Antigone and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Comparison of Juxtaposing Antagonists
The success of the narrative arc of both Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone and Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream heavily rely on character interactions with the natural world. In each play respectively, the protagonists must purpose and negotiate elements of nature to achieve their particular objective. The plot of Antigone revolves around returning the body of Polynices to the natural world through a ritualistic burial process. Similarly, A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves a necessary pastoral escape to nature in order to resolve matters of unrequited, intertwined love affairs. Because the natural world drastically hinders the progress of the protagonists’ achievement of objective in both dramas, this conflict is emphasized as the central antagonistic force both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antigone. In Shakespeare’s classic pastoral play, a character versus environment conflict is emphasized for the main human protagonists. Thus, the natural world is clearly meant to be the central antagonist in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most importantly, the human lovers’ central objectives of romantically connecting with other specific characters are ultimately delayed by a very specific natural element. Lysander, one of the lovers, states his primary objective within the lover’s first scene in the forest. He tells Hermia that he desires that they become “Two bosoms interchained with an oath” (II.ii.49). The realization of this goal is entirely prevented by the interference of a powerful “little Western flower”, which is vested with the faculty to “make man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees” (II.i.164-172). Instead of allowing Lysander and Hermia’s love for each other to continue undisturbed (and thus achieve Lysander’s objective), this natural element interferes directly with the amorous agenda of Lysander by making him lustfully pursue Helena, who Lysander (post interference of nature) now considers to be “the worthier maid” (II.ii.116). In the same manner, the flower directly interferes with the goal Hermia has adamantly fought for since the beginning of the play: being able to love Lysander, despite being betrothed to Demetrius by her father. This specific element of the natural world proves to be a similarly antagonistic force in Demetrius’ ability to achieve his objective in the play. Apart from his desire to marry Hermia, Demetrius’ central objective in the storyline is arguably to escape the sickening love of Helena (II.i.212). He repeatedly makes this objective clear by threatening Helena with “the mercy of wild beasts” and “mischief in the wood” should she continue to romantically pursue him (II.i.228, 237). It is the same Western flower that causes Demetrius to abandon his clearly established objective, and eventually act on the complete opposite. Because a natural element directly causes this removal and reversal of self-agency in a major character decision, it is clear that nature is also an antagonistic force in the individual narrative of Demetrius. Puck, the character that initiates the antagonistic contact between natural element and human character, cannot be considered an antagonist because of the removal of intentionality from his actions. Before leaving to execute the flower-human interaction, Puck clarifies that he is solely performing these actions as the servant of Oberon (II.i.268). In saying this, Puck removes himself from the ramifications of his interference, and transfers the consequences of his actions to the fairy king. As a consequence of contributing to the antagonism of the lovers, Oberon symbolically becomes part of the natural world. This integration of character into the fiber of the natural world is supported by the Studio Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The costume design of Alison Yanota purposefully clothes the actor playing Oberon (Stuart McDougall) in a garment composed almost entirely of fragments of wood and earth-toned fabric to convey that Oberon is effectively part of the natural world that antagonizes the lovers. The adversary force of nature becomes the central antagonist of the play because the lovers are the central protagonists of the story. Of the groups of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lover’s must overcome the most vicissitude in order to achieve happiness. Thus, their numerous conflicts compose a majority of the narrative body of the play. In addition, the lovers are arguably the most relatable characters that speak to the human experience. As a result, the audience can viscerally and more tangibly relate to their story, which endows their narrative with a distinctive importance. Because the natural world directly interferes with the lover’s fulfillment of character objectives, and there is no character that directly assumes the role of antagonist, nature has to be considered the main antagonistic force for these characters, and by virtue of this association, the natural world becomes the central antagonistic force in the entirety of the play. The conflict structure of Sophocles’ legend Antigone follows a similar pattern. The natural world is created as a comparatively vilified force that assumes the central antagonistic role within the play. Antigone, undoubtedly the protagonist of the text, clearly states her narrative objective early on in the first act. She intends to “heap a mound of earth over [her] brother” despite King Creon expressly forbidding this action (Sophocles, 128). This stated objective is further clarified when supported by historical evidence. In an article about death and the afterlife in Ancient Greece, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City states that:
Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial [for one to progress to the afterlife] and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals… (The Met, 1)
When supported by this contextual evidence, it is clear that Antigone’s central objective is to allow her brother, Polynices, to progress to the afterlife through proper burial in the earth. It is the achievement of this objective that is entirely hindered by the interference of the natural world. Nature is explicitly vested with the authority to grant Polynices post-mortem bliss in the afterlife, but disallows the full completion of this process several times. After Antigone buries the body of her brother the first time, the sentry, following Creon’s orders, “swept off all the earth that covered the body” (137). After this action, Antigone is forced to repeat the entire burial action again, which gets her caught by the Sentry, and ultimately ends in her punishment and death by King Creon (138). It is through this action that nature prevents the achievement of Antigone’s central objective, as well as incites the pressures of a contagonistic force to contend with the protagonist character of the drama. Because of intricacy of a proper burial which nature demands in allowing Polynices to progress to the afterlife, Antigone’s objective in the play is never fully realized because of the time and specificity nature demands in completing this process. Antigone’s frustration with this repeated process (and therefore the natural world) is told through the Sentry’s words when he narrates that upon discovering Polynice’s body uncovered, Antigone is caught “screaming like an angry bird/When it finds its nest left empty and little ones gone” (137). Here, Antigone explicitly shows her vexation with natural forces in the denial of her achievement of objective. Antigone’s confrontation with nature also incites a separate pseudo-conflict with King Creon, furthering the notion that the central conflict within the play is nature versus character. Dramatica’s Theory of a Story defines a contagonistic character as one that “works to place obstacles in the path of the protagonist, and to lure it away from success” (Dramatica, ch. 3). If Antigone’s central aspiration is to achieve the proper burial of her brother, then King Creon is solely a contagonistic force that aids the central antagonistic natural world to hinder Antigone’s progression. Creon does so by sentencing Antigone to die in a “rock vaulted tomb”, thus removing Antigone’s agency to achieve her objective (Sophocles, 150). However, a natural element (the “rock vaulted tomb”) is still the force that physically prevents Antigone from pursuing the burial of Polynices for a third time and ultimately leads to her death, symbolizing the victory of antagonist over protagonist. It is also important to note the repeated negative connotations of nature by other characters in this text, as the Sentry demonstrates above. For example, King Creon, when accusing Ismene of participating in the burial of Polynices, calls her a “crawling viper” (140). Similarly, the chorus, when describing the divided household of King Creon, compares it to the “restless surge of the sea” and the consuming power of fire (143). Finally, Antigone, when describing her fate, compares herself to a Phrygian maid who was imprisoned in a fashion “merciless as the ivy”, while the “rain and snow/Beat down upon her” (148). Taken together, the repeated repudiation of a protagonist’s objective by natural elements, the symbolic death of Antigone while confined by natural elements, and the leitmotif of the negative associations of nature cumulatively create nature as a vilified, central antagonist in this play-text.
Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antigone rely on the natural world to provide antagonistic forces for the protagonists of each respective story. In Shakespeare’s infallible comedy, nature removes character agency, interferes with the ability to achieve clearly defined objectives, and encompasses the other adversaries of the lover characters, who are the central protagonists of the piece. In Sophocles’ model tragedy, the natural world prevents the central character from achieving her clearly established narrative objective, creates a character versus character pseudo-conflict through this same denial, and is repeatedly characterized negatively by a variety of the text’s characters. In these ways, both texts employ the same intangible central antagonist: the natural world.
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The success of the narrative arc of both Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone and Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream heavily rely on character interactions with the natural world. In each play […]