Sophocle’s Antigone and its major topics
The theme of hubris is monumental in almost all of Greek mythological works and in many ways the excessive pride of certain characters contributes to their own downfall. Pride and its effects are central to the play of Antigone. It is a trait despised by the gods, who bring suffering to the proud, but in the Greek mind, pride is also an inextricable part of greatness. Pride is a multifaceted concept in Greek tragedy. Both Antigone and Creon are extremely proud making it impossible for either to back down as the Chorus points out concerning Antigone:
“Not to give way when everything’s against her” Antigone’s dual sense of pride and stubbornness fuels her personal reactions. Her belief that her brother deserves a proper burial seems to transcend logic and directly counter both temporal and divine authority. Antigone herself, by burying her brother, has taken on the role of the gods. Thus, she contributes to her own downfall. While Antigone believes that her actions are defending a moral good, it is the way in which she goes about her actions that propel her own hubris. She makes the burial rights a public question rather than using tact and diplomacy to approach Creon, as Haemon demonstrates. The fact that Creon is wrong does not justify Antigone’s actions and in this respect she and Creon are similar; they both believe there actions are justified by the wrong of the other. As the chorus states :“The device and cunning that man has attained, and it brings him now to evil, now to good.”
Antigone however shows she possesses the ability to play the audience. As she enters, the people of Thebes hold back their tears as they do not want her to die. Antigone is perhaps oblivious to her surroundings because of grief but she says: “No friend to weep at my departing.”
This may indicate that she is putting on a final performance the Chorus indicates that the people of Thebes are weeping for her. Her last defence saying her brother was irreplaceable hardly sounds like meaningful justification but it stresses her youth and thus an innocent sort of pride that comes with youth. She has never known child or husband so these relationships seem less valuable to her than her brother and thus emphasize a detachment from the relationships to the children and husband that she will never have.
Another important theme is that of individual versus state; conscience versus law; divine law versus human law. These three conflicts are all closely related and untangle the central issues in the play. Antigone’s values line up with the first entity in each pair whereas Creon’s values line up with the second. Antigone invokes divine law as defence of her actions, but implicit in her position is faith in the discerning powers of her individual conscience. She sacrifices her life out of devotion to principles higher than human law. Creon makes the mistakes in condemning her and in turn he is condemned by the gods.
The character of Teiresias is an important part of Sophocles’s vision. The themes through Sophocles’s plays reveal a world where there is ultimate truth and order. Though fate may seem capricious, the god’s reasons are beyond man and the justice of men does not apply to the gods. Deities need not justify themselves to men, and for men obedience to the gods is a virtue. This faith thus means that in Sophocles’s plays there is a guideline for behaviour, a definite sense of right and wrong. Teiresias is the mouthpiece of the gods and of a strongly defined ethical society; he is a source of infallible truth. However, in other Greek works, especially the play by Euripides - The Bacchae, the same character is used but he is a vulnerable and foolish old man. In Euripides’s plays, the result is that the gods and the divine will become darker and the ultimate order envisioned by Sophocles is relentlessly destabilized.
We know from Teiresias’s words that Creon has done wrong but the theme of pride and its disastrous consequences surface here again. Creon has so much faith in his own sense of order that he cannot imagine the gods’s will being different from his own sense of right and wrong. Creon’s actions against Antigone and Polyneices’s body show him attempting to invert the order of nature, defying the gods by asserting his own control over their territories.
The Chorus’s speech praising man attempts to map out the relationship between pride, the individual and society.
“Wonders are many on Earth, and the greatest of these, Is man.”
Thematically, the play maps out conflicting needs and obligations and the Chorus’s pairing of two kinds of virtue; honour to the laws of the Earth and obedience to the justice of the gods, becomes problematic.
“Great honour is given, And power to him who upholdeth his country’s laws, And the justice of heaven.”
The Chorus puts these two prioritized values together but Antigone and Creon will polarize these values. Antigone defends her rejection of earthly laws by claiming to act by the rules of justice and the gods. The fate of those who are reckless is exile from the city; no city has room for them but the Chorus’s pairing of earthly laws with divine justice causes a sense of confusion. The values praised by the Chorus can come into conflict, but for the proud individual who dishonours law or god, there is no place in society. Both Antigone and Creon, though they hold different values fall under this directive with the grip of madness sparing not man or god.
The sudden and mysterious dust storm witnessed by the guards seems to indicate that the gods are less than pleased with Creon’s decree. The guard assumes that the storm was created by divine power, but Creon ignores the event. In her replies to Creon, Antigone defends the supremacy of god’s laws, but the fact that god’s laws are unwritten and secure means, necessarily, that Antigone’s conscience must decide the will of the gods. Antigone demonstrates that some duties are more fundamental than those to the state and its laws.
The duty to bury the dead is part of what it means to be human, not part of what it means to be a citizen. Moral duties such as the duties owed to the dead, make up the unwritten law and tradition, the law to which Antigone appeals.
Antigone’s struggles deal with two closely connected themes; the divine law against mans law and the individual versus the state. Though she claims to be an agent of divine will, she is also pitting the judgments of her individual conscience against mans laws, symbolized through Creon. Although Antigone never justifies her actions by invoking her individual conscience, her talk about the supremacy of divine law assumes that she knows what the divine will is. However, this law comes from someplace outside mans laws, because the divine law is “unwritten.” She uses her own conscience to decide what this law is but later her conscience is validated by the gods themselves. Sophocles uses this theme to make a powerful statement about the individual’s conscience and the existence of principles higher than the laws of the state, and this perspective makes Antigone a stirring and subversive work.
Another important issue is that of gender and the position of women. Antigone’s gender has profound effects on the meaning of her actions. Creon himself says that the need to defeat her is all the more pressing because she is a woman. The freedom of Greek women was extremely limited. Antigone’s rebellion is especially threatening because it upsets gender roles and hierarchy. By refusing to be passive, she overturns one of the fundamental rules of her culture.
Antigone’s motives and character can be seen in light of the special demands and conflicts she faces, demands and conflicts shaped profoundly by her position as a woman in a patriarchal society. Creon shows how personally he interprets the struggle against Antigone. He has conflated his own person with the sanctity of the law and state. The order was set by him and disobedience means disrespect for Creon. However, it is clear the struggle is not only about the need to obey law. Creon says: “Better be beaten, if need be, by a man, Then let a woman get the better of us.” “I swear I am no man and she the man, if she can win this and not pay for it.”
At this point, Creon has equated masculinity with victory and compromise with defeat. Antigone’s gender makes it all the more important that Creon enforce his will.
According to critic Judith Butler, the following statement by Creon shows the ideal female disposition: “From this time forth, these must be women, and not free to roam.”
The point she is making is that restriction of movement and submission to the authority of men is not just appropriate for women, it defines women as a category. Judith butler argues that “performance is constitutive of identity, not the other way around.” Thus she is saying that gender identity is not stable and unchanging, it is mutable and discrete, dependent on a performance that must be repeated. We treat our conceptions of gender as stable and real, when in fact they are so unstable that repetitive performance is necessary to maintain them.
Creon sees maintenance of gender categories as an essential part of maintaining order. Locking up Ismene and Antigone indoors is a way to make them “women.” Antigone’s defiance is seen by Creon as an attempt to usurp male status and claim it as her own. Division is an integral part of the order that Creon cherishes. However, Antigone never grounds her defiance in these gendered terms, nor does she make statements that dwell on the performative aspect of gender. The gender system’s instability is solely the concern of Creon, who, as a man in power, has the most to gain from the protection of that system.
Gender would have been important to an Athenian audience and between the two protagonists there is a third character, in whom their tragedy is personified and brought to a single focus – a young man, betrothed to the woman, whom he honours for her courage and piety, and son to the King whom he respects and longs to go on respecting for his fatherhood and for his office. To see statecraft misdirected into blasphemous defiance of piety is for the Athenian audience the greater tragedy; the sacrifice of a well-meaning woman the less. Thus, the king’s final humiliation and chastening, through the loss of his son, is of higher dramatic significance than the fate of the woman.
Another important theme is that of inaction versus agency. This theme is closely related to the theme of gender and this theme plays out the contrast between Antigone and Ismene. When faced with injustice, the two women react in very different ways. Ismene chooses to do nothing, and Antigone chooses to act; later, Antigone proves she is the character with the most agency. She is arguably the only character in the play that walks into her fate with full knowledge of it all the way along.
From beginning to end, Ismene seems a weak character. The theme of inaction versus agency is embodied in the two sisters. Ismene invokes the powerlessness of women as a defence of her own inaction. She believes she was unable to bury her brother; she was unable to convince her sister not to do the deed. After her second entrance, Antigone says: “You chose, life was your choice, when death was mine.”
Ismene continues as a character without agency, outspoken and out-willed by her stronger sister. Here again, she is unable to take her fate into her own hands; she seeks to die with Antigone but her sister will not allow it. She corrects Ismene’s lie that the burial of Polyneices was the act of both women and once again Ismene is not able to do anything. Antigone thus decides not only her own fate but also the fate of her sister and thus she is the one who possesses agency.
Two motivations are possible for Antigone’s rejection of her sister’s lie. The first possibility is that Antigone views the burial of Polyneices and the consequential punishment both as glorious and as Ismene did not help in the deed, she shall not receive the reward. The fact that Antigone’s punishment is entombment, symbolizes the fact that unlike her sister, her loyalties and feelings lie with the dead – her brother and father – rather than with the living, such as Ismene. This can be seen by Antigone’s probable harsh tone at the start of the conversation but as her tone softens, it is possible she simply does not wish her sister to die. She says: “One death is enough.”
This shows how Ismene’s death would be pointless as she will not die with honour or integrity and also perhaps a sense that by dying alone, Antigone can keep the event confined to herself and thus no repercussions on those she leaves behind. However, Sophocles could have intended that Antigone have a tender tone or a harsh tone to her voice all the way through the conversation, in which case Antigone’s motivations will depend very much on how she is portrayed by the actress.
Another theme is the threat of tyranny. The audience at that time would have been sensitive to the idea of tyranny and the fine line between a strong leader and a brutal tyrant. Creon is in many ways a sympathetic character, but he often abuses his power. His faults do not necessarily lie in a lust for power; often, he has noble intentions. He is completely loyal to the state but he is subject to human weaknesses and poor judgment.
Creon’s anxieties about power make him behave like a tyrant: “Why, does not every state belong to its ruler?” He claims ownership of Thebes; a sentiment which would have been distressing for an Athenian audience living in democratic Athens. Creon’s abuse of his authority comes in part from a real love of Thebes and a concern for its wellbeing. He continually praises loyalty, patriotism and obedience to the law as the greatest virtues. Yet he embodies a bad ruler: “Since when do I take my orders from the people of Thebes?”
Although the question is rhetorical, the answers from an ancient audience would have been negative towards him. However, the possibility that the chorus’s responses are motivated by fear means the voice of the Theben people is inaccessible to us. It is not even clear if Haemon tells the truth when he says the people of Thebes disapprove of the killing of Antigone. Creon rejects his son’s moderate advice out of stubbornness and an uncompromising attachment to a certain set of virtues. Creon’s exaltation of order and love of authority, combined with his stubbornness and pride, lead to an unthinking hatred for any perceived threat to that order. He is at his most barbaric when he tells the servants to bring Antigone so that she can die while Haemon watches. Creon’s love of order and state is carried to an immoral extreme, one that violates the bonds of family. He tries to hurt his own son, abusing authority for the sake of gratuitous cruelty.
According to Aristotle, the perfect play will contain key moments of reversal and recognition; ideally these moments of reversal and recognition hit at the same instant. Creon finally backs down and at the same time gains recognition of himself. He has a sudden and transformative understanding of himself, moving from ignorance to knowledge; thus search for knowledge is an underlying theme throughout the play. Creon finally recognizes that his actions have led to the death of his wife and son and thus the moment of recognition and reversal happen simultaneously.
The chorus resolves the conflicting themes and loyalties, gradually but in the end uncompromisingly, by appeal to God’s law, which alone can hold the scales between imperfect and opposing human wills. All else – intellect, ambition, power and even love itself – draws mankind as often to good as to evil.