Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.27

Wm. Blake Tyrrell, Larry J. Bennett, Recapturing Sophocles' Antigone.   Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.  Pp. xiv, 176.  ISBN 0-8476-9217-5.  $21.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Martin R. Boyne, Champlain College, Trent University (
Word count: 1705 words

As is so clear from the seminal work by George Steiner,1 the range of "Antigones" that have filled stages, pages, screens, and audio speakers is immense. What fascinates us about Antigone? Is it her courage to stand up against authority? Probably. Is it the fact that she defies what appears to be a "wrong" decision on the part of a "bad" tyrant? No doubt. Is it the fact that she does all this while also being a woman? Certainly. This modern perception of Sophocles' Antigone is exactly the type of perception that Wm. Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett (T/B) acknowledge and then try to replace in their comprehensive analysis of the play, Recapturing Sophocles' Antigone. This concise yet thorough treatment of the play is a selective commentary, an episode-by-episode examination of its themes, with one clear message: that the play is perhaps best appreciated by imagining how its fifth-century Athenian audience would have received and understood it, in other words, by "recapturing" it from the grip of twentieth-century views and beliefs. Such views, according to T/B, tend to obscure the values and rituals which would have been so integral to its first performance in the ancient theatre.

The authors do well to state clearly that modern readers have every right to read or view the Antigone according to their own desires and preferences (23, e.g.). However, they also make a very convincing case for reading the play in terms of Sophocles' intentions and his fifth-century audience. The ideas to which they consistently return can be summarized as follows: (1) the importance of the Antigone as a play about Thebes and thus steeped in "anti-Athens mythmaking" (21, after Zeitlin2); (2) the question of who actually has jurisdiction over Polyneices' corpse in terms of fifth-century social and cultural norms, which leads to (3), the creation of an "outer frame" and an "inner frame," respectively representing the public domain of Creon and the private domain of women and the family, i.e., specifically Antigone. T/B reiterate, especially throughout the introduction, that while a modern audience must make a special effort to understand the intentions of Sophocles, no such effort was required by the fifth-century audience for whom the poet was writing. This appears to be one of the pivotal tenets of T/B's theory: that a complete grasp of the play can only be achieved by "recapturing" what it must have been like for the audience watching the play in 438 (their proposed year of production and one for which they provide interesting but highly contestable evidence [3-4]). The rest of the book becomes something of a manual for doing just that.

Before outlining the sections of T/B's book, which need little explanation since they follow the text from start to finish, I will discuss the authors' central themes in a little more detail. The theme of Athenian and anti-Athenian mythmaking, which in the Antigone manifests itself as Creon qua Theban exemplifying what every good Athenian tyrant should not be, centres mainly around Creon's method of dealing with the corpse, and especially his lack of respect for it ("[Creon] embodies the stereotype of Theban leaders in anti-Athens mythmaking who, by definition, mistreat corpses" [45]). To view Creon in light of his role as non-Athenian, and thus as Theban, is more accurate than a modern view which disregards this important notion. Indeed, the authors do well to emphasize the assumed significance of traditional mythmaking to the ancient audience, a significance which can be understood only through its relationship to the audience's own contemporary society, and not our own.

The same importance can be extended to the audience's understanding of the plight of the corpse that is the catalyst for the entire tragedy. A modern audience, T/B argue, cannot immediately appreciate the various roles played by the city, by men, or by women in public funerals; they draw heavily and helpfully on recent insight into this aspect of Greek society and ritual, as well as ancient commentators on the subject (citing the funeral orations by Demosthenes, Hyperides, Lysias, and Thucydides). This line of analysis helps to shift the debate over "Who's right and who's wrong?" (the standard modern-day question on the play) away from Creon as "harsh authority figure" and Antigone as "feminist" or "defender of the family" to the two central characters' roles within a fifth-century context unaware of such concepts stated in this manner. The chapter on Antigone's famous kommos (781ff.; Chapter Six) is particularly well done in this regard. T/B's focus on Antigone's attitude in the kommos toward the public funeral as well as toward marriage (both to Haemon and to Hades), creates a strong argument for Antigone's involvement in both the inner and outer frames of the authors' analysis (and thus at the heart of the play's problematic nature). Central to the success of such an argument is their premise that a complete understanding of Antigone the character in the play can only be formed through an awareness of her as "a very real phenomenon" (98) in the culture of Sophocles' time. T/B add that "to reconstruct a social experience common to most young Athenian women as background for what is happening to Antigone is not only appropriate but consistent with our approach to recapturing the play through the eyes of Sophocles' original audience" (99n6).

While T/B appear more sympathetic to Antigone's position than to Creon's, their goal is not to take sides as others have done. Instead, they remain true to their promise of exploring some of the trickier issues of the play through an analysis rooted in an understanding of contemporary fifth-century Athenian beliefs and values. Here the authors' use of inner and outer frames is particularly relevant, not because the issues can fall neatly into "private vs. public" or "city vs. family" (the play is too complex for such a binary analysis), but rather because these two frames serve as useful means by which to analyze the play's problems simultaneously from Creon's and Antigone's perspectives. In essence, through their close reading of the play, T/B present the issues from both sides so that modern readers might benefit through their own close reading.

Such a close reading is fostered by T/B's organization. Following an introductory chapter in which they establish their "insights, contexts, [and] methods," each of the seven remaining chapters discusses the major sections of the play in turn, cleverly focusing through its title on the central element in that section. "Ismene's Choice" sets up the two different sisters and deals with the audience's reaction to their attitudes toward the corpse and to Creon's edict. "The Dust" suggests the importance of the infamous "double burial." T/B argue rather convincingly here for the gods' intervention in "protecting" Polyneices' corpse, not because it somehow minimizes Antigone's later role in the burial, but rather because it stresses Creon's impiety in denying the body proper rites. As T/B conclude the chapter, "Antigone for the authorial audience is about who is in control of the dead and of mourning for the dead. That Creon is impious and that the gods have protected Polyneices' body momentarily contribute to Sophocles' presentation of fodder for thought about such social issues" (62). This is in keeping with the authors' view throughout the book that Sophocles had clearly-defined ideas about his audience and how they might react to the "social issues" they encounter.

The first of two chapters with Antigone as the central focus is "Antigone, Teras," dealing with Antigone's admission of guilt, her ensuing encounter with Creon, and the re-emergence of Ismene. While ostensibly the chapter also deals, as its subtitle suggests ("First Stasimon and Second Episode"), with the choral ode preceding this episode, T/B's treatment of the choral sections (parodos and kommos excepted) is generally less satisfying than their discussion of the episodes themselves. The choral sections, while mentioned in passing throughout, receive approximately one paragraph of discussion at the beginning of most chapters, and I welcomed the detailed analysis of the crucial and difficult fourth stasimon (944ff.) at the beginning of Chapter 7. Similar discussion of the other stasima would have been a significant enhancement to the book and more in line with its overall approach as textual commentary. As the analysis continues through "Haemon: Son and Citizen," the aforementioned "Antigone: Bride of Hades," and "The Prophet Speaks," the reader is carried toward the ultimate demise of Creon in the concluding chapter, "Creon's Defeat," a title which reveals not a little about the authors' attitudes toward the character. Despite disappointing treatment of the ode to Dionysus, which carries so much ironic value at this unexpectedly "high" point of the action, the book ends strongly by returning us to the point where the audience would be immediately after their "reading" of the original production: awaiting the judges' decision.

This judge's decision is predominantly positive following the performance of Recapturing Sophocles' Antigone. The book has numerous strengths, not limited to its excellent documentation, helpful and often provocative notes, and clear explanation of the issues rather than dogmatic pursuit of "a point." There are some weaknesses, of which three are worthy of comment here. First is the rather pointless inclusion of both Greek and English for practically every quotation. The total number of pages devoted to this overall could have been better used, for example, for a fuller discussion of the chorus, especially since the translation is quite literal, making the need for both unclear. Second, somewhat more pedantic, is the irritating habit of repeating "Sophocles' Antigone" in the first reference to the play in every paragraph. It might be technically accurate (at a push) but surely redundant and certainly distracting. Only in very few cases would the reference by line number alone have been ambiguous. Finally, the index is weak and incomplete; a reference to "inner and outer frames," for instance, would have been useful; there are numerous omissions in cross-referencing entries; and the entries themselves are frequently poor.

None of these concerns should stand in the way of a recommendation, however. Tyrrell and Bennett's book is a valuable addition to the literature on this fascinatingly complex play and is of use to students of the play at all levels, from the advanced Greekless undergraduate to the serious scholar of tragedy and ritual.


1.   George Steiner, Antigones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
2.   Froma Zeitlin, "Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama," in J. Peter Euben (ed.), Greek Tragedy and Political Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).

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