A Study of Ancient Tragedy: Sophocles’ Antigone

Mr. Steel


This unit of study in ancient tragedy is designed to engage students in the task of making mature, responsible decisions. The word tragedy, as we use it today, is often applied to horrible car accidents, murders, suicides, the death of a young person, or a catastrophic, unfathomable “act of God.” We use the word tragedy whenever some form of suffering offends our sense of justice in the extreme. However, this quite ordinary use of the word does not correctly communicate the meaning of tragedy at its beginnings. The word “tragedy,” in fact, is derived from Greek, and means “goat song.” Tragedies were part of the festivals held in early Greek society (starting around 535 BCE) in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy (goats and satyrs, or half-man, half-goat beings were associated with Dionysus). Tragedy, as a literary form, is the study of the human soul in the process of making decisions.

Making good, mature, responsible decisions is not easy. Students who read Sophocles’ Antigone seriously will come to see that making good decisions can involve tremendous suffering for justice -- what the Greeks referred to as dike. In the play, the characters must look to find justice, and justice cannot simply be equated with following the laws of the land; in fact, Antigone rejects the laws of Creon as unjust, and Creon rejects the established laws concerning the treatment of the dead as inadequate to deal with the serious problems of treachery and political upheaval that almost destroyed his city. Both characters must look beyond the law; they must dig deep down into themselves to find an order of justice or dike that is higher than the laws as they are. Only when an individual is forced to descend into the depths of his or her soul to seek out what is the right thing to do is there real tragedy, in the Greek sense of the word. Dionysus is the god of these descents into the soul, and this is why the festivals were held in his honour by the Greeks. Sophocles’ Antigone is not a tragedy just because there are a lot of people who die in it; it is a tragedy because it involves digging deep down into the soul to find out what is right. People tell us what is right all the time: our friends, our teachers, and our parents only to name a few; but tragic action doesn’t occur when you just do what other people have told you is the right thing to do, or when you simply obey the law because it dictates what is right; nor are we engaged in tragic action when we calculate the “pluses” and the “minuses” of an action – i.e.: “What’s in it for me? How can I come out best from my choice?” Rather, action is entitled to be called “tragic” only if it involves a Dionysian descent into the soul to look for what is right. Most often, we’re forced into these sorts of situations, and that is why tragedy involves great suffering. That’s what happens in Sophocles’ play.


Student Work and Assessment:


Major: Students will work independently or in groups of no more than 5 people to compose and perform their own tragedy. This tragedy can involve any scenario (modern or otherwise), but it cannot simply be the sort of modern “car accident”-style tragedy. Rather, it must involve descent into the depths of the soul of one or more of the characters in order to seek out what is right. As in ancient Greek tragedies, students may want to choose a scenario where doing what the law says falls short of justice, but breaking the law for justice also involves suffering.


Major: Each student will write a 5-paragraph critical essay on the question: “Who was right? Antigone or Creon? Why?”


Minor: Time permitting, each student will watch a film adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone and write a short movie review. The following questions will be answered:

q       Students must discuss what they liked about the movie and why.

q       Students must discuss what they did not like about the movie and why.

q       Students must discuss whether or not the movie is "true" to the play as written by Sophocles. Did anything get left out? Was anything added?

q       Students must grade the movie on a scale of one to ten (ten being the best).


Daily Minors: Students will be assigned daily single-page (one side, double-spaced) reflective responses to questions posed in class. These responses will be due at the end of class, or by the beginning of the following class at the very latest.


Multiple Choice Reading Comprehension Unit Final: All students will try their hand at the unit final for Antigone, since practice at writing tests in the multiple choice format is important as preparation for provincial examinations.