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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Aristotle in his Poetics praises Sophocles as an innovator in tragedy. The introduction of a third actor (“tritagonist”) enabled Sophocles to make plot, dialogue and the relationship between characters more complex. He abandoned the Aeschylean practice of writing trilogies on related events; instead, he gave each of his plays a self-contained plot. In Sophoclean plays, the unity of action is complete and the plot is handled with amazing dexterity and at a rapid pace.
For Sophocles, it is the innate character of a heroine, like Antigone, that initiates the central tragic action. Sometimes, the central Sophoclean character (as in Antigone) dies well before the end of the play, resulting in a slight slackening of the tension in the action. However, the concluding part still seems to follow necessarily from what has preceded. For example, the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice are the result of Antigone’s death and add to the final tragic effect. Sophocles rarely distracts attention from the self- contained world of his play. The outlines of his story are drawn from a well-known body of myth, already familiar to the audience.
For the plot of Antigone, Sophocles drew material from the familiar legends of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, and also from an earlier play by Aeschylus called Seven Against Thebes.
The plot of a Greek tragedy usually consisted of five parts: the prologue, the Parodos, the five Epeisodia (episodes), the five stasima and the Exodus (or epilogue). Sophocles follows the conventional pattern of plot construction with very little deviation from the norm.
The Prologos (literally ‘fore-word’) forms the prologue to the actual play. It is the part preceding the first entrance of the Chorus and usually consists of a monologue (or dialogue) setting forth the subject matter of the tragedy and the basic situation from which it starts. In early Greek tragedies, the Chorus entered first and performed this function of exposition. Sophocles prefers a later method in Antigone, by making Antigone reveal her decision to bury Polynices to her sister, Ismene.
The Parodos is the second segment of the plot and refers to the song (and stylized movements or dance) which accompanies the first entrance of the Chorus on stage. The opening Chorus song serves a purely expository function in Antigone.
These two initial segments of the plot are followed by five major “Epeisodia” or episodes. In these scenes, one or more of the three central actors took the major and minor roles, along with the Chorus. The word “Epeisodian” meant, originally, the entrance of an actor to announce something significant in the plot to the Chorus. The episodes contained both typical passages and narrative or dramatic dialogues, lamentations and incidental songs or utterances by the Chorus. Each of these episodes is followed by a stasimon, a song sung by the Chorus.
In Antigone, the first episode concerns Creon’s announcement to the Chorus of Theban elders that he has forbidden the burial of Polynices. It also includes the arrival of the watchman who informs Creon of the perfunctory night burial of Polynices by an unknown hand. Creon lashes out at him and accuses him of conspiring in this act.
The stasima (plural for “stasimon”) were expressions of emotion evoked by the preceding episodes, given mainly by the Chorus and serving as interludes between episodes. The first stasimon follows the first episode: the Chorus sings a song in praise of the human race and of the state. The second episode follows, during which one sees Antigone, captured by the watchman, being brought before Creon to face trial and punishment. This episode constitutes the climax of the play and proves the great strength of Antigone’s character.
This great scene of confrontation is followed by the second stasimon which begins: “Blest is the life that never tasted woe.” It mentions the evil fate tormenting the house of Cadmus. In the third episode, Creon is confronted by his son, Haemon, who is betrothed to Antigone. The father-son conflict provides a secondary agon (debate) in the play, following the primary agon between Antigone and Creon in the second episode. Appropriately, the third episode is followed by the third stasimon, whose theme is love: “Love unconquered in fight.”
In the penultimate episode of the play, Antigone is led to her tomb. This scene evokes profound pity for her, as well as awe at her impending fate. Her exit is covered by the fourth stasimon, which tells of the tragic fate suffered by mythical Greek figures before Antigone: “Even Danaë’s beauty...”.
In the fifth and final episode, Tiresias, the prophet, warns Creon against displeasing the gods. Here, the “peripeteia,” or turn in the nature of events, takes place when Creon does a complete about- face and decides to spare Antigone’s life and to allow for Polynices’ burial. There is also a moment of “anagnorisis” for Creon as he begins to understand that he must bow to the power of fate: “Oh! it is hard. But I am forced to this/ Against myself. I cannot fight with Destiny.”
The fifth stasimon is a dithyramb in honor of the god, Bacchus. The Chorus prays to Bacchus, hoping that he will rescue Thebes from its present crisis.
The exodus or final scene follows the final (fifth) stasimon. In this scene, the messengers bring news of Haemon’s and Antigone’s deaths. It presents the denouement of the tragedy. Eurydice, Haemon’s mother, commits suicide and Creon is left alone to mourn his fate. The leader of the Chorus recites the last lines of the play as part of the Exodus and articulates the moral of the tale.
Thus, in Antigone, Sophocles remains strictly within the bounds of the norms of classical Greek tragedy as far as plot construction is concerned.