Setting of Antigone

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

This lesson provides an introduction to the setting for Sophocles's tragedy, ''Antigone,'' which revolves around one of the most thoroughly-drawn and compelling female characters in all of classical drama. Find out why it's significant the play takes place in front of the palace at Thebes.

Fantastic Settings

Science fiction and fantasy writers enjoy unlimited freedom when it comes to setting. When you invent an entire reality, you also get to invent all of its rules and determine what is and isn't possible. The Force works in the Star Wars universe because its creator says it does, and we just go with the idea that all of its futuristic aspects exist/existed 'long, long ago.' The enormous popularity of Star Wars tells us how captivating such an alternate reality and setting can be.

The Greek mythological tradition operated on a similar principle. While mythology develops over generations and without deliberate creative planning, its fantastical creatures or beings, its spectacularly heroic happenings, and its otherworldly settings intensified its appeal and reinforced its messages and themes.

Greek tragic drama drew its stories from the same pool of imaginative mythology that its epic poetry did, but for practical reasons of staging, it toned down the spectacle and fantastical, concentrating on settings removed from the here and now (well, their 'here and now,' our 'there and then') to focus the audience on timeless truths. Sophocles's Antigone is no exception.

Setting: The Complete Picture

When we think of setting we tend to think of a location, maybe the kind of scene that would be captured in a landscape painting or a postcard. In its complete sense, however, setting includes everything about an environment and situation. Every location exists in time; every time comes with a situation and circumstances. For instance, a beautiful American landscape during the Civil War might be an instant away from bursting into canon fire and charging troops--or in a different setting, far, far away, Storm Troopers and Ewoks.

So in short, with every setting there is not only a location in space and time, but also a context, the surrounding situation, climate, and circumstances. The setting for Sophocles' Antigone creates a context that is much more about what is implied than what is specific. Interestingly, the lack of specificity in the story probably served to intensify its significance and truth value for ancient Greek audiences.

Stage Setting and Technical Support

Greek Theatre Reproduction in Berkely, CA
Greek Theatre Reproduction at Berkley

As mentioned earlier, the requirements of staging limited the FX potential of Greek theatre. Without artificial sound or lighting, the plays had to be presented outdoors with few frills. The famous deus ex machina, which translates as 'machine from the gods,' was a literal crane, a device that could lower a character portraying a god from above, concealed by a background structure. Sophocles wrote this plot/staging mechanism into his material rarely, however, and technical elements aside from this were extremely minimalist.

Given that style and the technical limitations, dramatic Greek productions focused on human interactions, passions, struggles, and motivations rather than elaborate visual stimulation or graphic action. It was typical, in fact, that all violence was imagined off-stage while the on-stage setting focused on what leads up to and comes after violent collisions between people. The play Antigone captures and typifies this emphasis extremely well.

Antigone Setting

Antigone is set in front of the palace at Thebes in the vague, mythic past. For cultures embedded in mythic belief, though, myth time carries a weight and value beyond ordinary time. Myth time is the time of creation, and when all of the patterns were set for later reality. This was true even for the Greeks, the culture that invented history as we know it.

A Famous Family Tree
Antigone Family Tree

The setting for Antigone demonstrates this mindset in evoking context. Antigone and her uncle Creon, the two dramatically opposed characters in the play, belong to a famous mythical lineage: the founding and ruling family of Thebes. Having the palace as backdrop for the play's action creates a symbolic reference point--mythic history itself stands behind everything that occurs. Creon announces his destructive decisions outside the actual palace--in relationship to the throne but not embraced within the palace walls or seated securely within--implying the illegitimacy of his actions. It's almost as though Creon's style of rule has been ejected from the premises, vomited out like food poisoning.

The events of the play follow after a devastating civil war between Antigone's own brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. Having killed each other in battle, they leave their uncle, Creon, king by default. Creon's law forbidding a proper burial for Polyneices sets up the conflict of the play, as Antigone is forced to defy the king in order to obey the rules of religious tradition and give the honor due her brother by the decree of the gods themselves.

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