Antigone is one of the most famous classical Greek tragedies even though Sophocles structured his play a bit differently than the typical structure of Greek tragedies. A definition of tragedy was outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics and for the most part, Sophocles’s Antigone follows all the elements of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Of course, Sophocles came from the same culture and period as Aristotle, and shared the same cultural values as him. So it is not surprising that Sophocles closely structured Antigone according to the definition outlined by Aristotle. This paper is a critical analysis of the structure of Antigone, whether or not it meets Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, and whether Antigone meets Aristotle’s criteria of a tragic hero.
The very first element of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is “an action that is heroic, complete, and of a certain size” (Battin 294). The plot of this play revolves around a single subject, which is the conflict between laws should be obeyed. If the Theban King Creon’s manmade laws are obeyed it would mean that god-given laws would be disobeyed. The King’s laws prohibit dishonored Thebans from being properly buried and violating the laws can result in capital punishment. However, the dead must be properly buried according to god-given laws and violating them would mean eternal punishment. So, the heroic action in this play is Antigone’s decision to bury her traitorous brother Polyneices, and the action is tragic because it results to her death sentence.
Another element of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is that it should have “language embellished with all kinds of ornaments, each used separately in the different parts of the play, in dramatic, not narrative form” (Battin 294). Aristotle is most likely referring to the parts of Greek tragedies. However, Sophocles structured Antigone slightly differently. Like most Greek tragedies, his play has a Prologos, a Parodos, and an Exodus at the end, but instead of having five alternating Episodes and Stasimons in between the Parodos and Exodus, he added six. Although in contrary to Aristotle’s definition, Sophocles’s Antigone is rich in dialogue, but the dialogues are melo-dramatic and the language serves the dual purpose of helping in identifying the characters and the chorus.
The third and final element of tragedy according to Aristotle is that a tragedy should accomplish all of the above “with pity and fear the catharsis of these emotions” (Battin 294). The feelings of compassion and fear that Sophocles arouses in the audience throughout the play are released (catharsis) when the play reaches its climax in the Exodus. The catharsis in Antigone occurs when Creon realizes that everything that has happened, his son and wife’s deaths, is a result of his own actions and that the Gods punished him for acting against them. Sophocles structures his play to create tension, which is released when the play concludes, where not only Creon but the audience themselves learn a valuable lesson.
A Greek tragedy would not be completely without a tragic hero. In his Poetics, Aristotle also outlined the definition of a tragic hero. Although many have argued that Creon is the true tragic hero of Sophocles’s Antigone but Antingone also meets Aristotle’s criteria of a tragic hero. Again, according to Aristotle’s definition, a tragic hero must be primarily virtuous but should also possess a flaw, which is not immoral, but leads to the hero’s downfall. Antigone seems to fit this definition of tragic hero a lot better than Creon because Creon seems for the most part seems to be the opposite of what Aristotle defined a tragic hero should be.
The purpose of this paper was to critically analyze whether or not Antigone is a tragic play and that Antigone is the true tragic hero in the play, according to Aristotle’s definitions of both. So, according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, there is no subplot in Sophocles’s play, the single plot includes a tragic heroic action, the play is somewhat divided into parts according to the typical structure of Greek tragedies and the play has catharsis. Moreover, according to Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, Antigone is a various character with positive qualities but her own extreme behavior, a tragic flaw in her character, leads to her demise. Thus, this critical analysis of the play proves that Antigone is indeed a true Greek tragedy and that Antigone is the tragic hero of the play.
Sophocles. Antigone. Prestwick House, Inc., 2005. Print.
Battin, M. Pabst. "Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy in the Poetics." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 33.2 (1974): 155-170. Print.