Literary Theory and Criticism
Home › Drama Criticism › Analysis of Sophocles’ Antigone
Analysis of Sophocles’ Antigone
By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on July 29, 2020 • ( 0 )
Within this single drama—in great part, a harsh critique of Athenian society and the Greek city-state in general—Sophocles tells of the eternal struggle between the state and the individual, human and natural law, and the enormous gulf between what we attempt here on earth and what fate has in store for us all. In this magnificent dramatic work, almost incidentally so, we find nearly every reason why we are now what we are.
—Victor D. Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom
With Antigone Sophocles forcibly demonstrates that the power of tragedy derives not from the conflict between right and wrong but from the confrontation between right and right. As the play opens the succession battle between the sons of Oedipus—Polynices and Eteocles—over control of Thebes has resulted in both of their deaths. Their uncle Creon, who has now assumed the throne, asserts his authority to end a destructive civil war and decrees that only Eteocles, the city’s defender, should receive honorable burial. Polynices, who has led a foreign army against Thebes, is branded a traitor. His corpse is to be left on the battlefield “to be chewed up by birds and dogs and violated,” with death the penalty for anyone who attempts to bury him and supply the rites necessary for the dead to reach the underworld. Antigone, Polynices’ sister, is determined to defy Creon’s order, setting in motion a tragic collision between opposed laws and duties: between natural and divine commands that dictate the burial of the dead and the secular edicts of a ruler determined to restore civic order, between family allegiance and private conscience and public duty and the rule of law that restricts personal liberty for the common good. Like the proverbial immovable object meeting an irresistible force, Antigone arranges the impact of seemingly irreconcilable conceptions of rights and responsibilities, producing one of drama’s enduring illuminations of human nature and the human condition.
Antigone is one of Sophocles’ greatest achievements and one of the most influential dramas ever staged. “Between 1790 and 1905,” critic George Steiner reports, “it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, [and] scholars that Sophocles’ Antigone was not only the fi nest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.” Its theme of the opposition between the individual and authority has resonated through the centuries, with numerous playwrights, most notably Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, and Athol Fugard grafting contemporary concerns and values onto the moral and political dramatic framework that Sophocles established. The play has elicited paradoxical responses reflecting changing cultural and moral imperatives. Antigone, who has been described as “the first heroine of Western drama,” has been interpreted both as a heroic martyr to conscience and as a willfully stubborn fanatic who causes her own death and that of two other innocent people, forsaking her duty to the living on behalf of the dead. Creon has similarly divided critics between censure and sympathy. Despite the play’s title, some have suggested that the tragedy is Creon’s, not Antigone’s, and it is his abuse of authority and his violations of personal, family, and divine obligations that center the drama’s tragedy. The brilliance of Sophocles’ play rests in the complexity of motive and the competing absolute claims that the drama displays. As novelist George Eliot observed,
It is a very superficial criticism which interprets the character of Creon as that of hypocritical tyrant, and regards Antigone as a blameless victim. Coarse contrasts like this are not the materials handled by great dramatists. The exquisite art of Sophocles is shown in the touches by which he makes us feel that Creon, as well as Antigone, is contending for what he believes to be the right, while both are also conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves open to just blame for transgressing another.
Eliot would call the play’s focus the “antagonism of valid principles,” demonstrating a point of universal significance that “Wherever the strength of a man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed conflict between Antigone and Creon; such a man must not only dare to be right, he must also dare to be wrong—to shake faith, to wound friendship, perhaps, to hem in his own powers.” Sophocles’ Antigone is less a play about the pathetic end of a victim of tyranny or the corruption of authority than about the inevitable cost and con-sequence between competing imperatives that define the human condition. From opposite and opposed positions, both Antigone and Creon ultimately meet at the shared suffering each has caused. They have destroyed each other and themselves by who they are and what they believe. They are both right and wrong in a world that lacks moral certainty and simple choices. The Chorus summarizes what Antigone will vividly enact: “The powerful words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom.”
As the play opens Antigone declares her intention to her sister Ismene to defy Creon’s impious and inhumane order and enlists her sister’s aid to bury their brother. Ismene responds that as women they must not oppose the will of men or the authority of the city and invite death. Ismene’s timidity and deference underscores Antigone’s courage and defiance. Antigone asserts a greater allegiance to blood kinship and divine law declaring that the burial is a “holy crime,” justified even by death. Ismene responds by calling her sister “a lover of the impossible,” an accurate description of the tragic hero, who, according to scholar Bernard Knox, is Sophocles’ most important contribution to drama: “Sophocles presents us for the first time with what we recognize as a ‘tragic hero’: one who, unsupported by the gods and in the face of human opposition, makes a decision which springs from the deepest layer of his individual nature, his physis , and then blindly, ferociously, heroically maintains that decision even to the point of self-destruction.” Antigone exactly conforms to Knox’s description, choosing her conception of duty over sensible self-preservation and gender-prescribed submission to male authority, turning on her sister and all who oppose her. Certain in her decision and self-sufficient, Antigone rejects both her sister’s practical advice and kinship. Ironically Antigone denies to her sister, when Ismene resists her will, the same blood kinship that claims Antigone’s supreme allegiance in burying her brother. For Antigone the demands of the dead overpower duty to the living, and she does not hesitate in claiming both to know and act for the divine will. As critic Gilbert Norwood observes, “It is Antigone’s splendid though perverse valor which creates the drama.”
Before the apprehended Antigone, who has been taken in the act of scattering dust on her brother’s corpse, lamenting, and pouring libations, is brought before Creon and the dramatic crux of the play, the Chorus of The-ban elders delivers what has been called the fi nest song in all Greek tragedy, the so-called Ode to Man, that begins “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man.” This magnificent celebration of human power over nature and resourcefulness in reason and invention ends with a stark recognition of humanity’s ultimate helplessness—“Only against Death shall he call for aid in vain.” Death will test the resolve and principles of both Antigone and Creon, while, as critic Edouard Schuré asserts, “It brings before us the most extraordinary psychological evolution that has ever been represented on stage.”
When Antigone is brought in judgment before Creon, obstinacy meets its match. Both stand on principle, but both reveal the human source of their actions. Creon betrays himself as a paranoid autocrat; Antigone as an individual whose powerful hatred outstrips her capacity for love. She defiantly and proudly admits that she is guilty of disobeying Creon’s decree and that he has no power to override divine law. Nor does Antigone concede any mitigation of her personal obligation in the competing claims of a niece, a sister, or a citizen. Creon is maddened by what he perceives to be Antigone’s insolence in justifying her crime by diminishing his authority, provoking him to ignore all moderating claims of family, natural, or divine extenuation. When Ismene is brought in as a co-conspirator, she accepts her share of guilt in solidarity with her sister, but again Antigone spurns her, calling her “a friend who loves in words,” denying Ismene’s selfless act of loyalty and sympathy with a cold dismissal and self-sufficiency, stating, “Never share my dying, / don’t lay claim to what you never touched.” However, Ismene raises the ante for both Antigone and Creon by asking her uncle whether by condemning Antigone he will kill his own son’s betrothed. Creon remains adamant, and his judgment on Antigone and Ismene, along with his subsequent argument with his son, Haemon, reveals that Creon’s principles are self-centered, contradictory, and compromised by his own pride, fears, and anxieties. Antigone’s challenge to his authority, coming from a woman, is demeaning. If she goes free in defiance of his authority, Creon declares, “I am not the man, she is.” To the urging of Haemon that Creon should show mercy, tempering his judgment to the will of Theban opinion that sympathizes with Antigone, Creon asserts that he cares nothing for the will of the town, whose welfare Creon’s original edict against Polynices was meant to serve. Creon, moreover, resents being schooled in expediency by his son. Inflamed by his son’s advocacy on behalf of Antigone, Creon brands Haemon a “woman’s slave,” and after vacillating between stoning Antigone and executing her and her sister in front of Haemon, Creon rules that Antigone alone is to perish by being buried alive. Having begun the drama with a decree that a dead man should remain unburied, Creon reverses himself, ironically, by ordering the premature burial of a living woman.
Antigone, being led to her entombment, is shown stripped of her former confidence and defiance, searching for the justification that can steel her acceptance of the fate that her actions have caused. Contemplating her living descent into the underworld and the death that awaits her, Antigone regrets dying without marriage and children. Gone is her reliance on divine and natural law to justify her act as she equivocates to find the emotional source to sustain her. A husband and children could be replaced, she rationalizes, but since her mother and father are dead, no brother can ever replace Polynices. Antigone’s tortured logic here, so different from the former woman of principle, has been rejected by some editors as spurious. Others have judged this emotionally wrought speech essential for humanizing Antigone, revealing her capacity to suffer and her painful search for some consolation.
The drama concludes with the emphasis shifted back to Creon and the consequences of his judgment. The blind prophet Teiresias comes to warn Creon that Polynices’ unburied body has offended the gods and that Creon is responsible for the sickness that has descended on Thebes. Creon has kept from Hades one who belongs there and is sending to Hades another who does not. The gods confirm the rightness of Antigone’s action, but justice evades the working out of the drama’s climax. The release of Antigone comes too late; she has hung herself. Haemon commits suicide, and Eurydice, Creon’s wife, kills herself after cursing Creon for the death of their son. Having denied the obligation of family, Creon loses his own. Creon’s rule, marked by ignoring or transgressing cosmic and family law, is shown as ultimately inadequate and destructive. Creon is made to realize that he has been rash and foolish, that “Whatever I have touched has come to nothing.” Both Creon and Antigone have been pushed to terrifying ends in which what truly matters to both are made starkly clear. Antigone’s moral imperatives have been affirmed but also their immense cost in suffering has been exposed. Antigone explores a fundamental rift between public and private worlds. The central opposition in the play between Antigone and Creon, between duty to self and duty to state, dramatizes critical antimonies in the human condition. Sophocles’ genius is his resistance of easy and consoling simplifications to resolve the oppositions. Both sides are ultimately tested; both reveal the potential for greatness and destruction.
24 lectures on Greek Tragedy by Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver.
Categories: Drama Criticism , Literature
Tags: Analysis of Sophocles’ Antigone , Antigone Analysis , Antigone Criticism , Antigone Essay , Antigone Guide , Antigone Lecture , Antigone PDF , Antigone Summary , Antigone Themes , Bibliography of Sophocles’ Antigone , Character Study of Sophocles’ Antigone , Criticism of Sophocles’ Antigone , Drama Criticism , Essays of Sophocles’ Antigone , Greek Tragedy , Literary Criticism , Notes of Sophocles’ Antigone , Plot of Sophocles’ Antigone , Simple Analysis of Sophocles’ Antigone , Study Guides of Sophocles’ Antigone , Summary of Sophocles’ Antigone , Synopsis of Sophocles’ Antigone , Themes of Sophocles’ Antigone , Tragedy
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Department of Greek & Latin
Antigone Study Guide
Sophocles (c. 497/6- 406/5 BC) is, along with Aeschylus and Euripides, one of the three ancient Greek tragic playwrights by whom complete plays survive. He won at least twenty victories in the tragic competitions, and never came third (last), a feat which suggests that he was the most successful of the three. Seven complete plays of his survive, of which Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus are the most well-known and frequently performed. The following three essays explore the play's themes and context.
Sophocles' Antigone in Context by Professor Chris Carey
Greek tragedy is a remarkable fictional creation. We are used to a theatre which can embrace past and present, fictitious and historical, bizarre fantasy and mundane reality. The Athenian theatre was far more limited than this. Like virtually all Greek poetry at all periods in antiquity, its subject matter was heroic myth. Invented plots with fictitious people and events were very few (and not found before the late fifth century). Historical tragedy (the staple of theatre from Shakespeare to the present) again was very rare. With very few exceptions, tragedy was about heroes. For Greeks at any period, the world of the heroes meant the world which they met in epic poetry, and especially Homer, the ultimate Greek classic.
Because we are so used to Greek tragedy, we don't usually stop to notice how strange all this is. The heroes are members of a superior elite. And the epic world is always ruled by kings. It has assemblies, and they matter; but they don't have power. Hereditary monarchy had become a rarity in Greece long before the rise of tragedy. So the epic world was politically remote. In fact, of all Greek states in the classical period, Athens was probably the furthest removed from the political world of epic. In democratic Athens public policy and legislation were in the hands of the mass assembly. Yet for two hundred years and more mass audiences sat in the theatre of Dionysus and watched plays about kings sponsored by the democratic state.
The issue is of course more complicated than this. Firstly, the world of the epic was a very familiar world to the Athenian audience. Epic poetry was performed every year at the civic festivals, which meant that the heroic age was a shared possession for the vast audience in the Athenian theatre, not just the property of an educated elite. Secondly, the world inside the plays and the world in which the audience lived were engaged in a complex and shifting relationship. In any attempt to represent or even to understand the past, the present acts as frame which shapes presentation or perception; we may or may not be aware of it, but it is always there. Literature which deals with the past therefore has a foot in two worlds. This includes Greek tragedy. Tragedy is riddled with anachronisms, on politics, gender, ethnicity, status, even technology (people in tragedy write letters and suicide notes, for instance, while in the epic world writing is completely absent except for one very mysterious passage in Homer's Iliad ). The effect is to make the tragic world a middle space where heroic past and present meet.
This makes the tragic stage an ideal space to explore political issues of interest to democratic Athens. Not all tragedy is political and not all of the political questions are unique either to Athens or to democracy. But Athens (with rare exceptions) was unusual among the classical Greek states in its openness to dispute and dissent and Athenian drama is almost unique in Greek literature in its ability to explore areas of actual or potential political tension.
This is true in the case of Antigone . Anyone in the audience listening to the newly appointed regent Creon might well catch echoes of contemporary sentiments about loyalty to the city. The rhetoric of devotion to the city above all else and at any cost which Sophocles puts in his mouth sounds very like the rhetoric of the democratic statesman Pericles in the historian Thucydides (Pericles even goes so far as to claim that we should all be lovers of the city). The sentiment has a powerful appeal. This was a world of citizen soldiers and a citizen was expected to fight and if necessary die for the city. As Creon says: 'This land - our land - is the ship that preserves us and it is on this ship that we sail straight and as she prospers, so will we.' But his insistence on loyalty to the state to the exclusion of all other allegiance prolongs into the present the rifts of the past and proves disastrous for the next generation of the family and robs him of his family.
The issue of burial which forms the focus for conflict in this play had political echoes. Burial was a vitally important aspect both of family and of civic life. For the city it was a means both of honouring devotion and also of punishing disloyalty. The world of this play is not just postwar but post-civil-war. The dead Polynices came with a foreign army to take his home city by force and died in the attempt. In Sophocles' Athens anyone executed for treason could not be buried in Attica. So some features of the play probably sounded very familiar. Democratic Athens demanded a lot of its citizens and at the probable date of Antigone this was visible especially in the treatment of the dead. As far as we know Athens monopolized its war dead to a degree unmatched by any other Greek state. Where most Greek states simply buried their dead on the battlefield, Athenian practice was to collect and burn the dead and bring the bones home. They then held a state funeral and buried the war dead in communal state graves (excavations for the new Athens metro unearthed one such burial just a decade ago) with no designation of family, just the name of their tribe. The war dead are now the property of the city. At the same time private grave memorials almost disappear. It looks as though only public burials, and specifically those for the dead warriors, matter. But by tradition the family not only buried its dead but also made offerings every year at the family tombs; and the job of preparing the dead and the lead in mourning fell to the women. By the late fifth century the private memorials, including memorials for those who died in war, become more common, and it looks as though the tensions between the demands of the state and the needs of the family have been resolved. But tensions there probably were and death and burial was one of the key areas. Issues such as family or individual versus state are Greek issues as well as Athenian issues. But they were probably present in Athens to an unusual degree and were at their most visible at the time Antigone was performed in the late 440s.
Antigone is not about Athens' burial of the war dead. And it is not about contemporary democratic ideology. It is a story about a clash of wills, a clash of principles and a clash of loyalties. About power and its limits and legitimacy. About commitment, tenacity and integrity. And it is not a sermon. It throws up more questions than it answers. It could play in any theatre of the Greek world, as it has played in countless theatres in many languages since. But for its Athenian audience the echoes of contemporary areas of tension gave it an added intensity.
Questions and Activities:
- How would the experiences of ancient Greek theatrical audiences have differed from those of modern ones? How might that affect our appreciation of Sophocles' Antigone ?
- If you were to translate the basic story of the play into modern Britain, what aspects would you change, what would you retain, and why?
- What difference would it make if Antigone were staged in a contemporary setting, rather than the distant past?
Antigone and Creon in Conflict by Dr. Dimitra Kokkini
Antigone is a play full of intensity. Audience (and scholarly) responses have always been conflicted when it comes to analysing both characters' arguments. For some, secular law and rationality, as expressed by Creon, are right, while Antigone's religious approach is to be rejected as irrational. For others, Antigone's argument is the only one with validity. The remaining views recognise various degrees of legitimacy in both arguments, eventually proving the impossibility of the task in discerning right from wrong in this conflict.
Despite the fact that this explosive clash highlights the vast differences between Creon and Antigone in terms of world views and loyalties, it also brings to the fore their similarities in terms of characterisation. Creon continuously asserts his power, both in terms of social and gender status; he is the ruler of the city, in fact, its defender in what is seen an unlawful attack by Polyneices against his own fatherland (the gravest of sins in civic terms). Moreover, he is a man, faced with an insubordinate, stubborn, powerless female who is also a member of his own family and under his jurisdiction and protection. Antigone, on the other hand, continuously asserts the validity on her argument in religious and moral terms, being, at the same time, constantly aware of her limitations due to her gender and position in the city and her own family. Yet, although they both take pains to highlight the unbridgeable gap between them, contrasting civic/rational (Creon) and family/religious (Antigone) duty, they are remarkably similar in the way they approach and respond to one another. Both are characterised by unyielding stubbornness, a deep belief in the rightness of their own value system, and complete failure in identifying any validity whatsoever in each other's argument. Both insist on upholding their respective values with obstinate determination to the end: Antigone dies unchanged, whereas Creon's change of heart comes too late having first caused the destruction of his entire family.
More importantly, neither of them are easily relatable - or indeed sympathetic - characters. Antigone is often too self-righteous, obsessed with honouring Polyneices at all costs. She is dismissive of Ismene, almost indifferent to her betrothed, Haemon. Creon is equally obsessed with administering what he perceives as justice, as well as upholding his law and punishing the offender, he is cruel and dismissive towards his son. It is easier for us, the audience, to identify with Ismene, Eurydice or Haemon. Ismene, a foil for Antigone and her exact opposite, is arguably less determined and daring than her sister; but she is also much closer to an everyday person, aware of her limitations and hesitant to challenge authority and the laws imposed by a ruler. Antigone may be admirable for her bravery and resolution, but she is also extraordinarily distant to ordinary human beings. Although she presents herself as a weak woman and speaks of all the typical female experiences she will be missing with her untimely death, she functions more like a symbol - some say she is almost genderless. Ismene, however, appears to be more human, displaying a more conventional kind of femininity, which renders her pitiful but also more relatable as a character.
In a similar way, we feel more pity and sympathy for Haemon than we do for the two protagonists. His attachment to her is evident in a rare tragic instance of a young man being in love, but it is hardly reciprocated. Antigone's fixation on honouring Polyneices leaves little room for the development of any other relationship. Haemon fights, unsuccessfully, with his father in an attempt to save his betrothed and, when this fails due to Creon's refusal to repeal his decision, his response is rash and emotional. This is a young man in love, who is denied his chance to be with his beloved and, on seeing her dead decides to take his own life out of grief. In contrast with Antigone, whose suicide is consistent with her characterisation throughout the play and is directly related to her immovable value system, Haemon's suicide is full of pathos and his motivation feels more easily understandable in terms of personal relationships and youthful desperation. His death functions as the trigger for Eurydice's suicide, the culmination of Creon's catastrophic decisions and Antigone's unyielding position. Her appearance on stage is limited to one scene, with her uttering one single question to the Messenger before departing in silence, ominously, after the death of her son is confirmed, never to reappear on stage.
Antigone and Creon are caught in an impossible circle of stubbornness, miscommunication and destruction. Together, they manage to cause utter grief and ruin for their family caught in a conflict of ever-increasing intensity as they pull further and further apart. Antigone's death and Creon's remorse cause pity and reveal the utter futility of their conflict at the end of the tragedy; but the fate of the other characters, the innocent bystanders entangled in this mighty clash of wills, beg for our sympathy and compassion as much as the protagonists, if not more.
1. Which character from the play do you sympathise with the most and why?
2. 'Creon and Antigone are more similar than different to one another'. To what extent do you agree with this claim?
3. To what extent must tragedy always depend on conflict?
Conflict and Contrast in Sophocles' Antigone by Dr. Tom Mackenzie
Perhaps more than any other Greek tragedy, Sophocles' Antigone has captured the interests of philosophers, ranging from Aristotle (fourth century BC) to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and beyond. Most famously, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the tragedy as depicting, at its core, a conflict between the abstract principles of the household (the oikos) and the state (the polis), embodied in the characters of Antigone and Creon respectively. When we come to watch the play, it is not hard to see why this interpretation has proven immensely influential. On a purely formal level, the two characters dominate the action more than any of the others. It is their decisions - Creon's to impose the sanction against burying Polyneices, and Antigone's to bury him nonetheless - that cause the events of the narrative. Antigone is the eponymous heroine whose initial speech opens the play, whilst Creon receives more lines than any other character and is the exclusive focus of our attention after Antigone's departure in the latter part of the tragedy. The two characters thus bookend the action onstage, a structuring device that seems to illustrate the contrast between them. It is sometimes claimed that Greek tragedy typically focusses on a single character, but if that is the case, then Antigone is an exception to this tendency, for Creon and Antigone appear to be of equal concern.
Many aspects of the play can be taken to suggest that the two characters are indeed representative of certain contrasting principles. Perhaps the most obvious contrast is that between male and female: Ismene initially opposes Antigone's act of defiance partly on the grounds that they are women, and so 'cannot fight against men'. Creon further emphasizes the gender division in claiming that Antigone will be 'the man' and not him, if she is to challenge his authority with impunity. Several other statements of his also betray this anxiety. Antigone's defiance of her uncle, her closest living male relative, markedly transcends the normal behaviour expected of women in fifth-century Athens, a notoriously patriarchal society with severe restrictions on the freedom of women. The contrast in genders also evokes wider political and cosmic polarities: women's influence was supposed to be restricted to the oikos, whilst Athenian politics was exclusively a male activity: the welfare of the city was thought to be the responsibility of free males alone. Antigone's act is one of loyalty towards a close relative, a member of her oikos - but it is seen by Creon as an act against the interests of the state. His edict was pronounced in order to protect Thebes, and he explicitly criticises anyone who 'values a loved one greater than his city', a statement which inevitably recalls Antigone's defiance. Indeed, part of this initial speech was quoted by the fourth-century Athenian orator Demosthenes as a positive, patriotic sentiment, a fact which may suggest that Creon, at least at this point in the play, could be taken to embody civic values.
Yet Antigone herself does not see the conflict as one between the oikos and the polis so much as one between the man-made laws of the city, and the unwritten, permanent laws of the the gods. It is to these unwritten laws that she appeals in justifying her actions against Creon's proclamations. The Greek word for 'laws', nomoi, has a broader scope than the English term conveys - it can be translated as 'conventions' or 'customs' and can cover the religious duties such as burial of the dead. There is nothing metaphorical about such 'unwritten' nomoi: Aristotle even quotes Antigone in recommending lawyers to appeal to unwritten laws when the written laws are against them. For Antigone, there is a conflict between these unwritten laws, and those pronounced by Creon.
Accordingly, the two characters have different conceptions of justice and the just. The Greek word for justice, dikē, and its related adjectives, occur frequently throughout the play. Both Creon and his opponents, Antigone and Haimon, appeal to dikē to support their decisions. Creon seems to identify justice with the will of the ruling party, whilst for Antigone and Haimon, it is a super-human concept that is independent of the arbitrary decisions of any mortal ruler. This dispute reflects contemporary debates surrounding the nature of justice: Plato, writing in the first half of the fourth century BC, depicts the fifth-century thinker Socrates as arguing that justice is natural and objective, against opponents who argue that justice is simply the will of the more powerful. In Sophocles' play, there is little doubt that Creon's conception of justice is proven inadequate. That the downfall of his family and his personal suffering come as a direct result of his actions is assumed by all remaining characters at the end of the play. His folly reveals a central predicament in Sophoclean drama and in Greek theology: there is a divine, cosmic system of justice, but it is one that is usually impossible for mortals to understand until it is too late. The motif of 'learning too late' is commonplace in Greek tragedy, and Creon conforms to this literary convention, as the chorus' statements at the end of the play make clear. Only a select few mortals - notably the blind prophet Teiresias - can have a privileged, albeit still limited, understanding of this system before the catastrophes unfold.
'Justice', or rather dikē, in this sense of 'divine order' was taken by some early Greek philosophers as a governing principle, not only of ethical behaviour, but also of the rules of physics. Anaximander (early 6th century BC) saw the universe as composed fundamentally from opposite qualities - such as the hot and the cold, the dry and the wet - that give each other 'justice and reparation' for injustices committed, as a result of which some balance is maintained in the universe. Similarly, Heraclitus (late 6th century BC) saw 'justice' as keeping the Sun within its established limits. Viewed in this context, we can see Creon's actions as violations of this cosmic order: the deceased Polyneices ought to be buried, but Creon prevents that from happening; conversely, he orders Antigone to be entombed whilst still alive. After his punishment, he himself becomes, in the words of the messenger, a 'living corpse'. The balance is thus settled for Creon's blurring of the distinction between the living and the dead by refusing Polyneices' burial.
This enactment of cosmic 'justice' might be taken to support the notion that Creon and Antigone embody contrary principles. Yet their actions can also be explained by recognisably human motivations: Antigone no longer fears death, and even expresses suicidal thoughts, because of the immense suffering that she has experienced in the form of her family's tribulations; Creon is a new ruler who is paranoid that his rule is not accepted - he refuses to back down as he fears it will undermine his authority. The characters appeal to general principles, which place their specific conflict in a wider cosmic context - it is perhaps this feature which has aroused such philosophical interest in the play - but they are not reducible to those principles alone. Creon is a flawed and inconsistent ruler, and Antigone's ultimately self-destructive act is detrimental to her household, for it prevents her from continuing the family line. The play thus presents conflicts of principle and of character, but offers no easy resolutions: Antigone's desire for Polyneices' burial may be vindicated by the course of the narrative, but the gods still allow her to perish. In developing the imagined consequences of these conflicts of both character and principle, Sophocles unsettlingly exemplifies one of the virtues that Aristotle identified in the plots of great tragedies: that the course of events seems inevitable, but only in retrospect.
Questions and activities:
1. Should you be more loyal towards your family or towards your country? Come up with reasons in support of both sides of the argument - how do your reasons compare with what is said by Antigone and Creon?
2. If we do not agree with traditional Greek beliefs about the the gods and justice, how does that affect our appreciation of the play?
3. Given that she knows that this action will lead to her death, is Antigone right to bury Polyneices? Explain your answer with reference to the text.
4. I've learned through my pain (Creon): What exactly has Creon learned? Does the play make this clear and does it matter?
Suggested Reading and Further Resources
An enormous amount has been written on Greek tragedy in general, and on Sophocles' Antigone in particular. The following may be recommended as accessible introductions to the play and the genre:
- Brown, A., Sophocles' Antigone (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1987) - an edition of the Greek text with translation and commentary.
- Cairns, D., Sophocles: Antigone (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) - a recent introduction to the play.
- Griffith, M., Sophocles: Antigone (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) - an edition and commentary of the Greek text, with an introduction that is accessible to the Greekless reader.
- Hall, E., Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun (Oxford: OUP, 2010) - a recent introduction to the genre, with specific discussion of Antigone on pp. 305-9.
- Scodel, R. An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: CUP, 2010) - another recent introduction to the genre, with specific discussion of Antigone on pp. 106-119.
The above works may be consulted for more advanced bibliography.
- Short clips of professor Felix Budelmann (Oxford University) discussing Sophoclean drama, and Antigone in particular, are available here .