In his Poetics, Aristotle discusses the nature of Ancient Greek tragic poetry: what the essential constituents are, and what it takes for this kind of poetry to be successful. The best kind of plot, he writes, is one with incidents that cause fear and pity in the audience, which are at their most effective when unexpected, changing the course of the play without warning. A sudden change in fortune comes about and things that have been going well for a character start to go catastrophically wrong. The Greek word ‘peripeteia‘ (commonly translated as ‘reversal’) is often understood to be describing the change in circumstances itself. However, it should instead be seen as something which accompanies this change; while fortunes can be reversed in the most basic tragic plot, a peripeteia occurs only when a character drastically changes their mind in response to the change in their fortunes. It marks a crisis point for the character, a decision which can only end badly… this is the genre of tragedy after all.
At no point in the Poetics does Aristotle say that a peripeteia has to relate to the protagonist in the play. However, the mistaken belief that it should has caused some confusion over its occurrence in Sophocles’ Antigone. To summarise the plot as briefly as possible: the play opens just after the end of a war between two brothers seeking rule of Thebes. When both are killed, their uncle Creon becomes the new king. He passes a law that Polyneices, the previously exiled, treacherous brother, must be refused burial on pain of death. Antigone, however, sister to the two slain men, believes such a law directly contravenes the unwritten laws of the gods, which grant that all men should receive equal rites in death. Determined to bury Polyneices, and arrested when she tries to do so, Antigone is locked in an underground chamber to die by her uncle who is angered at her remorseless challenge to authority. His pride and paranoia about the fragility of newly-acquired power causes his downfall – upon hearing from a prophet that the gods have been angered by his treatment of Polyneices’ body, he realises his tragic error, and seeks to free Antigone. Of course, he is too late – he finds that Antigone has hanged herself, he watches as his own son (betrothed to Antigone) stabs himself out of grief, and returns to the city to find his wife too has killed herself upon her son’s death. Creon’s overthrow is complete, and, utterly wretched, he wishes only for death. He should be so lucky; the Chorus tells him to give up this hope as “from suffering that has been decreed, no man will ever find escape.”
So where does the key moment of peripeteia come in the play? A quick Google of ‘Antigone, peripeteia’ reveals that a surprising number of readers have fallen into the trap of seeking a peripeteia relating to Antigone, as protagonist. It is true that Antigone certainly undergoes a change of fortune – she starts the play in high standing as the sister of the late king and the betrothed of the new king’s son, before seeing arrest and then suicide. However, she is more a victim of Creon’s pride than she is the tragic figure. For Antigone experiences no true crisis, nor does she change her opinion at any point in the play. In the very opening scene she accepts that she will be sentenced to death if caught burying her brother: “…if I have to die for this pure crime, I am content”. Arrested, she makes no attempt to deny that she was the one who tried to bury the body and declares that, to her, death is welcome. She does not regret her action at all, viewing it as morally correct throughout, and laments only that they should punish her for it.
It is in fact Creon who displays more of the characteristics Aristotle attributed to the tragic figure of a play. He is essentially a good man who wants the best for his people but is destroyed by his fatal flaw of overwhelming pride. He falls a long way from being the proud, newly-minted king, undergoing the most drastic change in fortune; crucially, this change in status is accompanied by a change in intention and opinion.
While Antigone remains steadfast in her purpose, and is vindicated by the events which follow, Creon comes to realise that he has made a dreadful mistake with horrifying consequences. This realisation is not easily come by, and Creon’s moment of crisis is characterised and prolonged by his indecision. He put himself in an incredibly difficult position by being so forceful in his initial assertion of authority, upon his first entrance proclaiming, “it is impossible to know fully any man’s character, will, or judgment, until he has been proved by the test of rule and law-giving.” Here, his own rule is being tested on himself far sooner than he expected, and he is reluctant to change his stance when his leadership is challenged. After Antigone’s opportunity to deny or repent, arrogantly “boast[ing]” of what she has done, he is angry and humiliated. Creon’s psychology when sentencing her to death is, therefore, straightforward: it makes no differnce that Antigone is family; he cannot tolerate such insolence and rebellion. Even when Teiresias, the prophet, tells him of the omens condemning his decision, he is reluctant to give way: “to yield is very hard, but to resist and meet disaster, that is harder still… How hard it is”. Nonetheless, it is clear to both him and the audience that he must keep his course of action, and allow the peripeteia to fully take place. The gods are angered, and he now endangers not just himself but the whole city, in his persevered persecution both of Polyneices and Antigone. Finally, he changes his course: “…one cannot fight against necessity. I will give way.”
The tragedy of his mistake is heightened by the Chorus’ indifference – they tell Antigone before her death that she has affronted justice, a statement which suggests that Creon’s actions are not as straightforwardly outrageous as the consequences would make out. Nevertheless, he accepts full responsibility for the events which have occurred (he admits: “the guilt falls on me alone”), and is left with no choice but to endure his existence, miserable, bereaved, humiliated, and full of guilt. As so often in Greek tragedy, the penalty by far outweighs the original sin; even Creon’s attempt to remedy his error upon his peripeteia is tragically futile, and his crisis is a bleak one – once he has condemned Antigone, there is no going back.