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Genre of Antigone

Instructor: Ashley Bishop
''Antigone'' is considered one of Sophocles' defining surviving works. While it features all of the primary elements considered vital to the Greek tragic genre, ''Antigone'' also presents one of the most startling shifts in dramatic literature.

The Theban Plays

Antigone is the final of Sophocles' (496-406 BC) three Theban plays. Although written out of order, the first play, Oedipus the King, tells the story of Oedipus, a man who is destined to be king, kill his father, and marry his mother. The second installment, Oedipus at Colonus, chronicles the story of Oedipus and his children and their encounters with Theseus, the King of Athens. In this lesson, we will examine the basic plot of Antigone, Sophocles' final Theban play, and why it is considered an archetypal as well as groundbreaking example of the Greek tragic genre.

The Plot of Antigone

Antigone, the hero, is the daughter of Oedipus. After the death of their father, Antigone's brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, come to blows and both die in the conflict. Creon, the king, decrees Polyneices a traitor and orders his body to remain unburied. Antigone must choose between following the law and her conscience. Antigone buries Polynieces, knowing that the consequence will be her death. She is arrested and sentenced. Although Creon is persuaded to pardon Antigone, it is too late. She commits suicide, which sets into motion the suicides of Creon's son, Haemon, who was engaged to Antigone, and Creon's wife, Eurydice, who kills herself upon the news of Haemon's death.

The Greek Tragedy

Greek tragedy refers to dramatic plays written during a time period spanning several eras of ancient Greek history. The first tragic plays are thought to have been presented at festivals honoring the gods at around 700 BC. The Greek tragedy is believed to have reached its quintessential form at about 5 BC in Athens at the Acropolis.

In his book on dramatic theory titled Poetics, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) identifies six elements of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. The first two, plot and character, are the most significant as they define the action and the moral implications of the play. Diction is the prose or the selection and expression of words in the play. Thought is the rational process by which characters make decisions. This is often represented as the tragic hero's moral dilemma with which the audience can readily sympathize. The spectacle describes the setting and scenic effects, and song refers to the music.

Tragic Elements of Antigone

Antigone can be explained in terms of all six elements of a Greek tragedy, but the primary elements of character and plot succinctly define this play as an ideal example of the genre. Antigone faces a monumental moral dilemma, but having made her decision, she embraces her fate. While imploring her sister Ismene to join her, Antigone proclaims 'I shall be a criminal - but a religious one. The time in which I must please those that are dead is longer than I must please those of this world' (lines 85-89). The fundamental plot of the story is that of a hero who sacrifices herself in order to fulfill her moral obligation.

Aristotle is a bit more technical in his definition of a plot, however. He assigns several attributes to a tragic plot, including completeness (beginning, middle and end), determinate structure (each plot element is necessary), magnitude (length), unity (centered theme) and universality (the ability of the audience to identify with the tragic figure). Antigone is a cohesive presentation of the tragic Aristotelian Greek plot.

Morality of Characters in Antigone

Many of the characters in Antigone present moral qualities, which at times unite as well as create philosophical rivalries. Creon views Polynieces as a traitor to his city, so he treats Polynieces' remains as he would any other traitor. Antigone views Polynieces as her beloved brother, despite the circumstances of his death. Ismene cannot in good conscience defy the law, but Antigone does not believe the law is paramount to familial loyalty. It is through the characters' presentation of moral rationale that Sophocles provides the moral complexity in Antigone that defines this genre.

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