Reality can be stressful, and releasing negativity can be difficult. In ancient Greece, tragic plays were said to aid in this relief process. In this lesson, we’ll analyze the concept of this release called catharsis and connect it to the play ”Antigone”.
Stressful day or week? Sometimes we just need a good cry session to let it all out. Aristotle thought so too when it came to the arts. He talked about the concept of catharsis that takes place when an audience watches a tragedy. From the Greek, this word means purging, cleansing, and/or purification. The process occurs when the events of a play provoke emotions such as fear or pity in the audience members. In turn, the audience members releases these negative emotions in connection to their own lives, leaving them feeling revived.
The play Antigone is a perfect example of the tragedies which Aristotle referenced. Let’s go on the emotional journey of the characters in the play and explore the concept of catharsis in connection to Sophocles’ work.
The Plot of Antigone
Before the play begins, the reader is given background information pertaining to a battle fought between two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. Their father exiled himself from Thebes and left the brothers to share the throne. When it was Polyneices’ turn to rule, Eteocles refused to relent his power, forcing Polyneices to leave the city. He eventually came back with an army, and both sides were destroyed. Polyneices and Eteocles died in battle, leaving their sisters Antigone and Ismene to carry on their bloodline. Since women were unable to hold power, their uncle Creon took the throne.
Creon sided with Eteocles and felt Polyneices was a traitor since he fought against his city, a big no-no in Greek culture. Creon ordered that Polyneices’ body should rot where it lay and not be buried, another big cultural no-no in ancient Greece. Creon declared that if anyone buried the body, that person would be killed. In the Prologue, Antigone is furious with her uncle, feeling she must honor her brother and the gods by burying the body. Not doing so would make Polyneices’ soul unable to get to the Underworld. This is where the story begins, and conflict ensues.
- Antigone: Antigone, the protagonist, decides she must bury her brother’s body. She receives no help from her sister and chooses to face death with confidence, but also a little too much pride, provoking her uncle along the way. We feel pity for Antigone and her situation.
- Creon: Creon, the antagonist, makes the original decree to kill anyone that goes against his order, but he argues on the side of public good. When his niece disobeys him, it puts him between a rock and a hard place. If Creon keeps his word, he must kill his niece, and come to find out, his soon to be daughter-in-law! Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon. If Creon does not fulfill his order, he will look weak in front of Thebes and lose control, seemingly favoring family over the polls. In one regard, the audience pities his conflict, but Creon’s bad attitude and prideful ways leave the audience feeling angry and fearful for the fate of Antigone and Haemon.
- Haemon: Haemon isn’t mentioned until the end of Scene 2 when Ismene tries to reason with Creon. Ismene reminds Creon if he kills Antigone, his son would suffer. We meet Haemon in Scene 3 when he attempts to calmly and rationally speak with his father regarding Antigone’s future. The audience pities Haemon as he fights for his bride, while truly loving and respecting his father. Creon hears none of the wisdom Haemon relays and chalks Haemon’s feelings up to being a dumb kid in love. Haemon threatens to kill himself if Antigone dies, but Creon calls his bluff. Haemon leaves the stage, the audience fears what will happen next.
At the end of the play, the conflicts are resolved, but only by death’s hand. Creon finally has a change of heart after speaking with Teiresias, a prophet, and the Chorus, the townspeople. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Creon finds Antigone’s body, her life taken by her own hands, and Haemon lamenting his loss. Haemon retaliates but ends up taking his own life. When Creon returns home, he finds his wife Eurydice has also taken her own life after hearing the news of Haemon’s death.
It is here that the audience truly feels Creon’s pain and remorse. The people in the audience have bonded with the characters for five scenes and are left with the deaths of the ones they pitied. While the play ends tragically, Creon’s remorse helps the audience see the other side of catharsis, the release of all the sympathy and terror experienced throughout the play and the revival on the other side. In the last words of the play, the people in the audience are reminded of the lessons learned by all. They’re able to purge their own real-life anxieties and fears through the tragedies of these characters.
While the journey ends poorly for the characters in Sophocles’ play Antigone, the audience feels a release that causes a spiritual or moral renewal of the self. This process, which Aristotle called catharsis, was said to be the value of the tragic arts.
Throughout the play, the people in the audience pity Antigone, as she has lost her brother and is forbidden to bury him. They also pity Antigone and Haemon’s relationship that ends with the deaths of both. Creon, the antagonist, instills fear and anger in the audience by threatening to kill Antigone and ruin his son’s future. In the end, at the price of his niece, son, and wife, Creon feels remorse for his actions. The people in the audience are able to move beyond their negative emotions and feel as though they have learned valuable lessons from Creon’s losses.