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‘Antigone’ is a typical Greek tragedy in many ways, but it stands out for Sophocles’s use of irony in many delightful layers, resulting in a rich tapestry of plot and characters.

Irony in Antigone

Irony may be generally defined as a reversal of expectations, and it is a common device used throughout dramatic literature.

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In Antigone, however, playwright Sophocles uses three different types of irony to build anticipation and interest in the characters and plot.In this lesson we will explore these three types of irony, and how each contributes to the richness of the plot of Antigone.

Dramatic Irony

Playwrights typically use dramatic irony to portray a situation that is understood by the audience but not fully grasped by the characters in the play. This tool is used to build both plot complexity and dramatic tension.

For example, Antigone announces her intention to bury Polyneices to her sister, Ismene, making the audience aware of her crime before it is committed. Ismene serves as the voice of reason and confirms the audience’s fears for the tragic heroine. Soon after this exchange, Creon proclaims his punishment for Polyneices’ burial before he is aware of what Antigone has done. Thus, the tension between Antigone and Creon exists for the audience before it exists between the two characters.Another example of dramatic irony in Antigone that is more situational is that Polyneices’ body is left to decay in the open, but by the end of the play Antigone is entombed while still alive.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when a character says something but means the opposite; this type of irony is often used to convey emotion or wit. There are many examples of verbal irony in Antigone, but we will examine only a few here.In the first instances of dialogue between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone refers to ‘the worthy Creon’ (line 35). Clearly she is angered by Creon’s decree, and having already stated her intention to defy it, we understand that she does not believe he is a worthy king.After learning of Haemon’s death, the chorus proclaims ‘Prophet, how truly you have made good your word’ (line 1255).

While the prophet predicted tragedy would befall Creon’s house, the chorus’ use of words here is ironic, given that the prophet did not have a hand in what actually happened nor is the outcome good.In Creon’s speech to Haemon upon his death, he states ‘You were freed from the bonds of life through no folly of your own’ (lines 1345-1346). Creon blames himself for Haemon’s death, but Haemon undeniably took his own life.And, upon learning of his wife’s suicide Creon declares ‘It is a dead man that you kill again’ (line 1365).

Creon’s ‘first death’ occurred when his son took his own life. His ‘second death’ was upon news of his wife’s suicide, yet he is clearly alive to feel the pain of these losses.

Ironic Fate

Ironic fate, also known as cosmic fate, is the idea that a force greater than the individual (such as a god, the universe, or destiny) controls the outcome. In Antigone, the play’s principal characters, Antigone and Creon, are resolute in their decisions, and each anticipates a righteous outcome.

Yet, fate would not have it so.The prophet Teiresias warns Creon that Antigone’s death would bring about more tragedy in his house and turn his city against him. Teiresias succeeds where no other character has in convincing Creon that Antigone’s execution is an unjust action. Creon reverses his order for her death, but it is too late.

She has already committed suicide. Technically, Antigone did not die by Creon’s hand, but his fate is the same. His son and wife commit suicide and, presumably, his kingdom crumbles.

The chorus also sets forth an expectation that is not met by the end of the play. After years of civil war, the chorus expresses sentiment that Creon’s reign will bring peace and prosperity to the city, but Creon’s ruling to put Antigone to death divides the city once again.And finally, the most intriguing ironic fate is that of Antigone. From the beginning she understands that the price for her crime is death, but she sees it as a noble death. As she is being led to her tomb where she will be immured, however, she laments the life she was denied and the manner of her death: ‘unbedded, without bridal, without share in marriage and in nurturing of children; as lonely as you see me; without friends; with fate against me I go to the vault of death while still alive’ (lines 974-978).

Lesson Summary

As is typical in Greek tragedies, Sophocles uses irony as a prominent literary device.

It is more than just a clever tool to entertain audiences though! Irony adds depth to a tragic play’s elements, including the plot and characterization.Dramatic irony builds tension and anticipation among the readers by conveying known facts to the audience before all of the characters may be aware. Verbal irony aids in the portrayal of characters as dimensional by conveying intelligence, wit, and emotion. And finally, ironic fate is the ultimate tragic outcome, conveying the hero’s true powerlessness.

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