A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence

Rebecca McCarthy, Kaplan University


In Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke writes about the concept of transcendence: “When approached from a certain point of view, A and B are ‘opposites.’ We mean by ‘transcendence’ the adoption of another point of view from which they cease to be opposites” (Attitudes Toward History 336). One of the best ways to transcend “opposites” or either/or arguments is through a perspective by incongruity or, as Burke terms it, the comic corrective where a “comic synthesis [of] antithetical emphasis would ‘Transcend’ them by stressing man in society” (170). There is no dramatic piece that better demonstrates the tragic results of either/or arguments, the process of developing and adopting another, dialectically ordered point of view in order to achieve transcendence, and the pivotal role that a perspective by incongruity, the comic corrective, plays in transcendence than Sophocles’ Antigone. Although tragic, when examined through a Burkean lens the Antigone reveals itself to be not only a heartbreaking tale ending in death and destruction, but an allegory, a lesson regarding the reaffirmation of life and renewal of symbolic action through the process of transcendence.

I argue that Sophocles did not intend to present either Antigone or Creon as the hero/heroine for his tragic play, as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and others stipulate. Rather, Sophocles presents the Chorus and the Watchman as the true heroic figures. First, I will briefly review Sophocles’ Antigone, and demonstrate how Antigone and Creon rely on bureaucratized reduced scoped frames (Burke ,em>Attitudes Toward History 100-02) of ideographic (McGee 1980) “rule-of-law” arguments that not only reinforces “parliamentary” and “barnyard” conflict (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187), but work to induce what I term “Ismenism,” a type of Burkean sheer motion. Next, I will explore the Chorus’ use of lyrical/dramatic perspective by incongruity and its affect for an audience. Finally I will demonstrate how the Watchman, though the use of comedy, is able to create a comedic perspective by incongruity for the Chorus of Elders who is then moved to create an ultimately ordered mode of transcendence (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187) through the collective action frame of justice. This wider scoped frame of justice successfully counters the narrow either/or parliamentary rule-of-law arguments used by Antigone and Creon.

The Antigone

Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone was introduced to an Athenian audience as a solo entry in the Dionysian competition around 442-441 B.C.E. Part of Sophocles’ unintentional trilogy, the now called Theban Cycle included Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone (Woodruff xxvii).[1] In Antigone, which depicts the story of the final fall of the house of Oedipus, Creon, Antigone’s uncle and King of Thebes, has decreed that no one shall bury Polyneices, Antigone’s brother, who brought an army against Thebes in order to take the throne from his brother Eteoclês. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the reader finds that Polyneices and Eteoclês were at first content to allow their uncle Creon to rule as regent in order to avoid bringing pollution onto the city of Thebes. However, as Ismene explains to Oedipus, there soon developed a rivalry between the two brothers, and the younger brother Eteoclês deprived Polyneices of the throne (Oedipus at Colonus 228-29). Polyneices, determined to win kingship, brings an army against Thebes, and war ensues. Antigone resumes events after the war, revealing that Polyneices and Eteoclês have killed each other during battle, leaving Creon to rule (Antigone line 14). Creon is honoring Eteoclês as a hero of the state, giving him a proper burial, but he is condemning Polyneices as an enemy by leaving his body unburied and exposed to the elements. Antigone, who is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon, cannot bear to leave her brother Polyneices unburied, and defies Creon’s edict twice in the name of “unwritten laws” which, she says, supersede the laws of man and state (line 457). It is the nonburial of Polyneices that causes the main conflict in the play. As Woodruff points out, in the introduction to his translation of Antigone, not burying a traitor was common in ancient Greece since it placed shame on the traitor as well as his entire family. However, to leave a corpse exposed as food for animals was extreme. The body was normally thrown into a pit or the sea, thereby avoiding the possibility of its causing pollution, a type of curse that invades the land “that has not treated its dead with propriety,” while still maintaining a stigma of shame (Woodruff x). Antigone is reacting to the extreme nature of Creon’s edict. When she is caught during her second attempt to bury her brother Polyneices (Antigone lines 423-35), she claims that ancient unwritten laws, greater than the laws of man, dictate that the gods be honored by proper burial of the dead. Creon retorts that order must be maintained by obedience to the laws of the state. Thus, when Antigone is caught after burying her brother a second time, Creon condemns her to be buried alive (lines 773-776). Yet his condemnation and his burial edict towards both Polyneices and Antigone bring “pollution” to the city of Thebes (lines 1014-1015). Creon learns of his crimes too late, by the blind seer Tiresias, and his own house falls with the consequent suicides of his last living son Haemon, and his wife Eurydice.

There are several other characters in Antigone, including Antigone’s sister Ismene, the Chorus, a Watchman, and a Messenger, but many scholars, theatre goers, and readers leave this play with the tragic image of Antigone and Creon fighting it out, holding their ground rigidly and finally dissolving into non-winnable oppositions of private versus public, man versus woman, the secular versus the religious, and so on. Playwrights reinterpreting or translating the Antigone tend to focus on the either/or conflict between Antigone and Creon, often at the expense of other characters including the watchman and the Chorus, who is frequently reduced to a single player or gotten rid of altogether. The attraction, of course, is the intense and tragic relationship between Antigone and Creon and how we, the audience, identify with either Antigone’s argument for family and the gods, or Creon’s argument for the state.

Antigonal and Creonic Framing and Ismenism

Antigone[2] and Creon[3] utilize an identical form of righteous, absolutist argument construction to defend their respective causes – frames that allow no transcendence of their either/or construction. A frame is a word, phrase, or concept that evokes a “conceptual structure used in thinking” (Lakoff "Simple Framing" para. 1; Tarrow 61). Deep or master frames, as defined by Lakoff and Halpin, are conceptual frames rooted in our values and principles (para. 13) that work on an unconscious reaction level in the same way that ideology is said to sway individuals. From a Burkean point of view, master frames can reduce action to motion, creating “a kind of inverted transcendence” (A Grammar of Motives 10), where an individual is no longer “in conscious or purposive motion” (14).

Indeed, many employers of deep frames rely on the fact that humans will simply react to the frame used instead of critically acting. This often occurs with polarizing frames that rely on, first, an appeal to emotion (pathos) and, second, a reduction of scope where “there is the reduction of one terminology to another” (Burke A Grammar of Motives 96). With regard to the former in Antigone, both Antigone and Creon resort to using emotional fear tactics whenever someone challenges their master frame. Creon, for example, insults and tries to scare the Chorus when they suggest that maybe the gods had a hand in burying Polyneices: “You want to prove that you’re as stupid as you are old?” (line 279). Likewise, when Ismene disagrees with Antigone’s plan to bury Polyneices, Antigone threatens to cut Ismene out of her life (lines 44-77). With regard to a reduction of scope, both Antigone and Creon reduce their discourse to a narrow frame of “parliamentary jangle” (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 189), constructing what I term Antigonal and Creonic discourses. Antigonal discourse, with its appeal to the-unwritten-rule-of-law, involves vague language that is linked to concepts of “universal law,” “universal rights,” “divine laws,” or “private rights” that are not defined or specified. Similarly, Creonic discourse, with its appeal to a nationalistic rule-of-law, is vague discourse that direct issues back towards concepts of the state and civic/public rule-of-law. Both forms of discourse rely on the emotional and the reductive to propel individuals into what Burke calls an “inverted transcendence” (Burke Attitudes Toward History 90) and sheer motion space that I term Ismenism.[4] This Ismene syndrome is demonstrated through the character of Ismene (Antigone’s sister) who disagrees with Antigone’s plan to bury their brother Polyneices, originally refusing to help (lines 49-68). Later, however, she will declare herself Antigone’s accomplice (lines 536-537), because she fears being cut out of Antigone’s life (lines 544-545).

It is important to clarify the concept of Ismenism in relation to Burke’s understanding of sheer motion. As Burke explains, action, dramatically considered, is defined as “the human body in conscious or purposive motion” (A Grammar of Motives 14). Sheer motion, on the other hand, occurs when the human body is being acted upon and is lacking conscious will. Burke further states that the action-motion pair constitutes a basic polarity ("(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action" 809); however, whereas sheer motion does not require symbolic action for its existence, “there could be no symbolic action unless grounded in the realm of motion” (811). This distinction is vital because there are times when humans react symbolically, and these reactions are sometimes conscious reactions, and, in other moments, habitual reactions that take on the characteristics of sheer motion. Burke views reaction, Ismenism, as “action-minus” or “attitude-minus,” which is “halfway between motion and action” (A Grammar of Motives 237). Unfortunately, just like the character Ismene, who disappears from the final half of the play, Ismenism works to move people into the background, or backdrop of life—a tactic that both Antigone and Creon rely on

Narrow Worldviews

Life, for Creon, can only be understood through the narrow lens of the public sphere and the state. Creon relates his views on family, honor and love back to the state, and the state works to define and determine these relations and conditions (Nussbaum 55). Likewise, Segal calls this narrowing of the Creonic framework a “perverted concept of logos” that Creon uses as “an instrument of rule” (162). Consequently, as Nussbaum shows, all ethical issues, all personal and private issues, are connected, for Creon, narrowly with the state and a perverted logos: honor and respect (55), what is just and good (56), family, sexuality (57), and the role the gods (58). For example, concerning what is just or right, Creon does not look at the larger issues of ethics or the contingent nature of what constitutes the good, but sees leadership and justice in absolute terms: “But when the city takes a leader, you must obey,/ Whether his commands are trivial, or right, or wrong” (lines 667-668).[6] Here, the civic good is established only through a leader: “Creon has, then, made himself a deliberative world into which tragedy cannot enter. Insoluble conflicts cannot arise, because there is only a single supreme good, and all other values are functions of that good” (Nussbaum 58). This reduction of linguistic and ethical scope, of reducing one terminology to another (A Grammar of Motives 96), is central for Creon’s attempt to control his surroundings and therefore avoid tragedy. In the end, Creon’s linguistic and ethical framework is so narrow that he cannot entertain other modes of being, nor can he transcend conflict insofar as he works to deny the validity or existence of conflict itself. Conversely, yet similarly, Antigone views life through the narrow lens of the private sphere and the family. Indeed, Antigone’s discourse is narrowed to connect conditions of love, honor, family and state to the narrow frame of kinship (Nussbaum 63) and a perverted sense of “mythos” (Segal 165). Just as Creon’s definition of the state is “impoverished” and simplistic (Nussbaum 60), so too is Antigone’s definition of kinship a “ruthless simplification of the world of value” (63). As Nussbaum further points out, Antigone draws a tight “circle around the members of her family: what is inside . . . is family. Therefore loved one and friend; what is outside is non-family, therefore, in any conflict with the family, enemy” (63). Segal agrees, and adds that Antigone “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values . . . by challenging one principle of civilization in the name of another, she generates a tragic division that calls the nature of social order itself into question” (152). Further, as in Creon’s case, anyone who disagrees with Antigone is cut from her life and, in a sense, no longer exists.

Conversely, yet similarly, Antigone views life through the narrow lens of the private sphere and the family. Indeed, Antigone’s discourse is narrowed to connect conditions of love, honor, family and state to the narrow frame of kinship (Nussbaum 63) and a perverted sense of “mythos” (Segal 165). Just as Creon’s definition of the state is “impoverished” and simplistic (Nussbaum 60), so too is Antigone’s definition of kinship a “ruthless simplification of the world of value” (63). As Nussbaum further points out, Antigone draws a tight “circle around the members of her family: what is inside . . . is family. Therefore loved one and friend; what is outside is non-family, therefore, in any conflict with the family, enemy” (63). Segal agrees, and adds that Antigone “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values . . . by challenging one principle of civilization in the name of another, she generates a tragic division that calls the nature of social order itself into question” (152). Further, as in Creon’s case, anyone who disagrees with Antigone is cut from her life and, in a sense, no longer exists.

A Burkean Tragedy

It is important to note that both Antigone and Creon’s actions and argument frames entail what Burke terms tragic. Tragedy, for Burke, “is not profound unless the poet imagines the crime—and in thus imagining it, he symbolically commits it” (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 48). In the case of the Antigone, both Creon and Antigone imagine a crime and then proceed to commit the crime imagined. For example, Antigone imagines that Creon’s crime against the family occurs when he refuses to allow both of his nephews’ proper burial, putting “fatherland” above familial bonds (line 516). However, Antigone betrays family bonds at the top of the play when she ostracizes her sister, Ismene, because she does not agree with Antigone and refused to help bury Polyneices. Creon also commits the crime he imagined others committing. For Creon this entails duty to the rule-of-law. In this case, Creon is relentless to those who would break his decree regarding the burial of Polyneices. Yet he, himself, commits the crime of breaking the rule-of-the-unwritten [spiritual]-laws the moment he forbids the burial of Polyneices (lines 23-26). In both cases, Creon and Antigone cannot see their own tragic crimes partly because they frame their worldviews within a strict reductive frame (ethical as well as linguistic) that, in effect, acts as a blinder, or as Burke would suggest a terministic screen (Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method 45). Again, this reductive scope is seen in the language employed by both Antigone and Creon, including their use of the “rule-of-law” ideograph.

Ideographic Rule-of-Law Framing

Both Creon and Antigone rely on parliamentary ideographs for their frames—hindering efforts at transcendence. As Michael McGee says in his essay “The Ideograph,” ideographs are the “one-termed sum of an orientation, the species of ‘God’ or ‘Ultimate’ term that will be used to symbolize the line of argument” in political discourse (429). These species of ultimate terms contain a “unique ideological [cultural] commitment” (428), rely on the status-quo of language, and are powerful tools for the rhetor who wishes to maintain the status-quo of not only discourse but power relations. In summing up the characteristics of the ideograph, McGee states:

It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable. . . Ideographs are culture-bound . . . [and] each member of the community is socialized, conditioned, to the vocabulary of ideographs as a prerequisite for ‘belonging’ to the society. (p. 435)
Words like “freedom,” “liberty,” and “justice” are all ideographs because, for the audience, they hold a multitude of emotional and cultural specific meanings, but are not specifically defined. As a consequence, a rhetor can use these words to sway an audience without asking them to think about the use or the context of the word being employed. Further, it is vital to note the connection between ideographs and frames, since ideographs can be used to erect and sustain master frames. As McGee rightly asserts, we are “‘conditioned,’ not directly to belief and behavior, but to a vocabulary of concepts that function as guides, warrants, reason, or excuses for behavior and belief” (428). I argue that frame building, a linguistic, symbolic act often occurs within a vocabulary that is culturally conditioned through and by our use of ideographs. I would also suggest that the frame itself is born into existence and becomes valid though the use of ideographs. Both the organizational frame and the supporting ideographs are in continuous need of each other, which can be understood by examining Antigone and Creon’s ideographic rule-of-law arguments.

In a brilliant move, Sophocles has both his main characters rely on the same parliamentary ideographic jangle or argument frame: The-Rule-of-Law. Both characters make the same argument: The law requires . . . However, because Antigone argues for the private/spiritual rule-of-law, while Creon argues for the public/civic rule-of-law, the two characters cannot see the similarities in their frames or arguments. As Burke explains in his Rhetoric of Motives, dialectical parliamentary jangle or confrontation occur when we allow arguments to “merely [confront] one another” without attempting to arrange the arguments in a “hierarchically” order, which would transform the “dialectical into an ‘ultimate’ order” (188-189). Both Antigone and Creon are stuck in this “barnyard” of parliamentary butting-heads because they cannot find a guiding principle that would unite their individually bureaucratized uses of the rule-of-law ideograph.

Antigone’s arguments are utopic and ambiguous in nature (Segal 152), and are based within her primary frame, the private familial and spiritual realm, which is constructed through her ideographic call to the rule-of-the-unwritten-laws (line 457). Her call to the “unwritten laws” is utopic because Antigone suggests that these “unwritten laws” are universal laws, that exist in a space of perfection above the laws of men: “These laws weren’t made now/ Or yesterday. They live for all time,/ And no one knows when they came into light” (line 457-458). This call is also ideographic insofar as the spectator, and the characters in Antigone, including Antigone herself, cannot know who wrote such laws, what such laws cover, and if there can ever be a time when such laws can be suppressed, or made to yield to, the laws of humanity. Further, Antigone’s call is political in the sense that these laws require political as well as spiritual recognition, as Creon tragically learns later. These unwritten laws are also culturally specific because they are directly related back to the laws of Hades and the gods that rule the underworld—as worshiped in ancient Greek society. Finally, her primary frame, the private familial and spiritual sphere, could not be upheld without her reliance on the unwritten laws or her call to the-rule-of-spiritual-law. This is seen in the opening of the play where Antigone, speaking with Ismene, relates the private realm, that of family, to the spiritual, to burial rights, to the law (lines 21-32).

Like Antigone, Creon relies on the concept of law, but for him the law is man-made. These man-made laws are created to maintain the state, which is likened to a lifeboat: “I know this well: The City is our lifeboat: we have no friends at all/ Unless we keep her sailing right side up./ Such are the laws. By them I’ll raise this city high” (lines 187-191). Creon relies on the public/civic ‘rule-of-law’ ideograph, what he terms the “established law” (line 481), which constitutes and upholds Creon’s master frame. Reflecting on McGee’s definition of the ideograph, the “established law” concept in this case is both politically oriented and culturally bound. Further, for the Athenian audience, it relies on the fact that “each member of the community is socialized, conditioned, to the vocabulary of [this] ideograph as a prerequisite for ‘belonging’ to the society” (435). It is for this reason that, after Creon declares the “established law” of not burying Polyneices, the Chorus of Elders simply agree to Creon’s decree, stating: “Make any law you want—for the dead, or for us who live” (Sophocles line 214). This initial choral act of Ismenism, or acquiescence, is part of the reason why Creon’s city as a lifeboat image becomes emotionally charged for Creon’s audience (both the Chorus of Elders and the audience spectators), who understand the danger of sailing and the need to have a strong captain at the helm to steer the boat straight—to keep the passengers safe—by creating, as the Chorus sings in their Ode to Man, the laws that govern the city (line 357). Yet when closely examined, the ideograph of “established law” or “rule-of-law” used as a stand-alone, ambiguous phrase becomes weak and unsustainable. Here, in the concept of “lifeboat,” it is specifically implied that the city or “lifeboat” is always in distress, is always at risk of tipping over. Furthermore, rational “laws” will not always save the lifeboat from harm. Contingencies such as the sea, the wind, the food supply, and the other crew members do not always behave in rational terms and respond to rational laws. As McGee states about ideographs (430)[6] and Lakoff about frames (Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate 10-11, 35),[7] the rational plays no real part in this equation—it is the idea and the resulting affiliations with the idea that sway an audience. In the end, it is not only Antigone who “stand[s] in an ambiguous relation to civilized values” (Segal 152), but also Creon. In the words of the Chorus, humans are deinon, wonderful and terrible (Segal 153; Nussbaum 52), standing on that edge of the comedic and the tragic: “Many wonders, many terrors [deinon], But none more wonderful [deinon] than the human race/ Or more dangerous” (Sophocles lines 332-334). Antigone and Creon stand for the absolute extremes of deinon, extremes that take them away from their humanness (Nussbaum 65), and work against transcendence. Thus, as Burke would insist, a third point of view, dialectic and “developmentally” ordered (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187) regarding the rule-of-law is needed in order to “ultimately” transcend the Antigonal/Creonic tragedy. This third point of view is evolved and adopted by the Chorus when they introduce the idea of Justice which bridges the parliamentary use of rule-of-law. This transcendence in the Antigone is accomplished through a dramatic/lyrical and comedic perspective by incongruity that allows for frame bridging (Attitudes Toward History 224).

The Chorus and the Watchman—Perspective by Incongruity

A Burkean reading of the Antigone reveals that the initial process of transcendence from Antigone and Creon’s tragic either/or frames occur on two levels: First, for the audience watching a Sophoclean performance of the Antigone; and second, for the Chorus of Elders who end the play by assuming Creon’s place of power. In both cases, a break from the dominate argument frames is accomplished through a Burkean understanding of a perspective by incongruity. A dramatic or lyrical perspective by incongruity is offered by the Chorus for the benefit of the audience, in order to help the audience critically question the positions of Creon and Antigone. A comic corrective is offered by the Watchman for the benefit of the Chorus so that they can bridge Antigone and Creon’s rule-of-law arguments within a sequentially ordered pattern that gives birth to the transcendence frame of Justice.

Before examining Antigone’s Chorus specifically, it is helpful to consider the role of the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy in general. Although modern tragedy no longer utilizes a Chorus [8], tragedy, from the Greek tragōidiā or “goat song,” developed out of an original tragic Chorus, as a separate form, as well as out of the satyr plays, and the origins of the two are intertwined. The first tragedies contained only the Chorus (Nietzsche 47), and numbered around fifty members at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E. (Weiner 205). Durant describes these original performances as religious “mimic representations, in dancing and singing, of satyrlike Dionysian revelers dressed in the costume of goats” (Durant 231). The early Greek Chorus was confined to the orchestra, the dancing place (Weiner 205), and performed a combination of poetry, dancing, and singing (Kitto 1b). However, we know nothing about what the music sounded like, or what the dancing looked like, since we have no records or description of the original performances (1b). We do know that Thespis of Icaria was the first to separate himself from the Chorus and recite lines as an individual (Durant 232), and once actors were introduced, the Chorus was diminished in numbers. Aristotle states that Aeschylus raised the number of actors to two, while reducing the Chorus to twelve, and Sophocles raised the number of actors to three (Aristotle 4.12-13), but also restored some members back to the Chorus, raising it from twelve to fifteen members (Weiner 205). The original poetic rhythm, or meter, evolved from the trochaic tetrameter to an iambic measure, moving tragedy from a musical genre to a space of dialogue (Aristotle 4.14).

But one question remains: As tragedy evolved from a religious choral experience to what we see in Sophocles’ Antigone, what was the function of the Chorus? This is a difficult question to answer because past and modern scholarship demonstrates that there is no single theory regarding the purpose of the ancient Greek Chorus (Weiner; Nietzsche; Kitto; Aristotle; Schiller; Schlegel). Within the Poetics, Aristotle barely discusses the Chorus, stating only that the Chorus should function as one of the actors who take a “share in the action, in the manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles” (18.7). Thus, for Aristotle, the Chorus does not function separately from the other actors, the play, or the plot as a whole, but should be an active participant within the play. This comment stems from Aristotle’s observation that later tragic playwrights only used the Chorus, and the choral odes, as “mere interludes,” a practice initiated by the tragic playwright Agathon (c. 448-400 B.C.E.), that pertained “as little to the subject of the piece as to that of any other tragedy” (18.7). Later theories regarding the Chorus range from the Chorus functioning as the ideal spectator (Schlegel 59)[9], to acting as a buffer between the actors and the audience, to being the entity that transforms the passions of the characters on stage “which are necessarily diffused, into sharp focus” (Weiner 206), and finally to being a “‘foreshadowing’ of constructional democracy,” an idea rejected by Nietzsche (47). However, considering Sophocles’ Antigone, I argue that this Chorus and the choral odes work to create a distance between the audience and the action on stage in order to promote critical reflection. Further, this distancing is accomplished through the use of dramatic incongruity.

Adam Cracking- Lyrical/ Dramatic Choral Incongruity

In the corpus of Kenneth Burke’s work a “perspective by incongruity” is central. For Burke, a “perspective by incongruity” is “a way of seeing two ways at once” ("Counter-Gridlock: An Interview with Kenneth Burke" 350). That is, when presented with a limited or narrow framework, Antigonal or Creonic frames for example, Burke suggests that we need to challenge that frame with another incongruous frame in order to see things in a new light (Burke Attitudes Toward History 308-09). Drawing on Burke, dramatic incongruity, as proposed here, works on two levels: First, incongruity is accomplished on a linguistic level where cognitive frames are challenged by incongruous vocabularies and metaphors, accomplishing what Burke terms “atom cracking” (ibid.). Second, incongruous dramatic styles, dialogue vs. lyrical meters for example, and acts disrupt what is perceived to be a unified space of action or thought, thereby creating a distance between a speaker and audience. This distancing resembles a Brechtean alienation effect, which promotes reflection and critical thinking. In the Antigone, the choral odes accomplish both these tasks on a dramatic level.

The theory that the choral odes create distance between an audience and the action on the stage, which then prompts the audience to critically reflect, is not a new one. Frederich Schiller in his essay “On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy,” sees the Chorus “as a living wall which tragedy draws itself in order to achieve insulation from the actual world, to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom” (49). Schiller believed that the old tragic Chorus grew naturally out of the “‘poetical’ aspect of real life” (8). The poetic (in this case the Chorus) acted as a medium between the ideal and the everyday—it was a buffer that allowed the audience time to reflect on the action taking place on stage. In this formulation, the choral function of creating distance between the action on stage and the audience occurs partly because the “naturalistic” action on stage is disrupted by the “poetic” choral odes. Reflecting back to early Greek tragedy of the fifth century, the choral odes were stylistically and rhythmically different from the main dialogue in the play which utilized, as Aristotle points out, an iambic rhythm, or iambic trimeter (4.14).[10] Kitto reminds us that the word ode means song (1b), and the rhythms used in the ode were not speech-rhythms, but musical rhythms (2a) that offer a “ground-plan of a music-dance movement” (2b). As a result, the choral odes were stylistically incongruous to the naturalistic style of the dialogue. This incongruous juxtaposition between a more naturalistic action and dialogue with the poetic and lyrical odes can create a distance for the audience, allowing them to stop, consider the action taking place and to reflect on the frame being presented.

The choral odes’ use of dramatic incongruity in order to create a distancing or an alienation effect (as proposed by Brecht), is also promoted by Albert Weiner in “The Function of the Greek Chorus.” Drawing on Aristotle’s short paragraph regarding the Chorus, Weiner suggests that the choral songs were not “dramatic” interruptions, but “lyric” interruptions that acted as “major interludes of alienation during which the audience could readjust itself, relax, watch the dancing, listen to the music” and that aroused “the emotions and passions of the audience while forcing it to think at the same time” (211). According to Brecht, the audience needs some distance from the action on the stage in order to begin critical thinking which then leads to the creation of independent conclusions (Brook 73). Ultimately the Sophoclean Chorus Odes in the Antigone offer incongruity not only because they are stylistically different from the dialogue, but because the odes employs what Burke calls verbal “atom cracking.”

As briefly discussed above, in Attitudes Toward History Burke defines “perspective by incongruity” as “a method for gauging situations by verbal ‘atom cracking.’ That is, a word belongs by custom to a certain category—and by rational planning you wrench it loose and metaphorically apply it to a different category” (308). To challenge a master frame and its terminology with an incongruous vocabulary is to challenge our assumptions regarding that master frame, since we are forced to look upon these things with a different perspective. The work of atom cracking, then, also works as a “frame-discrediting break” (Goffman 403) where an incongruous vocabulary promotes distance from a master frame. Within Sophocles’ Antigone, Burkean “atom cracking” is accomplished through the choral odes where master frame vocabularies, subject matter, and metaphors are challenged.

We are first introduced to the Chorus in Antigone after the intense first scene between Antigone and Ismene. Antigone informs her sister that Creon has forbidden the burial of her brother Polyneices under penalty of death (lines 27-36). Wishing to go against Creon’s “established” law and bury Polyneices, Antigone asks Ismene to help her, to “share” in the “work and trouble” (line 41), but Ismene refuses (lines 59-60). The scene rises to a crescendo when Antigone accuses Ismene of betraying her family (lines 69-77). After they exit, the Chorus enters and sings their entry song or the Parodos (lines 100-54). In direct contrast to what just took place, the Chorus sings in joy and praise. Kitto states that the Parodos does not start out with the normal anapaest meter, a typical opening marching meter, but the glyconic meter which is a “plastic dance-rhythm”: “This means that the chorus enters, not processionally, but dancing” (5b). This would be appropriate, since the Chorus in Antigone is celebrating victory in the war (lines 148-149), the defeat of Polyneices (lines 120-126), while praising the sun (line 100), Zeus, and Thebes. Woodruff sees this ode as a “hymn of jubilation” (xxiv), but he also points to the odd shift of spiritual emphasis between referencing the power of Zeus (Antigone lines 127-33), and celebrating Bacchus and the joy of dance (lines 150-154): “This shifting focus, unusual in such an ode, promises us a wild ride from the chorus and a turn to Dionysus toward the end of the play” (Woodruff xxiv). Not only are we promised a wild ride, but the audience has been distanced from the intense emotions and actions that were witnessed between Antigone and Ismene. This distancing is further accomplished through verbal ‘atom cracking’ where metaphors and concepts used by the Chorus challenge traditional notions associated with the image of birds, a metaphor first introduced by Antigone and then transformed by the Chorus.

In the first scene between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone uses the image of the victorious vulture enjoying the “sweet treasure” (Antigone line 29) of Polyneices’ “miserable corpse” (line 26). Here the vulture is portrayed as victor—enjoying the fruits of war. However in the Parodos, the Chorus describes Polyneices as a “screaming eagle” (line 112) who after losing the war is not able to pluck “his beak in our blood” (line 121). The ‘atom cracking’ occurs in Sophocles’ treatment of our traditional notions of bird metaphors, or, as Burke suggests when examining associational clusters, “what goes with what” (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 20). First, the vulture is rarely depicted as a bird associated with victory, but usually as a creature associated with death. It is a scavenger bird that feeds on the carcasses of dead animals. However, in Greco-Roman tradition, the vulture was also sacred to Apollo because it was the bringer of omens (Chevalier and Gheerbrant "Vulture" 1075). In the Antigone, the vulture is associated with both victory and death, but the emphasis in lines 29-30 focuses on the birds’ victory and the prize of blood, which delights their beaks. Further, the vulture image offers a prophetic function as well, suggesting that more death is yet to come. Likewise, a screaming eagle is often seen as a metaphor for the successful warrior bound for victory, the king, and the messenger of all messengers (Chevalier and Gheerbrant "Eagle" 323). Indeed, the Eagle is Zeus’ bird (Nussbaum 72). In this ode, the eagle is defeated, its “white-snow wing” (Antigone line 114) struck down “with a missile of fire” (line 131), and unlike the vulture, its beak will never delight in the prize of blood (line 121). In both cases, our traditional notions of “what goes with what” become incongruous as the vulture is associated with victory, while the eagle, Zeus’ bird, is placed in the category of defeat. This leads us to ask: Who is hero? Who is enemy? Can we ever know with certainty? Questions the audience is again asked to consider during the next choral ode.

The first Stasimon (Antigone lines 332-375), Sophocles’ famous Ode to Man, occurs after Creon has gotten the Chorus to agree to his new law regarding Polyneices’ burial, and after the Watchman has come, reluctantly, to report that someone has broken the law and buried Polyneices. Here the audience is introduced to the unyielding and righteous Creon who, Segal suggests, “subverts the civilized principles that he should be defending” (152). Creon asserts his new-found place as King of Thebes, and defends the importance of his commands (line 191). Then, the Watchman enters and tells Creon that Polyneices has been buried and given full burial rites (lines 245-247). This defiance angers Creon, and when the Chorus suggests that the gods might be behind the act (line 279), he is enraged further, accusing the Chorus of being as stupid as they are old (line 281). Looking for someone to blame and punish, Creon holds the Watchman responsible, suggesting that he did it for money (line 322). The Watchman denies having a hand in the burial and accuses Creon of false judgment (line 324). Both the Watchman and Creon exit the stage leaving the Chorus alone to recite their first Stasimon.

The Ode to Man again distances the audience from the action through the use of a Burkean dramatic incongruity by using the ambiguous word deinon, meaning both wonderful and terrible, to describe humanity: “Many wonders, many terrors,/ But none more wonderful than the human race/ Or more dangerous” (Antigone lines 332-334). Contrasting this dual view to the decisive and unmoving nature of Creon, the Chorus begs us to consider those moments when the human race is at its most glorious, the moments where we are at our most dangerous and, finally, those times when the line between wonder and terror is blurred. Even in those ventures that we might consider wondrous, such as our conquering of the earth (line 338), our yoking of the animals (lines 342-352), or the invention of language (line 354), there is an element of terror involved. As Woodruff points out, the end of the ode “comes as a shock: Man (the gender is clear on this point) may have tamed animals and women, but he has not tamed death, and disaster awaits those who are wicked” (xxv). But who, we are led to consider, is the wicked one? With the end of the Ode to Man, there is really no way to know who the Chorus might side with, Creon or Antigone, as their last lines seem to justify the position of both characters: “If he honors the law of the land/ And the oath-bound justice of the gods,/ Then his city shall stand high” (Antigone lines 370-371). The choral questioning compels the audience to again question their positions: Shall we stand with Antigone or with Creon? Or, one may suggest, neither? Notably, it would have been difficult to reflect on this question during the play without the Chorus’ ability to distance the spectator from the action, which is necessary for such reflection.

The rest of the choral odes produce a similar type of distancing in conjunction with, and in contrast to, the action on the stage. Not only are we offered, as the audience, a physical repose to the action, Sophocles uses linguistic “atom cracking,” such the word Deinon, that challenges what appears to us, the audience, as right or just—where our loyalties should lie. The Chorus never allows us to settle on one position, propelling us with each dramatic or poetic act of distancing and incongruity to reconsider our personal stance and loyalties. But who, one may ask, compels the Chorus to evolve and think? Where do they receive their own distance which helps them develop from simple “yes-men,” at the beginning of the play, to critical thinkers? The answer, I believe, can be seen in Sophocles’ rendering of the Watchman and his ability to offer a comic perspective by incongruity.

The Comic Corrective or the Comic Perspective by Incongruity

In Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke describes the comic frame as the “attitude of attitudes” (xiii). It is the “methodic view of human antics as comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy” (ibid.). The comic frame mediates upon and, one hopes, corrects what Burke calls the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” This “process of processes” occurs when humanity tries to “translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment, thus necessarily involving elements alien to the original, ‘spiritual’ (‘imaginative’) motive” (ibid.). Once the ideal has been translated into the material, we have the makings, or the potential for, tragedy. In the Antigone, both Creon and Antigone tragically bureaucratize the imaginative. To serve the law and the rule-of-law, Creon enacts his ideal to such a degree that he fails to follow the spirit of the law (his wish to keep Thebes from pollution) and, by sticking to the material letter-of-law, concerning the burial, causes pollution and thus tragedy. Antigone does the same with her call to the unwritten laws, bureaucratizing the spirit into the material. Yet as Burke reminds us, we have a disruptor at our disposal to help avert the tragic: The comic corrective, or a comic perspective by incongruity. In the Antigone, the Watchman acts as a comically incongruous figure for both the audience and, importantly, for the Chorus—provoking them to think critically and to create a hierarchically ordered transcending frame of justice.

The Watchman first enters at a pivotal point in the action. The Chorus of Elders have met with Creon and agreed, easily, to Creon’s decision that Polyneices should not be buried, in fact, should be left exposed for “birds and dogs” to feed upon (Antigone line 205). At this moment, lines 211-214, the Chorus appears as simple ‘yes-men’ ready to agree to anything Creon proclaims. In some ways, the Chorus of Elders’ easy compliance is puzzling. Although they are joyous that Thebes was saved and eager to support their king, they are also, one assumes, aware of the religious burial rites required by the gods of the underworld. Certainly the Chorus has great respect for the gods, as is seen in the Parodos where they praise Zeus’ power (lines 127-133), and celebrate victory through being ruled by Bacchus (lines 148-154). For them to easily ignore the possible, although unknown, consequences associated with disregarding the laws of the gods, of Hades, is perplexing. In any case, no critical thought is involved in their answer to Creon, only Ismenian motion. The scene ends with Creon asking the Chorus not to side with “anyone who disobeys” his new law (line 219), while speculating that some man will try to bury Polyneices because “hope/ And bribery—often have led men to destruction” (lines 221-222). At this moment, the Watchman enters with critical news—someone has indeed buried Polyneices.

From the start, the Watchman is incongruous to the other characters as well as to the tragic and serious tone of the play, since he is comically fashioned as a wise but bumbling fool. As he enters the stage, we find him trying to sum up the courage to inform Creon that someone has defied his order:

WATCHMAN: Sir, I am here. I can’t say I am out of breath.
I have not exactly been ‘running on light feet.’
I halted many times along the road so I could think,
And I almost turned around and marched right back.
My mind kept talking to me. It said, ‘you poor guy,
Why are you going there? You’ll just get your ass kicked.’ (Antigone lines 223-228)
By so fashioning the comic Watchman, Sophocles offers his audience and the Chorus of Elders a comic perspective by incongruity, which distances the audience and, importantly, the Chorus from the master, tragic frame being played out by the other characters. Once jolted out of the tragic frame, the Chorus is allowed the space to think more deeply about the situation at hand. For example, when the Watchman explains that the guards have no idea who committed the crime because no clues were left behind (line 252), the Chorus is finally compelled to think, critically, about the gods and, I suggest, about the consequences of not following their laws: “You know, sir, as soon as I heard, it came to me:/ Somehow the gods are behind this piece of work” (lines 278-279). Upon hearing this, Creon tries to stop the Chorus from the process of independent critical thought by suggesting that they are as “stupid” as they “are old” (line 281). Creon believes that everyone should be on one plane of reality or thought—his (Nussbaum 71). This becomes clear when we see Creon question Antigone, asking her if she is not ashamed to have “a mind apart from theirs” (Antigone line 510). Still, Creon’s insults cannot stop the process that the Watchman’s comic frame has started. It is at this moment that the Chorus stops being Creon’s ‘yes-men,’ and starts the journey of learning. When the scene ends with the exit of the Watchman and Creon, the Chorus continues their critical-thinking journey with the Ode to Man (lines 332-375), which ends with the Chorus reflecting on the importance of the laws of both man and gods (lines 369-375).

Finally, it can be argued that the Watchman, as a comical incongruous character, is directly responsible for the Chorus’ creation of the Ode to Man. The critical word deinon, A central theme in the Ode to Man, is used only twice before in the Antigone, both times by the Watchman. The Watchman uses deinon first when he breaks the news that Polyneices has been buried: “It’s terrible [deinon] news” (line 243). One can read this as both terrible and wonderful news. Terrible because the news will anger Creon and, wonderful news because the unwritten spiritual laws have been upheld. The second time the Watchman uses deinon occurs towards the end of the scene when he becomes the first person to challenge Creon’s judgment head-on: “It’s terrible [deinon] when false judgment guides the judge” (line 323). Could Creon, the king, possess false judgment? Certainly, but his judgment has not been questioned to his face before this point. The Chorus, who were just shut down and shut up, after suggesting that the gods buried Polyneices, hears the Watchman, a lowly being on the pecking scale of Theban life, question Creon’s judgment, quite incongruously—a peasant questioning a king. The Watchman’s questioning and his use of deinon propels the Chorus to think not only on the deinon of humanity, but humanity’s place with respect to judgment and law (lines 369-375).

The Collective that Transcends and “Orders”

The Chorus in Antigone (2001) acts not only as a distancing vehicle between the action on stage and the audience, but as a dramatic collective character that undergoes character evolution and influences the action of the play by developing the dialectically ordered collective-action frame of justice. Although the Chorus takes little direct action in Antigone, the fact that this collective reflects and learns is important. As Nussbaum notes, the overall theme of learning in the Antigone is seen on two levels: first, in the complicated and interlinked choral odes, and second, in the Chorus as a dramatic character (68-69). On Nussbaum’s first argument, the choral odes, read critically and serially, demonstrate Sophocles’ concern with the theme of learning (to embody justice) and discourages the “search for the simple and, above all, for the reductive” (89), or as Burke would insist, the bureaucratized. The theme of learning is also the subject of the final line in the Antigone where the Chorus states: “So it is one learns, in old age, to be wise” (Antigone line 1353). As the final line suggests, even the Chorus is not exempt from the process of learning and, indeed, as a dramatic character, they excel in this process.

As discussed above, at first the Chorus appears as nothing more than Creon’s yes-men (Antigone lines 213-214). However, even early on, with the Ode to Man, the reader and spectator realize that the Chorus is not made up of simple beings, but are wise and insightful elders who learn gradually transcend as material circumstance unfold before them. The first glimpse of this choral learning personality is seen when they describe the complexities, indeed the parliamentary jangle of humankind as deinon, trying to control a contingent world and nature, learning all the while what is needed to survive in an unpredictable world (lines 332-375). Humanity as deinon might not have been a new concept for the Chorus, but they at least relearn this concept when listening to the Watchman. For the Chorus, wisdom can be learned from anyone including a lowly Watchman or from a man who is young in years (line 723). Unfortunately, the Chorus may have learned this wisdom too late to save Creon or Antigone, but not necessarily too late to ultimately save Thebes. Further, because the Chorus takes the time to listen and to critically think, they do not jump blindly into action or decision. When they decide to act, however, as they do on two occasions, their action appears wholly justified by events.

The Chorus influences and redirects the plot twice (Woodruff xxiii), in so doing they act by directing the actions of others. First, the Chorus convinces Creon not to condemn Ismene along with her sister Antigone, since Ismene had no part in breaking the law (Antigone lines 768-771). The second vital moment of dramatic intervention occurs towards the end of the play. Tiresias, the priest, has come to report a bad omen for Creon and for Thebes. Drawing again on the image of birds, Tiresias states that the birds were “clawing each other to death with their talons” (line 1004), that his sacrifice was not accepted, leaving no omens to read at all (lines 1012-1012), and that all of this was a result of Creon’s edict regarding Polyneices: “So, now, surrender to the dead man./ Stop stabbing away at his corpse. Will it prove your strength/ If you kill him again? Listen, my advice is for your benefit./ Learning from good words is sweet when they bring you gain” (lines 1029-1032). Once again, Creon will not listen and, reminiscent of his accusations towards the Watchman, accuses Tiresias of trying to exhort money from the crown (line 1063).[12] The Chorus, having listened to the exchange between Tiresias and Creon, is shaken: “The man is gone, sir. His Prophecies were amazing,/ Terrible. . . ./ I’m quite certain he has never sung a prophecy,/ Not once, that turned out to be false for the city” (lines 1091-1094). The Chorus suggests to Creon that “good judgment is essential” (line 1098), and Creon, finally ready to listen, asks the Chorus what he should do:

CHORUS: Let the girl go. Free her from underground.
And build a tomb for the boy who lies exposed.
CREON: Really? You think I should give in?
CHORUS: As quickly as you can, sir, before you’re cut off.
The Gods send Harm racing after wicked fools.
CREON: It’s so painful to pull back; it goes against my heart.
But I cannot fight against necessity.
CHORUS: Go and do this now. Don’t send others in your place. (lines 1100-1107)

The Chorus not only directs Creon’s act, they insist that he do it alone! This is critical, since Creon has denied responsibility for his actions throughout the play. The Chorus, who has watched, listened and learned, knows this and so they know that it is only Creon who can save Thebes from destruction. Moreover, the Chorus was only able to affect the action in the play after they formed a new master frame, a frame which bridges Antigone and Creon’s polar rule-of-law discourses: Justice.

For Burke, transcendence of conflict occurs when two conflicting frames, “A” and “B,” are bridged by finding an alternative, “C.” However as he also reminds us, ultimate transcendence, the movement into the mystical, is accomplished only when the “competing voices” are placed in “a hierarchy or sequence, or evaluative series, so that, in some way . . . an ‘ultimate’ order of terms” would lead to a “‘guiding idea’ or ‘unitary principle’” (Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 187). In the Antigone, the Chorus work towards this “upward way” of transcendence (245) by dialectically ordering the rule-of-law frame towards a dialectical procession of justice: Justice first, then the spirit-of-the law, and finally the rule-of-law. The ordering of public and private rule-of-law will depend upon the doxa (defined here as probable knowledge) of the moment (in the Antigone we can see this need to reorder our values and actions according to doxa through Triesias’ pronouncement that Creon must stop his actions and adjust to the new realities of the situation in lines 1012-1032). This means that we must judge the pragmatic ordering of these two law realms depending upon the material unfolding of events and circumstances. Yet our guiding principle should be justice, a concept best understood through acquired wisdom which, we shall see, develops from a balance of logos, pathos and ethos.

The Chorus realizes that Antigone and Creon’s use of rule-of-law is reductive because their respective uses of this frame works to exclude other realms of law—reducing law to an either/or structure. Once rule-of-law is reduced in this manner, justice cannot prevail. With this realization, as is first suggested by the Watchman (line 322) then articulated in the Ode to Man (lines 369-375), the Chorus starts to develop a collective-action frame which bridges and subverts the material rule-of-law. The Chorus’ work to dialectically develop a hierarchal series first occurs in the Ode to Man where they arrange Antigone and Creon’s material uses of the Rule-of-law towards the upward way of justice. So it is that the state of Thebes cannot stand strong or tall unless, first, man’s rule-of-law is upheld and, on the upper rein of the hierarchal ladder, the Gods’ rule-of-law of justice is also respected, which will lead us to an ultimate dialectic order of justice and state stability: “If he honors the law of the land/ And the oath-bound justice of the gods,/ Then his city shall stand high./ But no city for him if he turns shameless out of daring” (lines 370-372). The “law of the land” and “justice of the gods” is what affects the doxa of family (private rule-of-law), and state (public rule-of-law). This newly ordered master frame, the justice frame, will eventually allow the Chorus to transcend the polar conflict, while giving them the ability to redirect action (public to private) when needed. The choice of a justice frame, in this case, is not reductive insofar as it recognizes the plurality of law (private and public), while redirecting thought and action towards the spirit of law and away from the material and reductive letter-of-the-law. The Chorus finally establishes the transcendent value of this new master frame while speaking to Creon towards the end of the play: “Yes, it is late, but you have seen where justice lies” (line 1270).

Taken alone, Antigone and Creon’s ideographic arguments do demonstrate the limits of dialectic and of “action,” as Burke understood it. In this light, we have what appears as a masterfully construct “train-wreck” between two hegemonic arrangements of public vs. private. Here, no “Burkean” action towards transcendence is possible because we are moved into a space of Ismenism where we accept whichever hegemonic arrangement agrees with us the most in order to survive. But this is only true if we, first, focus our attentions solely on Antigone and Creon, ignoring the Watchman and the vital Chorus who, as I have discussed, “acts” by redirecting the plot twice; and second, if we are defining our understanding of “action” within a limited frame of reference. In his Grammar, Burke explains action as “the human body in conscious or purposive motion” (14). Burke’s definition of action is ambiguous in that motion, other than being purposeful and consciously directed, is ill-defined. The human body in motion can be understood as both physically moving and “doing” and as mental movement as well. With this understanding, the Chorus in the Antigone acts not only by redirecting the plot twice, but acts toward transcending the unmoving dialect of Creon and Antigone by acquiring wisdom and selecting justice. Indeed, the Chorus finds that active and delicate balance of pathos, logos and ethos, which is missing from all the other characters that tend to embody an extreme understanding of these qualities. As the Chorus reminds us in the final lines of this play, “wisdom is supreme for a blessed life” (line 1348). Yet this balance and the act of transcendence is not an easy task to achieve or maintain. We flounder. Which is why, according to Burke, transcendence cannot last and we are plugged right back into the thick of things where logos, pathos and ethos become victims once again for barnyard politics. Regardless, the end of this play leaves us with wisdom, not simply with sorrow as many would like us to believe about the Antigone. As Woodruff reminds us in his footnotes about the concept of wisdom in line 1348, wisdom was and should be understood as phronein, the good sense needed for the most broadest understanding of happiness, eudaimonia (58). This is the lesson Sophocles’ leaves us with—and tragically, it is the lesson that is most often overlooked by critics of the Antigone. We have a choice. We can re-enact the tragedy or we can transcend this particular tragedy by seeking out justice through wisdom.

Who, it might rightfully be asked, receives this final presentation of enlightenment? The Chorus certainly, who is left with the daunting task of ruling Thebes now that Creon has been emotionally destroyed along with his entire family, who are left dead in the wake of his actions. Yet I argue that the audience has also been left enlightened as well. In the end, there can be no true attraction to the destructive paths of Creon and Antigone. To follow the example of either character is to simply re-enact their train-wreck. To follow the Chorus’ example, however, is to follow the path of transcendence through the development of wisdom and the reaching for justice. Although Sophocles’ Chorus qualifies wisdom as that which is learned in old age (1353), the audience also learns that the journey towards wisdom does not lie in the narrow frames that make up the limits of dialectic communication, but in the path that adapts to the doxa of circumstances, working to avoid idealistic and unbending frames of argument.

At the end of the Antigone, the reader and spectator notice that the Chorus, as a collective, and the Watchman, as the comic corrective, are the only characters who are the least physically touched by tragedy and misfortune. Indeed, the other major characters in the play are either emotionally damaged for life (Creon and Ismene), or dead (Antigone, Haemon, and Creon’s wife Eurydice). What is interesting and truly tragic is that philosophers, especially Hegel and Kierkegaard, and many adaptations including, but not limited to, Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone, Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona’s 1974 The Island, Gambaro’s 1992 Antígona Furiosa, and Heaney’s 2004 The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone, all focus on the characters of either Antigone or Creon as the hero, often eliminating the roles of the Chorus and the Watchman in order to, one assumes, heighten the dramatic text. Yet, as Sophocles knew and as a Burkean reading of the Antigone reveals, the true heroes of this play are the Chorus of Elders and the Watchman—characters who are able to rise above the reductive either/or argument frames used by Antigone and Creon, truly survive the tragedy and, finally, are able to learn from and transcend the tragic conflict by looking for and creating a new perspective.


*Correspondence to: Rebecca McCarthy, Ph.D., Kaplan University, 7267 48th Ave South, Seattle, WA 98118. Email: Rebamccarthy@gmail.com

  1. Although performed as the last segment of this unintentional trilogy (Durant 394), Antigone was written first. Sophocles then wrote Oedipus Tyrannus (after the plague in Athens, 430-29), which is considered part one of the trilogy. Part two of the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, was written last and towards the end of Sophocles’ life (Woodruff xxvii). Although now discussed as the “Theban Cycle,” it is important to remember that these plays were produced separately and presented over the lifetime of Sophocles’ career. As such, both Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus can be read as standalone texts. Oedipus at Colonus, however, should be understood in its context as an effort to bridge the two earlier works by Sophocles.
  2. The name Antigone comes from the Greek meaning both “born,” and “against.” As woodruff suggests, Antigone is “born for trouble” (xvi), and she embodies the extreme of pathos or passion.
  3. The name Creon comes from the Greek meaning “ruler,” a role that is said to be ideally ruled by logic and knowledge or logos. But as Creon grows suspicious of conspiracies (Woodruff xix), he embodies a perverted logos (Segal 162), just as Antigone relies on a perverted form of pathos.
  4. The inspiration for this term came from Spyros Payiatakis’ description of the Greek people as “Ismene,” in relation to Greece’s place within the UN Security Council: “Along with Antigone’s sister Ismene, we Greeks have to argue with square humanistic logic: ‘We are in the grip of those stronger than ourselves, and must obey them in this and in things still more cruel.’” (S. Payiatakis, Letter from Washington Dc--Antigone Goes to America, Feb. 7, 2005, Electronic, Greekembassy.org, Available: http://www.greekembassy.org/Embassy/Content/en/Article.aspx?office=3andfolder=761andarticle=14616, June 14 2006.)
  5. Throughout this paper, I use a slash (/) to indicate the end of a line within the Antigone.
  6. For McGee, ideographs are not related to the rational or the ethical, but the social and the “idea” (430). Thus, you could not use an ideograph to test a truth or establish a truth (431).
  7. Lakoff specifically debunks the “rational actor metaphor,” which states that people are rational and always act in their own self-interest.  Instead, Lakoff maintains that we act in accord with our values or ideas, not facts or rational “self-interest” (33).
  8. George Steiner points out that after the sixteenth century, productions of Antigone usually did away with the Chorus.  Steiner does point to some exceptions including Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone (170-171), and there have been others since Steiner’s book appeared.
  9. Schlegel introduced the theory of the Chorus as the “ideal audience,” a theory rightly criticized by Nietzsche who states: “If we hold this view against the historical tradition according to which tragedy was, in the beginning, nothing but a chorus, it turns out to be a crude, unscholarly, though dazzling hypothesis” (pp. 47-48). 
  10. Some of the choral meters used included: dactyls, a metrical foot composed of one long syllable followed by two short syllables; anapests, a march-rhythm utilizing a metrical foot composed of three syllables with the stress placed on the last syllable; trochees, a metrical foot composed of two syllables with the stress being placed on the first syllable; and glyconics, which Kitto describes as “a four-bar phrase, of which the first or second or third bar is in four-time, the others in three-time” (5b).
  11. For a more detailed account of the Ode to Man, see Segal (1981), pp. 152-179.
  12. It could be argued that that the blind prophet Tiresais embodies a flawed ethos in that his unwillingness to stay and reason with Creon, further stems from the fact that he allows his annoyance at Creon’s boorish behavior to outweigh his logos-the urgent need to redirect Creon’s actions in order to save what is left of Thebes.


Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989 (1961).

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"A Burkean Reading of the Antigone: Comical and Choral Transcendence" by Rebecca L McCarthy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.