Breaking Barriers

Students in the senior English course Advanced Composition and Literature had the opportunity recently to go well beyond the text of an ancient play to uncover themes and issues that continue to vex and intrigue us today. Antigone, the work of classical Greek playwright Sophocles, tells the story of a woman trapped between sacred duty and the law of the land. While classroom discussion of the play often provokes comparisons to modern legal, political, and moral issues, this year’s seniors delved more deeply into the complexity of Antigone’s plight thanks to collaboration with Whitfield’s Director of Equity & Inclusion, Dr. Anna Warbelow, who holds a doctoral degree in Art History.

The idea to collaborate on the discussion was initiated by Dr. Warbelow, who invited senior English teacher Dr. Larry Hays to employ her expertise in the senior curriculum. “I approached Dr. Hays about any upcoming books where I could speak with students about identity,” explained Dr. Warbelow, “and when he mentioned Antigone, I knew the perfect way to explore gender in this period was through art. It was a lot of fun to dust off my training in Art History while simultaneously demonstrating additional ways to consider this canonical text.” 

“It could not have been better timed,” according to Dr. Hays, who added, “I leapt at the opportunity, since we had already discussed the atmosphere in 5th century BCE Athens when the play was written. I figured an examination of the art of the period would only deepen the students’ understanding of the context of the play.”

Viewing numerous examples of black-figure and red-figure painted ceramicware of the Greek classical period, students were able to identify relationships between restrictions and opportunities among Greek women of different social statuses.

Senior Tia Goodman noted that, “Looking at the pottery and how women were represented…set the scene for how women in Athens were supposed to act, and how Antigone broke that standard,” while for Summer Whittaker, that meant connecting to perennial themes, and she noted that “Dr. Warbelow shared amazing insights on the role of gender inside and outside of Antigone.”

Dr. Hays was also pleased with the outcome, saying, “It really paid off. Dr. Warbelow helped us all understand the plight of Athenian women, the weight of gender expectations, and the art that represents a set of cultural norms that would have been stifling for a woman like Antigone.”

The next step for seniors is to develop their own essays arguing the extent to which Antigone’s themes are still relevant today. Topics include the pitfalls and advantages of democracy, conflicts between law and morality, the costs and benefits of civil disobedience, and the power of gender expectations, among others.

Said Dr. Hays, “The results of this collaboration have been so positive. I look forward to expanding my work with Dr. Warbelow next year. She raised the bar for scholarship on this assignment and created a model for further collaboration with other experts.”

It seems the students are on board with the idea. Senior A’dia Dickerson found the exercise beneficial, writing afterwards that “Dr. Warbelow’s profound knowledge of Greek history and culture unquestionably furthered my understanding of Antigone.” 

Image pictured: Terracotta lekythos (oil flask), Archaic ca. 550-530 BC, attributed to the Amasis Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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