Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.02

Mark Griffith, Sophocles Antigone.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xii, 366.  ISBN 0-521-01073-X.  $75.00.  ISBN 0-521-33701-1.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Geoff Bakewell, Creighton University (
Word count: 1587 words

The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.

Mark Griffith has once again produced an outstanding addition to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.1 Like others in the series, his edition consists of introduction, text, apparatus, and commentary, and addresses a wide range of audiences. At one level the book is aimed at upper-level undergraduates. G. sees his first responsibility as helping all readers (especially those less familiar with Sophocles) fit together the Greek, "word by word and phrase by phrase" (vii). His explanations of syntax are straightforward, his (occasional) identifications of forms helpful. Thus his edition, while neither as student-friendly nor as inexpensive as Gross's Bryn Mawr commentary, is nevertheless a fine choice in this regard.2 Moving a rung higher, G.'s introduction has two main interpretive goals: to get into the heads and hearts of Antigone's original audience, and to sketch the vast range of meanings the work has come to assume today. He is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in the former, and turns primarily to the play's characters for guidance. On his view Ismene, the guard, the messenger, and above all the chorus offer the best windows onto the thoughts and feelings of those gathered ca. 441 in the Theater of Dionysus. The Theban Elders prove to be "voices of stodgy and conventional civic normality" (18); their shifting responses to the events around them reveal the limitations of all human understanding and endeavor, while leaving the status quo essentially intact. With regard to contemporary meanings, G. offers inter alia brief aesthetic, philosophical, structuralist, psychoanalytic, and political readings of the play (all of which are well-grounded in recent scholarship). The breadth of his survey notwithstanding, G. is not an interpretive relativist: he finds some approaches and conclusions "more fruitful, more adequate to the text, and more convincing than others" (25). The full contours of his own Antigone emerge in the extensive and informative commentary that follows. Simply put, G.'s work is a tour de force. In the paragraphs below I limn a few of its many contributions.

With regard to meter, G. gathers the best insights of his predecessors while adding his own. His extensive formal outline of the play introduces literary terminology, gives choreographical information, provides a brief typology of scenes, and catalogues the various meters employed. In his scansions of the choral odes he does not proceed linearly, but instead pairs lines from strophes with their corresponding mates from antistrophes. As a result many familiar metrical points emerge with new force. Consider his treatment of the antitheses παντοπόρος/ἄπορος (l. 360) and ὑψίπολις/ἄπολις (l. 370), long recognized as central to the famous πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ stasimon (ll. 332-375). G.'s analysis duly stresses their metrical equivalence, leading line position, and placement in the (anti)strophe. But seeing one atop the other leads the reader to ponder possible connections (reinforced by punctuation, resolution, and alliteration) between the pairs παντοπόρος and ὑψίπολις, ἄπορος and ἄπολις. G.'s own observations are equally welcome. Under his skilled guidance even an apparently paltry remark like the guard's φεῦ (l. 323) in his first exchange with Kreon takes on added meaning: "the extra-metrum exclamation, interrupting the flow of stichomythia, marks this as a significant moment ... and underlines the degree to which the Guard by now controls the terms, tone, and pace of the discussion" (178). In its continuing links between meaning and meter, G.'s edition is first-rate.

G. is likewise attuned to philological nuance. In adopting the view that Sophocles uses language as a means of characterization, he builds on the work of others. With regard to Antigone, for instance, G. shows how her speech reflects her nature. At l. 523 Antigone claims οὔτοι συνέχθειν ἀλλὰ συμφιλεῖν ἔφυν. He notes that the verbs συνέχθειν and συμφιλεῖν occur nowhere else in classical Greek; like her words, Antigone's own φύσις is a hapax (211). G. rightly shies away from labeling either Kreon or Antigone as tragic protagonist: "the key events of the drama depend precisely on the interaction and interdependence of both figures ... Without one, there could be no tragedy for the other" (36). G. demonstrates how Sophocles' language makes this point again and again. He notes the way in which the two characters repeatedly appropriate and redeploy each other's words (e.g. ll. 185-6 and 9-10; ll. 192-206 and 23-32). Likewise, G. shows how Kreon's discovery of Haimon within the tomb (related via messenger) "grotesquely recalls Tiresias' mantic activity at 998-1004" (332). G.'s ability to detect verbal echoes throughout the text is superb.

G.'s remarks about Antigone's staging are insightful; in this regard his edition constitutes a significant advance over those of Jebb and Kamerbeek.3 He is particularly good on the semantics of entrances and exits. In the first scene, for instance, Antigone and Ismene both enter through the central door, but depart separately, the former via a parodos and the latter back through the door. As he notes, these movements dramatize the fact that the pair of sisters, whose unity was emphasized by the first scene's duals, now "are going separate ways" (136).4 He also explores the way comings and goings interact with gender. Male characters generally use the parodos to enter, females the door. Thus Antigone's repeated use of the parodos highlights the 'masculine' element that Kreon so fears in her (cf. l. 484). G. is also aware of the implications the mere presence of a character may have. Ordinarily, all the actors depart the stage between scenes, leaving the chorus alone to perform their odes. Yet G. claims that Kreon probably remains on stage during the third (ll. 582-625, εὐδαίμονες οἷσι) and fifth (ll. 944-87, ἔτλα καὶ Δανάας) choral odes, and perhaps for the fourth (ll. 781-801, Ἔρως ἀνίκατε μάχην).5 According to him, Kreon likely affects their response to Antigone's kommos (ll. 801-882) as well: "his brooding presence could account for the ambivalence of the Chorus, sorrowing over Antigone's fate, yet still not retracting their support of the king" (261). For G., even the role division among actors proves significant. He has one actor playing Kreon; a second Antigone, Haimon, Teiresias, and Eurydice; and a third Ismene, the guard, and the messenger. Such a division means that "the four opponents of Kreon would thus all be heard speaking with one voice, as it were ... while no.3's characters present themselves (without song) as representatives of a more sober and mundane mentality" (23). With staging as with meter, G. convincingly locates meaning even in small details.

Finally, as one might expect from his previous work on the Oresteia, G.'s reading of Antigone is ultimately political.6 According to him the play reflects (albeit in exaggerated and distorted form) "the social realities of contemporary Athens" (3). At the linguistic level this is seen in Sophocles' use of language drawn from fifth-century legal terminology: προκεῖσθαι (l. 36), ἀγκιστεῖα (l. 174), ἐπισκήπτειν (l. 1313), and the like. More broadly, G. notes how Kreon's defense of his edict at ll. 162-210 incorporates the themes and vocabulary of contemporary political debate at Athens. But above all, G.'s Antigone is rooted in the tension between aristocracy and democracy.7 According to him, Kreon becomes increasingly tyrannical in the course of the play, preferring discipline and order to ισηγορία, παρρησία, and εὔθυνα. And this contributes in no small part to his ruin. Indeed, the final scene is decisive for G's 'democratic' reading of the work. As Kreon is led away, the chorus offer bromides about good sense and piety. "Though this familiar 'lesson' ... may be small recompense for the pain suffered by Ant., Haimon, Eurydike, and Kreon, the persistence of a stolid communal voice is an important element ... Kreon is shattered, his family and that of Oidipous virtually obliterated; but the mundane life of normal Thebans continues" (354).

G.'s own style is refreshingly clear. He gives scholarly matters great and small their jargonly due. Yet he also adopts colloquial diction to good effect. Oidipous, for instance, is described as "moping around Thebes for several years" (5). The chorus' remarks are characterized as often "bland and inconsequential" (162). And at one point G. wonders whether "Ant. and Haimon were played in S.'s first production as attractive, warm-blooded, idealistic teenagers, or as bratty, petulant trouble-makers" (25).

G.'s text is not radically different from the OCT of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, and his is a simplified apparatus. He generally records readings as belonging to a minority/majority/unanimity of MSS, rather than to individuals or families. He also omits orthographical variants which affect neither meaning nor meter. G. is nevertheless prepared to argue the merits of particular readings and emendations at length (e.g. αὐτόν/αὐτό at l. 1227). The volume itself is attractively produced and almost typo-free. Indeed, my only criticism of the editing is the decision to to use iota adscript rather than subscript in the text and notes. (In my experience adscripts provide unnecessary difficulty for intermediate students, who already have enough choices to make when identifying forms.)

In conclusion, G.'s greatest virtue is his ability to show in considerable, convincing detail how all the elements of Antigone, especially the formal ones, contribute to its many meanings. Intermediate and advanced students will find this work invaluable. It is arguably the best one-volume edition of a specific tragedy currently in print, and serves as a fine in-depth introduction to the genre as a whole. And advanced scholars will delight in the many insights G. has to offer. His edition is a worthy successor to Jebb, making a venerable play we thought we knew by heart seem by turns vivid and unfamiliar.


1.   Cf. his earlier Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
2.   Nicholas Gross, Sophocles Antigone, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988.
3.   R.C. Jebb, Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments. Part 3: The Antigone, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1888; J.C. Kamerbeek, The Plays of Sophocles: Commentaries: Part III The Antigone, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978.
4.   Cf. his "Antigone and Her Sister(s): Embodying Women in Greek Tragedy," in Making Silence Speak: Women's Voices in Greek Literature and Society, eds. Andre/ Lardinois and Laura McClure, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001: 117-136.
5.   In this regard he sides with A. Brown, Sophocles: Antigone, Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1987: 184.
6.   "Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the Oresteia," Classical Antiquity 14 (1995): 62-129.
7.   G.'s approach here bears important similarities with that mapped out by Peter Rose in Sons of the Gods, Children of Earth, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

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