It is often said that what separates man from beast is man’s ability to reason; however, the degree to which a man is free to reason is frequently constricted by excruciatingly tight bindings. Two of the more common of these bindings are religion and law, and when they conflict, one’s ability to reason is placed in jeopardy. A familiar basis for a clashing between religion and law is that those who are deeply religious view the teachings of their god(s) as supreme law, (i.e. rules and regulations that cannot be superseded by any man); however, god(s) do(es) not roam the earth, so man is left to guide himself, and to promote social harmony, man has established a series of laws that must be followed.
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In addition to formal laws, mankind has also developed a sense of order within the groups of which he is a part (e.g. family, business, town, state, nation), and depending on his position within these groups, he may be asked to follow another set of rules. With these obligations in mind, it is no wonder that conflict arises given the layers involved in the inpidual’s reasoning process, and anyone who has done internal battle over this type of conflict will surely admit to its difficulty.
Artistic genesis is often the result of an artist’s mulling over basic human experiences; especially, those that seem devoid of an absolute solution, and this is the case in both Sophocles’ Antigone, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: each piece examines the struggles of characters who are trying to reason in the midst of great conflict.
Sophocles mixes memory, narration, and visceral emotion to create the world within Antigone, a play that revolves around the title character’s choosing to ignore the edict of her uncle, the new king of Thebes because his proclamation regarding the burial of one of her brothers violates the rules set forth by her gods (Sophocles 1999). Although angering the gods or eternal damnation are only concepts, these issues are as real to those who believe in them as are lightning strikes that hit a house, and it is because of the possibility that these things are real that writers can use them to reify the tragic sensibilities of their audience, their players, and themselves.
Sophocles’ use of memory must be examined from two points of view: first, what an audience during his time would have known and remembered; second, what audiences removed from that time would know and remember. This difference was explained by Baity, Kiger, and Van Holt (2003) in SCR Playgoer’s Guide to Sophocles’ Antigone: “The character of Antigone hails from perhaps the most famous family in all of Western dramatic literature. Theatergoers today may vaguely remember reading Oedipus Rex or Antigone in school, but for the ancient Greeks the background of these characters was common knowledge.
” Externally, this is the effect that memory has on Sophocles’ play; however, there is also an element of internal memory at work: Antigone is well aware of her family’s previous misfortune: “Raking up the grief for father / three times over, for all the doom / that’s struck us down, the brilliant house of Laius” (Sophocles, 1999). The effect of memory on one’s decision making cannot be ignored, and for Antigone, it is a crucial point.
The chorus in Antigone provides narration in the play, and it also serves as a conscience to the characters. At times, the chorus foreshadows what will occur as is the case when the chorus warns Creon that “When [man] weaves in / the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods / [. . .] he and his city rise high – / but the city casts out that man who weds himself to inhumanity” (Sophocles, 1999). Creon has made an error by forbidding the burial of his nephew Polynices, and he is about to make another by condemning Antigone to death. Creon is stuck in a battle between his power as a ruler and his religion, and his thirst for power is clouding his ability to reason.
The visceral emotion caused by Antigone begins in the opening lines of the play when the audience learns that “the doom reserved for enemies / marches on the one [Antigone and Ismene] love the most” (Sophocles, 1999). Curiosity quickly turns to anxiety as one discovers that Antigone intends to violate the decree of King Creon by burying her brother Polynices, for which the penalty is death. The more one becomes involved in the play, the more one begins to hate Creon, and by the time the play is finished, the anguish felt over the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice has reached a crescendo. It is of little consequence that the chorus reminds the audience that “Creon shows the world that of all the ills / afflicting men the worst is lack of judgment” (Sophocles, 1999).
William Shakespeare also makes use of memory, narration, and visceral emotion in his play Romeo and Juliet, and like Antigone, the characters in Shakespeare’s play are embroiled in a struggle centered on reasoning in the face of great conflict. Unlike Antigone, the difficulty in Romeo and Juliet is not one of religion per se; however, because of the beliefs that were in place during Shakespeare’s time, the title characters’ ignoring the conflict between their parents was a violation of The Great Chain of Being—an act akin to angering the gods.
The Great Chain of Being was the primary belief system during Shakespeare’s time (i.e. the Elizabethan period). Symbolized by a vertically extending set of links that form a ladder-like chain, it was a pinely-planned universal hierarchy at the very top of which resided God. In its simplest form, the order of the Great Chain of Being was God, then King, then Father. The idea of this pinely planned universal hierarchy was accompanied by a fear that its disruption carried severe consequences (McDonald, 2001).
Memory is the foundation on which the conflict within Romeo and Juliet rests: the young lovers do not feel (i.e. have memory of) the same sense of hatred for one another that is felt by the other members of their respective families; however, defying the long feud in order that they might wed would violate the law of their respective father’s and disrupt The Great Chain of Being. This is why Juliet laments “O Romeo, Romeo, / wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name” during her famous balcony scene (II.i.74–76). Juliet is asking not where her love is, but why Romeo is a Montague. Choosing to love another against the will of one’s father creates a significant conflict in the reasoning process.
Like Antigone, Romeo and Juliet also boasts a chorus that serves as narrator to the audience. The chorus provides the “Prologue” to the play, and it reveals to the audience exactly what they are about to experience:
Two households, both alike in dignity
[. . .] From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
[. . .] A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
[. . .] And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove. (Prologue, 1-11)
Because the audience knows what to expect, the chorus sets up the use of visceral emotion at the very start of the play.
It is with great anticipation that an audience introduced to the plot of Romeo and Juliet enters its world. Knowing that two youngsters will meet and fall in love leaves one anxiously awaiting just how the meeting will take place. Romeo experiences love-at-first sight:
Oh, [Juliet] doth teach the torches to burn bright!
[. . .] Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
[. . .] And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night. (I.v. 42-50)
The audience feels a great joy that is quickly dashed when they recall that the lovers are from
feuding homes and forbidden to marry. The audience will suffer great sadness when the young
lovers’ ploy to marry goes awry and results in their mutual suicides. The inability of Romeo and
Juliet to reason in the face of great conflict (i.e. familial discord and death) is complete.
The laws of god(s) and the laws of rulers often create ambiguity for peole, and the layers involved in an inpidual’s reasoning are the culprit. Sophocles, in Antigone; and William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, created works of art that seemingly began as the ruminating of each writer over basic human experiences; specifically those that have no clear-cut answers. Because certain circumstances seem devoid of an absolute solution, the examinations within each of these plays create a reifying of the tragic sensibilities of the audience, the players, and the writers.
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