There are several important points of difference between the Greek tragedies and ours. As Greek tragedy sprang from the Choral hymns to Dionysus and was always associated with the cult of that deity, the choric or lyric part always remained an essential and prominent factor in its composition. The Chorus, the number of which in the time of Sophocles was fixed at fifteen, consisted of persons male or female, who were appropriate accompaniments to the action of the drama. They took no part in the action and in no way affected it. Their function was partly to give lyric expression to the emotions excited or suggested by what occurred in the course of the action, and to draw either by way of commentary or independently the moral or political lessons to be derived from it. In the Antigone, the Chorus consists of Theban elders. In these tragedies there were no acts and scenes, the acts or rather the various stages in the evolution of the plot beind indicated by the Choral songs or, as they were technically called, Stasima. All that part of the play which preceded the entrance of the Chorus was called the Prologos. The first song of the Chorus, sung as they entered from the sides of the Orchestra and took their stand round the altar in the centre, known as the thymele, was called the Parodos; that portion of the dialogue which intervened between the Parodos and the next whole Chorus was called the first Epeisodion. This was succeeded by the first Stasimon, so named because sung by the Chorus while standing round the thymele. Epeisodia and Stasima thus succeeded each other till the concluding portion of the play began, and that was called the Exodus because at its close the Chorus and the actors left the stage. Sometimes the Chorus held musical dialogue with one of the chief actors, and these dialogues had the name of Kommoi, an excellent illustration of which we find in this play, lines 808-883, or the Chorus divided itself in alternate musical discourse. As a rule there was no change of scene, the catastrophe not taking place on the stage but being related by a messenger. In the Antigone the scene is an open space before the royal palace at Thebes; what occurs elsewhere--the sprinkling of the dust over the corpse of Polyneices and the arrest of Antigone, her death and the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice--being announced and described by messengers. As a rule, the action is comprised within a revolution of the sun: in the Antigone it is comprised within a single day. But no condition was more rigidly observed than what is known as the unity of action, which involved the separation of comedy from tragedy, interdicted underplots and the introduction of anything which did not bear directly on the catastrophe and on the illustration of the central purpose, or which in any way interfered with the solemn and imposing impression which the work as a whole was designed to make. How finely is this illustrated in the Antigone! In the opening dialogue we see what is in conflict, civil legislation and human piety, the positive law of the state and the unwritten law of the heart; and never in a single scene or in a single incident does the action swerve from the course prescribed, till the type of the one in the person of Creon illustrates the danger of arrogantly exalting the law of man over the law of nature, and the type of the other in the person of Antigone, the heavy price which on earth at least must be paid for defying the law of man that a higher law may be obeyed.
Not less important were the aesthetic and moral functions of tragedy, functions which in the hands of Sophocles particularly it was most punctiliously regarded. Its aim was, in Aristotle's expression, "to effect through fear and pity the purgation of those passions." In other words, it was to excite legitimately those passions, and by legitimately exciting them to relieve and purify them. For this reason the hero or heroine of a tragedy must not be a perfectly bad or a perfectly good person, because if perfectly bad his or her fall excited neither pity nor fear, if perfectly good, mere disgust: consequently the character must be a mixed one, and the sin or error which led its possessor to ruin must not be a base or ignoble one. How entirely the characters of Antigone and Creon fulfil these conditions is obvious and needs no commentary.
It remains to add that the Greek tragedies were always acted at the two great Dionysian Festivals, and particularly at the Greater Dionysia in the Spring of the year, at the public expense. They were produced in competition, and a poet had to compete with no less than four plays, three tragedies, and a farce known as a Satyric Play. These plays might form a sequence, as they do in the case of the Orestean Trilogy of Aeschylus, but they might be on independent subjects, as they commonly were with Sophocles; indeed, he is said to have introduced the custom of competition with independent plays, but this is doubtful. The Antigone was probably brought out at the Great Dionysia in the Spring of B.C. 441; it is not known what were the other plays in the tetralogy to which it belonged. As the play tells its own story, a brief account of the plot, chiefly for the purpose of introducing the characters and for explaining the point of the Choruses, is all that will be requisite.
The two sisters are introduced, their characters being sharply and elaborately contrasted--Antigone, stern and resolute, possessed and dominated by one idea, the determination to do the duty which affection and piety dictate; Ismene, gentle, timid and feminine. She attempts to dissuade Antigone from an act which will cost her her life, but Antigone rejects such counsel with contempt.
The Chorus describe the siege of Thebes, the unpatriotic wickedness of Polyneices, the death of the two brothers, the discomfiture of the Argive host, the glorious victory over the enemies of Thebes. The chief point in the Chorus is that it emphasizes the guilt of Polyneices.
First Epeisodion (164-331)
Creon is introduced, and his harsh, stern, tyrannical temper, which reminds us of Shakespeare's Angelo, declares itself at once in his first speech. He announces his edict--Eteocles shall be honoured with burial, Polyneices shall not. A watch has been set to see that no one gives the banned one his funeral rites, and death is the penalty for any such attempt. While he is speaking, one of the sentinals appointed to watch the body--this character is one of the few in the Greek tragedies which border closely on comedy, and certainly he reminds us of Shakespeare's clowns--anounces that some one has strewn dust over the corpse, thus paying to it the interdicted funeral rites. In the rage he shows, Creon's intemperate character is further displayed; he dismisses the man with threats of a terrible death for himself and for the other guards if the culprit is not discovered.
Fist Stasimon (332-382)
This beautiful chorus celebrates the wit and works of man, his daring, his inventiveness which, however, can only bring him honour so long as he keeps within the bounds of law--if he breaks those bounds ruin only can result. The application of this to the conduct of Antigone is obvious.
Second Epeisodion (383-581)
The sentinel, re-entering, brings in Antigone, who had been arrested in the act of repeating and completing the forbidden rites. Creon asks her whether what was alleged by the sentinel was true--she replies that it was. He then asks whether she knew of the edict. She answers that she not only knew of it, but gloried in disobeying it. Then follows the noble speech in which she justifies her act and draws a distinction between laws issued by mere men and the divine unwritten laws which have the sanction of divinity. Creon, incensed that a woman should set him and his laws at defiance, dooms her to death. But suspecting that Ismene also was an accomplice in this defiance of his powers, her orders her to be summoned. She enters, and in a singularly pathetic scene pleads that she may share her sister's fate; but Antigone, who had never forgiven her for refusing in her womanly timidity to take part in what should have been a common duty, harshly repels her. Then turning to Creon and reminding him that Antigone was betrothed to his son, she pleads piteously that the life of one who was to have been his daughter-in-law should be spared. But Creon is adamant: Antigone shall die.
Second Stasimon (582-630)
This emphasizes the power of destiny. Woe after woe pursues a doomed family. When from the gods a house is shaken, fails never more the curse. Of the house of Labdacus the two sisters are all that are left; now they too must perish. All powerful is the might of Zeus; impotent the will of man, on whom comes, if the Gods so rule, infatuation and ruin. The application of this Chorus to the fate of Antigone and, in a measure to the fate of Creon also, is obvious.
Third Epeisodion (631-780)
Haemon, the son of Creon and the betrothed lover of Antigone, now enters. His character is finely drawn, and the scene which ensues is a masterpiece. Knowing well his father's temper and the relative position in which they stand to each other, he makes no sentimental plea; but, self-controlled and calm, with the utmost deference and in affectionate solicitude for his father's welfare and reputation, he points out to him that the citizens are not with him in the course which he is pursuing, that it is reasonable to listen to the opinion of others, and that to be unbending and inexorable is both unwise and perilous. "Shall I, grown grey with age, be taught indeed--and by this boy?" thunders Creon in answer. But still Haemon keeps his temper, while Creon with every word he speaks becomes more unreasonable, imperious, and brutal. At last the young man realizes that all pleas are vain, and, the pent-up passion flaming forth uncontrolled, he rushes out to die with her whom he loved. After Haemon's departure Creon now announces the form of death which he had designed for Antigone. She shall be buried alive; but Ismene's life shall be spared, as, on reflection, he is satisfied of her innocence.
Third Stasimon (781-883)
This, one of the most purely beautiful lyrics which have come down to us from the Greeks, appropriately celebrates the power of love.
Forth Epeisodion (884-943)
Antigone, surrounded by guards, is on her way to her living tomb. She mourns her fate, and the Chorus, touched with pity, but lamenting the infatuation which constrained her to fatal disobedience, condole with her. Creon, re-entering, chides the guards for delaying her passage, and Antigone, strong in the "faith that looks through death," takes her final leave of the world.
Fourth Stasimon (944-987)
The fate of Antigone recalls to the Chorus the fate of three others who suffered a similarly cruel imprisonment, and they are commemorated--Danaë, Lycurgus, and Cleopatra.
Fifth Epeisodion (988-1114)
On this scene, the most critical in the play, the catastrophe hinges. The aged prophet Teiresias comes with an urgent warning to the king. The Gods are angry with Thebes; they will give their prophet no sign. The city is polluted, and the cause of the pollution is the fact that the corpse of Polyneices is still lying unburied on the plain: let it be buried at once. Creon treats Teiresias as he had treated Haemon before. He angrily refuses to stultify his edict, and taunts Teiresias with being the corrupt mouthpiece of malcontents among the citizens. Then the prophet tells him that for the living soul whom he has sent to the tomb, and for the corpse which he is keeping festering on the plain, he shall atone with the life of his own son. Creon is struck with consternation--never has the word of that prophet been found to be false. His will is broken: he will yield: Polyneices shall have his funeral rites, Antigone shall be saved. This sudden change on the part of Creon has been censured as untrue to nature, as violating probability. Nothing could be more true to nature, for nothing is so unstable and fragile as the firmness which is mere obstinacy, the firmness in which reason has no part. Note, however, that while Creon's unseemly and impious altercation with Teiresias was protected, the time for undoing what he had done had passed.
Fifth Stasimon (1115-1153)
The Chorus, gladdened by Creon's repentance, and anticipating that all will soon be bright and joyous in Thebes, break out into a dance-song in honour of Dionysus. We may here pause to note that Sophocles almost invariably ushers in the catastrophe of his tragedies--it is so in the Ajax, in the Oedipus Rex and in the Trachiniae--by these ironical preludes like bursts of sunlight just before the clouds gather blackest for storm.
A messenger now announces the catastrophe, and while he is telling his terrible story Eurydice, the wife of Creon and the mother of Haemon, enters. As soon as Creon had seen that Polyneices had had his funeral rites--so punctiliously were they fulfilled that he even stayed to build a mound--he and his attendants had hurried to the tomb in which Antigone had been immured that she might be released. But on breaking into it a fearful spectacle met their view. Antigone had hung herself, and Haemon in frenzy was clinging to her corpse, a double-hilted sword at his side. As soon as the boy saw his father he drew his sword and, spitting in his face, furiously stabbed at him, but missing him, plunged the blade into his own side, and fell dying with his arms round the dead Antigone. Creon then himself enters in an agony of remorse with the body of his son. But the cup of his misery is not yet full. A second messenger announces that Eurydice has stabbed herself, cursing, as she died, the husband who had been responsible for the death of her son. Childless, wifeless, and utterly broken with grief and remorse, Creon prays for death, and cold indeed is the comfort the Chorus can proffer him. He is conducted into the palace, and as he leaves the stage the Coryphaeus points the moral of his conduct and of his fate. What is said it may be well to give in a strictly literal version. "The first and most important element in happiness is wisdom, and towards the Gods reverence must in no way be disregarded: great words on the part of overweening men get as their penalty great blows, and in old age teach wisdom."