Beautiful Death: the Nineteenth-Century Fascination with Antigone

Tara Beaney

Abstract


This article investigates the reception of Sophocles’ Antigone in early nineteenth-century Germany, a period in which interest in ancient Greek tragedy flourished, with Antigone being particularly prominent. The essay considers two influential figures of the period who regarded the work highly: the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770- 1843). In discussing their attitudes towards Antigone, the article raises the long-standing philosophical problem of how tragic representations of suffering and death, such as Antigone’s self-sacrifice, can arouse aesthetic pleasure and fascination. To address this problem, a sociohistorical approach is taken, exploring how the topos of female death may have appealed to the imagination of these important thinkers.

The story of Antigone has a peculiar persistence. Since Sophocles wrote the tragedy nearly two and a half thousand years ago, it has been repeatedly translated, adapted and interpreted, retaining its potential to captivate new audiences and readers. This phenomenon itself has attracted a wealth of critical studies, notably George Steiner’s Antigones (1984). Moreover, as any survey of critical interest in Antigone reveals, the story has been discussed in a wide range of discourses, from philosophy to politics to psychoanalysis and, more recently, feminism. In this article, my focus is on an intriguing confluence within the play, namely that of tragic death and femininity. I consider the reception of Antigone in Germany around the 1800s, when the tragedy was particularly popular, and I ask the question: to what extent was the fascination with this tragedy a fascination with Antigone’s death?


Keywords


tragedy; philosophy

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