Sophocles, who is usually considered one of the best minds of his time, was an influential person in Athens and was elected to important government posts. He was also famous in the literature field, having written 123 works, of which only seven have survived, including the tragedy Antigone. Sophocles managed to create a work that goes beyond literature and has not only aesthetic but also a universal, philosophical meaning. Sophocles’ ethics and their multifaceted display are still highly relevant even today, where dilemmas on suicide and homicide issues are no less acute than in ancient times.
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Sophocles does not precisely follow the ancient myth; it is just a recognizable construction that Sophocles uses to express ideas. The plot of the tragedy itself is also not complicated. Antigone, contrary to the decree of Creon, who became the ruler of Thebes after the death of the sons of Oedipus, performs a funeral rite on the body of one of his dead brothers, Polynices (Sophocles). In turn, Antigone’s death entails the suicide of her fiancé and son Creon Haemon, as well as Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice.
The suicide narrative in Antigone is filled with different emotions, and Sophocles narrates it using different techniques. Antigone recounts a messenger’s suicide: the sentries broke into the burial cave and discovered her hanged by her neck with a silk or muslin noose made from her own garments (Luepnitz). In this scenario, she was imprisoned in this cave on Creon’s instructions, and she had to die of gradual starvation, and her suicide was just hurried by an unavoidable fate (Goheen). Antigone, on the other hand, has proven her willingness to die from the beginning of the play, to be with her brother and a dead family, and despite her clear desire for him, her love for Haemon was a comparatively simple thing compared to her non-peaceful emotional and spiritual attachments.
On the emotional side of the tragedy, Haemon’s suicide is more passionate, reckless, and aggressive. As Creon entered the cave, he embraced Antigonus’ body and called out to his son: “The child gazed at him with wild eyes… took his two-handed sword… and drove it halfway into his ribs” (Sophocles). We can see the whirlwind of emotions brilliantly expressed by Sophocles that may have driven Hamon’s suicide in his last meeting with his father. The play’s final suicide, Hamon Eurydice’s mother, is equally tragic. She learns Antigone’s and Haemon’s fates, quietly exit the stage, and, as Creon emerges with his son’s body in his arms, another messenger arrives with the word that Eurydice is dead, delivered by his own hand.
Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice all commit suicide in a similar sequence of events, but for very different reasons that cover the whole spectrum of the human experience. Perhaps Antigone was despondent, and she emotionally portrays herself as the repulsive product of a terrible union, “my heart has died long ago” (Sophocles). Shame, self-confidence, sadness, and rage are all displayed in other suicides. The structure itself is also developing gradually, increasing the degree of tragedy and hopelessness.
Sophocles’ diction is less light, gentle, and natural, and artificial involutions of the phrase occur with a fair amount of regularity, expressing vice. The depth and intricacy of phraseology are one of the most distinguishing features of Sophocles’ diction (Nikolopoulou). Sophocles selects a clever word combination that, beyond its obvious meaning, prompts the mind to consider additional possibilities and opens up new ways of thinking.
After starting the comparison, he frequently returns to it in sometimes metaphorical, partially non-metaphorical language, mixing image and reality into a complicated combination of thoughts. “Like a zealously screaming eagle,” he narrates, “he flew into our land, sheathed with snow-white wings, with an armed crowd, and with riding crests.” (Sophocles). He compares the Argive master to an eagle, as he did in Antigone, and the two images of an invading army and a bird that waved its prey repeatedly cross paths throughout their depiction.
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In the play “Electra,” the topic “Oresteia” by Aeschylus is explored, as well as the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus at the hands of Orestes. Sophocles was a far cry from his predecessor’s vision. While father law clashes with maternal law in Aeschylus’ trilogy, Sophocles stands solely on paternal law, and Orestes’ correctness does not cause him any hesitation (Nikolopoulou). Electra, a minor character in Aeschylus’ play, would become the central figure in Sophocles’ play, where she reminds Antigone of her glory. This is a brave young lady who has chosen pain as her fate. She has been a lone protester against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus’ authority for several years.
The heroic image of Electra is tainted, as it was done with Antigone, by the opposition of her softer sister Chrysothemis. Sophocles, on the other hand, does not picture his heroine solely in grim accents; he also offers her delicate characteristics that have been tempered by sorrow (Roisman). Orestes kills his mother on the advice of the oracle Apollo in order to revenge on his father’s death. Sophocles believes the oracle without question only when Aeschylus, for example, strives to show its truth.
The accent on the homicide topic can be seen throughout the whole Electra course, which is always moving and reconstructing, taking on new shapes and combinations (Roisman). However, this paradigm has one constant feature in all of its variations: homicide is inevitable, no matter the reason and emotions behind it. It can be greed or god’s revelations, but Orestes will still commit this action, even though afterward he would be ashamed (Nikolopoulou). The image and techniques employed by Sophocles are very different here, but they all lead to the certainty of the deed, which, purposedly, was destined by gods.
Sophocles’ articulation of diction here is often of a greater magnitude, eschewing the formality of professional eloquence. It appears to be said from the heart and has a psychological significance, showing the speaker’s true nature. For instance, Electra’s quarrel with her mother about Agamemnon’s murder. Her entire discourse is genuine and distinctive, despite its rhetorical tone. She attempts to stay cool at first, but her emotions gradually overwhelm her, and she ends her speech with a protracted emotional narrative (Roisman). Sophocles examined her nature’s strengths and weaknesses in this way.
Sophocles wrapped classical Greek myths into the most profound works in the history of literature. The suicide topic is reflected in different tones, aimed at readers’ different emotions. In Antigone, Sophocles’ message becomes more powerful, playing on the contrasts, style, and surroundings of different suicides. In Electra, another prominent Sophocles work, he departs from myth even further but still has its context in mind.
Homicide issues of Electra are hinted at throughout the play, reaching their peak when Orestes kills his mother. As in Antigone, he does not take sides at the exact moment nor question the oracle’s decision. His Electra is reflected through diverse emotions, and up to this date, there is no clear answer on the reasonableness of the homicide. Thus, the relevance of both Antigone and Electra is still acute not only because they have become one of the brightest examples of ancient tragedies and literature in general but also for their complexity, techniques, and emotions.
Sophocles. Electra. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Goheen, Robert Francis. Imagery of Sophocles Antigone. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Koulouris, Theodore. “ANTIGONE AND ITS CONTEXT” The Classical Review 69.2 (2019): 380-383.
Luepnitz, Deborah Anna. “Antigone and the Unsayable: A Psychoanalytic Reading.” American Imago 77.2 (2020): 345-364.
Nikolopoulou, Kalliopi. “Tragedy without Action?: Reading Sophocles after Loraux.” Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy (2021).
Roisman, Hanna M. Sophocles’ Electra. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Sophocles. Antigone. ReadHowYouWant Classics Library, 2008.