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Antigone Essay, Research Paper


by Sophocles

442 BC

Applause Theatre Books Publishers 1990

Lydia Durant

Theatre History


When Oedipus’s sons are kill each other in the war, King Creon decrees that Polynices the traitor is not to be buried under penalty of death by stoning, but their sister Antigone believes it would be a sin against the gods not to and defies the order. She is caught, and sentenced by Creon to be buried alive – even though he loves her and she is betrothed to his son Haemon. After the blind prophet Tiresias proves that the gods are on Antigone’s side, Creon sees the folly of his ways and changes his mind – but too late. He goes first to bury Polynices and give the body proper respect, but by the time he arrives at Antigone’s tomb, she has already hanged herself. When Creon tries to speak to Haemon who is at Antigone’s tomb, Haemon attacks him and then kills himself. When the news of their death is reported, Creon’s wife Eurydice takes her own life. Creon is left sad and alone because of his lack of ability to exercise compassion.

The play is set outside Creon’s palace with the main door to the palace upstage center. It is early morning the day after the Argive army was successfully repulsed from their assault on Thebes, and the sun is just coming up when the play starts. The end of the play is reached by the night of the same day.

Sophocles, an Athenian politician and dramatist, was born in 496 B.C. and died in 406 BC. His ninety-year lifespan covered the rise and fall of the Athenian Golden Age. He held several public offices throughout his life in addition to being a leading dramatist. Unlike many other dramatists and thinkers of his time, Sophocles did not abstain from politics. He was completely immersed in it, serving as an elected official for several years. He did not favor the politician’s life—he restricted his involvement with the state to his minor military and civil offices. He was uninterested in the intrigues and politics of the courts either, and he is thought to have refused several invitations to stay with royalty. He was considered the most beautiful man in Athens and was well respected for his work. He died just before Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC.

Dramatically speaking, Sophocles’ great achievement was to reinterpret the ancient myths through a fuller development of individual character, and he is best known for his adoption of the third actor in his Greek tragedies. This made it possible to include complex dialogues and character interactions in Antigone and other plays. Before this idea dominated drama, only two actors were included in each scene. It is thought that he wrote 125 plays in his lifetime, yet we have only seven. Sophocles wrote Antigone before Oedipus the King, and it is here that he establishes the connection of tragedy between generations of his characters. Antigone’s fate is shaped not only through her own actions, but through Oedipus’ sin as well.

Since I had both seen and read this play before, I was familiar enough with it to read it not only as an audience member, but also as an analyst. I got to know the characters in a deeper way than I have with any of the other plays I’ve read for this class. Particularly, I noticed that Antigone treats her sister Ismene with very little respect, and that lead me to believe that their relationship must not have been a close and supporting one. Also, since I had recently read Oedipus the King, I was able to see different sides of Creon; not only was he intelligent and honorable, he was stubborn and blind.

Another thing I liked about Antigone was the power given to a young woman to create such a moral dilemma. She acted out of love for her brother and no one could say that she was unjustified in the way she felt. Creon tried to humiliate Haemon for believing that a woman could violate the law and still be right, but he very soon realized that this was exactly what a just king would have done.

In Antigone, Sophocles asks the question, which law is greater: the god’s or man’s. Sophocles votes for God. Sophocles wants to warn his people about hubris, or arrogance, because he knows this will be their downfall. In Oedipus the King, the prequel to Antigone, he makes an example of hubris-that of Oedipus. In Antigone, the hubris of Creon is revealed.

God’s judgment of man plays a key role in the battle between human law and divine law. Though Creon, the king of Thebes and thereby lawmaker, renders judgment on Antigone because she violates the state’s law against burying her brother, God’s justice proves to be much more powerful when Creon backs down at the end of the play and admits that his law is unjust and he was wrong to enforce it.

To understand why Antigone did what she did, it’s important to know some basic beliefs of the people of that time. When a corpse was not buried, but left uncovered to be eaten by birds and animals, the gods were insulted and made angry, since this was a supreme insult to the body’s family. This is why Antigone feels it necessary to bury the body of her brother, who is a traitor to Thebes, but her blood nonetheless. Antigone presents her side when she proclaims, “Isn’t a man’s right to burial decreed by divine justice? I don’t consider your pronouncements so important that they can just…overrule the unwritten laws of heaven.”

The Chorus espouses the other viewpoint when they warn that those who do not follow the law deserve whatever bad things come to them. Yet Creon learns that his edict is wrong when Teiresius presents the idea that Thebes is falling apart because the altar to the gods is tainted with the flesh of Polynices, Antigone’s dead brother. Now the Chorus turns on Creon, saying his arrogance deserves greater punishment.

Also, the idea that God’s judgment is being passed on through the generations of a family is revealed in Antigone. Antigone suffers not only because she elects to stand up for an ideal, but because her disastrous destiny is predetermined by fate. Oedipus’ sin has now haunted his daughter as well.

Character Analysis

Antigone is widely thought of as the tragic hero of the play bearing her name. I must agree with this supposition, and would feel myself suited to play this part. She is very dedicated to honoring her family and following the laws of the gods. She buries her brother without worrying what might happen to her. She is following a higher order than the kings orders. She is then punished for doing what was right in the eyes of the gods.

I believe that Antigone is a good example of a true feminist. Antigone first demonstrates feminist logic when she chooses to challenge a powerful male establishment. This establishment, personified by her uncle Creon, has a whole army to defend it, and it is usually challenged by whole city-state like Argos, not one lone “fire-eating” woman and her bumbling sister. The challenge occurs as both a defiance of Creon’s laws in Antigone’s burying Polynices and as a direct verbal assault on Creon in which she almost calls him a fool! Such opinion shows that Antigone does not give Creon additional respect either because he is a man in a patriarchal society or because he is king. In this way, she argues an equality of the sexes, as well as equality under God. Antigone’s motivation to bury Polynices could be one of, or a combination of, three reasons. First, Antigone could be using her statements about divine justice as a clever justification to leave the world as she does. Antigone contemplates suicide with pleasure. Antigone has led a horrible life full of grief and humiliation. She is miserable and desires to leave life with some glory — something of which she has not had much. Thus, Antigone’s motivation could be just to leave her miserable life with a bit of glory, which she can (and does) achieve by causing Creon’s downfall. She could also be spitefully defying Creon in a feminist mindset. Obviously, Antigone has no respect for authority, government or Creon as a sovereign. Moreover, she even seems to want to partially overthrow the government.

But I believe Antigone also had more noble intentions. Not receiving burial is a huge dishonor to ancient Greeks. Antigone is unable to permit her brother to be not buried because the gods look down upon such actions. She feels that by burying Polynices and relieving him of the curse, she will be able to face him after death. She feels that burying her brother will be an honor for her and her brother. In addition to relieving the curse, she is upholding God’s law. Antigone believes that the Gods are commanding her to bury her brother. Antigone can then accomplish two goals at once: gaining popularity among the dead, and obeying God’s commands. Thus, Antigone could be either challenging Creon’s authority like a feminist would, or she could have more selfish intentions, or a combination of both.

Antigone shows a feminist mentality in her search for popularity among others. One essential characteristic of a person who advocates equal rights, and largely, a change in the status quo, is that he needs widespread popular support. Antigone seeks support several times. To begin with, she asks for her crime to be made public. She thereby is searching for support from the public. Antigone knows that if the public is unaware of her crime, she can not gather their sympathies and their support. Additionally, Antigone tries to gather the Chorus’s support prior to her death. Lastly, when she is desperate, she abandons all previous attempts at popularity and cries for sympathy from anyone who would listen. She attempts to gather peoples’ support and to be a martyr. Martyrdom and civil rights movements (i.e. feminism) often go hand in hand.

Antigone’s strong will is the last way she demonstrates characteristics of feminists. Antigone did not run from her death sentence and that suggests an inherent braveness to Antigone, if not an inherent stupidity. Of course, her feminism may just be a way through which her bullheadedness manifests itself. Antigone’s strong belief in her correctness causes her downfall. These characteristics combine to make Antigone appear to be a feminist long before her time. In any event, Antigone makes an interesting and varied character to consider.


I dared. It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice that rules the world below make now such laws. Your edict, King, was strong, but all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of God. They are not merely now: they were, and shall be, operative for ever, beyond man utterly. I knew I must die, even without your decree I am only mortal. And if I must die now, before it is my time to die, surely this is no hardship: can anyone living, as I live, with evil all about me, think death less than a friend: This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left my brother lying in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not. You smile at me. Ah, Creon, think me a fool, if you like; but it may well be that a fool convicts me of folly.

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