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Aristotle is full of warm praise about The Oedipus Rex as a tragedy. About The Antigone the great Stagirite seems to be silent. And yet The Antigone has been enjoying immense popularity as a tragedy through ages. It has been translated, imitated and adapted by the dramatists of different ages and countries. Seneca, Alfieri, Racine, Mendelssohn, to refer only a few, have written about Antigone, who embodied the purest and noblest idea of womanhood. “Antigone”, says a critic,
“has been said to be the poetry of what Socrates is the prose; that is, she is in fiction what he is in history-a martyr in the cause of truth.”
Aristotelean Definition of Tragedy
The Antigone may be analyzed as a tragedy from the Aristotelian point of view. Aristotle defines a tragedy as follows:
“A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasure accessories, each kind brought separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic note; in a narrative form : with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
The Tragic Action
The action of tragedy should be Spoudaious, i.e. grave, noble, and solemn. To even a superficial observer, the action of the Antigone will unmistakably appear to be Spoudaious. It is the story of a terrible conflict between two strong protagonists Creon and Antigone. The subject is sufficient importance. There is nothing low or base in the plot. What is frivolous, low, petty or depraved lends itself to comic treatment.
Aristotle insists on an action, that is complete in itself. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The length of the tragedy should be appropriate-neither too short nor too long. The Antigone, consisting of 1350 lines does not violate the rules about length. The question of the size, in Aristotle’s opinion is both aesthetic and utilitarian.
Compactness of the Plot
The Antigone is an excellent illustration of compactness and concentration. It has no word about Athens, no political propaganda, no contemporary allusions, no appeal to patriotism. It is concerned with what might be called a political issue, but this is seen from an exalted detachment as an incident in the relation between God and man.
In The Antigone, all the characters are solemn and serious. For a moment the guard, no doubt seemed to be a little comical. But comicality was the farthest from his intention. He was in a state of terror, because some invisible hand had violated the royal edict. His antics and apparently comical words were the expression of a man, who wanted to save himself.
Catharsis in Antigone
There is, of course, a controversy as to who is the hero of this tragedy. Creon and Antigone are the protagonists, and both command our respect. Aristotle has suggested that three kinds of plot are to be scrupulously avoided. A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or a bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous, but simply shocking or odious to us. If a bad man passes from misery to happiness, the situation is extremely untragic. It will not appeal to our feelings- either pity or fear. Aristotle also insists that a bad man must not be seen falling from happiness into misery. Hence Aristotle concludes that the tragic hero is the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgment.
If Creon is the tragic hero, and quite a few critics agree that he is, he cannot be called a personage of unblemished goodness. He belonged to the intermediate position. He was longer on the stage than any other character, and appeared to be the most dominating force in the play. He refused to bury Polynices, and passed an edict that anybody defying his edict would be stoned to death. Dressed in brief little authority, he became a tyrant.
Hamartia in Antigone
Yet Creon was not a villain, for a villain cannot be an ideal tragic hero. A hero may not be a man of perfectly blameless character. But he must have ethical goodness. A good king, Creon sought to vindicate the position of a king. An edict is a law, and no man should ever challenge it. An ideal tragic hero should have his fall through hamartia, (error in judgment). He had committed acts of impiety, but he was not conscious of it. In the eyes of the gods he was impious. But he always proudly asserted that he was vindicating the cause of Law. In his pride and arrogance he was blind to truth. In his behavior with Antigone he was proud and haughty. No less proud and haughty was he in relation to his son Haemon. In a fit of anger, the inevitable outcome of pride, he wanted to punish Ismene also, who, for all practical purposes was innocent.
But Antigone had no hamartia or mochtheria. She began with remarkable strength, which some critics have described as unwomanly. She was even a little arrogant. Antigone set herself above the established Law of Creon and proved the tenacity of her character and the steadfastness of her ideal.
Aristotle, as we have already pointed out, does not believe in the unblemished goodness of a hero. And Antigone had unblemished goodness. Smart in an excellent Essay published in Essays and Studies, Vol. VII defends unblemished goodness. From the point of view Antigone may be regarded as an ideal tragic heroine, who has unblemished goodness. Hegel, however, does not think Antigone to be blameless. Antigone. according to Hegel, disobeyed the King, and that was a blemish in her character. She had a double duty-duty to the King or the State and the duty to religion and the gods. She did her duty to one, and failed in another.
Conflict in Antigone
No tragedy is imaginable, which has no conflict– external and internal. The Antigone is a play, the only interest of which consists in the conflict between Antigone and Creon. Antigone represents the unwritten laws, justice, and piety, while Creon is the symbol of the laws of man. No compromise was possible between the two strong wills and, therefore, the tragedy was precipitated
Both in Creon and Antigone there was also internal conflict. As Creon came in clash with Haemon, his obstinacy received a shock. And as he had an encounter with Tiresias, he felt that his own arguments were hardly tenable. Still torn between pride and repentance, he was almost at his wit’s end. Tiresias had given him a grim warning that his doomsday was in the offing. Had he listened to the prophet’s counsel, the tragedy could be averted. But he was still vacillating. His conversion was, for a while, only skin-deep. His delay was a scheme of the dramatic action. It was because of this delay that he lost Haemon and Eurydice. The gods, incensed at his pride and arrogance, wanted to punish him. The delay precipitated that punishment. Towards the end of the play, Creon was a completely changed man. A deep distress- distress too deep for tears had humanized his soul. The terrible consciousness dawned upon him that he was responsible for the death of his son and wife. Creon exclaimed, as the corpse of Haemon lay before him:
“The sin, the sin of the erring Soul
Drives hard into death.
Behold the slayer, the slain,
The father, the son,
O the curse of my stubborn will !
Son, newly cut off in the newness of youth,
Dead for my fault, nor yours.”
Humbled and reduced to dust, Creon left the stage, blinded with tears with nothing to look forward to :
“I am nothing,
I have no life.
Lead me away.
That have killed unwittingly
My son, my wife. I know not where I should turn,
Where look for help.
My hands have done amiss, my head is bowed
With fate too heavy for me.”
Antigone had also an internal conflict. She was being led by the ground to be buried alive, she felt for the first time the fear of death. Almost romantic love of death was no more. Once determined to be a martyr to the cause of truth, piety and justice, she felt that her nerves are giving away.
Nemesis in Antigone
In any Greek tragedy, guilt must be followed by Nemesis or divine retribution. Creon committed a grievous wrong. He had defied piety, justice and the majesty of the divine laws. He was therefore punished. He however did not die. For death would have been his much sought relief. He was punished by the death of his wife and son. Humbled and helpless, he left the stage with the full consciousness that he was the murderer of his son and wife.
Antigone, who was a symbol of purity and noble womanhood, had her nemesis too. Antigone’s pride and self-will, of which the Chorus accused her, brought about her death.
In tragedy, the innocent often die with the wicked. Sophocles had no desire to satisfy man’s natural desire for ‘poetic justice’. Antigone’s death is Creon’s punishment in much the same way as Cordelia’s death is King Lear’s punishment. Antigone is felt to be akin to, and the pledge of the law and beauty that reside at the heart of reality, and glimpses of which are vouchsafed to man only in moments of beatific vision. She is the star, the pledge of universal serenity, momentarily glimpsed by weary travellers in storm.
Peripeteia in Antigone
In an ideal tragedy, Aristotle insists, there should be a complex plot. In a simple plot as in a complex plot there is peripeteia, which has often been translated as reversal of fortune. Creon wanted to punish Antigone. But eventually it was he who was punished. Creon did not care to understand the divine laws. Antigone stood for. It was a fatal error in judgment, and he had to pay a price for it. Creon is punished by the death of his son and by the death of his wife.
Anagnorisis in Antigone
Anagnorisis is another characteristic of a complex plot. Anagnorisis has been translated as ‘revelation’ or ‘recognition’. The hero suddenly realizes the truth, and he is conscious of the error committed. In The Antigone the anagnorisis is there. Creon was blind in passion, pride and egoism, and could not see the folly he was committing. He thought that the Edict he had passed was sacrosanct. That is why he refused to see Antigone’s point of view. He was suffering from the chastisement of hubris. Pride was the besetting sin of Creon, which brought about his downfall. He could not realize that Antigone was in the right, and he was absolutely in the wrong.
It was a happy augury. Creon was on the way to light. Then came Tiresias, who spoke about evil comes, all for which Creon was solely responsible. A victim of delusion or hallucination, Creon had still scales in his eyes. Still obstinately he hugged his fond beliefs and illusions. Then came Nemesis in all its fury. He lost his son; he lost his wife. The truth so long hidden emerged with all its effulgence. He realized that he was to blame. He realized that his son and wife were sacrificed at the altar of his crass stupidity and towering pride. Thus The Antigone as a tragedy gets its pinnacle of perfection.