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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In Antigone how does the symbolism of birds change throughout the play?

Birds show up in many scenes throughout the play and mean different things depending on the character and context. First the birds are seen as merciless scavengers in Episode 1, feasting on the unburied corpse of Polyneices. In this way they can be seen as a reflection of the mercilessness of the gods in their punishments of mortals. The gods are offended when mortals don't honor the burial rites that the gods decree, and so the birds here are a cautionary sign of what happens when the gods' laws are disobeyed. The bird also appears as a symbol of protection in Episode 2, when the guard describes Antigone over the grave of Polyneices "shrieking—a distressing painful cry, just like a bird who's seen an empty nest." Birds also appear as omens, particularly to the prophet Teiresias in Episode 5, who is able to read omens by observing their behavior. The prophecy that Teiresias divines from the birds is dark and reflects the role of fate throughout the play. By having the birds symbolize different things at different points in the play, Sophocles shows how the concepts of mercilessness, protection, and omens are linked.

In Antigone in what ways is Haemon a more sympathetic character than Antigone?

While a case could be made that both are sympathetic, Hameon is an innocent bystander in Antigone's conflict with his father. Antigone makes a definitive choice to disobey Creon's proclamation and is well aware of the consequences. Even though the audience is sympathetic to her plight, Antigone's resoluteness and the deliberate pain her decision will cause both her sister and Haemon is open to criticism. On the other hand Haemon is unprepared to lose Antigone, and her decision also causes discord with his father. Ultimately it is Antigone's actions that set in motion the chain of events that causes Haemon to commit suicide, making him a martyr to her cause.

In Antigone how does the Chorus's ode in Stasimon 3 affect the tone of the play?

The Chorus's ode serves as a larger commentary on both the action of the play and its philosophical themes. The Chorus often calls upon a particular god or goddess to reflect upon his or her influence. For example, after Haemon and Creon have a heated discussion about whether or not to save Antigone in Stasimon 3 the Chorus calls upon Eros, noting that "no immortal god escapes from you, nor any man, who lives but for a day." In this way they're able to say what Haemon cannot—that he loves Antigone and would be heartbroken if she were to die. The Chorus also uses sweeping metaphors to characterize mankind, which places the characters in a larger, more universal context. The tone of this stasimon is reverent toward Eros's influence on mortals but cautionary toward mortals when it comes to decisions made out of love, even if they seem fated. They address Eros directly to talk about "the one whom you possess goes mad," showing a direct link between the influence of the gods and mortals.

In Antigone why does Antigone take such public risks in burying her brother?

Antigone makes no secret of the fact that she welcomes punishment by death. She even encourages Ismene to tell everyone of her plans. Antigone believes that the act of burying her brother is a noble cause that will ultimately honor the gods, and she takes comfort in this truth after having faced so much tragedy in her life—now she has a cause. Antigone returns to Polyneices's burial site the day after burying him likely knowing that the guards have been alerted and are on watch. By defying the guards to apprehend her and welcoming the punishment of death, Antigone takes active steps of her own free will toward the fulfillment of the fated Oedipal tragedy.

What parallels are drawn between Antigone and the various mythological figures to which she is compared in Antigone?

In Episode 4 Antigone compares herself to the goddess Niobe, who suffered a terrible punishment and has been remembered for her suffering ever since. She makes the comparison because she hopes that she, too, will become a martyr who is remembered for her action of justice. The purpose of her comparison points to the juxtaposition that, even though mortals look up and model their behavior on the gods they must always remember that they are mortal and can't control their fates. The Chorus is careful to point out to Antigone that she is no goddess and shouldn't compare herself to one. But in Stasimon 4 the Chorus compares Antigone to other mythological figures from the past who suffered greatly, such as Danae, who was also imprisoned, and Lycurgus, who died a painful death by punishment. Even though the Chorus is careful not to compare her plight to a god's, they clearly see her as someone who will stand in history as a martyr for justice. The purpose of their comparisons is to show her that she is in the company of others who suffered for their beliefs and sacrifices, and that it is likely she will be remembered in the same way.

In Antigone why is the Chorus sympathetic toward both Creon and Antigone?

At different points the Chorus seems to divide its sympathy between Creon and Antigone. Creon is the king of Thebes, and the Chorus must respect and uphold the laws he decrees. When Creon and Haemon argue about Antigone's sentence in Episode 3, they praise Creon for his logic but also tell him he should listen to Haemon's point of view. They are sympathetic toward Creon throughout the play because he is the leader of Thebes and he is doing what he thinks is right. On the other hand the Chorus at times is greatly sympathetic toward Antigone and her plight, praising her for taking her fate into her own hands. They are also sympathetic to the fact that she has lost most of her family and that her fate is linked to her father's in many ways—the Chorus seems to know that her final outcome will be tragic. Yet they remind her in Episode 4 that she brings her punishment on herself. By the end of the play their sympathy seems split as they have warned both characters that they have brought on their tragic fates through their actions.

In Antigone how does Sophocles's use of stichoymthia between Ismene and Antigone in the Prologos establish the tone of their relationship?

Sophocles uses stichomythia (rapid-fire dialogue between characters) between Ismene and Antigone in the Prologos to establish dramatic tension between them. They trade off lines quickly: ISMENE Your heart is hot to do cold deeds. ANTIGONE But I know I'll please the ones I'm duty bound to please. ISMENE Yes, if you can. But you're after something which you're incapable of carrying out. ANTIGONE Well, when my strength is gone, then I'll give up. ISMENE A vain attempt should not be made at all. The audience is able to witness how they are on opposite sides of the issue at hand as one tries to convince the other of her viewpoint. Their rapid dialogue here also reveals something about their characters—Ismene is gentler and more reluctant when she cautions "a vain attempt should not be made at all," while Antigone is stubborn and headstrong when she tells Ismene, "when my strength is gone, then I'll give up." Yet for all their arguing their dialogue reveals they know each other's personalities well—such as when Ismene reveals that Antigone's "heart is hot to do cold deeds," and that each is important to the other one.

In the Exodus of Antigone what is the Chorus's conclusion about the nature of man?

Throughout the stasima the Chorus repeatedly invokes different gods in order to compare and contrast them with their mortal counterparts. The Chorus also uses a great many nature metaphors in describing mankind, comparing the human journey to crossing an ocean through tumultuous waves. Yet the Chorus cautions that even though man is capable of conquering everything but death, humans shouldn't try their luck against their fates and the gods, since to do so would be arrogant: "For boasts of arrogant men bring on great blows of punishment," they warn in the final lines. This caution applies to both Creon and Antigone, who show arrogance at different points in the play, though in different ways. Creon's arrogance comes into play when he decides that his laws are above the laws of gods, and Antigone's arrogance is shown when she believes her choice to disobey Creon's laws make her superior in the eyes of the gods.

In Antigone how does Teiresias's prophecy change the direction of the play?

In Episode 5 Teiresias says that Creon can affect his fate if he changes his decision regarding the burial of Polyneices and the punishment of Antigone, insinuating that his fate had not yet been sealed. But Creon responds to his advice by hurling insults at Teiresias, accusing him of being money hungry and dishonest. With that his fate begins to seal, and Teiresias then offers him a new and darker prophecy about losing his son and his city rising against him. Even though it seems that Creon's fate was already headed in this direction, his tantrum angers the gods even further—where once there was an out, that possibility is taken away. Teiresias warns Creon, "that's the sickness now infecting you," which speaks to the motif of pollution that runs throughout the play. Teiresias's warning here is about the issue that Creon no longer seems to know his place in the order of gods and men and his hubris has gotten the best of him, clouding his judgment in a way that puts his kingdom and family at risk. This has a profound effect on Creon, who now for the first time asks for advice from the Chorus leader. He seems to believe that he still has time to change the course of fate if he takes swift action to reverse what he's done—but his efforts are in vain, just as Teiresias warned him.

In Antigone how does Creon change over the course of the play?

Creon is confident, arrogant, and stubborn. He is disdainful and contemptuous of those he is suspicious of or sees as below him. He's quick to jump to conclusions, such as when he accuses both the guard and Teiresias of accepting bribes. His stubbornness and arrogance are evident when he argues with his son, Haemon, and he turns a deaf ear to the fact that killing Antigone will hurt Haemon. Creon's change into someone who feels remorse and loss comes too late and perhaps for the wrong reasons—he belatedly realizes the gravity of his decisions only after Teiresias reveals his darker prophecy. Creon scrambles to make things right, but his biggest change comes only after he has lost everything, when he realizes he is "nothing" now. Creon's remark that he is "nothing" shows that, although his identity was wrapped up in being a king, he realizes too late that without his family everything else in his life is meaningless—he's become undefined by the loss.

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