Four Antigones: A Lexicogrammatical Comparison of a Timeless Theme from the Ancient Greek Theatre to the Victorian Novel

This is a working draft of a paper I am working on concerning the Antigone theme throughout history.


Four Antigones:  A Lexicogrammatical Comparison of a Timeless Theme from the Ancient Greek Theatre to the Victorian Novel


James Trevor Jackson


Abstract: The Antigone myth predates Sophocles’ 440 BCE production and continues to be re-adapted to this day. This paper will examine two dramatic adaptations of the myth: Sophocles’ version first produced in Fifth-century Athens, and Jean Anouilh’s well-known adaptation, first staged in Nazi-occupied France in 1944. This evaluation will be made with the aid of what is known as Appraisal Theory (Martin and White, 2005). Appraisal Theory offers a means by which the writer-reader relationship can be evaluated according to “the linguistic resources by which texts/speakers come to express, negotiate and naturalise particular inter-subjective and ultimately ideological positions.” After a comparison of these two Antigones, written for the stage, this paper will then examine two Nineteenth-century novels: Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”, whose themes have long been noted for their similarities to the Antigone myth. A similar methodology will be used to appraise the two novels’ writer-reader relations in light of the timeless themes they share with the two previously examined dramatic productions. An analysis of the effect of ‘interiority’ in the portrayal of the novels’ main characters will be carried out, examining how the novelistic representation of consciousness conditions writer-reader relationships in comparison to texts written for dramatic productions.


The Antigone myth predates Sophocles’ 440 BCE production of the play and adaptations continue to the present day. While there is much in the thematic material of Sophocles’ play that has been replicated over the course of three millennia, the relationship between what we now think of as writers and readers has changed a great deal in that time. One might suggest that a Greek tragedian such as Sophocles had a less complex relationship with his reader/audience than the modern playwright.  In “The Play off the Stage: the Writer-Reader Relationship in Drama” (2001), authors Zongxin Feng and Dan Shen note that within the context of dramatic production, “‘the reader’ is a kind of collective term covering various types of individuals with different pragmatic roles, including the director, the stage producer, the setting designer, actors/actresses, the audience outside the theatre and ordinary readers” (P 79).

While much of what is brought to light in their essay certainly holds true for playwrights and playgoers of Fifth-century Greek tragedy, further consideration might be given to some of the historical differences that might affect this particular kind of ancient writer-reader relationship in relation to their more modern counterparts. For instance, for the average Fifth-century Athenian, reading the manuscript of a play in the comfort of one’s own home would be unusual in comparison to more modern times, where print media is much more accessible and affordable. In addition, the role of intermediary “readers” positioned between playwright and audience, (such as producers, directors, set-designers, etc.) that Feng and Shen describe has changed considerably in the millennia since Sophocles’ productions.[i] From the perspective of Fifth-century Athens, differences in the pragmatic roles of administrative and off-stage creative personnel,  as well as the much more limited ability of actors to offer readerly interpretation as an intermediary between playwright and reader/audience, would be likely to contribute to a much different kind of reader-writer relationship than the modern playgoer might experience. Some of the most noticeable differences might be that within the Ancient Greek amphitheatre, actors wore large masks, making the creative dimension of facial expression (a central feature of the modern stage actor) impossible. Similarly, Greek amphitheatres were large, open air arenas, making vocal audibility a central concern and thereby significantly reducing actors’ and choristers’ range of choices for interpreting the manner in which a playwright’s lines could be delivered (that is, they had little alternative but to speak quite loudly). While the reader of such a play (as opposed to a playgoer) would be free to imagine tonal variations in characters’ voices that would be impracticable within the context of an amphitheatre production, it is likely that the playwright (in this case, Sophocles) wrote the play with the understanding of the production’s physical and environmental requirements, thereby limiting somewhat the possible manner in which lines could be delivered. As stage directions must be largely inferred by context (Sophocles did not write them into his plays as we have them today) the casual reader, in contrast to the playgoer is left without another valuable set of instructions that the reader of the modern play can normally avail herself of.


On the other hand, elements such as the Chorus, an anachronism to most modern productions may be thought of as complicating this writer-reader relationship by adding what many today think of as a sort of disembodied public voice that, it may be argued, was not considered to belong exclusively to the playwright but rather be a part of the public domain, so to speak, of commonly-held ideas and beliefs. This might be thought of as a separate element in, to use Chatman’s terminology (1980), the “story-discourse” dichotomy which, in Greek drama, often involved a story already well-known by the audience.

In Sophocles’ 440 BCE production, the discourse might be said to have been largely contrived from the repertoire of what were considered the general truths of the day. Of particular interest through the ages of the play’s reception are the polar positions introduced by the characters Creon and Antigone, and which are often echoed by the choristers in various contexts. While complicating the reader-writer relationship in Sophocles’ Antigone, it is nonetheless not difficult to demarcate the discursive function of the choristers.


We might also point out the different and more complex associations that the modern reader makes concerning genre. Fiction, for the ancient Greek playgoer was not, for instance, understood in relationship to other genres such as history, and investigative journalism. Nor, for that matter, could the concept of character be understood in the same way as we do today. As Walter Ong points out, “The first approximations we have of the round character are in the Greek tragedies, the first verbal genre controlled entirely by writing.” (1982, P. 149) From Sophocles, Ong jumps almost two millennia to Shakespeare for the next significant update on this relationship:

First emerging in chirographically controlled ancient Greek drama, the ‘round’ character is further developed in Shakespeare’s age after the coming of print, and comes to its peak with the novel, when, after the advent of the Age of Romanticism, print is more fully interiorized. (150)


Given the constraints outlined above (masks, amphitheatre stage-craft) we can see that creating what the audience might perceive as “round” characters such as Creon and Antigone was, for Sophocles, a significant achievement. While Ong identifies the work of Sophocles as a central milestone in the history of what we now can refer to as the reader-writer relationship, there were yet other differences in this relationship that may be worth examining. Among them is the different social role that attendance to played had in fifth century Athens (Green, P. 106).  Further consideration might be paid to the role of general literacy, and the access that even literate Fifth-century Athenians had to the written word (plays as well as other material) that was highly-limited in generic scope as well as in quantity.

In order to elucidate some of these differences, this paper will begin by exploring two interpretations of the ancient Antigone myth: Sophocles’ version, first staged in 440 BCE, and Jean Anouilh’s 1944 version, first staged in Nazi-occupied France in 1944. A cursory viewing or reading of each play will show that Sophocles and Anouilh had, of course, much different readers in mind. Along with these differences in how the plays are structured, it may be possible to identify lexicogrammatical features by which the two writers establish connections with the reader.


The Language of Evaluation in Antigone

In order to make the distinctions I hope to show make, I will use a particular methodology found in the text The Language of Evaluation by James R. Martin and Peter R.R. White (2005). In what has become known as “Appraisal Theory” Martin and White have explored “the linguistic resources by which speakers/writers adopt a stance towards to the value positions being referenced by the text and with respect to those they address” (P. 92) Using one particular component of this system, contained in their third chapter entitled “Engagement and Graduation: Alignment, Solidarity and the Construed Reader” (PP. 92-159), this essay will attempt to shed light on the manner in which very similar viewpoints expressed by the main characters in these two Antigones create much different “stances”, thereby constructing much different readers; that is, readers whom the authors ostensively expect to come to much different conclusions concerning the dramatic matters at hand. In making this comparison, I will use one very specific linguistic/lexicogrammatical construct: the gnomic present tense in which aphorisms or general maxims are offered by both characters and choristers as being universally true in the past present and future.  It is within these general maxims, given in the gnomic present tense, in which a great deal of the two plays express their world view.


Lexicogrammar and the Gnomic Present Tense

The gnomic present tense, in its broadest definition, is a statement containing a present tense verb that is used to express a general truth. It is the grammatical formation most closely associated with the “maxim” or “aphorism”.[ii] Other definitions include ‘A pithy saying that expresses a general truth or fundamental principle.”[iii] In her seminal Transparent Minds, narrative theorist Dorrit Cohn suggests its broad usage “for timeless generalizations — the authorial rhetoric [that] addresses itself to the mysteries and verities of the human condition[.]” (P. 28).

Roland Barthes, a significant influence on Cohn’s thinking, identified the gnomic present tense as constituting the grammatical form for the “referential code,” one of five different codes by which we gain meaning from a text. In S/Z (1974) he writes:

The utterances of the cultural code are implicit proverbs: they are written in that obligative mode by which the discourse states a general will, the law of a society, making the proposition concerned ineluctable or indelible. Further still: it is because an utterance can be transformed into a proverb, a maxim, a postulate, that the supporting cultural code is discoverable: stylistic transformation “proves” the code, bares its structure, and reveals its ideological perspective.  (P. 100).


In Sophocles’ Antigone, the gnomic present tense is used extensively by both characters and choristers. Though it is used with a wide variety of different rhetorical effects, dependent on character and context, this linguistic formation is consistently visible within the core meaning-making systems throughout the play. Of particular interest is the use of gnomic constructions in the dialogues between Creon and Antigone. These are consistently followed by commentary by the Choristers, with their own gnomic constructions, that ultimately seem to represent or condition what will become the final pronouncement of the play’s moral.

In distinguishing the writer-reader relationship within the gnomic constructions of the main characters (Creon and Antigone) from that of the choristers, we might find it useful to distinguish  “two kinds of subjectivity—intersubjectivity (a capacity to ‘feel with’ a character) and supersubjectivity (a capacity to ‘stand over’ a character and evaluate her or his actions ethically)” (Macken-Horarik, 2003, P. 287). Clearly, the chorus offers a stance of supersubjectivity as a sort of counterpoint to the intersubjectivity we, as reader/audience feel when listening to the arguments of both Creon and Antigone. This dichotomy of intersubjectivity/supersubjectivity is most clear in the gnomic constructions on themes addressed by both characters and choristers.  For instance, in this exchange between Antigone and Creon, an unresolved moral ambiguity is voiced for the audience to consider. Arguing that she was justified in defying King Creon’s edict Antigone insists:

  1. Even so, the god of Death demands these rites.

To which Creon counters:

  1. The good demand more honour than the wicked.

Quick to offer her own general truth, Antigone retorts:

Antigone. Who knows? In death they may be reconciled.

To which Creon fires back with yet another aphorism in the gnomic present tense:

  1. Death does not make an enemy a friend!   (Lines 518 – 523)


The aphoristic language offered in the gnomic present tense by Creon in rebuttal to Antigone’s assertions of religious priorities may be thought of as comprising a space in which the reader/audience might have an opportunity for the sort of personal response in which each character’s viewpoint could be considered in turn – unencumbered by, for instance, by the heavy-handed morality the audience had come to expect of the Chorus. Approximately 100 lines later, the Chorus weighs-in:

Antistrophe 2: For it was a wise man

First made that ancient saying: To the man whom God will ruin

One day shall evil seem Good, in his twisted judgement (line 621-622)


The double-irony contained in this linguistically gnomic construction will not become visible until the play’s conclusion when we see that both Antigone and Creon have been ruined as a result of their “twisted judgment”. The ‘supersubjectivity’ of this aphorism declines to settle (for the moment) whether Creon or Antigone (or both) are ultimately right or wrong. In denying the audience an authoritative voice in judgment, it adds to the dramatic tension as well as increasing the space in which the audience may accommodate their own subjective stance, unencumbered by the Chorus’s complete authority.

Later, the Chorus will again summarize the state of affairs caused by their two versions of general truth. To Antigone, who has recently resigned herself to her grim fate, the Chorus says:

  1. Such loyalty is a holy thing. Yet none that holds authority

Can brook disobedience, O my child. Your self-willed pride has been your ruin. (Lines 871 – 872)

Here, we can see a space in which the reader/audience, while sympathizing personally with Antigone, may also accommodate within this empathic space the viewpoint offered by the Chorus that even though her position may be morally correct, she has still erred out of self-willed pride.  The reader that Sophocles has constructed here, then, is one who must embody an irresolvable dilemma. While it seems that the ‘supersubjective’ judgment of the Chorus has tilted towards Creon in the above, Antigone will, in death,  Share in a positive endorsement of the Chorus. After her death, the play concludes with the Chorus’s final pronouncement on Creon:

Chorus. Of happiness, far the greatest part Is wisdom, and reverence towards the gods.

Proud words of the arrogant man, in the end,

Meet punishment, great as his pride was great,

Till at last he is schooled in wisdom. (Lines 1348 – 1352)


The reader will here have a space opened up for sympathy for Creon as well as Antigone whose pride was also her downfall. Creon, “at last…schooled in wisdom” will have earned the audience’s intersubjective as well as supersubjective empathy.


Barthes, Roland. “S/z, trans.” Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Chatman, Seymour Benjamin. Story and discourse: Narrative structure in fiction and film. Cornell University Press, 1980.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Feng, Zongxin, and Dan Shen. “The play off the stage: the writer-reader relationship in drama.” Language and Literature 10.1 (2001): 79-93.

Green, John Richard. Theatre in Ancient Greek society. Routledge, 2013

Hall, Edith, Ed. (1962) ANTIGONE, OEDIPUS THE KING & ELECTRA Translated by H. D. F. KITTO; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Macken-Horarik, Mary. “Appraisal and the special instructiveness of narrative.” TEXT-THE HAGUE THEN AMSTERDAM THEN BERLIN- 23.2 (2003): 285-312. P. 287.

Martin, James R., and Peter RR White. The Language of Evaluation. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word. London ; New York, Methuen.


[i] See Green, John Richard. Theatre in ancient Greek society. Routledge, 2013 for a description of differences in theatre culture.

[ii] Accessed 24 April, 2013

[iii] Accessed 24 April 2013

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