thebes. Cadmus slew the dragon who was guarding Thebes and planted half the dragon’s teeth in the soil. From these teeth sprang a group of armed men who fought each other until only five survived. These five, known as the “spartoi,” were believed to be the ancestors of the Theban nobility. Thus the city of Thebes was born in a violent manner.

Cadmus married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, and presented his bride with a necklace which was to prove fatal to the Theban dynasty. At the end of their lives, Cadmus and his wife were changed into serpents by the gods.

Cadmus’ daughter, Semele, was loved by Zeus and gave birth to the god Dionysus. Semele was killed when Zeus appeared before her in all his godly glory. Dionysus himself punished the women of Thebes with madness for refusing to accept his divinity. Agave, the sister of Semele, brought about the death of her own son, Pentheus. This story is related in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae.

Laius, the father of Oedipus, was the great-grandson of Cadmus. He was killed by his own son, Oedipus, who was unaware of his father’s identity. The god Apollo had warned Laius that his own son would kill him. Thus, when Oedipus was born to Laius and his wife, Jocasta, Laius took the boy and exposed him to the elements on Mount Cithaeron. But Oedipus survived and was brought up by the King of Corinth. Eager to discover his true identity, Oedipus set out in the direction of Thebes. In a chance encounter en route, Oedipus met, quarreled with and then killed his own father, Laius. He became the monarch of Thebes and unwittingly married his own mother, Jocasta. The couple had four children: two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

Homer relates that when it was discovered that Oedipus had married his own mother, Jocasta hanged herself, but he continued to rule as king. However, in Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus willfully blinds himself and wanders off in self-imposed exile, accompanied by Antigone. He later went to Colonus where he died.

The present play, Antigone, begins with a reference to the battle fought between Oedipus’ two sons, Polynices and Eteocles. They had quarreled over their father’s throne during Oedipus’ lifetime. Oedipus had pronounced a curse on the two, predicting that they would kill each other. When Oedipus died, his sons decided to share power. They agreed to allow each other to rule separately for alternate periods of the year. Eteocles, the younger of the two, began to rule first, but when his reign was over, he refused to give up the throne to his brother. Polynices, in the meanwhile, had married the Princess of Argos. Angered at his brother’s betrayal of trust, Polynices set out with an army from Argos towards Thebes. He placed seven commanders at the seven gates of Thebes. The Argive army was hopelessly routed by the Theban army, led by Eteocles, and the two brothers fought and killed each other in battle. This tale was dramatized by Aeschylus in his Seven Against Thebes.

Creon, the brother of Jocasta and the senior most member of the royal family of Thebes, assumed power. He had favored Eteocles before the battle and now proclaims that Eteocles is a hero who will be given a state funeral. However, Creon ordered that the bodies of the enemies, including Polynices’ body, should not be buried. There are many traditions and legends regarding what happened next. Sophocles tells one of these in his play, Antigone. Other stories tell how Antigone was killed by Creon himself, or was sent into exile for defying Creon’s law and daring to bury her brother’s body.

Thus the House of Cadmus had from ancient times been plagued by disaster and tragedy. Antigone’s tragedy is a culmination of the earlier events that look place in and around Thebes.

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