Antigone – The Problem of Violence

In the three part series, Dr. Andrew J. McKenna, Professor Emeritus, French Language and Literature, Loyola University Chicago, joins Raven Foundation Founder Suzanne Ross to set the stage for Sophocles’ play “Antigone” and unpack its contemporary relevance. These videos are designed for use in high school classrooms and great book discussions.

Part 1 – Enemy of the State

Antigone Study Guide - Part 1 - Enemy of the State

Antigone – The Problem of Violence

Discussion Guide

Watch the video, Part 1 – Enemy of the State, at the beginning of class.

Introduce the Exercise

Explain that the exercise explores the background that led to the civil war in Thebes and the death of the rival brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. Divide the class into three sections, one for Eteocles, one for Polyneices and one for Creon. Explain that as Creon takes the throne at the end of the war, he must restore order and find a way to declare a winner and a loser so that the cycle of violence will end.

Complete the “Enemy of the State” Worksheet

Hand out the “Enemy of the State” worksheet and ask the groups to complete the worksheet together.

Group Presentations

After completing the worksheet, each of the groups representing the brothers make their defense of their client to Creon’s group. Creon’s group then presents their findings.

Class Discussion

Lead the entire class in a discussion by asking the following questions:

How would Eteocles defend himself against the charge of being an “enemy of the state”?

How would Polyneices defend himself against the charge of being an “enemy of the state”?

Do you think Creon made the right decision?

What would have happened if Creon had not asserted a difference between the brothers, declaring one the enemy and the other a friend of the state?

Conclude: There are good arguments in defense of each brother. But order does not depend on making the “right” decision; it does depend on a decision being made, enforced and accepted. To restore order and prevent further violence the friend/enemy difference must be restored and legitimized politically and religiously. Antigone is a tragedy and not a melodrama where you have good guys and bad guys; Sophocles’ play dramatizes real tragic conflict.


Enemy of the State Worksheet 

Prof. McKenna: “In Antigone, there is no character who is not the enemy of some other character.”                        

If your group represents Eteocles or Polyneices read and answer the following questions:

Your client has pleaded not guilty to the charge of being an “enemy of the state”. As his defense team, your task is to gather evidence to defend the actions of (Eteocles/ Polyneices) and his claim to the throne of Thebes. Consider the following questions to prepare your defense:

Who was (Eteocles/ Polyneices)?

What was the basis of his claim to the throne of Thebes?

What reason did he give for going to war with his brother?

Why did he consider himself a loyal citizen of Thebes?

If your group represents Creon read and answer the following questions:

Creon’s job is to restore order at the end of a brutal civil war. Answer the following questions to explain his judgment about which brother is the enemy of the state.

What problem faces Creon as he becomes king of Thebes?

Which brother does he declare to be the enemy of the state?

What is the reason behind his decision?

How does he think this will solve his problem?

Part 2 – A Crisis of Difference

Antigone Study Guide - Part 2 - Crisis of Difference

Antigone – The Problem of Violence

Part 2 – Crisis of Difference

Discussion Guide

Watch video, Part 2 – Crisis of Difference, at the beginning of class.

Introduce the Exercise

The audience at the Dionysian festival knew the myth of Antigone’s family, so as Sophocles’ tells the story he raises questions about the scapegoating (religious) solution to violence and civil disorder. Conflicts in Greek tragedies don’t moralize into good guy/ bad guys. These are real conflicts that must be resolved.

Divide the class up into three groups and assign one of the dialogues to each one: Creon and Antigone; Creon and Haemon; Creon and Teiresias. Explain that they will analyze dialogue excerpts that demonstrate the loss of difference that blurs the distinction between the good guy and bad guy. Examine how loss of difference leads to and is a hallmark of violence.

Complete the “Crisis of Difference” Worksheet

Hand out the “Crisis of Difference” worksheet and ask the groups to complete the worksheet together.

Group Presentations

After completing the worksheet, ask each group to present their findings.

Class Discussion

Lead the entire class in a discussion by asking the following questions:

  • By the end of each of the dialogues, identify ways in which the conflicts have escalated   from a war of words to a threat of violence.
  • Try to identify a point in the dialogues where the symmetry could have been broken if one of the characters had done or said something different. Imagine the new dialogue from that point so that it leads away from conflict and toward a possible solution.

Conclude: In these dialogues, rational speech degenerates into angry retort and violent reciprocity. The object of the dispute is displaced by mutual recrimination in the wrathful symmetry of violent doubles, which the brothers’ rivalry foreshadowed. Both political and religious rationality hold out for differences, which we see crumbling here; the rule of mimetic violence is 1 + 1 = 1. “Violence will only increase when contention becomes the content”.

Optional Exercise

Invite students to identify a contemporary situation that illustrates a crisis of difference in which antagonists are mirroring each other in a war of words. The situation could be very local, such as in your school or community, national or global. Divide the students into small groups to write dialogue for the situation as if they were writing a play and create two endings: one in which the war of words escalates to violence and one in which a solution is found. The groups can present their dialogues as short plays for the entire class.


Crisis of Difference Worksheet

Prof. McKenna: “The play is very emphatic about the fact that the two heirs to the throne are killed by each other’s hands. Sophocles is very sensitive to this crisis of difference. It’s the tragedy of violent twins.”

Group 1

Creon and Antigone: lines 555-594

Group 2

Creon and Haemon: lines 804-859

Group 3

Creon and Teiresias: lines 1141-1180

(The line references on the worksheet are from Penguin Classics, Three Theban Plays by Sophocles.)

Respond to the following questions and prepare to present your group’s answers to the entire class:

How does each character in your dialogue justify why he/ she is right?

What evidence or reasoning does he/ she offer?

What accusations do each of the characters throw at each other?

As the dialogue progresses, identify the symmetry in the dialogue as the characters increasingly mirror one another.

Part 3 – A Sacrificial Solution

Antigone Study Guide - Part 3 - A Sacrificial Solution

Antigone – The Problem of Violence

Part 3 – A Sacrificial Solution

Watch video, Part 3 – A Sacrificial Solution, at the beginning of class.

Introduce the Exercise

This play is a tragedy not because the good guy (or gal) lost. The ending is tragic for both Antigone and Creon. Sophocles shows us a tragic outcome because the problem of restoring peace after a civil war is real and difficult to achieve. Both Creon and Antigone believe that they are following the “will of the gods”. Yet each believes that the gods require something very different from them.

Complete “A Sacrificial Solution” Worksheet

Divide the class into two groups, one representing Antigone and one Creon.

Group Presentations

After completing the worksheet, each group presents its findings.

Class Discussion

Lead the entire class in a discussion by asking the following questions:

  •  Which arguments are you sympathetic to?
  •  Which do you disagree with?

Antigone is often described as following a “higher law” while Creon is said to be following “human laws”. Looking at your answers on the worksheet, how would you describe the different methods used by human laws and a higher law?

What is our responsibility to both human law and a higher law?

Conclude:      

In Antigone, Sophocles offers us a dramatization of the way that human law creates order through violence and scapegoating. The play continues to be relevant because we are still wrestling with the same problems of how to create sustainable peace without dehumanizing and sacrificing some for the sake of the entire community

Optional Exercise:

Ask your students to think of examples where this conflict between human law and a higher law is playing out today. You can offer examples from American history to get the ball rolling, such as conscientious objectors vs. the draft board during the Vietnam war or civil disobedience vs. segregation laws during the Civil Rights movement.

Choose a current example and ask:

  • How is violence being justified?
  • What arguments or actions are being used to challenge the justification of violence?
  • Who is being dehumanized and by what methods?
  • Who is trying to reclaim their humanity and by what methods?
  • What would Creon say about this situation?
  • What would Antigone say about this situation?
  • What do you say?

A Sacrificial Solution Worksheet

Prof. McKenna: “We are still in this play. We have not solved the problem it raises about how to keep the peace and establish/ restore order without a sacrificial solution.”

Please respond as your character – Antigone or Creon – to the following:

What does the “will of the gods” mean to you?

Why is your course of action pleasing to the gods?

Who or what are you willing to sacrifice in order to follow the will of the gods as you understand it?

Describe the circumstances in which the gods approve of the use of violence.

What is at stake if you do not succeed?