Hegel's interpretation of Antigone
Extract from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online entry on tragedy,
12 April, 1999



George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), the immensely influential German philosopher, in his Aesthetik (1820-29), proposed that the sufferings of the tragic hero are merely a means of reconciling opposing moral claims. The operation is a success because of, not in spite of, the fact that the patient dies. According to Hegel's account of Greek tragedy, the conflict is not between good and evil but between goods that are each making too exclusive a claim. The heroes of ancient tragedy, by adhering to the one ethical system by which they molded their own personality, must come into conflict with the ethical claims of another. It is the moral one-sidedness of the tragic actor, not any negatively tragic fault in his morality or in the forces opposed to him, that proves his undoing, for both sides of the contradiction, if taken by themselves, are justified.

The nuclear Greek tragedy for Hegel is, understandably, Sophocles' Antigone, with its conflict between the valid claims of conscience (Antigone's obligation to give her brother a suitable burial) and law (King Creon's edict that enemies of the state should not be allowed burial). The two claims represent what Hegel regards as essentially concordant ethical claims. Antigone and Creon are, in this view, rather like pawns in the Hegelian dialectic--his theory that thought progresses from a thesis (i.e., an idea), through an antithesis (an idea opposing the original thesis), to a synthesis (a more comprehensive idea that embraces both the thesis and antithesis), which in turn becomes the thesis in a further progression. At the end of Antigone, something of the sense of mutually appeased, if not concordant, forces does obtain after Antigone's suicide and the destruction of Creon's family. Thus, in contrast to Aristotle's statement that the tragic actors should represent not an extreme of good or evil but something between, Hegel would have them too good to live; that is, too extreme an embodiment of a particular good to survive in the world. He also tends to dismiss other traditional categories of tragic theory. For instance, he prefers his own kind of catharsis to Aristotle's--the feeling of reconciliation.

Hegel's emphasis on the correction of moral imbalances in tragedy is reminiscent of the "poetic justice" of Neoclassical theory, with its similar dialectic of crime and punishment. He sounds remarkably like Racine when he claims that, in the tragic denouement, the necessity of all that has been experienced by particular individuals is seen to be in complete accord with reason and is harmonized on a true ethical basis. But where the Neoclassicists were preoccupied with the unities of time and place, Hegel's concerns, like those of other Romantics, are inward. For him, the final issue of tragedy is not the misfortune and suffering of the tragic antagonists but rather the satisfaction of spirit arising from "reconciliation." Thus, the workings of the spirit, in Hegel's view, are subject to the rationalistic universal laws.

Hegel's system is not applicable to Shakespearean or Romantic tragedy. Such Shakespearean heroes as Richard III, and Mark Antony cannot be regarded as embodiments of any transcendent good. They behave as they do, says Hegel, now speaking outside of his scheme of tragedy, simply because they are the kind of men they are. In a statement pointing up the essence of uninhibited romantic lust and willfulness Hegel said: "it is the inner experience of their heart and individual emotion, or the particular qualities of their personality, which insist on satisfaction."


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Lesley Smith and Mary Lechter, 12 April, 1999