Compare and Contrast Antigone and King Lear

Compare and Contrast Antigone and King Lear

It is generally accepted that Renaissance tragedy is more akin to Greek tragedy than to the modern era (Bush 1965, 92). Aristotle’s concept of tragedy as an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude…in the mode of action; not narrated; and effecting pity, fear and catharsis of emotions, lies true to both Greek and Renaissance tragedies. Alongside these conventional notions of tragedy, we come to see certain aspects of these plays which are unique in discussing themes of power, pride, individual suffering, misogyny, fate, destiny and human action. It is interesting to note how such themes have permeated the tragedies of both these eras, accounting for a remarkable similarity in the concerns of men of the two ages. Such themes, apart from giving us a common ground to treat Greek and Renaissance tragedies on a more or less equal level, ask us to explore the cultures of both eras.

By reading Sophocles and Shakespeare, we come to read the literature, and the culture implicit in the literature of their times. The two passages (Antigone ll. 441-582, King Lear Act 1, Sc 4, ll. 149-264) are apt in discussing the scheme of events and themes working within Antigone and King Lear. The purpose of this essay is to argue the common themes in these two passages, and relate them to their subsequent texts, touching upon the interplay of language and words which bring about certain desired effects in them. Alongside this, I will be looking at the aspects which join Greek and Renaissance tragedy.

The passage in Antigone begins with an argument between divine (Antigone) and regal (Creon) law. It is a point of contention between State-ordinance and religious doctrine. While for Antigone ‘Justice, That dwells with the gods below, knows no such law’ (l. 453), Creon is bent upon punishing her for State treason. A clash between duties to the State, and that to religion and individual desire, erupt violently in this passage, emerging with an engaging rhetoric from both sides. But the crime, in the eyes of Abbott, is exactly this sense of royalty about Creon: ‘The leading idea of the Antigone is not merely that rebellion is a crime; rebellion against injustice, and such is Antigone’s rebellion, can never be placed on the same footing as the outrage of natural rights consecrated by religion, in which lies the guilt of Creon. It is rather that the laws of nature are not to be overridden by the law of State’ (1907, 49; my italics). While Abbott argues that this supremacy of nature (or religion) is a key factor in understanding Sophocles, Gerald F. Else states how Sophoclean tragedy became a forerunner for Renaissance tragedy: ‘…the most noteworthy thing about the first stasimon (in Antigone) is not the presence of man but the absence of gods. I mean their absence as powers and controllers, whether of man, or animate or inanimate nature, or of society’ (1976, 43). If Sophoclean Greece was imbued with a sense of religiosity and polis (the idea of state-cultures), Sophocles was writing a tragedy about a woman who made gods a justification for her deeds. And when Antigone resolved ‘I knew that I should have to die, of course/ With or without your order’ (ll. 461-2), she was declaring the resolution of her mind and heart, beyond her allegiance to the laws of religion, which made her an individual, deciding and determining her own future. Although fate still works for Antigone’s detriment (in her eventual death), it is juxtaposed with her strong sense of mind. In Antigone (as other Sophoclean tragedies) individual choice was beginning to complement fate.

Although in King Lear, fate has practically no role to play, tragedy still unfolds itself in the usual way, only this time ‘fate’ has been substituted for hamartia, the tragic flaw and free-will. If in Creon, the tragic flaw of pride supplements Tieresias’s prophecies, King Lear’s pride and shallow understanding pave way (along with the complexities of the plot and circumstances) for his complete tragedy. Lear commits the mistake of ‘taking words for qualifying nouns’. Frisch, in Might and Right in Antiquity elucidates this phenomenon: ‘…though it is a certain aspect, or ‘quality’, in a person or thing, which is the object of the valuation and is called ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the favourable or unfavourable estimate is transferred to the person or thing itself, so that instead of denoting the valuation made by someone else, it comes to denote the person or thing thus valued as good or bad in themselves’ (233). He takes Goneril’s and Regan’s ‘words’ for their ‘qualities’. Creon considers the might of his verbal power his actual, qualifying might.

A peculiar characteristic common to both passages is the way their characters engage in an incessant power struggle. Creon’s regal stature speaks in his words: ‘Proud thoughts do not sit well upon subordinates’ (l. 515), while Lear’s losing hold on sovereignty reads thus: ‘I would learn that; for by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters’ (ll. 228-30). Creon’s profound authority is counterfeited in Antigone’s strong and blatant remark: ‘Now you have caught, will you do more than kill me?’ (l. 531), while he is adamant in maintaining his strong hold on what he calls State-duty, but what in fact is his own obstinate pride. Goneril, on the other hand, is an inverse of what Creon has to say about women: ‘Go then, and share your love among the dead/ We’ll have no woman’s law her, while I live’ (ll. 562-63) She is not only authoritative and resolute like Antigone, but also holds the reigns of Lear’s destiny. Her language, unlike Antigone’s, is doubly enforced by this added edge destiny has endowed on her.

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