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This sketch may serve to illustrate the powerful unity
Unity of motive.
of the play. The issue defined in the opening scene,—the conflict of divine with human law,—remains the central interest throughout. The action, so simple in plan, is varied by masterly character-drawing, both in the two principal figures, and in those lesser persons who contribute gradations of light and shade to the picture. There is no halting in the march of the drama; at each successive step we become more and more keenly interested to see how this great conflict is to end; and when the tragic climax is reached, it is worthy of such a progress. It would not,
The mode of the catastrophe.
however, be warrantable to describe the construction of the play as faultless. No one who seeks fully to comprehend and enjoy this great work of art can be content to ignore certain questions which are suggested by one part of it,—the part from v. 998 to 1243, which introduces and developes the catastrophe.

Teiresias, as we saw, came with the benevolent purpose of warning Creon that he must bury Polyneices. Creon was stubborn, and Teiresias then said that the gods would punish him. Haemon would die, because his father had been guilty of two sins,—burying Antigone alive1, and dishonouring the corpse of Polyneices. This prophecy assumed that Creon would remain obdurate. But, in the event, he immediately yielded; he buried Polyneices, and attempted, though too late, to release Antigone. Now suppose that he had been in time to save Antigone. He would then have cancelled both his offences. And then, we must infer, the divine punishment predicted by Teiresias would have been averted; since the prediction does not rest on any statement that a specific term of grace had expired. Otherwise we should have to suppose that the seer did not know the true mind of the gods when he represented that Creon might still be saved by repentance (1025 ff.). But the dramatic function of Teiresias obviously requires us to assume that he was infallible whenever he spoke from ‘the signs of his art’; indeed, the play tells us that he was so (1094).

Everything depended, then, on Creon being in time to save Antigone. Only a very short interval can be imagined between the moment at which she is led away to her tomb and that at which Creon resolves to release her; in the play it is measured by 186 verses (928-1114). The Chorus puts Creon's duties in the natural order; ‘free the maiden from her rocky chamber, and make a tomb for the unburied dead’ (1100); and Creon seems to feel that the release, as the more urgent task, ought to have precedence. Nevertheless, when he and his men arrive on the ground, his first care is given to Polyneices. After the rites have been performed, a high mound is raised. Only then does he proceed to Antigone's prison,—and then it is too late. We are not given any reason for the burial being taken in hand before the release. The dramatic fault here has nothing to do with any estimate of the chances that Creon might actually have saved Antigone's life, if he had gone to her first. The poet might have chosen to imagine her as destroying herself immediately after she had been left alone in her cell. In any case, the margin for Creon must have been a narrow one. The

The dramatic blemish.
dramatic fault is that, while we, the spectators, are anxious that Antigone should be saved, and while every moment is precious, we are left to conjecture why Creon should be spending so many of these moments in burial rites which could have been rendered equally well after Antigone had been rescued: nay, when the rites have been finished, he remains to build a mound. The source of pathos contained in the words ‘too late’ is available for Tragedy, but evidently there is one condition which must be observed. A fatal delay must not seem to be the result merely of negligence or of caprice. As Bellermann has justly said, modern drama has obeyed this rule with a heedfulness not always shown by the ancients. Shakespeare took care that there should be a good reason for the delay of Lorenzo to resuscitate Juliet; nor has Schiller, in the Death of Wallenstein, left it obscure why Octavio arrived only after Buttler's deed had been done. Euripides, on the other hand, is content that the prolixity of a Messenger's speech should detain Iocasta until the sons whom she longed to reconcile had killed each other.


1 In his first, or friendly, speech to Creon (998-1032) Teiresias says not a word concerning Antigone. Possibly he may be conceived as thinking that the burial of Polyneices would imply, as a consequence, the release of Antigone; though it is obvious that, from Creon's point of view, such an inference would be illogical: Antigone was punished because she had broken the edict; not because the burying of Polyneices was intrinsically wrong.

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hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1025
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1094
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1100
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1243
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 928
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 998
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 998
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