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The psychology of Sophocles
Distinctive merit of the portraiture.
is so excellent in the case of Antigone because he has felt that in a truly heroic nature there is the permanent strength of deep convictions, but there is also room for what superficial observers might think a moral anticlimax. So long as such a nature has to meet antagonism in word or deed, its permanent strength is heightened by a further support which is necessarily transient, —the strength of exaltation. But a mind capable of heroism is such as can see duties in their true proportions, and can sacrifice everything to the discharge of the highest: and it is such a mind, too, which, in looking back on a duty done, is most liable—through very largeness of vision, and sense of human limitations—to misgivings like those which vex the last moments of Antigone. The strength of exaltation has passed away; her clear intelligence cannot refuse to acknowledge that the actual results of doing right are in seeming conflict with the faith which was the sanction of the deed. It is worthy of notice that only at one moment of the drama does Antigone speak lightly of the penalty which she has deliberately incurred. That is at the moment when, face to face with Creon, she is asserting the superiority of the divine law. Nor does she, even then, speak lightly of death in itself; she only says that it is better than a life like hers; for at that moment she feels the whole burden of the sorrows which have fallen upon her race,—standing, as she does, before the man who has added the last woe. The tension of her mind is at the highest. But nowhere else does she speak as one who had sought death because weary of life; on the contrary, we can see that that life was dear to her, who must die young, ‘without a portion in the chant that brings the bride.’ It is a perfectly sane mind which has chosen death, and has chosen it only because the alternative was to neglect a sacred duty.

A comparison with other dramatists may serve to illustrate what Sophocles has gained by thus allowing the temporary strength of excitement to pass off before the end, leaving the permanent strength of the character to wrestle with this pain and doubt. In Alfieri's play of the same name, Antigone shows no touch of human weakness; as death approaches, she seems more and more impatiently eager for it; she says to Creon's guards, who are leading her to her doom,— “Let us make better speed; so slow a step
Ill becomes her who has at length just reach'd
The goal so long desired... Perhaps ye, O guards,
May feel compassion for my fate?... Proceed.
Oh terrible Death, I look thee in the face,
And yet I tremble not1.

In Massinger's Virgin Martyr, again, consider the strain in which Dorothea addresses Theophilus, the persecutor of the Christians, who has doomed her to torture and death:— “Thou fool!
That gloriest in having power to ravish
A trifle from me I am weary of,
What is this life to me? Not worth a thought;
Or, if it be esteem'd, 'tis that I lose it
To win a better: even thy malice serves
To me but as a ladder to mount up
To such a height of happiness, where I shall
Look down with scorn on thee and on the world.

The dramatic effect of such a tone, both in Alfieri's Antigone and in Massinger's Dorothea, is to make their fate not more, but less, pathetic; we should feel for them more if they, on their part, seemed to feel a little ‘what 'tis to die, and to die young,’— as Theophilus says to Dorothea. On the other hand, M. Casimir Delavigne, in his Messéniennes, is Sophoclean where he describes the last moments of Joan of Arc: “Du Christ, avec l'ardeur, Jeanne baisait l'image;
Ses longs cheveux épars flottaient au gré des vents:
Au pied de l'échafaud, sans changer de visage,
Elle s'avançait à pas lents.
Tranquille elle y monta; quand, debout sur le faîte,
Elle vit ce bûcher, qui l'allait dévorer,
Les bourreaux en suspens, la flamme déja prête,
Sentant son cœur faillir, elle baissa la tête,
Et se prit à pleurer2.

So it is that the Antigone of Sophocles, in the last scene of her life, feels her heart fail, bows her head, and weeps; but the first verse of the passage just quoted suggests a difference which makes the Greek maiden the more tragic figure of the two: when Antigone looked to heaven, she could find no certain comfort.

Thus has Sophocles created a true heroine; no fanatic enamoured of martyrdom, no virago, but a true woman, most tender-hearted, most courageous and steadfast; whose sense of duty sustains her in doing a deed for which she knows that she must die;—when it has been done, and death is at hand, then, indeed, there is a brief cry of anguish from that brave and loving spirit; it is bitter to die thus: but human sympathy is denied to her, and even the gods seem to have hidden their faces. Nowhere else has the poetry of the ancient world embodied so lofty or so beautiful an ideal of woman's love and devotion. The Macaria of Euripides resigns her life to save the race of the Heracleidae; his Iphigeneia, to prosper the course of the Greek fleet; his Alcestis, to save the life of her husband. In each of these cases, a divine voice had declared that some one must die; in each, the heroism required was purely passive; and in each a definite gain was promised,—for it was at least a pious opinion in the wife of Admetus (when all his other friends had declined his request that some of them would oblige him by dying for him)3 to think that his survival would be a gain. Not one of these Euripidean heroines, pathetic though they be, can for a moment be ranked with Fedalma in George Eliot's Spanish Gypsy, when she accepts what seems worse than death for the sake of benefits to her race which are altogether doubtful;— “‘my soul is faint—
Will these sharp pains buy any certain good?’

But Antigone is greater than Fedalma. There was no father, no Zarca, at Antigone's side, urgently claiming the sacrifice,— on the contrary, there was a sister protesting against it; Antigone's choice was wholly free; the heroism which it imposed was one of doing as well as suffering; and the sole reward was to be in the action itself.

1 C. Taylor's translation.

2 Quoted by M. Patin in his Études sur les Tragiques grecs, vol. II., p. 271.

3 Has the total absence of the sense of humour, in its disastrous effect upon tragic pathos, ever been more wonderfully illustrated than by Euripides in those lines of the Alcestis?

πάντας δ᾽ ἐλέγξας καὶ διεξελθὼν φίλους,
πατέρα, γεραιάν θ᾽ σφ᾽ ἔτικτε μητέρα,
οὐχ ηὗρε πλὴν γυναικὸς ὅστις ἤθελε
θανεῖν πρὸ κείνου μηδ᾽ ἔτ᾽ εἰσορᾶν φάος.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Euripides, Alcestis, 15
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