Who’s on first?

January 26, 2009

Because I still have scholarship money to burn, sort of, I am taking yet another literature class at my alma mater. This time, I am entering the delightful and somewhat impenetrable world of Greek tragedy. I call it “impenetrable” because there are unfortunate gaps in our knowledge about not only the time period but drama specifically. Scholars make the best guesses that they can, supported by the information available, but there is a lot that is simply not known and will never be. Unless, of course, someone invents time travel and we manage to avoid mucking things up.

We begin with Antigone by Sophocles, one of his three surviving plays about Oedipus and his appurtenant trials and tribulations. The main conflict of the play is between Antigone and Kreon; the latter decrees that the former’s brother, killed while trying to invade the city (Thebes), is to be left unburied and denied proper funeral rites. The former believes that the laws of the gods supercede the laws of man and buries her brother anyway. Since Kreon declared that the punishment for doing so would be death, he must then decide between clemency for his niece, who also happens to be betrothed to his son, and sticking to his proverbial guns.

Given this tension between the two sides, it is difficult to determine who is the main character; if the term is used interchangeably with protagonist, it becomes an even more complicated question, because it is tough to pinpoint who exactly is opposing whom. In a way, it is a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object; Antigone does what she thinks is morally right despite the consequences, and Kreon refuses to mitigate the consequences despite it being in his power to do so.

The very fact that the play is titled Antigone is an argument in favor of her being the main character. Additionally, her actions create the conflict that moves the plot forward; she continuously exerts her agency and everyone suffers the consequences. Kreon himself reacts rather than acts because, as he puts it, “while I live a woman shall not rule” (Blondell 525). She even controls the manner of her own death instead of passively accepting the punishment imposed on her.

However, it can be argued that while Antigone may be an important character, possibly the protagonist, Kreon is actually the main character. It is his initial pronouncement that sets the stage for Antigone’s disobedience, and his inability to change that ensures the plot will move inexorably toward its final tragic conclusion. He has more lines than any other character, mostly because every other major character, including the chorus, attempts to convince him of his wrongheadedness. By contrast, no one tries to convince Antigone of anything except Ismene, and even she converts to Antigone’s way of thinking and tries to take credit for the act of defiance. While Antigone is confident in her decision, Kreon defends himself in a paranoid fashion by accusing his opponents of threatening him and taking bribes. In the end, Kreon alone is left alive to suffer the consequences of his actions, namely the deaths of everyone he cares about.

In tallying up the arguments for both sides, it seems that the scales are tipped slightly in Kreon’s favor. This would have been performed at the City Dionysia festival, and so would have been eligible for a prize along with three other plays written by Sophocles. One wonders whether he won first prize for the group that included this play and, if so, who would have been awarded the laurel for best actor. Whoever it was may even have played both roles at different times, since all the actors were masked and there were only three of them plus the chorus. As mentioned previously, unless that time machine makes an appearance, the world may never know.

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