The Method of Purification in Antigone

Posted: July 28, 2007 in Classic Literature, English Drama, Student Paper


It is first important to have knowledge about the circumstances and the situation of Greek dramas before trying to make comments or to criticize them. It is because Greek dramas are very different, almost in many aspects, from modern drama today. In Greek, dramas, especially tragedy, were played mostly during the festival of Dionysis, The God of Wine, which lasted four or five days yearly. During the festival, people of Greek, or more precisely Athenians, would come to some kind of open space and watched the tragedies played. At the end of the festival, an honorable trophy in the form of “olive crown” would be rewarded to play considered the best. It was in such condition that Antigone, a tragedy play by Sophocles, was first performed (Knox, 1964: 35).

Considering the circumstances, it is easy to understand why Greek dramas have a similar form, that is to rely fully on words spoken by actors or chorus. It is because Greek drama, first of all, is a “stage-drama”. Consequently, in Greek drama, plots and stories play the more significant rule compared to other aspects of modern drama such as actions or characters (Knox, 1964: 35).
Inspired by the tradition, Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who was also familiar with the Dionysis festival, then theorized those aspects of Greek drama, notably tragedies, as follows: tragedy is usually concerned with a person of great stature. He can be a king or a nobleman who falls because of hubris, pride, or destiny. The purpose of playing tragedy, relevant to the context of worship to Dionysis, was to purify the souls of the audience –and this is what is called purification or catharsis (Knox, 1964: 36).

Antigone, a play by Sophocles which won the olive crown when played in Athena, about 441 B.C., is a good example of how such poetic theories were put into practice.

Antigone tells a story of a young girl named Antigone. She was the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. After the death of Oedipus, the crown of Thebes fell to Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law. The problem began when the other two sons of Oedipus, namely Eteocles and Polyneices, were treated differently by Creon after their death. Eteocles, who died in the battle for the glory of Thebes, was buried in honor, as a hero. But Polyneices, who died during his escape from exile, by Creon’s decree, hadn’t to be buried. His corpse had to remain in the place where he died, so that it might be a foodstuff for dogs, wolves or vultures.

Antigone couldn’t accept the decree. She felt that the corpse of Polyneices had to have the same honor as Eteocles. So, although Creon had already announced capital punishment for those who disobeyed the decree, Antigone resisted. One day, she quietly walked to the corpse of Polyneices and covered it with ground.

Antigone’s action was reported to Creon, who then sentenced her to death. Creon felt his decree had to come first, eventhough he realized that Antigone was his sister’s daughter, and more importantly, the bride of his son, Haemon. Antigone didn’t deny she had violated the decree. She just insisted that her choice was right. If giving an honor to the corpse of a brother was considered a crime and must be sentenced to death, said Antigone, she would accept it without regret. Antigone was finally hung in a deserted area by Creon’s guard.

The son of Creon, that is Haemon, couldn’t accept the death of his bride. He blamed his father for being so stubborn. He loved Antigone so much that he couldn’t live without her. Therefore, when Antigone was hung, Haemon committed suicide by stabbing his sword to his chest.
Actually, after Teiresias, the counselor of Thebes had uttered his concern about Creon’s punishment to Antigone, Creon changed his mind. He came to the place where Polyneices’ body laid with the intention to give him a decent funeral. He even intended to cancel his decree on Antigone. But it was too late. During his way to the area, Antigone and Haemon were already dead.

However, the suffering continued. When Eurydice, the wife of Creon, heard the death of her son, she decided to commit suicide by stabbing herself in the altar of God. Creon came back to his palace just to hear another death news. And her wife’s last words, reported to Creon by a servant, was a condemn to him. Creon, because of his stubbornness to his decree, finally lost his family.

From the summary above, it became clear that death was always an inherent part of tragedy plays. In fact, almost in all Greek dramas, tragedy was always associated by deaths. The only differences among them were only the causes and the methods of deaths, while the purpose, still suitable to Aristotle’s concept in Poetics, was the same, that is to bring purification to the audience. The question then may arise: how could such play bring purification?
Before I try to answer the question, first, it is important to notice that Antigone, in some cases, is not very different from the other two plays of Sophocles, that is Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. In fact, the three plays were often called “The Theban plays” or “The Oedipus Trilogy” (Knox, 1964: 36). But of course, it would be erroneous to say that Antigone was a continuation of the two plays, since Antigone was written by Sophocles some fifteen years before Oedipus Rex and a fully thirty-six years before Oedipus at Colonus. So, when the three plays were called “The Oedipus Trilogy”, one must remember that the similarity among them was only the theme (Knox, 1964: 38).

As noted by Knox, the main concept in Sophocles’ tragedy is his view that the position of man is subordinate in the relation to the gods (Knox, 1964: 38). This view is clearly expressed in Antigone, especially by the utterance of the chorus. Here is an example:

Happy the man whose life is uneventful
For once a family is cursed by God,
Disasters come like earhquake tremors, worse
With each succeding generation

It’s like when the sea is running rough
Under stormy winds from Thrace
The black ooze is stirred up from the seabed,
And louder and louder the waves crash on shore.

Look now at the last sunlight that sustains
The one surviving root of Oedipus’ tree,–
The sword of death is drawn back to hack it down.
(Bowra, 1944: 47)

The context of this utterance was when the chorus heard Creon decreed capital punishment to Antigone for disobeying his orders. From the passage, we know that after learning that Antigone was about to face death, the chorus, who’s in the play were represented by old citizens of Thebes, suddenly reminded the audience about the similarity of Antigone’s fate with the fate of his father, Oedipus. Both of them, the chorus concluded, were cursed by God.
But here comes the interesting point. Although the chorus themselves told the audience that Antigone was cursed by God, Antigone herself didn’t think that God was the main root of her suffering. We would get such opinion after reading Antigone’s argument to Creon below:

Sorry, who made this edict? Was it God?
Isn’t a man’ right to burial decreed
By divine justice? I don’t consider your
Pronouncements so important that they can
Just… overrule the unwritten laws of heaven.
You are a man, remember.
(Bowra, 1944: 43)

In Antigone’s opinion, it is clear that God has nothing to do with her fate. If she would have to face death because of her action, then, God is not the one to be blamed. It was Creon, the man, whom to be blamed, not God. From this point of view, of course, there is a kind of contradiction. If the fate of Antigone, according to the chorus, has been determined by God –through the curse— why Antigone blamed Creon?

In his An Introduction to Sophocles, Webster made an interesting comment about this. He said that in all Sophocles’ plays, it must be understood that the relation of God and human is problematic. In one side, God is often positioned as the only determinator, the cause of all fates, including tragic fate, which must be accepted without any doubt. But in the other side, God is still feared and respected. So, the positioning of God as the root of tragic fate doesn’t automatically imply bad judgment about Him (Webster, 1969: 12).

Such contradiction would become clearer at the end of the story. After the death of Antigone, Haemon and Eurydice, Creon felt very guilty. He never imagined that his decree would cost the lives of three people. He couldn’t bear the consequences that he prayed for death to come to him.

Nobody else to share the blame. Just me…
I killed you. I killed you my dear.
Servants, carry me in, away from al this.
I wish I weren’t alive.

Try to forget. It is the only way.

I invite death. Do you only come uninvited?
Come and take me. I cannot bear to live.

No time for such thoughts now. You’re still in charge.
You’ve got to see about these corpses, or
We’ll all be polluted.

I meant what I said

No use in such prayers. You’ll get what’s destined.
(Bowra, 1944: 65)

It’s interesting to see that although Creon prayed for death, the chorus consistently said that it would be useless since he would get what was destined for him. But similar to Antigone, Creon didn’t blame God for his fate. He could only blame himself for being so stubborn. So, although his stubbornness was also destined by God, contradictly, Creon couldn’t blame God for it (Webster, 1969: 14).

To solve the contradiction, then one may remember that tragedy plays were performed on stage during the Dionysis festival, which its main context was a celebration to Dionysis so that the wine harvest would be better in the following year. Based on this context, it is of course impossible to expect Greek plays to represent some kind of rebellion against God, since raison d’ etre of the plays themselves was a devotion to Him. Therefore, it will be better to view this contradiction from another standing point.

As noted by Webster, one of the keys to understanding Sophocles’ plays is to pay careful attention to relation between God and human (Webster, 1969: 12). Not only because it is important, but more essentially, the comprehensive understanding of such relation would reveal the message, motive, and also the main purpose of the play itself. And in Webster’s opinion, the clearest aspect of relation of God and human in Sophocles’ plays was that man, in some ways, was forced to discover his own potentialities or his own status of divinity through tragic fate (Webster, 1969: 14).

In Antigone, such discovery was clearly represented. Both Antigone and Creon were persons with their own view of virtue. For Antigone, it was a virtue that she should give an honorable funeral to his brother. But for Creon, considering his status as the king of Thebes, the only virtue that seemed right was only to give honorable funeral to Eteocles, the hero, not to Polyneices, the runaway. Both of them insisted to their own point of view. Both of them also believed that it was their opinion which was right according to the rules of God. But since God didn’t show clearly which one of them was right, each of them had to follow his or her own way until the extreme point: death. Only after death comes, then the true virtue, the real rule of God, could be revealed (Webster, 1969: 15).

From this standpoint, it is clear that in Sophocles’ play, death didn’t function as a dramatic element. Its function is much more important than merely a dramatic event to evoke sadness. Death, the extreme cost of one’s discovery, has a very high status as the only possible way of revealing God’s virtue. That is why Webster said that in most Sophocles’ play, as if the veil of God was only lifted halfway, and man was expected to guess what lay behind it (Webster, 1969: 17). We can find such a conclusion from the last words of the chorus below:

Who wants happiness? The main
Requirement is to be sensible.
This means not rebelling against
God’s law, for that is arrogance.
The greater your arrogance, the heavier God’s revenge.
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.
(Bowra, 1944: 65)

Chorus, who in Greek drama was usually positioned as the narrator and participated in each opinion of the actors, at the end of the play, finally revealed the true virtue of God: that Creon was wrong; that the main requirement to gain happiness from God is to be sensible. It is, of course, a simple thing to understand. But in reality, in order to be sensible is not as easy as it seems. The story of Creon is an example. Creon had to loose three lives of persons whom he loved much just to understand such a simple virtue. And that’s the tragedy (Webster, 1969: 19).
From such point of view, then it is clear how a play like Antigone could bring purification to its audience. Watching the story of Creon, his stubbornness on his own “virtue”, and the cost he had to bear, presumably would give audience a sense of sadness, but at the same time, a sense of reveal. As deaths happened, Creon finally recognized that his action was mistaken, that he had been misguided by his arrogance, meaning that he had moved from ignorance to knowledge. But the recognition gained by Creon, tragically, hit him at same instant as the lost he felt from the death of the three persons. It was such slight movement from lost to recognition that would lead audience to purification, to the higher stage of mental awareness (Webster, 1969: 21). So, in short, we may say that the method of purification in Antigone, and I think it can also be applied in most Sophocles’ tragedy plays, derived from such slight mental movement. A simple mental movement which, in Webster’s words, needed the cost of three lives.

From the discussion above, it can be concluded that purification, the main purpose of Greek tragedy, was derived from the tragic fate that befell to actors and, at the same time, a mental awareness that accompanied it. Usually, the greater the tragedy, the greater the awareness would rise. If death happened to be the most common event of tragedy, it is because death is viewed as the greatest tragedy of all. And Antigone is a good example of such method.

B. M. W. Knox, Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1964).

C. M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944).

Webster, T. B. L., An Introduction to Sophocles, 2nd edition, [London: Cornell
University Press, 1969).

*This article is writen by Leny Nuzuliyanti, alumni of English Department Student of Diponegoro University, Semarang, Indonesia. The copy right of this article is on the writer. You have to mention “the source” (the writer and this site) for any publication.


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