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The Role of the Chorus in Sophocles' Antigone

  • Robert Coleman (a1)


This essay depends upon certain assumptions, which had better be made explicit at the outset.

The first is that in Attic tragedy the choral odes were always intended to have an organic relation to the drama as a whole. They are not mere intermezzi inserted to relieve tension and allow the audience to relax between successive steps in the real business of the drama, but serve rather as lyrical commentaries on what is happening on the stage, inviting us to the emotional response appropriate at that point in the action, and to reflect upon certain ideas and concepts implicit in the events themselves. They form a bridge between successive acts, and their contextual relevance looks back to what has immediately preceded and forward to what is about to come. At this level we need not expect complete consistency between different odes. The Chorus's interpretation of the situation and the emotional reaction it expresses may change quite drastically in the light of a change in situation or the revelation of hitherto unknown facts.



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page 4 note 1 Earlier versions have been read to various audiences during the last four years, including most recently the Cambridge Philological Society, to whose members I am especially grateful for numerous criticisms and suggestions. A perusal of Hester's, D. A. massively documented study ‘Sophocles the Unphilosophical’ (Mnemosyne xxiv, 1971, 1159 ), with which I find myself in agreement on a number of points, leaves me with the uncomfortable impression that it would be possible to cite learned opinion for and against almost every statement that I have made here; a salutary reminder of how difficult it is to say anything that is both new and right about Antigone.

page 4 note 2 Though not of course the detailed working out, as is clear from a comparison of Choephoroe and the two Electra plays.

page 6 note 1 Jebb's translation ‘dragon’ has the wrong associations, suggesting as it does a fierce and aggressive creature. For the image of the eagle preying on a serpent see Iliad 12. 200-3.

page 6 note 2 He was, it is true, the grandson of Pentheus and therefore directly descended, like Antigone, from Cadmus. But after Pentheus' death the kingship had passed to Agave's brother Polydorus, whence by direct descent to Labdacus, Laius and Oedipus. The point is emphasized in Antigone's final description of herself as τὴν βαδιδᾶν μούνην λοιτπήν (941), the point of which is not affected by doubts about the correct reading of the second word.

page 7 note 1 The order may have been given while the battle was still raging, if we can press τὸν στρατηγόν (8) in Antigone's speech. That would explain, perhaps, why the non-combatant elders have not yet heard of it, though it is strange that the rumour which had reached Antigone (φασίν in 27) has not got through to them.

page 7 note 2 That the religious obligation to permit the dead through the ceremony of burial to enter the underworld was an ancient one is suggested by e.g. Iliad 23. 71. Iliad 1. 4-5 indicates that the obligation was not always carried out, but this is quite a different matter from actual refusal of burial.

page note 3 In The Seven against Thebes the Herald announces as a decision of τὸ τέλΞς (1025) – presumably the interregnal ττρόβΞνλΞι (1006) – that the body of Polyneices is to be left unburied, to be devoured by dogs (1014) and birds (1020–1). When the Chorus speak of accompanying Antigone in the funeral procession (πρΞπέμπɛιν έπὶ τύμβΞν 1059), it is not quite certain that this is to be within the borders of Thebes. What is clear from the exchange between the Herald and Antigone there (1042-53) is that the edict had not explicitly included the death penalty for disobedience. The value of the comparison here made does not of course depend upon the Aeschylean authorship of the passage.

page 8 note 1 That this treatment was meted out to the Argive dead as well is the probable inference to be drawn from Teiresias* words in 1080–3. This was certainly the traditional version of the story, the subsequent burial of the enemy dead being due to the intervention of Adrastus (Pindar, Ol. 6.15) or of Theseus with armed force (Herodotus 9. 27. 3, Euripides, , Supp. 634 ff.). Whether or not Creon would have granted permission for Polyneices to be buried with the enemy dead on Argive soil is of course irrelevant to the tragic issue between Creon and Antigone.

page 9 note 1 Whether the manuscript παρɛίρων is emended to γɛραίρων or πɛραίνων does not seriously affect the sense of the line. The meaning of ύψίπΞλις is uncertain. In antithesis to ἄπΞλις it may mean either ύψηλήν πόλιν ἔχων, cp. ‘having no city’, or ύψηλός ὢν ἐν τῇ πόλɛι, cp. ‘being excluded from the city’. For the former cf. δικαιόπΞλις at Pindar, Ol. 8. 22, ‘having a just city’; for the latter άδύπΞλις at Soph. O.T. 510, ‘being a delight to the city’. It is perhaps slightly in favour of the former that, whereas adjectives compounded of ύψι- + verbal derivative can be related to the phrase-pattern ύψηλῶς +corresponding verb, e.g. ύψιμέδων ‘ruling on high’ ←ύψηλώς μέδɛτσι, those compounded of ύψι- + substantival derivative imply a phrase with ύψηλός predicated of that substantive, e.g. ύψίττυργΞς ‘with lofty towers’ ←ύψηλΞύς πύργΞυς ἔχɛι. However, the question remains open.

page 10 note 1 Cho. 583 ff.: πΞλλὰ μέν yᾶ τρέφɛι | δɛινά δɛιμάτων ἄχη – sea-monsters and the lightning-flash – άλλ' ὑπέρτΞλμΞν άν|δρὸς φρόνημα τίς λέγΞι | καὶ γυναικῶν φρɛσὶν τλαμόνων | παντόλμΞυς ἔρωτας…;. The passion which motivated Clytaemnestra is not in question in the present ode, but πέρτΞλμΞν φρόνημα finds a parallel in σΞφόν τι τὸ μαχανόɛν and ὄτῳ τὸ μὴ καλὸν ξύνɛστι τόλμας χάριν (370-1).

page 11 note 1 Some have taken literally the Chorus's first suggestion that the first burial was θɛήλατΞν, adducing in support (a) that there would have been too little time between the opening scene, which seems to be just before daybreak, and the discovery by the first day-watchman (253), and (b) that as the ground was hard, dry and unbroken, ἄσημΞς Ξύργάτης τις ην ἦν (250–2). But the deed could have been accomplished rapidly and the handfuls of dust needed for the rite brought from elsewhere. In any case the subsequent dust-storm (417-19) indicates that a supply of dust cannot have been far to seek.

page 11 note 2 Jebb's remark on 429 that no libation had been poured, though true, seems therefore beside the point. Was the libation really indispensable to the ritual?

page 11 note 3 It is difficult to believe that the double burial is a mere dramatic device to enable us to observe Creon's reaction in two instalments – first his anger at the defiance of his edict, then his exasperation at the revelation of the culprit and her attitude. All that was needed for that was a report of the burial and of the Guards' efforts to track down the culprit, followed in the next scene by the actual capture. In any event the notion that the dramatists approached their task opportunistically, striving for maximum effect in each scene without regard to the continuity of their plays, while obviously appropriate to the loose structure of Old Comedy, is not really plausible when applied to Tragedy, with its more highly structured form, closely controlled by traditional μῡθΞι which for all their coincidences and arbitrarinesses can hardly be described as incoherent. It seems in fact to be due to the paradoxical combination of a natural reluctance to assume that any faults we do detect, any loose ends or inconsistencies, must be there in the play and not due to the limitations in our understanding of it with a desire at the same time to admit no serious fault in a tragedy; any blemish we do discern must promptly be converted into a beauty spot. It would not be surprising if the minute inspection of the written text of what was after all composed for oral presentation on one, or at most a few, occasions were to reveal occasional blemishes. This is after all the case with Shakespeare and indeed most other dramatists of modern European literature, whose cultural proximity to the twentieth-century reader moreover enables more confident assessment. But such blemishes — and there are fewer of them discernible in Greek tragedy than some of the more eager Tychoists would admit — ought fairly to be charged to the dramatist's discredit and not elevated into a principle of dramatic composition.

page 12 note 1 Which was deemed effective enough by Aristotle to be cited as illustrating the distinction between natural justice and legality (Rhet. 1373 b) and the use to which the distinction can be put in forensic argument (ibid. 1375 a).

page 13 note 1 Whether this means ‘blind delusion that brings disaster’ or ‘destruction that comes through delusion’ is impossible to say. For a discussion of the word in its tragic settings see Dawe, R. D., ‘Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia,’ HSCP 72 (1968), 89123 .

page 14 note 1 The sentence ɛίδότι δ' Ξὐδέν ἔρπɛι | ττρίν πυρὶ θɛρμῷ πόδα τις πρΞσαύσῃ is difficult. The interpretation ‘nothing comes to a man knowingly before he burns his foot’ gives a generalization that is not only pointless but untrue, and Jebb is surely right to construe ‘it comes to a man who knows nothing until…’. But what is ‘it’? Jebb takes it as referring to the preceding ἀπάτα. But it must surely be ἁ πΞλύπλαγκτΞς έλπίς; for it is normal in Greek, as in English, to assume that, where no subject is explicit in the sentence, there is no change of subject from the preceding one. The ‘wandering hope’ that deceives us and blinds us to what lies ahead is thus a specific effect of the ἄτη mentioned at the end of the preceding stanza.

page 14 note 2 If 574 belongs to Ismene, to whom the manuscripts assign it, then their reaction at this point is even milder. Creon's retort to 576, καί σΞί γɛ κάμΞί, probably to be taken as agentive with δɛδΞγμένα rather than as marking interest in the verbal action, associates them closely with himself in the responsibility for the judgement. But, like Antigone's claim that the Chorus agreed with her, the words do not reveal objective fact so much as the mental attitude of the speaker.

page 16 note 1 The pattern is as follows:

page 17 note 1 Jebb observed that ‘the stone into which Niobe was changed may be likened to Antigone's rocky tomb', citing appropriately Electra 150-2, where Niobe is addressed, έν τάφῳ πɛτραίῳ | αἰαῑ δɛχκρύɛις. But the rocky tomb on which this analogy depends has not yet been mentioned by Antigone or the Chorus.

page 17 note 2 It is perhaps unnecessary to emend to πρΞσέπαισɛς, though this would be less ambiguous. πρΞσπίπτɛιν is used of ships running aground in Polyb. 1. 39. 3. The preposition tells against the meaning ‘to fall in supplication’, which has a datival complement at Trach. 904 even of an inanimate object βωμΞῖσι.

page 18 note 1 Creon has come on at the end of, or perhaps some way through, the kommos, and presumably goes off after giving instructions for Antigone's entombment (883-8) and asserting his innocence of her death (889). Nothing in Antigone's speech implies his presence, and the intimacy of its whole tone strongly suggests that she is alone with the Chorus.

page 19 note 1 Jebb's stylistic arguments against 909-10 certainly have some force, and, if this couplet is to be excised, 908 must go too. The three lines could indeed be treated as an interpolation, spelling out the implications of the preceding lines, though they may be a clumsy paraphrase of something that originally stood in the text but had been badly preserved or even lost in the transmission soon after the play was performed.

page 19 note 2 1028-34 κἀνὰ κίνδυνΞν βαλῶ | θάψασ' ἀδɛλφΞν τὸν ἐμόν Ξὐδ' αἰσχὺνΞμαι | ἔχΞυσ' ἄπιστΞν τήνδ' ἀναρχίαν πόλɛι*middot; | δɛινὸν τὸ κΞινὸν ΞπλάγχνΞν, Ξὗ πɛφύκαμɛν | μητρὸς ταλαίνης κάπΞ δυστήνΞυ πατρός. | τΞιγάρ θέλΞυσ' ἄκΞντι κΞινώνɛι κακῶν, | ψυχή, θανόντι зῶσα, συγγόνῳ φρɛνί.

page 19 note 3 In neither context are the alternative motives left unmentioned, e.g. 77 to Ismene, 467, 511-22 (significantly in the angry stichomythia) to Creon.

page 23 note 1 It is true that Teiresias has prophesied the death of Haemon, but the inevitability of events ordained by fate and foretold by prophecy does not in tragedy remove the element of individual choice, exercised by human agents in these events, from the complex chain of causation that brings them to pass. If philosophers have still not succeeded in resolving the logical contradictions between determinism and freewill, we can hardly be surprised that these appear unreconciled in the view of human life presented in dramatic form by fifth-century Attic tragedians.

page 25 note 1 930-1018, where the son, there called Menoeceus, dies during the Argive attack as an act of expiation to Ares, who still stubbornly harbours his anger against the race of ΞφαρτΞί for Cadmus' slaughter of the serpent. In Aesch, . Septem 474-7 Megareus' coming death is mentioned, but no details are given.

page 26 note 1 If tragedy pertains to one whose actions produce catastrophic results that are the opposite of what he had expected of them, then Creon, not Antigone, is the truly tragic character. For she has seen from the very beginning what the consequences of her decision would be, and though in having her faith in the religious justification of her actions shaken at the end she becomes intensely moving and pathetic, she cannot be called tragic in the strict sense of the term.

The Role of the Chorus in Sophocles' Antigone

  • Robert Coleman (a1)


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