The Antigone was probably written in the Spring of 441 or 442 B.C. Sophocles owed his election as General to the Spectacular success of The Antigone. A public figure of considerable importance, Sophocles was a friend of Pericles, a patron of art and letters, and yet he never used his plays as political propaganda.
From the verse tests we may conclude that the Antigone and the Ajax were the earliest of the seven extant plays. According to one critic, the Antigone was the thirty-second of his plays, many of which are not extant.
There is a striking similarity between Aeschylus’ Septem or The Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles’ Antigone. Aeschylus assumed the existence of a hereditary curse which brought about the ruin of Laius and his descendants. The Septem is a trilogy consisting of three plays. The hero was warned by the Delphie oracle that if he would not beget a child, the city of Thebes would be saved. Laius, however, transgressed the divine order and begot Oedipus. True, he exposed the child Oedipus on Mount Citheron, and yet he had already incurred the wrath of Apollo. Oedipus married his mother and had an incestuous relation with her. On discovering the sin he had committed, he gouged out his eyes and cursed his sons.
Eteocles and Polynices that they would fight with each other for the throne and bring about their own ruin. Eteocles became the ruler of Thebes, and Polynices, not willing to let things lying down, attacked him with the Argive host. The two brothers, as if to fulfil the curse of their father, had slain each other. In an additional scene of the play, Creon who ascended the throne, and the Theban people ordered that Polynices’ body should be left uncared for without ceremony burial. Antigone defied the order. One critic holds that this scene is a later interpolation by an apologist for Aeschylus. He sought to prove that Aeschylus had done it earlier, and Sophocles, a later dramatist, had imitated the predecessor.
A difference in treatment between the two dramatists deserves to be noted. In the case of Aeschylus the order prohibiting the burial was passed by the Theban people while in Sophocles the edit was passed by Croen, who on ascending the throne was suffering from the chastisement of the hubris. It is now admitted on all hands that the scene about Antigone in Aeschylus’ Septem is not an interpolation, but an integral part of the play. The last scene is also artistically defensible. The Septem deals with a hereditary curse, unnatural relation, incest, murder, and fratricidal strife. The horror of the thing is relieved by the sisterly love of Antigone, who comes as an angel of mercy and charity like a glint of sunshine amidst dark and threatening clouds.
Sophocles’ Antigone is a great tragedy, in which there are glaring defects. One defect, is that Antigone, the heroine leaves the stage in the middle of the play. And hence some critics feel that the title of the play is a misnomer. Kitto also does not feel happy about the sudden introduction of Eurydice. She appeared on the scene only to kill herself.
“Why Eurydice? Sophocles had no Elizabethan relish for corpses. She is relevant only to Creon. Clearly the close of the play is all Creon, deliberately so, for there is less of Antigone than might have been. Sophocles is not even making the best of a bad job.”
Antigone can be compared with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In Shakespeare’s play Brutus is far more important than Julius Caesar, although the play is named after him. In much the same way Creon seems to dominate the scene through, although the play is named after Antigone. Kitto has an excellent reply to this problem.
“Here is impressive and affecting enough, but his has the wider range and is the more elaborate. Her fate is decided in the first few verses and she can but go to meet it; most of the dramatic forces used in the play are deployed against Creon- the slight reserve with which the Chorus receives his edict (211- 14) the news that he has been defied, and that, too, by a woman, the opposition of Haemon, the disapproval of the city (691), the supernatural machinery of Tiresias, the desertion of the Chorus (1098), the death of Haemon (foreshadowed), the death of Eurydice (unforeshadowed).”
From this it follows that the Antigone has little unity of effect and unity of interest. This conclusion, however, is not valid, nor is the popular theory tenable that Creon alone is the pivotal character. Creon is thrown into full relief only after Antigone has left the stage.
Sophocles is strikingly original in his conception of Antigone. He is not indebted to Homer or any other poets in this respect. In Aeschylus’ Septem, there is, of course, a reference to Antigone’s resolution to bury the dead body of Polynices. Even if we don’t dismiss the scene as an interpolation, as many critics do, we know that Sophocles has drawn a full-length picture of Antigone, who met her tragedy for listening to the voice of reason and conscience. The conflict she was faced with was the conflict between the State and the individual conscience. She blazed into the truth and burned herself out like a rocket. She died but left behind truth in all its glory and splendor. She faced a fiery ordeal, which dissipated the fever raging in her blood and realized that honest conviction is far greater than life, and conjugal love. She could not come to terms with untruth and reached the Calvary of her own making. Creon had, no doubt, his justification for his order to punish Polynices, who unhesitatingly invaded his country. Antigone’s justification is greater in as much she was guided by piety and love. The cult of love is vindicated by Haemon by his martyrdom. In a sense Antigone may be described as Romeo and Juliet of the classical age, when romantic relation was almost a taboo. That explains why the love and the beloved are never shown on the stage together. We are told that they are locked in a passionate embrace in the tomb, and we have no access to the romantic sight. Moreover, Haemon. thouch an ardent lover never told his father about his love for Antigone This reticence of art is strikingly Sophoclean.
Sophocles, though not a partisan, certainly had unbounded sympathy for his heroine. The modern readers, while appreciating the heroine self-sacrifice and the protestant meal of Antigone feel more drawn to Creon, who is the symbol of political authority. What Sophocles seeks to inculcate is wisdom
“Of happiness the crown
And chiefest part
In wisdom, and to hold
The gods in awe.
This is the law
That, seeing the stricken heart
Of pride brought down,
We learn when we are old.”
From this speech of the chorus the conclusion is irresistible that Sophocles has a stricture upon Creon. Proud, irreverent, and arrogant, Creon defied the divine laws, and, therefore, he had to pay the penalty.
There are two protagonists in the Antigone, namely Antigone and Creon, and we have much to say in favour of both. Antigone was noble, and heroic, who vindicated the divine laws even at the cost of life. Creon was determined to vindicate political authority and punish a person, who proved to be an enemy of the people. His arguments at times appear quite convincing. There are certain things which can be said against both. Antigone with all her heroism was at times proud and even defiant. She could not appreciate Ismene‘s point of view. It is implied that she had the consciousness that she was doing her divine duty alone, and there was none by her side. In presenting a balanced picture of both Creon and Antigone, Sophocles has shown remarkable impartiality. “He (Sophocles) built his play,” says C.M. Bowra, “on a contrast not, between obvious wrong and obvious right but between the zeal arrogance of Creon and the apparent arrogance of Antigone. The first deceives by its fine persuasive sentiments, the second works through Antigone’s refused to offer concessions as to consider any point of view but her own. The contrast runs through much of the play, account for misunderstandings of what takes place in it, provides false clues and suggests wrong conclusions, and adds greatly to the intensity of the drama.”
Antigone is a drama of conflict. Creon has inflicted upon the dead Poly ices a punishment which the ancient Greeks looked upon with horror. “The poet has universalized the conflict which arises from this particular situation, until it becomes basically a question whether man made and tyrannically enforced law should take precedence over what any individual conceives in his heart to be divine law.”
There are critics who imagine that Antigone is guilty of hubris or pride. She has an absurd and stubborn desire to attain the dignity of martyrdom. Others maintains that she is devoted to her ideals. Hence she has neither hamartia nor mochtheria. Her death is absolutely undeserved. This conflict between critics will continue for centuries. But let us forget these ethical questions for a moment Antigone then emerges as a living and vital figure, who is an intense seeker of truth and justice. She is a Protestant, who has within her a warmth and gentleness of spirit, which she took infinite pains to suppress. Of course, she is not playing to the gallery. It is the furthest from truth. But in the last episode she appears as a woman in love. Her last words have a ring of sincerity, and we feel that love and passion loom large before our vision:
“Tomb, bridal-chamber, eternal prison in the caverned rock, whither I go to find mine own, those many who have perished, and whom Persephone hath received among the dead! Last of all Shall I pass thither, and far most miserably of all, before the term of my life is spent. But I cherish good hope that my coming will be welcome to my father, and pleasant to my mother, and welcome, brother, to there; for when ye died, with mine own hands. I washed and dressed you and poured drink-offerings at your graves.”
“…And now Creon leads me thus a captive in his hands; no bridal bed, no bridal song hath been mine, no joy of marriage no portion in the nurture of children; but thus, forlorn of friends, unhappy one, I go living to the vaults of death.”
“Antigone looked up towards Heaven and asked: “And what law of heaven have I transgressed?”
Antigone sought to vindicate the law of heaven. Neither heaven nor the State, neither the immortal gods not the mortal man came to her rescue. She is not a sinner. She has been sinned against.