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.