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Empathy for Characters in Sophocle’s Antigone

Sophocle’s tragic play Antigone, written in 441 BC, is a theatrical piece of drama in which an audience is compelled to empathize with its character’s. When empathizing with characters in Antigone the audience can, in imaginative and cognitive ways, participate in the understanding of a character’s feelings, ideas as well as their situations. Antigone, Creon and Ismene all struggle with decisions that concern the laws of their city and the cosmic law of religion and moral judgement. Characters such as Haemon and Eurydice ultimately show the consequences of the decision formed by the two protagonists.

Amongst the audience, empathy is created for both; characters faced with agonizing decisions and characters inflicted with tormenting consequences. The levels of empathy felt for each character changes as the story develops and as different qualities are revealed about each character. The amount of empathy felt for a character effects not only the reading of that character but also the meaning of the play. The first scene of the play involves Antigone asking her sister to go against the laws of the state to help her give the proper burial rites to their brother Polynices.

In the first scene there is an immediate sense of empathy felt towards Antigone as she express her feelings of misfortune to Ismene. ‘My own flesh and blood – dear sister, dear Ismene, how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us (p59) By introducing Antigone to the audience as the daughter of the Oedipus the empathy felt toward the tragic hero Oedipus is somewhat inherited by Antigone.

The audience reflects on the hardships that the incestuous family of Oedipus have already endured and realizes that the wretched fate of Oedipus is still bringing grief in to Antigone’s life. This immediately gives the audience an insight into Antiogne’s personal feelings and gives the audience the opportunity to feel empathy for the pain that plagues her life simply because she was born as the daughter of an ill-fated man. Because the audience has been put into a position where they feel empathy for Antigone her character is read with a sympathetic understanding, allowing any of her actions to be considered rational in her situation.

Despite the immediate empathy felt toward Antigone because of the connection between herself and Oedipus, the audience is obliged to feel empathy for Antigone because her two brothers at war against each other clashed and won the common prize of death (p66). Oepidus’ fate had already left Antigone ‘motherless and fatherless’ but now she was left ‘brotherless’ as well. By informing the audience that Antigone’s brothers had died, anyone as an audience member who has lost a loved one can sympathize with the grief of death and could then empathize and understand how awful it would be to lose two brothers at once in such a horrendous manner.

The audience has now been positioned to view Antigone with pity and share her heartache, in doing this the audience is brought closer to Antigone’s character and they are likely to feel compassion for her and agree with any of her actions further on in the text. Antigone’s decision to defy the state and mourn her brother creates a feeling empathy in itself. Antigone is faced to struggle with moral judgement. She knows that she faces the punishment of death if she breaks the law made by Creon that forbids Polynices his burial rites, but she knows that her brother deserves to be laid to rest.

When Ismene declines the offer to help Antigone she becomes determined to defy the state believing that the gods will honor her actions. ‘Do as you like, dishonor the laws The gods hold in honor. ‘ (p63) Antigone is faced with a decision that can only have an ill consequence and this is how the empathy is created. If she follows the cosmic order of nature she will restore harmony in the death of her brother but will face her own death as a consequence. If she follows the law of Creon she would be upsetting the cosmic order and would have to live her life knowing she denied the law of the gods.

The audience can offer Antigone empathy as they understand that the important decision she is making will have a negative affect over her, regardless of which choice she makes, it will ultimately lead to the destruction of her life. This empathy positions the reader to admire Antigone for her courage and bravery, and it glorifies her character. The ultimate empathy felt for the character of Antigone is that felt toward her inhumane and undeserved death sentence.

She is being sent to her bridal volt by the man who would have been her father-in-law and is her uncle. Sophocles puts emphasis on Antigone’s life ending prematurely and her innocence being untimely slaughtered. As Antigone, (described by the chorus as the ‘doomed bride’) is escorted away to her bridal volt by Creon’s guards, she expresses how devastating the loss of her life is. ‘And now he leads me off, a captive in his hands, with no part in the bridal-song, the bridal-bed, denied all joy of marriage, raising children-‘ (p106)

By emphasizing that Antigone hasn’t even begun to live a ‘full life’ with a husband and children, Sophocles is inviting the audience to empathize with Antigone’s feelings of being denied so many joyful experience of life, because she followed the law of the Gods. Once the audience feels the empathy for Antigone’s situation they read her character as being ‘hard done by’; they feel her execution was dealt unfairly and her character should be glorified for her actions rather than punished for them. Because the audience has gained empathy for Antigone through out the play, her character is read as a tragic hero in the play.

Therefor those who oppose her immediately lose some sort of respects from the audience. The law ruling that no one shall even mourn Polynices, passed by Creon, is discussed in disapproval in the first scene by Antigone. Although the audience has been positioned to share Antigone’s opinion there is an element of empathy felt for the situation Creon is in. Polynices is Creon’s nephew but Polynices acted as a traitor to the city that Creon rules. Simply to be faced with such a decision creates empathy towards Creon. Before Antigone was faced with her struggle between state laws and cosmic laws, Creon faced the same sort of moral issues.

Creon justifies the difficult decision he made; ‘Exactly when did you last see the gods celebrating traitors? Inconceivable! ‘ (p73) Creon speaks of citizens that loyally submitting to their king would follow their kings in good times as well as bad. But his own nephew turned against him and his state, and an audience can understand the problem Creon was faced with as the ruler of the city and can empathize that the decision not to pay the last rites to a traitor is just. By empathizing with this it gives credit to Creon as a ruler, but raises ambiguity about Creon’s character as an uncle.

In turn this effects the audience to think Creon holds little family value and this proves true as he sentences his own son’s bride to death. Although some of Creon’s actions and decision lost him empathy and understanding from the audience, Creon begins to gain some empathy as he realises that ‘blood is thicker than water’. Creon spares the life of Ismene in spite of her claims that she helped her sister bury their brother. This is one of the first acts of compassion shown towards his family, even though Creon spares life for Ismene who cannot care for life, cut off from Antigone.

This creates ambiguity for the character of Creon, by saving Ismene we realize he is not sinister and his initial purpose is not to act destructive. The audience can understand the pressures of being the ruler of Thebes and making state laws that effect him as well as his relations, but a lot of empathy is lost as it is difficult to understand why Creon pursues what obviously seems to be the ‘wrong’ decisions. This allows the audience to read Creon’s character with complexity as his character does have two sides, there is the political ruler of Thebes and then a mere man belonging to a family.

Creon’s complex pursuit for the wrong decision sets him up to become a tragic character. Creon gains empathy from the audience as he loses his son, Haemon, and his wife, Eurydice, despite his redeeming revelation to spare Antigone’s life. After speaking with the blind prophet, Tiresias, Creon takes the advice given by the Leader of the citizens of Thebes to give in. ‘Go! Free the girl from the rocky vault and raise a mound for the body you exposed. ‘ (p116) Out of better judgement Creon obeys this good advice, admits it will be hard but is prepared to undo the ‘wrong’ that he has committed and he goes to set Antigone free with his own hands.

This redeeming decision makes the audience realize that Creon isn’t a coldhearted man of destruction and that brings his character closer to the audience. They understand that Creon has misjudged the situations and his character gains respect from the audience because once Creon realizes his mistakes he take immediate action to fix them himself. This is why the suicides of his son and wife seem unfair and create sympathy and empathy for his character. Knowing that Creon had planned to free the sole of Polynices and then free Antigone the audience can share Creon’s sorrow as he was punished so harshly because he lacked judgement.

The audience offers Creon’s character empathy because they can understand that every man makes mistakes but it seem unfair to pay for them in the life destroying way Creon had to. This empathy lets the audience read his character with condolence and he is viewed as a tragic hero. The character of Ismene has the same inherited empathy as Antigone, for being the daughter of Oedipus and because she just lost her two brothers, but Ismene generates empathy from the audience as she too is faced with the difficult decision her sister faced.

Denying to help her sister was obviously not easy for Ismene, she didn’t want to dishonor the gods but also didn’t want to defy Creon. ‘I’d do them no dishonor but defy the city? I have no strength for that. ‘ (p63) Although Antigone’s decision to bury Polynices won her empathy from the audience, Ismene’s decision not bury him also won her character empathy. As Ismene explained to Antigone she hasn’t got the confidence, power or strength to choose the same decision as her dear sister.

‘Remember we are women, We’re not born to contend with men. p62) The audience understands that Ismene is inflicted with fear and doesn’t want more death in her doomed family, as she explains to Antigone how they are left so alone. The audience can give Ismene empathy, as it is easy to understand that she feels trapped in her decision and they can empathize with Ismene’s fear for her wild, irrational sister. This empathy does convince the audience to pity Ismene’s character and that pity is carried out in the text as Ismene is left with no family but her devastated Uncle Creon.

The character of Haemon and Eurydice represent suffering of the innocent and are both easily empathized with. Even after Haemon desperate plea to spare his future wife’s life he still lost Antigone. The audience can easily sympathize with Haemon’s loss of a loved one and that allows the audience to empathize what it would have been like to lose a loved one and know it was because of your own fathers misguided decisions and his stubbornness to change them. The audience can share the pain of Haemon when his father still denies his own son’s person plea for appeal. ‘Then she will diebut her death will bring another. ‘ (p99)

Eurydice held no main part in the play, made no decision or committed any ‘wrong doing’ but she had no choice in sharing the consequences of Antigone’s and Creon’s decisions. She lost her niece and son because of her husband’s mistakes. The empathy felt for the loss of innocent lives, for both Eurydice and Haemons, serve as consequences for Creon and escalates the misery of the whole tragic affair. The loss of innocence is what makes the play Antigone a ‘tragedy’. Antigone is a tragedy about the decisions that mortals make when concerned with love and life and when faced with laws regarding politics and religion.

The drama works though those decision as the audience is directed to feel different degree’s of empathy for each of the characters. The empathy depicts what sort of reading the audience will have of the character and that reading effects the interpretation of the play and decides which issues are important: like being faced with decisions that have to be made regardless of whether you are in a fit mind to. ‘Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom. ‘ (chorus, p128)

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