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Sophocles’ Antigone: Critical Analysis Essay

The classic Antigone by Sophocles is one of three plays about Oedipus and his family. It tells of the daughter of Oedipus Antigone, who fights to bring her brother’s corpse home to a proper burial when the new king, Creon, rules against it for his “betrayal” of Thebes. Sophocles uses the plot lines of an infamously cursed family to bring to life a heroine knowingly destined for tragedy, who fights only for honor and grace. David Ball offers a bounty of analytical enlightenment in his quick-read “Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays”. Ball outlines several methods with which to approach the Antigone script that allows us access to understanding and meaning that otherwise may be obscured by the cultural and generational gap.

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Perhaps the biggest relief Ball grants us in terms of understanding the drama behind Sophocles’ work is what he titles “Changing Eras”. “Some plays prove theatrical to audiences in later periods, but special problems arise when a play is done for an audience other than the one it was written for” (Ball 89). This is essential when approaching Antigone; the script deals with issues that were life or death at the time: family honor, class and rank, war.

The context of Antigone is certainly different then our own, but understanding these differences help us translate the sentiment to one we can relate to. Antigone is outraged to her very core by the treatment of her dead brother. Sophocles describes the scene with strong language: “[Antigone] cried aloud with the sharp cry of a bird in its bitterness, even as when, within the empty nest, it sees the bed stripped of its nestlings” (422). We can relate to the violated feeling that drives Antigone to vengeance by comparing it to scripts and texts from our own time. We also have to keep in mind that because Sophocles wrote this script for an audience accustomed to the real life drama of their empirical, intellectual, sometimes violent society, Antigone is to be approached with a considerable amount of critical credibility, which helps us with the motivation behind the protagonist’s actions.

One of the first techniques David Ball explores is a simple one: “What happens that makes something else happen”? This is a concept that helps us compartmentalize the plot. By isolating an action, observing what caused it and in turn, what action it causes, gives us insight into the motivation of characters as well, a task many modern readers struggle with. Take, for example, the chronology of Creon’s confrontation with his son and Antigone’s fiance Haemon. Haemon tells his father that the state and, indirectly himself, support Antigone, and that Antigone’s death will cause another. This action causes the following action: Creon’s reaction in anger and perceived betrayal by his son who has let the words of a woman control his mind. He sees Haemon’s omen as a threat to himself and not his son’s allusion to his future suicide. Creon’s confrontation with his son leads to his resolve to let Antigone starve. This sequence represents the overlying tragedy of Antigone, centering around Creon’s fatal flaw of pride. This threat to his influence over his son, and the even larger threat of Antigone’s defiance are enough for Creon to turn his back on justice and ultimately lose everything.

The story of Antigone, with David Ball’s help, thus becomes about the anti-hero Creon. Perhaps the King’s obsession with forcing the characters into obedient roles is Sophocles’ manifestation in his character of the effects of the gnarled family tree. Creon demands of his son: “everything else shall be second to your father’s decision”. His ideals are nearly biblical and destructively he tries to bring honor and structure to his family. But this need for ultimate power leads to his greatest fear—the loss of reputation and, worse, control.

Works Cited

Ball, David. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays (1983). Southern Illinois University Press. Pages 96.

Sophocles. Antigone Antigone Sophocles, Jebb Translation, 422.

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