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Antigone Vs. Billy Budd Essay, Research Paper
Antigone Vs. Billy Budd
In Poetics, Aristotle explains tragedy as a kind of imitation of a certain magnitude, using direct action instead of narration to achieve its desired affect. It is of an extremely serious nature. Tragedy is also complete, with a structure that unifies all of its parts. It is meant to produce a catharsis of the audience, meant to produce the emotions of pity and fear and to purge them of these emotions and helping them better understand the ways of the gods and men. Tragedy is also in a language in both verse and song. Aristotle’s definition is clearly applicable to both Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and the famous Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone is definitely a good example of a Greek tragedy. It contains all of the elements of Greek tragedy as defined by Aristotle. Billy Budd has also been interpreted by some critics as a Greek tragedy. This seems true in that it contains many of the requirements in a Greek tragedy. However, as we look closer, there are many factors that are not found in Billy Budd that are required in a Greek tragedy. There are flaws to the theory. Analysis of the Billy Budd has shown that enough of these flaws are evident to interpret Billy Budd as not a Greek tragedy. There are differences in the character, structure, theme, magnitude, tragic heroes, plot, as well as focus. However, it can be argued that these differences can also be similarities. It can be explained as a variant. Interpretation has been a key issue in these two works. The two works have been interpreted in many different ways. Each way could lead to a different comparison of these two works. Therefore, the reader must decide which interpretation is most “correct” and conclude whether the similarities are sufficient to call Billy Budd a Greek tragedy.
Aristotle states that “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Without action there cannot be tragedy; there may be one without character . . . The plot, then is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: character holds the second place.” (1,VI) Aristotle is stating that imitation is the representation of an object or action as ought to be. In both Billy Budd and Antigone, this occurs. Both involve a situation as the plot as it could be. The actions of the characters are influenced by their character and thought as well as the actions of others. These actions are put into a chain of events which is called the plot. In Aristotle’s words, “Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.” (1,VI) In turn, they each represent a situation that does not occur in life to illustrate a point directed toward the audience. The audience is left to decide questions the author or playwright poses.
The plot in Antigone is a situation after Oedipus, the king of Thebes, exiled himself. His two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles were proclaimed as the rulers of Thebes. They agreed that each would rule in alternate years. However, after the first year, Eteocles refused to give up rule of Thebes. Polyneices joined the forces of Adrastus, the king of Argos to attack Thebes. The attack broke the duel of the two brothers. The result was the destruction of each other. Thus, Creon, their uncle, was given the kingship and assumed the throne. Creon gave Eteocles a hero’s honors at his funeral. However, Creon declared that the body of Polyneices was not to be buried. Any person that tried to give last rites to Polyneices would be put to death. Antigone, the sister of Polyneices and Eteocles, is distraught that her brother Polyneices be denied a burial. (In Greek thought, the denial of a burial was very important. This will be discussed in detail later) Antigone was determined to give the body of Polyneices a proper burial no matter what the cost. Despite the pleading of her sister, Ismene to not go against the decree of Creon, Antigone goes about, and ultimately does perform last rites on her brother, Polyneices. Antigone proudly admits that it was indeed her that went against his decree and buried her brother. Antigone tells Creon that she is prepared to die even thought she was obeying a high law than Creon’s.
Now Creon must decide what to do. His decision is influenced by several factors. One is that Antigone is betrothed to his son, Haemon. His son is very much in love with Antigone. He persuades his father to not punish Antigone. Another influence is that of the citizens of Thebes. The citizens also tell Creon to release Antigone. “Creon. And is this girl not a criminal’? Haemon. The city with a single voice denies it.’” (2, 734-735) The final influence is from the blind prophet Teiresias. Teiresias urges Creon not to punish Antigone and warns him that the gods have been offended by the unburied body of Polyneices. He also warns Creon that the death of his son would result if Creon does not change his mind. Creon, becoming frightened at the possible death of his son, reluctantly decides to release Antigone and give Polyneices a proper burial. However, the happy ending is denied as the audience learns that Antigone committed suicide in her jail cell and Creon’s son, Haemon has followed Antigone in death. To further Creon’s suffering, his wife, Eurydice commits suicide as well. Creon acknowledges that the whole chain of tragic events was a result of his wrongdoing. He wanders off into self-exile and prays that his own death will come soon.
The plot of Billy Budd is similar. The story is of a young “handsome sailor” (3, 8) named Billy Budd. He is impressed into the British fleet a British merchant ship. Billy becomes a well- liked man by the crew from his cheerful countenance and innocence and also after a fight with Red Whiskers that earns the respect of the other crew members. However, Billy is not as well- liked by the mast of arms, John Claggart. Claggart is a man that Melville describes as being a man “. . . in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living but born with him and innate, in short a depravity according to nature’” (3,38). After several incidents, Claggart’s hate and envy of Billy erupts. Billy is warned several times by Dansker, a veteran sailor. Unfortunately, Billy is too naive and innocent to understand or believe his warnings. Claggart brings to the captain of the ship that Billy Budd is involved in a mutiny on the ship. Mutiny is a major issue at the time when the play is set because two mutiny’s have occurred just months before. However, is fond of Billy and is considering giving him a promotion among other things. He distrusts Claggart and decides to solve the situation quickly by bringing Billy into his room for questioning. After Claggart repeats his story, Billy’s “tragic flaw” prevails. Billy is too upset to speak and in a outburst of emotion accidently kills Claggart with one blow. Vere is then put into an awkward position. He must decide whether or not to execute Billy. He calls a drumhead court. His decision is also under many influences. Many of the officers on the ship including the chaplain and doctor as well as the members of the drumhead court feel that Billy should not be executed. The other influence is that not executing Billy could bring about a mutiny on his ship. An execution would be a good way to stop a possible mutiny. Finally, his sense of duty brings him to influence the court to reluctantly execute Billy. Billy is promptly executed the next day. Later, during a battle, Vere is wounded and after several days dies murmuring “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” (3, 76)
There are many similarities in these two plots. The actions that each character makes can be easily related. The most obvious is the decision to execute a person that is influenced by many factors. In Billy Budd, Captain Vere is forced to decide whether or not to execute Billy. In Antigone, King Creon must decide whether or not to punish Antigone. In each case, the person to be punished has done something that is wrong in terms of the laws that are in place. However, it is also true that the act that is defined as wrong in terms of the law can also be considered right. They can be considered right in moral law. It is follows that in each work, everyone around the “decision-maker” tries to persuade him to decide in favor of the law-breaker. A similarity also follows in that both Captain Vere and King Creon regret their action in the past. This is shown by the self-exile of King Creon. King Creon also says, “Lead me away, a rash, a misguided man, Whose blindness has killed a wife and son. O where can I look? What strength can I find? On me has fallen a doom greater than I can bear.” (2, 1339-1343) Captain Vere’s regret is shown by his last words of “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” (3, 76)
Another difference is in the laws that are in place. The laws in Billy Budd were not set by Captain Vere. They were set by the Parliament in England. Vere was under the command of a high authority. On the other side of the coin, the laws in Antigone were set by King Creon. He had no high power to listen to. He was the highest power in Thebes. He could have easily changed his mind on the issue, which he did later on. Another difference is that one of the characters: Antigone, broke the law on purpose while Billy broke the law on accident. Antigone was ready to accept death. She was willing to die for a cause that she felt was right. On the other hand, Billy did not want to die. He committed an offense, murder, not on purpose but on accident. He did not mean to kill Claggart. Antigone meant to go against Creon’s decree.
In Antigone, Creon did in fact change his mind to release Antigone and bury her brother, Polyneices in the end even though it was too late. He was frightened by the possible death of his son. However, in Billy Budd, Captain Vere decides to hang Billy despite all of the opposition that was posed against him. However, in Billy Budd, Vere’s opposition is not as strong because going against the captain could be regarded as an act of insolence or mutiny. It could be speculated that if the doctor and the chaplain had spoken for Billy that the execution of Billy could have been avoided. Another difference is that Captain Vere in Billy Budd, felt that in his mind that Billy should not be executed. This is evident when Captain Vere says, “struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (3,51) Vere was forced to go against his own judgement in executing Billy. In Antigone, Creon was totally against the idea of releasing Antigone and giving Polyneices a proper burial. He was only influenced by others to change his mind.
In direct relation to plot is theme. Theme is defined as a unifying or dominant idea or motif as in a work of art. In Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, Aristotle says that each action is directed towards a common theme. Each action is a part in the theme of the work. Together all of the actions: the plot unifies the theme. Also, the theme usually demonstrates a change in the protagonist’s fortune. As stated before, interpretation is the key to these works. Depending on which interpretation is followed a different theme could be created.
One interpretation of Billy Budd is that it is a recreation of the story of Christ. Billy is the Christ figure, being the peace maker on the ship. He was also accused of being the lead of a rebellious group planning a mutiny just as Jesus was accused of being the kind of the Jews. They both suffer a similar demise as each is subjected to a similar execution. It is also said that as Billy died, ” At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously . . . Billy ascended, and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” Claggart is symbolized as Lucifer. He is an evil man as described by Melville. He is compared to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. However, instead of temptation Claggart is out for the death of Billy. Captain Vere is symbolic of God. He is portrayed by Melville as the father figure of Billy (Jesus). From this interpretation, one theme can be there is a constant struggle between good and evil in the world. All of the actions in the play point toward this. Some examples include the existence of the Claggart figure and Billy Budd. They coexist all on the little world aboard the ship. They both fight each other. In this case, the battle was started by evil: Claggart. Vere is the person that is in between and must decide between good and evil.
In a different interpretation, fate could be an important theme. Fate is something that cannot be avoided no matter what happens. In Billy Budd, it is fated that Claggart is evil. This is said by Melville as a possible explanation for his hate of Billy and overall evil nature. Melville says that this is due to “natural depravity.” He was born evil and would never be anything but evil. It is fate. Another example is that it is fated that Billy kills Claggart. Vere calls Billy, “Fated boy . . . what have you done!” (3, 59) This is followed by the fated decision that Vere had to make. If Billy had not had the problem of stuttering he could have made an adequate defense of himself. He could have brought Dansker as a witness and been acquitted quite easily. Vere could have waited for the admiral to come. He could have easily listened to the words of his crew. Even after his death, Vere could have blamed Claggart’s death on another man. However, Vere is a righteous man. He believes in the stern discipline. Vere is described as: “never tolerating an infraction of discipline.” (3,16) He is generally regarded as a reliable and honest man. If the story had not taken place in a time of war, Billy would have most certainly survived. It is fate that Claggart hated Billy, fate that Billy killed Claggart, and fate that Vere decided to execute him. Fate is what changes Billy’s life greatly. In the beginning of the novel, Billy was riding aboard The Rights of Man. He was enjoying his freedom, when the fated sole impressment of Billy occurred. Even though on the ship he enjoyed popularity among the crew, one person brings his fall. Fate leads him ultimately to his death after killing Claggart.
Another theme is that of which is more important: moral law or civil law? Should man do what he thinks is right or go by the laws that he created? It could also be suggested that a theme could be law and order can cause the destruction of lives. This is backed by the example of Vere. Vere sacrificed the life of his best man and “son” in order to retain law and order on his ship. He later lost his life in battle for law and order as well.
This can parallel with Antigone. In one interpretation, the same theme of law and order causing the destruction of lives is found in variant form. Instead, the theme is the battle between society and tyranny. In Antigone, society is telling Creon to release Antigone and give her brother proper burial. However, the looming shadow of tyranny takes over that of society. Creon, as the king, can do whatever he wants. His decision to punish Antigone becomes a decision he regrets.
Fate is also a very prominent theme in Antigone. Fate is what had gotten the family of Oedipus where we begin this play. Fate is why Oedipus had killed his father, marry his mother, and then find out all about it. Fate had made Oedipus’ sons kill each other and make Creon the new king of Thebes. Antigone’s fate was to die trying to honor her dead brother and be loyal to her family. In the first paragraph of the play it reads, “My darling sister Ismene, we have had a fine inheritance from Oedipus. God has gone through the whole range of sufferings and piled them all on us, grief upon grief.” (2, 1-5) This shows the fate that Antigone and Ismene have inherited from their father. Creon’s fate is also that of losing his family. The one chance that he had was too late. He could have prevented all of this from happening, if only he had not acted so much as a king and been so untrusting of his people. If he had followed the suggestions of his people, none of it would have happened. Fate is also what changed Creon’s life. In the beginning he was enjoying a great kingship. The defeat of the king of Argos just occurred and he was enjoying a good time. However, his fated decree against the burial of Polyneices lead to his ultimate fall and the death of both his wife and son.
The similarity in the themes and also how the themes are created are very prominent. Each action in both of these works was a part of creating the themes in both Antigone and Billy Budd. However there are also many differences in the themes depending on how the works are interpreted.
Aristotle states that tragedy is of high seriousness. Tragedy deals with the most complex issues of man. Both of these works deal with universal issues. In Antigone, Sophocles gives the audience several important issues to dwell on. Sophocles along with many writers of Greek tragedy, tried to project moral views through their work. C.M. Bowra said that, “The central idea of a Sophoclean tragedy is that through suffering man learns to be modest before the gods . . . When [the characters] are finally forced to see the truth, we know that the gods have prevailed and that men must accept their own insignificance.” (4,24) This is very true in Antigone, when Teiresias tells Creon that the Gods are angered because he would not allow the burial of Polyneices, it was a message to the audience to listen to the Gods. In the end, Creon is forced to suffer and he does in face learn to be “be modest before the gods.” Antigone also shows the consequences of individual responsibility. Creon suffers the consequences of individual responsibility. He holds the sole responsibility for the death of his son, wife, and Antigone. If he had heeded to the persuasions of any of the people around him he would not have suffered such a terrible outcome.
The seriousness is also apparent in Billy Budd. Melville brings many issues into the minds of his readers. He poses many questions in his digressions that the reader can think about. An example could be the suggestion that the paradox of evil and good can coexist in the world. He also asks us how to explain the natural evil of Claggart. He also asks about repression in society. Melville brings up the topic of how innocence and naivete can bring about one’s fall. He suggests a large range of topics that gives the reader a lot of insight into life itself.
Both Billy Budd and Antigone are examples where the authors try to give the audience something to think about. It gives them ideas to wonder at. It gives them questions that cannot be answered. It gives them a new fold of understanding life.
The issue of the tragic hero is also very controversial. Many critics think that in Billy Budd, Billy is the tragic hero. Billy has the qualities of a tragic hero. He is a hero that is blemished by a single “fatal flaw.” This flaw brings his downfall. He is definitely the protagonist in Billy Budd. He is compared to Hercules: “With his tanned complexion and sound build he resembles Hercules, one of the flawless Greek Gods of mythology.” (3,17) In Antigone, there has been much controversy on who the tragic hero is. The two characters: Antigone and Creon both suffer a fate that is filled with sorrow and death. It is argued that Antigone possesses all aspects of the tragic hero. She has high social position, not overly good or bad, tenacious in her actions, arouses pity in the audience, and has a single flaw that brings about her own demise and the demise of others around them.
However there is a problem with Billy Budd being the tragic hero. Billy lacks the necessary attributes of a tragic hero. He doesn’t have the stature and tragic sense of awareness which makes a
Religion plays a big role in both works. In Antigone, the issue of the proper burial of Polyneices is a main part of the play. This is because according to Greek religious beliefs, a soul could not make it into its place in the underworld immediately if the proper rites of burial were performed. In Greek thought, the denial of a burial was a great sacrilege. Obviously, Antigone is a very religious person. To her, denying her brother of a burial was a great offense. She would do anything to allow her brother to journey to the underworld. It is also said by Teiresias that the Gods are angered because Creon ” . . . impiously have kept upon the earth Unburied and unblest one who belongs.” (2, 1070-1071) Through this denial, would come the death of Cleon’s son and also, in the end, his wife.
This is paralleled by the enormous amount of Biblical allusions in Melville’s Billy Budd. Even though Melville was a religious skeptic, his friend Hawthorne said that he was neither believe nor be comfortable in his disbelief, and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. This could be a showing of his religious side. The very interpretation of Billy Budd as a recreation of the Bible is also very interesting. The only problem is that there are flaws to this interpretation. The addition of Billy’s “fatal flaw” is a problem faced when comparing Billy to Jesus. There’s also a problem in that Billy is so innocent that he cannot possible comprehend that there is evil in the world. Claggart doesn’t have enough motivation to be evil. It is only explained that Claggart could be naturally evil. This is a problem because he had no motivation that can be explained for him to be so evil. Vere is also a problem. Vere acts in a way that is against his own judgement. This is unlike the God that he symbolizes. Therefore, Melville could have not meant Billy Budd to be a retelling of the Bible. However, there is also religion in Billy Budd in that of the chaplain trying to instill Billy with the fear of death. The plentifulness of the Biblical allusions is also interesting. Melville uses many examples such as Adam before the fall to describe the main characters as well as events that take place such as the death of Billy Budd.
There is also a difference in how religion is portrayed. In Antigone, religion is very much a part of everything in the play. The very conflict is based upon an issue of religion. It is also said that in Greece, the common thought was that laws should have no power over religion. This could be a justification of Antigone’s actions against Creon’s decrees. In Billy Budd, there really is no major issue that has to do with religion. The chaplain’s efforts in instilling fear are futile. This is because Billy is too naive to understand. The whole character of Billy is totally different to that of Antigone. Billy does not have the extremely religious nature that Antigone has. He doesn’t understand many of the issues of religion itself.
The structure of the two works is also an area of comparison. In a typical Greek tragedy, there are five parts. In the Prologue, the background of the story is established. It is the opening scene of the tragedy. In the Parodos, there lies the entrance o the chorus. The chorus usually chants a lyric that has something to do with the theme of the play. Then there are several Episodes and Stasimons. The Episodes are where the plot is developed through action and dialogue between the actors. The stasimon is again a part in which the chorus takes place. They usually come at the end of an episode. Finally, the exodos is the last part of the tragedy. It is the final action after the last stasimon. It includes the final exit of all of the players.
Antigone follows this structure very closely. The prologue introduces the main characters of Antigone and Ismene and later, Creon and Haemon. In the five episodes and stasimons, the plot is developed. Finally, the climax of the play is in the exodos where we learn that Haemon dn Antigone have both committed suicide. This is followed by the death of Creon’s wife, Queen Eurydice. Finally, the king, heartbroken, wanders away as the chorus muses.
Billy Budd has a different, yet similar structure. The first part of the book is divided into thirds. Each third is devoted mostly to one main character. The first third is devoted to Billy Budd, the 2nd to Claggart, and the 3rd to Captain Vere. In these parts, the introduction of each character takes place along with the descriptions of each. The plot is also developed in these parts in the meanwhile. Finally, the climax comes as Billy kills Claggart and suspense prevails as Vere persuades the court to execute Billy. However, then Melville adds something to the end of his novel making it seem more real in a sense. He tells about the death of Vere and also about the legend that continues about Billy Budd. The structures are the same and yet different. Both are able to unify the parts in order to make it complete. They both have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The last part in a Aristotelian tragedy is catharsis. In each tragedy the aim is to bring pity to it’s audience. The aim of tragedy is to around in the audience the sensations of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave feeling cleansed and understanding the ways of gods and men. It is also brought through the status of the central character. The central character is usually someone that the audience can identify with. Therefore, the fate of this character will bring emotions to the audience. They feel as if this could also happen to them. They are living in the play and feeling the emotions the character is feeling.
In Antigone, this is very true. This is through the use of Antigone. In the Greek times, the feeling of religion above the laws is universal. Therefore, the audience could very much relate to the protagonist: Antigone. The misfortune this character goes through can be felt by the audience. They can relate to the problem she faces. The pride that she feels about her brother and the act that she has performed can be related to. Any person would do the same as Antigone does in this case. The consequences she faces bring feelings of pity and fear into the minds of the audience.
The same can be true for Billy. Melville makes Billy a more “relatable” character. His flaw makes him more human in a way. He is not perfect. Therefore, the audience can relate to him. They feel pity as they see such an innocent man get into a terrible situation. The audience feels afraid of the system of justice that they helped create. It brings up many questions in the minds of the audience.
Both Billy Budd and Antigone, produce a sense of pity and fear to the audience. They both finally release their feelings at the end of the tragedy when a feeling of tranquility is brought. Pity and fear is relinquished as the characters finish their fate. Billy becomes a legend and Cleon goes into self-exile.
Both Billy Budd and Antigone are in many ways similar. The possibilities are endless. Depending on how each is interpreted a whole new comparison can be made. It can be concluded through this analysis that Billy Budd lacks many of the qualities that are included in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. The tragic hero: Billy lacks many of the qualities needed in a tragic hero. He does have the fatal flaw, but he lacks the magnitude and stature of a tragic hero. The other factors are in plot, theme, and character. All in all, while Billy Budd has many of the qualities that are in a Greek tragedy, it lacks many of them as well.
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