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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the Antigone

Relates to: 

The basic subject material of the Antigone is drawn from Greek mythology.  Several ancient epic poems known as the Theban Cycle, now lost, dealt with the family history of the house of Oedipus.  Aeschylus too composed a trilogy about the tragic history of the Theban family, of which Seven Against Thebes is the only surviving play.  There existed different versions of the same myth, as authors chose to focus on different aspects of the material.  It is not certain whether any other versions centered around the denial of burial to Polyneikes as the Antigone does, but it seems to have been Sophocles’ innovation.  The motif of the irreplaceability of a brother – as opposed to that of a husband or child – points to familiarity with Herodotus’ Histories, in which text we find a similar argument.  

Antigone Gives Token Burial to the Body of Her Brother Polynices by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, c. 1835-98. (Metropolitan Museum, NY) Antigone Gives Token Burial to the Body of Her Brother Polynices by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, c. 1835-98. (Metropolitan Museum, NY) Sophocles wrote three tragedies about Oedipus’ family, though they were never written or performed as a connected trilogy.   They include the following:  Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus discovers he has unwittingly killed his own father and married his own mother; Oedipus at Colonus, in which a blinded Oedipus is accompanied by daughter Antigone in exile, whilst conflict brews between two sons over succession to the throne of Thebes; and Antigone, which deals with the aftermath of this conflict.  The Theban saga is one of the most attested subjects in Greek iconography.

Though the play is set in a distant mythological past, Sophocles infused the story with ideas and questions relevant to his time. By the 440s, democratic ideology had taken deep root in Athens, and with it came certain values:  citizens were encouraged to be loyal to the polis and its laws,and to place this loyalty above their private family interests.  Citizens should furthermore enjoy the freedom to vote and speak as they wished, and public officials could be held accountable for their actions.  Some tensions still persisted in society, and there was always the danger of a counter-coup by aristocratic figures who might re-establish tyrannical rule. Punishments for traitors to the democratic order were harsh; it was not permitted to bury their body within the boundaries of the polis

The wealth and prestige of Athens had also drawn a diverse group of thinkers to the city.  The sophists spread ideas of relativism and challenged traditional ideologies. Though a part of the population was still very traditional, more and more people started to raise questions about religious practices, the cosmos and nature, morality and the laws of civilization. Sophocles’ audience would have held a diverse range of political, moral and religious beliefs. Since it might have been disturbing to stage such tensions in an Athenian setting, tragedy tended to locate its stories in Thebes, an ancient enemy of Athens, which served as a safe space to explore cultural and ideological fault lines. The distant setting made it possible for Sophocles to engage his audience in questions pertaining to their own society, such as revenge against one’s enemies and the limits of state authority and that of human and divine laws. The Antigone does not offer any final answer to what is right and what is wrong, encouraging the audience to continue this debate once the play is over.

It has been noted that the characters in Sophocles’ tragedies are often isolated figures. This is especially the case for Antigone. The chorus is usually intended to direct the audience’s reception of the events onstage; in the Antigone they are Theban elders, much closer in identity to Kreon than to the young female heroine. They act as the voices of normality, but they can also be rather obtuse. The audience, as a result, is continuously moved to question where its sympathies lie and what constitutes an appropriate reaction to the unfolding tragedy.

The Antigone is a compact play, both thematically and temporally: the majority of the action occurs within a few hours. Sophocles proves himself a master of lyric storytelling: the furious confrontations between characters are rendered in stichomythia (alternating verses), while in the kommoi (lyrical songs of lament) the characters can fully explore their emotional turmoil. The messenger-speeches, in turn, provide the narrative climax. The six choral odes in the Antigone are counted among the richest and most beautiful of Greek lyric poetry. They are also surprisingly ambiguous, not necessarily relating to the tragic events in the rest of the play and can therefore provide an endless source of interpretation.

Since the 18th Century, the Antigone has continuously been one of the most read, performed, and adapted plays in all of dramatic literature. It is not only discussed in Greek tragedy courses, but also used to explore political theory, gender dynamics and various religious and moral problems. 


Written by Barbara Vinck, Ph.D. candidate, Classics, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

R. Blondell. Sophocles’ Antigone. Focus Publishing (1998)

M. Griffith, ed. Sophocles: Antigone. Cambridge University Press (1999)