Discuss the role of the sentry in Antigone. How does this minor character affect our impressions of major characters, or of the play’s central conflict?
The sentry in Antigone is a messenger who clearly has no desire to tell his tale. The entire seventeen lines of the sentry’s opening speech, in which he must report Polynices’ burial to Creon, are devoted to trying not to speak. His fearful halting demonstrates that Creon is powerful and dangerous, ready to exercise his power on the most helpless—and pointless—of victims. Creon, of course, blames the sentry for burying Polynices, and the sentry complains about the dangers of rulers who judge poorly. The sentry is free to say such things at this point, because he has nothing to lose. His forthrightness offsets the ugly cruelty of Creon’s power and makes Creon seem like a petty dictator rather than a moral force to be reckoned with.
The sentry is lucky, for shortly after vowing never to return to Creon or Thebes, he enters triumphantly with Antigone, who has been caught in the act of reburying her brother’s body. Although he continues to be a comical character, with his second entrance the sentry becomes less sympathetic. He boasts incessantly about being involved in a situation he formerly wanted to avoid. Also, because he turns Antigone in, he seems more complicit with Creon’s power than outside of it—even though his inaction would likely have cost him his life. In response to Creon’s request for details, he launches into a long and detailed description not only of the arrest but of the reburial of the body, its physical decay, the dust storm the sentries endured, and the rites Antigone administered. The sentry seems to have become something like a police officer, fully aligned with Creon. He enables Antigone’s ultimate imprisonment and demise.
Examine the messenger’s speech narrating the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus in Oedipus the King. What is the messenger’s attitude toward the events he describes? What is the effect of his announcement on the audience?
The audience does not see Jocasta commit suicide or Oedipus blind himself, because in Ancient Greek theater such violent catastrophes traditionally happen offstage. The audience hears them described by witnesses rather than seeing them firsthand. Greek tragedy left more to the imagination than modern theater does. It placed a great deal of importance on the language in which the catastrophe is described. In the case of Oedipus, the convention of keeping violence offstage is thematically appropriate. The audience is faced with the realization that it is blind, that it relies for its knowledge of events on report and hearsay, and is thus prone to error and uncertainty. Over the course of the play, the once-confident Oedipus discovers that he is in the grip of uncertainty and error himself. His self-blinding symbolizes, among other things, the blindness and doubtfulness of human life in general.
The messenger suggests that the Chorus—and, implicitly, the audience—is better off having been spared these terrible spectacles, and his words guide the audience’s reaction. When the messenger describes the wrenching sobs that Oedipus delivers upon seeing Jocasta, our emotions are stirred in a different way than if we had simply witnessed the violence ourselves. The focus is on the other characters’ reactions to the violent acts, and on the audience’s reaction, instead of on the acts themselves.
What is the difference between Oedipus’s relationship with Antigone and his relationship with Ismene in Oedipus at Colonus?
In Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is almost utterly dependent on his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Antigone acts as Oedipus’s eyes and Ismene as his ears. When they arrive at the sacred grove at Colonus, Oedipus asks Antigone to leave him and find out if anyone lives nearby, and she says that she can see a man approaching. Oedipus cannot tell that the citizen has exited until Antigone tells him so. Antigone also first perceives the approach of the Chorus, Ismene, Creon, and Polynices, and she repeatedly helps Oedipus move around the stage. Oedipus’s reliance on his daughter for her sight emphasizes both his blindness and his impotence, as well as the strength of his relationship with Antigone. Given Oedipus’s faltering and lack of self-reliance in these early scenes, the messenger’s description of Oedipus proceeding unaided to the spot where he dies seems miraculous.
Ismene is not nearly so close with her father, as the fact that she is not so helpful with respect to Oedipus’s most terrible loss—his sight—indicates. Ismene’s first lines are about her not being able to see her father and sister through her tears. Immediately thereafter, she exclaims that she can hardly bear to look at her father because of the cruel fate that he has suffered. Ismene is distracted by pity and shame in a way that Antigone is not. Nevertheless, Ismene does offer practical help to her father, and it is from her that Antigone and Oedipus learn that Creon and Polynices, separately and on the advice of the oracles, seek Oedipus’s blessing and body to aid them in their battles for control of Thebes. It is also Ismene who goes to perform the rites of atonement to appease the spirits on whose ground Oedipus and Antigone trespassed at the beginning of the play.
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