On the surface, Sophocle’s Antigone presents itself as your typical Greek-style tragedy. Yet, I was left thoroughly shaken by the morally diverse depth of each and every character throughout the play, abstract questions swarming in my head, urging me to explore further than the words lying on the pages. I delved into the personal beliefs each character holds and the consequential implications of their resulting actions in society, as well as examined the dynamics that arise amidst the characters’ interactions with each other.
What I discovered are not some bland, stale answers that neatly wrap up my trains of thought; there are many answers for one concept depending on your personal beliefs. Justice, piety and even the definition of tragedy are challenged on all sides by characters who rarely stray from their adamant points of view. Now, let us head further into this “madness made of logic” (737).
The intertwining relationships between characters who display power – and those who challenge that power – made me consider the significance of the individual’s view on how one should conduct oneself in society. Antigone, the play’s central character, blatantly disobeys the law of the king, who is also her uncle. She buries the body of her brother, Polyneices, who Kreon, the king, declared as a traitor for waging war on their hometown of Thebes, wanting his body to remain unhonoured and unburied. It should be noted that this brother waged war on Thebes because he was trying to regain the crown from Antigone’s other brother, Eteocles, who refused to alternate the crown as agreed upon when their father fell from power. A little convoluted, for sure, but what should be taken away from this is that Antigone breaks the law openly and without any shame, and she breaks this law for two reasons.
A little convoluted, for sure, but what should be taken away from this is that Antigone breaks the law openly and without any shame, and she breaks this law for two reasons.
The first reason is to simply honour the brother she loved with a proper burial. She openly admits her guilt when facing Kreon, while bringing up this important question: “[W]hy should [she] be ashamed of loyalty to [her] brother?” (624). To what extent should loyalty be stretched, though? Antigone rebels and risks her own life for a brother who is already dead, while her sister, Ismene, is disregarded even as she walks among the living.
Part of this ignorance for her own living family, in my opinion, is due to a sort of depression Antigone developed after losing her parents and brothers in such a short period of time. She tells Ismene that “[her] soul died long ago, to be useful among the dead” (691), as though that excuses her from brashly abandoning love and law. Ismene even wants to die with her sister, yet Antigone does not allow that, declaring that “[Ismene] chose to live. [She] chose to die” (683). Antigone wants to be viewed as a martyr, which explains why she does not discreetly hide Polyneices’s body and continually denounces Kreon in front of an audience of highly respected elders. Dying with another would stain the fame she sought from martyrdom, the fame that would compensate for her lack of self-esteem and make her life mean something, even if the rest of her family died in shame.
The second reason for Antigone’s rebellion is so she can please the gods of the dead by performing the sacred burial ritual every corpse should experience, so the dead can be received by Hades under divine law. Antigone chooses to obey this divine law as opposed to the law of the state, arguing that “[d]eath is a god / who wants his laws obeyed” (634-635) and that she “must please those longer / who are below; for with the dead / [she] will stay forever” (92-94). Essentially, Antigone thinks the gods must be obeyed over conventional societal laws since the gods hold sway over you for eternity. This causes the following conflict for me: laws are upheld so society can display some semblance of order and balance, and practicing an orderly, just lifestyle is pious. Those who break the law disrupt this order and don’t exemplify justice, which is impious. Thus, is breaking human law and questioning government justice, in order to honour an abstract rule some human said was given to us by the gods, truly pious? This question represents a paradox that can only be solved by one’s individually-cultivated morality, and whether they regard the treatment of one’s soul in the possible afterlife as something that outweighs the well-being of human society. Antigone is someone who demonstrates this viewpoint, a belief that can even be considered selfish.
This brings me to a further question: if justice is not obeying divine law and breaking human law, and if it is not obeying human law and breaking divine law, then what is it? Divine law and human law often contradict each other, since humans have certain agendas they need to uphold and people they need to support. Furthermore, with no sense of justice, humans would not be able to maintain a society. What, then, governs our sense of justice? For this we can look to King Kreon, who tries to implement what he sees as just throughout society; he punishes perceived enemies, like Antigone’s brother, and punishes rebels, such as Antigone. He merely does whatever he sees fit for a cohesive, healthy society, regardless of divine law. I view this as a smart decision, especially for someone like him who was thrown into a position of power so quickly and unexpectedly, with no chance to prepare. He has to rely on moral instinct to gain respect.
Kreon’s downfall, however, is his contradictory nature. At the beginning of the play, Kreon explicitly states that he “believe[s] that he who rules in a state and fail[s] to embrace the best men’s counsels… is the worst man there” (217-220). Throughout the play, he fails to embrace this very advice and persists with killing Antigone as punishment, even as the counsel of elders and the voice of the people, that his own son represents, urge him to let her go, that she was right. Kreon will not let a woman get the better of him while she undermines his own system of laws – until he realizes the inevitable repercussions of this decision too late, which results in the suicide of his son (Antigone’s fiancé) and his wife. So, Kreon, the character with the fatal flaw who experiences a downfall, is the tragic character, right? Then why is the tragedy called Antigone?
So, Kreon, the character with the fatal flaw who experiences a downfall, is the tragic character, right? Then why is the tragedy called Antigone?
This is a question I have struggled with, and I have only come up with a few ideas. In Kreon’s eyes, Antigone is the character with the fatal flaw (the desire to corrupt the government) who experiences a downfall at his own hands. Antigone is only featured in about two thirds of the play, and Kreon holds the most lines, so it would make sense if the title came from Kreon’s perspective.
Another idea I had is that Sophocles could have wanted Antigone to be seen as innocent and pure, a character who is killed unjustly by another’s fatal flaw, hence the tragic part of her character. This would turn the definition of tragedy on its head, but would reveal how the author regarded his characters. On the other hand, Sophocles could have seen a fatal flaw in Antigone’s character, like Kreon did, or could have even regarded both Antigone and Kreon as corrupt, with the only difference being that Antigone dies and Kreon lives knowing his decisions drove his family to suicide. Moreover, if the title came from Antigone’s perspective, since she was the central character who instigated all the action, she could have seen her fatal flaw as the desire to die.
Antigone was no doubt a tragic play, but it went so much further than the initial shock brought by death. Exploring these topics in-depth humanizes these characters for me, allowing me to sympathize with each character’s situation and form my own judgements, even if the majority of my questions still remain unanswered. This play reveals the intricacies that are inherent in different parts of a society, emphasizing that there is not one right answer for everything, which is something we, as humans, experience on a daily basis. Sophocle’s Antigone is a moral dilemma wrapped up in a mere 52 pages, with every word being worth the dedication and contemplation one should put into them. The real question is: who do you think is at fault?
Keeley Seale is a first-year Arts student hoping to major in Creative Writing and minor in English Literature. When she’s not cramming to make a dent in her excessive Arts One reading list, she is either writing essays, short stories, or watching horror movies on her laptop with a cup of white hot chocolate. She also lives for bubble tea but cries every time at their prices.
Image by Keeley Aliya.
Image by Keeley Aliya.
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Richard Emil Braun. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1973. Print.