Modern western theatre traces its roots to the dramatic competitions of the City Dionysia of ancient Athens. Even today we look to the example set by the three extant tragedians for our dramatic model, and—as with the bulk of western philosophy and aesthetics—theatrical criticism dates back to The Poetics of Aristotle. The essential paradigm of the pro/con argument concerning theatre can be traced to the respective stances of Aristotle and Plato, and the vast majority of theatrical criticism since then can be interpreted as falling into one of the two camps. Upon a clear reading of The Poetics, however, one should note that Aristotle is making no direct attempt to defend theatre or respond to Plato’s criticism. What Aristotle does, with his scientific passion for classifying, is define tragedy, distinguish its component parts, and set forth criteria for judging the quality of a tragedy. This being said, we can evaluate the extant tragedies based upon Aristotle’s criteria because his is the best contemporary criticism we have and has been the single most influential treatise on drama in the western world, setting the standard not only for dramatic criticism, but for drama itself. In The Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy aims at representing men “as better than in actual life.” Aristotle goes on to quote Sophocles’ self-referential claim that “he drew men as they ought to be” (Bywater, p. 261, 1460b, 34). Only seven of Sophocles’ 120 or more plays survive today, and among them, his Antigone is perhaps the most popular both in the modern theatre and in academia. Antigone also was tremendously popular with Sophocles’ Greek audience: tradition holds that he was elected a strategoi in 441 b.c.e. due to the popularity of Antigone, and it may have been revived in his own lifetime (Ferguson, 163). (Which testifies to its appeal, as each play generally was produced only once, when it was entered into the competition of the City Dionysia along with two other tragedies and a satyr play.) Certainly, Sophocles’ Antigone paints men as more than they are, though not necessarily better than they are. That Antigone was resonant in ancient Athens and is resonant today is indisputable. Of more interest are the reasons for its success, as different reasons underlie the play’s success in fifth century Athens than in late twentieth century America. A comparative evaluation of Antigone based upon Aristotle’s Poetics and based upon the expectations of a late twentieth century American audience will perhaps shed light on these differences.
Though Aristotle’s Poetics is the oldest systematic treatment of dramatic poetry and the most influential work on theatre in the history of the western world, it is not without its limitations. In fact, we encounter several limitations to the efficaciousness of using The Poetics to evaluate ancient tragedies. First, and most importantly, the latest extant tragedy of ancient Athens (Oedipus at Colonus) predates The Poetics by approximately seventy to eighty years. Thus, The Poetics was not available for reference to Sophocles, as Aristotle was writing years after the golden age of Greek drama. Secondly, though Aristotle’s views on tragedy are well thought out and incisive, they remain his personal opinions, and one should be hesitant to take them as representative of the “average Athenian” of the fourth century b.c.e. Thirdly, Aristotle’s criticisms are descriptive rather than prescriptive. This is important to keep in mind in light of the centuries of misinterpretation by European critics. What we have then, in The Poetics, are the descriptions of one man’s opinion of what tragedy should be, written over two generations after the subject matter he treats. This is not to say, however, that Aristotle’s views can be discounted in the least. As mentioned in the introduction, The Poetics comes closer to being a contemporary criticism than any other source available to us. Also, regardless of the inherent merits of his analysis (which are not slight), this short treatise has been the basis for western dramatic critical thought since its rediscovery in the sixteenth century. If “Plato is philosophy, and Philosophy is Plato” as Emerson said, then one can say, as a parallel, that “Dramatic Theory is Aristotle, and Aristotle is Dramatic Theory.”
Before getting into the trenches, so to speak, of this evaluation, I wish to look briefly at Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy to confirm that Antigone meets his requirements. Aristotle defines tragedy as
“the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Bywater, p. 230, 1459b, lines 23-27).
Even the quickest skimming of Antigone will show that it does indeed fulfill Aristotle’s requirements, for Antigone imitates a single, serious action of magnitude; is complete, that is, has a logically connected beginning, middle, and end; is written in a dramatic form; and, its incidents arouse pity and fear. Thus, Antigone is a tragedy.
The most compelling, and sometimes most debatable element of any tragedy is its tragic hero. After explicating the types of tragic heroes to avoid, Aristotle tells us, in book thirteen of The Poetics, that the proper kind of tragic hero is
a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity (Bywater, p. 238, 1453a, lines 8-10).
The debate concerning the true tragic hero in Antigone is perhaps the most intriguing question asked of the play. Antigone certainly can be seen as the protagonist. She is, after all, the titular character. Then again, Creon’s case is not without merit. Whenever a decision of this sort is to be made, one must consider the criteria being applied in the answering of the question. Antigone’s fate is unfortunate and, as will be discussed in a later section, more resonant with a modern audience, but she is not the tragic hero. From our first encounter with Antigone, we learn that she is aware of the consequences of burying Polyneices (Fagles, p. 60, lines 42-44, Greek line 35 ). That she dies as a result of burying her brother, then, cannot be construed as a reversal of fortune, nor does she experience any recognition of her hamartia. Antigone remains steadfast in her arrogance and self-assuredness throughout the play, protesting her piety to the very end. If one reads Antigone as the tragic hero, and her “flaw” or “error” to be her arrogance, one must then provide evidence for her recognition of that error, some admission of guilt. In fact, Antigone seems almost to revel in her martyrdom, especially when she attacks Ismene, saying, “I’d never welcome you in the labor” (Fagles, p. 63, 82-83, 70), and two lines later, “Death will be a glory” (Fagles, p. 63, 86, 71). These are not the words of a woman seeking to avoid her fate. Indeed, her fate is consciously chosen: though she claims merely to suffer for her “reverence for the gods” (Fagles, p. 107, 1034, 943). Thus, though Antigone’s fate is lamentable, she is not the tragic hero.
Using Aristotle’s criteria, Creon is without doubt the tragic hero of Antigone. Though Antigone is a sympathetic character (to a modern audience) and perhaps even the protagonist, she is not the tragic hero. I wish here to divorce the notion that the viewers’ sympathies must necessarily fall with the tragic hero and that the protagonist must be sympathetic. One need only consider Shakespeare’s Richard III to recognize that the protagonist and hero of a play need not garner the audience’s sympathy. While both Creon and Antigone experience a downfall, Creon’s is truly the tragic one, as his is brought about “by some error of judgement”, namely, his misinterpretation of the will of the gods. Only Creon experiences a true reversal of fortune: when the play opens, he is in control, having just staved off an attack by the Seven Against Thebes, his power is secure, and the citizens of Thebes (as evidenced by the Chorus) support him in his authority. By definition, “the change in the hero’s fortunes must be … from happiness to misery” (Bywater, 239, 1453a, 13-15). We have seen then, that Antigone’s fortunes do not go from good to bad, as she begins the play in dire straits, while Creon’s fortunes most definitely follow the pattern prescribed in The Poetics. By the end of the play, Creon’s son and wife are dead, his citizens have distanced themselves from him and the gods have punished his irreverence. In his introduction to the play, Robert Fagles states that the Athenian audience would have agreed with Creon’s stance that “loyalty to the city takes precedence over any private loyalty, to friend or family” (Fagles, 37). Certainly the Chorus agreed with Creon, at least until hearing Tiresias’ proclamation. It is not until lines 1223-1230 (Grk. 1098-1110) that the Chorus urges Creon to bury Polyneices and free Antigone. Creon exhibits the same steadfast stubbornness as Antigone until he learns of the death of his son. However, he not only suffers a reversal of fortune, he recognizes that said reversal of fortune is attributable to his own actions. Aristotle says, “The cause of [the change of the hero’s fortunes] must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error in his part” (Bywater, 239, 1453a, 15-16). He admits his guilt in lines 1392-1400 (Grk. 1259-1263), over the body of Haemon: “Ohhh, so senseless, so insane… my crimes, my stubborn, deadly— … Ai, dead, lost to the world, not through your stupidity, no my own.” [Italics mine.] Thus, judging by the criteria set forth by Aristotle in his Poetics, Creon is the true tragic hero of Sophocles’ Antigone. Knowing that Aristotle speaks from an almost contemporary position, knowing also that Pericles’ words in his Funeral Speech (431-30 b.c.e.) echo Creon’s first speech, we can safely say that the fifth century audience of Antigone would have seen Creon as the proper tragic hero.
That being true, in no way does that characterize a modern interpretation of Antigone. Our experience is much different from that of the relatively homogenous Athenians of the fifth century. It is interesting to note that, though Antigone is “the imitation of an action,” the nature of that imitation reflects the world-view of its creator. Antigone reflects “reality”, as does Hamlet, as does Angels in America, but these plays reflect different realities—they reflect reality as perceived by their creators; and, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Kushner view the world from distinctly different points of view. Imagination is culturally bound, as is interpretation. Functioning much like gravity, cultural limits determine the parameters of our thoughts. The experiences of the twentieth century have influenced our cultural imagination. I believe that the Great Depression, the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, the paranoia of the Cold War, the threat of AIDS, and the approaching millenium affect each of us deeply. Though Watergate occurred before my birth, I grew up in a climate of distrust and cynicism (at least regarding politicians and the political process). I believe that events and experiences contribute to a collective cultural memory, and that that memory sets the limits of believability. What is unbelievable is impossible, and what is impossible is beyond the scope of our imagination. The role of artists, then, is to push that envelope, but all art is derivative, and no artist escapes the bounds of his cultural imagination.
We live in a post-everything world—post-industrial, post-baby boom, post-modern, indeed, post-post-modern. Our world remains absurd, despite the number of years and pop philosophies that have past since the Frenchmen wrote in the forties and fifties. Camus says, “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” We are divorced from meaning in our lives, as is evidenced by the increase in religious fervor that seems to be canvassing America. This return to religion is not about a reaffirmation of the goodness of God, rather it is all about a search for meaning in our lives. Antigone, in choosing death, gives meaning to her life. We see Antigone defying Creon, and we relate to her, we see ourselves in her. Today’s audience cannot relate to Creon, to adhering to the laws of the state when they conflict with the laws of the gods, with personal morality. Antigone’s case finally was tried and won, with Creon convicted at the Nuremberg trials, in the trial of Lt. William Calley for his crimes at My Lai, in the trials of East German border guards who shot down their own citizens fleeing to freedom in the west. Antigone resonates with us today precisely because the State (be it Congress, the President, the Church, etc.) lied to us and continues to lie to us. We have no faith in traditional authority figures, and rightly so, in my estimation. Hypocrites surround us; we expect those in positions of authority to lie to us. Perhaps this is cynical, perhaps it is realistic; what matters is that this is true. Thus, it is our natural inclination to side with a character who chooses an honest death over a hypocritical life. The Chorus appear to us as yes-men eager to curry favor from Creon. Only Tiresias strikes us as maintaining his integrity.
Antigone is perhaps the first proponent of the form of protest outlined by Henry David Thoreau in his “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau believed that when the laws of state and the laws of God conflicted, man holds a moral responsibility to disobey the laws of the state. The second part of Thoreau’s idea lies in the acceptance of the ramifications of one’s denial of the laws of man. Though we have a moral obligation to follow the laws of our gods, we have an equal obligation, as a member of society, willingly to submit to punishment for breaking societal laws. In the late twentieth century in America, we idolize more recent practitioners such as Gandhi and King. This doctrine of civil disobedience becomes problematic if one accepts God’s death, for the paradigm established pits the laws of God against the laws of man. However, a slight reconfiguration will allow us to retain Thoreau’s idea: for us today, the dilemma lies in choosing between the laws of the state and the laws of the self. With the advent of Existentialism, God abdicated her throne, and man scrambled on top of it. Today, then, we read Antigone’s adherence to the laws of her gods as the triumph of personal integrity over comfort. Antigone chooses to die rather than to whore herself to Creon’s laws that she might live.
In addition to our natural predisposition to side with Antigone in the struggle between individual and society, we also are more disposed to accepting a woman as the hero than were our Greek counterparts. Antigone not only stands up against an unjust law and pays for her stand with her life, she, as a woman, stands up against the hegemonic monolith of the patriarchy, refusing to subserviate herself to the masculine will. Sophocles provides a control group, if you will, in Ismene, as he does in Electra, contrasting Electra’s independence with her sister Chrysothemis’ subservience. Ismene sells out her brother Polyneices and Antigone out of cowardice. She meekly assumes her proper “place” in the man’s world of Thebes. She is a “good woman” who does not step out of her place. Meanwhile, Antigone shows fierce determination, refuses to be cowed by her sister’s implorings or Creon’s laws.
Sophocles’ Antigone was considered a classic in his own lifetime and has returned to that status today. Though both a fifth century Greek audience and a late twentieth century American audience relate to issues in the play, they relate for different reasons and to different characters. Judging by Aristotle’s criteria, Creon is the tragic hero of the play, but judging from our point of view in the late 1990’s, Antigone is the hero. Though their influence thunders over us in nearly every field of study, the Greeks lived in a world very different from our own. Theirs was a world in which the gods played an active part; our world is one in which meaning must be found—God has been assassinated and man is left alone. Because of the peculiar brilliance of Sophocles, his careful treatment of his received story, his poetic gifts, Antigone remains truthful.
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