change was in the air...
by Peter Stothard, Features Editor of The Times
Sophocles was fifty-five when he wrote Antigone in 441 BC.
For the Athenian democracy it was a time of high expectation. The city had
grown a great empire since the defeat of the Persian invader forty years
before, and was now at the height of its expansive pride. As a symbol of
imperial glory, the Parthenon was slowly taking shape on the Acropolis.
Athens was even at peace with its most dangerous enemy, Sparta.
The pre-eminent Athenian of the time was Pericles, the architect of the
city's radical political and military stance. He had just succeeded in despatching
his chief conservative opponent into exile. Like Sophocles he was in his
mid-fifties. Of the other best known Athenian personalities, the playwright
Euripides, Sophocles' younger and more iconoclastic rival, was in his early
forties. Socrates was in his twenties and just beginning his career as a
radical teacher. Aristophanes, the comic poet who was later to mount a conservative
backlash against the democratic extremists, was still a young man. So too
was Thucydides, the historian who was to chart the disastrous end of Athens'
imperial ambitions. In 441 BC power was at the Athenians' command but restless
intellectual change was in the air.
For Sophocles the composition of Antigone came at the mid
point of an increasingly prolific creative life. Behind him were some thirty
plays; ahead of him a further ninety. He was not born into the top rank
of society. His father was a businessman in the weapons trade. But as a
sixteen-year-old lyre player Sophocles had been chosen to lead the city's
paean of praise for the Persian defeat at Salamis. Success continued. At
the age of twenty-eight he defeated Aeschylus — the father of Athenian tragedy
— in the annual competitive festival of Dionysus. In 442 BC he served as
an imperial treasurer; by the time of his middle age he seems to have been
on easy terms with the political leaders of the day.
Out of Sophocles' vast dramatic output only seven complete plays have
survived. Formidable obstacles stood between the text which the ancient
playwright gave to his actors and the manuscripts of the Middle Ages on
which our present editions and translations are based. In the first hundred
years the plays were subject to excisions and interpolations by their performers.
Only in about 330 BC were fixed texts for the plays set down in Athens.
By the time that Alexander the Great and his successors took over Greece
there were still more than one-hundred-and-twenty plays by Sophocles available
for editing by the skilled librarians of Alexandria. Subsequently, however,
in the violence and decline of learning that occurred in the Roman period
and beyond, almost all were lost.
Of the seven that lasted the course, Antigone is one of
the two earliest. It predates Oedipus the King, the first play
of the Theban cycle, by ten years, and Oedipus at Colonus,
the play which deals with events immediately preceding Antigone,
by some thirty-five years. The other survivors are Ajax, The Women
of Trachis, Electra, and Philoctetes. It is possible
that Sophocles was one of those artists whose work improved
consistently with age and that we are fortunate to have what is predominantly
late work. It is also possible that we do not have the work judged by his
Greek critics to be his best but merely the plays which whim, chance and
demands dictated to us.
It is not difficult to see, however, why Antigone might
have survived while other papyri crumbled to dust. Its theme is an accessible
and eternal one. Should citizens follow their consciences or the laws of
the state? Can the rule of law be truly legitimate if it flies in the face
of the traditional bonds that hold the state together? Sophocles'
Antigone is the only Greek tragedy to pose at its centre a moral
and political problem that has meaning for every age, place and people.
Antigone is a play of ideas. Probably the most important
single fact about the years of Pericles and mounting Athenian power is the
novelty of political and philosophical ideas, their pervasiveness throughout
all levels of the new democratic society, the freedom for all citizens to
express them and for all citizens to share in the actions that led from
This 'polis' or city state grew up in Athens as a reaction to the more
common military rule by single men or groups of men in the rest of Greece.
In Athens all male citizens could attend the open air assembly to speak
and vote directly on the great issues of peace and war. Nearly all public
officials, including the 500-man council which ran the day-today business
of the city, were chosen by lot. A very large number of Athenians thus had
direct experience of government.
Sophocles himself was a man of politics and war as well as poetry and
plays. There is even a story that he was given the job of general, one of
the most important offices of state, on the strength of his success with
Sophocles chose the story of Antigone from a comparatively obscure version
of events in the gory history of the royal house of Thebes. The death of
Oedipus, who killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta in unwitting
fulfilment of Apollo's prophecy, was followed by a struggle between his
sons Eteocles and Polyneices for the succession. It was originally agreed
that they should govern turn and turn about, but Eteocles, the elder, refused
to relinquish his rule and drove his brother into exile. Polyneices raised
an army in Argos and returned to lay siege to Thebes and take his birthright
by force. In the final encounter of the battle, each brother took the other's
Power then fell to Creon, brother to Jocasta, who became king and ordered
Eteocles to be given an honourable burial. According to Greek belief, the
act of burial was necessary for entry into the next world and, according
to Greek custom, it was granted on the battlefield to the bodies of even
the bitterest enemies. For Polyneices, however, Creon orders no burial and
the Greek equivalent of eternal damnation.
This is the point at which the play begins.