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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide


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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Antigone is one of Sophocles's three Theban plays. First performed around 442–441 BCE, it tells the story of Antigone, whose oldest and younger brother are killed after fighting each other over the kingship of Thebes. Insisting on burying her oldest brother though the new king has forbidden it, Antigone is condemned to death. The king repeals his sentence, but it is too late—Antigone has already killed herself.

Through the centuries readers have noted the political lessons of the play and have applied them to their own times and governments, as Antigone provides a scathing condemnation of tyrannical government.

1. Sophocles supposedly died while reading Antigone.

Sophocles's biographers offer three different versions of his death, all of which center on Antigone. In the first, he choked on a grape while reading the play in a competition at a festival. In the second, he lost his breath while the play was being read. In the third, he died of joy when Antigone won the festival. However, none of these theories is supported by any evidence.

2. The German philosopher Hegel compared Antigone to Jesus.

German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel drew parallels between the sacrifices and martyrdom of Antigone and those of Jesus. He also compared Antigone to Socrates. Hegel wrote about his belief that the conflict between the laws of humans and divine law was vital to all three.

3. Syrian refugee women adapted their own version of Antigone.

A group of Syrian refugee women who fled civil war for Beirut, Lebanon, organized a powerful production of Antigone in 2014. Seeing parallels between their situation—women with little social power who had to try to protect their husbands or sons against the state—and Antigone's, many of the women felt that the play reflected their lives. "Antigone reflects the situation of a lot of women in Syria," one stated.

4. An adaptation of the play is set in Nazi-occupied France.

Playwright Jean Anouilh reimagined Sophocles's Antigone in his play of the same name, which takes place in Nazi-occupied France and premiered in 1944. Because of the ambivalence of the text, both pro- and anti-Nazi audience members applauded the same lines in the production. The play created an intense political debate. When it moved to Broadway in 1946 after the war, American audiences saw it as a pro-Resistance work.

5. There are several different operatic versions of Antigone.

In 1712 the Italian composer Tomasso Traetta produced an operatic version of the play in St. Petersburg, Russia. The best-known opera version of Antigone was written by Carl Orff and produced for the first time in 1949. In 1954 a radio opera was produced on the British BBC. A chamber opera was produced in New York in 1977, a three-act opera by Dino Constantinides premiered in 1993, and a one-act opera opened in Chicago in 1999.

6. Thoreau cited Antigone as an example of civil disobedience.

Henry David Thoreau's well-known 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience" urges citizens to act according to their own moral compasses even if they conflict with the laws of the state. Thoreau was strongly affected by Sophocles's heroine, who obeys a higher law when she buries her brother. The idea of a higher law informed Thoreau's beliefs and writing, as he makes clear when he states, "It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey."

7. Playwrights across the globe have adapted it to their own political circumstances.

A 1986 version, Antigona Furiosa, focuses on those who disappeared in Argentina under the dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. South African playwright Athol Fugard adapted the play as a protest against apartheid, titling his drama The Island and setting it at a prison camp modeled after the one where Nelson Mandela was held. The play was first performed in Cape Town in 1973. In 1984 a Polish version was staged to protest the martial law being used to repress the Solidarity movement for free trade.

8. A film version of the play was released in 1961.

The Greek film of Antigone featured international film star Irene Papas in the title role. Critic Leonard Maltin was unimpressed, claiming that it was "literal" and "by the numbers." A 1974 film was made of Jean Anouilh's version of the play, starring Genevieve Bujold. Critics called it "gripping, mesmerizing."

9. Sophocles's Antigone inspired a heavy metal album.

The German heavy metal band Heaven Shall Burn released their album Antigone in 2004. A "socially conscious" album, Antigone includes songs with a political and antigovernment slant.

10. A reimagining of the play gives the Chorus African rhythms.

In George Porter's Black Antigone: Sophocles' Tragedy Meets the Heartbeat of Africa, the playwright keeps to the basic story of Sophocles's Antigone, but the text of the Chorus uses different rhythms and language. One example is Sophocles's choral line, "For Zeus abhors the boasts of a proud tongue," which Porter's chorus states as "Now Zeus ain't so cool when a man starts to brag." Porter claims that the influence of African rhythms would have been evident in ancient Greece.

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