By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Antigone is, after Oedipus Rex, the most famous of Sophocles’ plays to survive. Written over 2,400 years ago, Antigone is one of the finest examples of Greek tragedy: the play explores its central moral issue through its two main characters, Antigone and Creon, and remains as relevant now as it was when Sophocles first wrote it.
Before we offer an analysis of this classic work of Greek theatre, here’s a brief recap of the summary of the plot of Antigone.
The plot or action of Antigone follows the events of the Oedipus legend, which Sophocles later told in Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonnus.
The back story is as follows: Oedipus had unwittingly killed his father, Laius, and married his mother, Jocasta. He and Jocasta had had four children together. They had two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After they discovered they were mother and son, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself and was exiled from Thebes, the city he’d ruled with Jocasta.
Eteocles and Polyneices fell out over which of them should govern Thebes, and they ended up going to war and killing each other. Eteocles defended the city when his brother led an army against it. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, became ruler of Thebes now there were no male heirs of Oedipus’ bloodline remaining.
Because Eteocles had been governing Thebes when Polyneices killed him, Creon decreed that Eteocles should be buried with full honours, while Polyneices should not be buried at all. In Greek religious terms, this was the equivalent to burying someone outside of a churchyard: it meant their soul would not be accepted into the afterlife.
This is the background to Antigone. The action of the play itself begins when Antigone hears of Creon’s decision that her brother, Polyneices, will not be buried in consecrated ground. Antigone decides to get hold of her dead brother’s body and bury it herself. However, while she is performing a ritual over her brother’s body, she is captured.
When she is brought before Creon, Antigone stands up to him, arguing that he has overstepped his remit as ruler of the city, and is attacking fundamental moral values by trying to control Polyneices’ fate in the afterlife. Indeed, she argues that such an action amounts to blasphemy against the gods themselves.
As punishment for her defiance, Creon has Antigone imprisoned in a cave with just enough food to keep her alive but make her gradually weaker until she eventually starves to death.
However, Antigone has a useful defender in Haemon, her betrothed, who also happens to be Creon’s own son. Yes, Creon has condemned his own would-be daughter-in-law to a horrible death! However, Creon refuses to listen to his son’s request and proceeds with the execution. Haemon storms out, telling his father that he will never see him again.
At this point, Tiresias the seer – the one who had revealed the true fate of Oedipus, Antigone’s own father, to him in Oedipus Rex – intervenes and warns Creon that he is behaving contrary to the will of the gods. Symbolically, Polyneices’ unburied corpse is festering, and the stench fills the whole of Thebes. However, like all tyrants, Creon refuses to listen to Tiresias’ warning and tries to smear the seer, accusing him of being in the pay of Creon’s enemies.
However, privately Creon is worried by Tiresias’ words, and knows that the prophet speaks the truth. He resolves to bury the corpse of Polyneices and let Antigone go. But his change of heart is too little, too late: Antigone, rather than suffer a slow and agonising death, has hanged herself (as her mother did before her), and Haemon, Creon’s own son and the man who loved Antigone, has killed himself over her corpse.
As if this isn’t tragedy enough, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, is distraught at news of her son’s death, and kills herself, too. At the end of the play, Creon is left standing over the bodies of his wife and son.
Antigone raises a number of moral questions which remain as important to us now as they were when Sophocles wrote the play, almost two-and-a-half thousand years ago. What are the limits of a ruler’s power? Should there be clear limits? What inalienable freedoms and rights are people afforded?
Like many great works of art, Antigone is more complex than a plot summary can convey. For instance, the above summary paints Creon as a tyrannical ruler who drastically – and fatally – oversteps the limits of his power, with consequences both for others and, as is always the case in Greek tragedy, for himself. He has to live with his mistakes, having lost his wife and son because of his tyranny.
Yet it is worth remembering, in Creon’s defence, the reasons for his harsh decree at the outset of the play. Polyneices, after he fell out with Eteocles, had raised an army and marched on the city, with a view to seizing power and ruling the city. Would Polyneices have treated the people of Thebes well? Or would he, in anger at his brother’s behaviour, have torched Thebes to the ground?
Creon’s decision not to allow Polyneices a sacred burial is designed to send a clear message that this man was an invader, a would-be tyrant who the people of Thebes have been saved from. Of course, Creon’s flaw is that he fails to realise that he has become the very thing he declared he was saving Thebes from.
Weighed against Creon’s decision as a ruler is Antigone’s decision as a sister: that she owes her dead brother the funeral rites which will enable him to enter the afterlife and find peace in death. The conversation she has with her sister, Ismene – who refuses to help her – neatly summons the immoral nature of Creon’s edict and the central clash of values embodied by the play: when Antigone says she cannot betray their dead brother, Ismene’s response it to say ‘but Creon has decreed it’.
The law says ‘no can do’ – but in this case, the law is an ass, and more immoral than family values which have held sway for centuries, indeed longer. Antigone’s response to her sister is to ask ‘by what right’. By what right does a tyrant forbid a sister her right to bury her own brother?
As the play emerges, what transforms Creon into a tyrant rather than a judicious politician is his stubbornness, and his refusal to change tack even when all of the evidence points otherwise. If he had initially forbidden the burial of Polyneices because he wished to honour and protect the people he rules, he has now become their worst enemy. When his son entreats him to see sense, he refuses, and loses his son forever.
Then, when Tiresias, who has the gift of prophecy, tells him he’s following the wrong course, he secretly knows he has made the immoral decision but to save face he refuses to admit it, hoping to undo his decisions quietly without everyone else finding out that he has gone back on his original decree.
As John Burgess observes in his analysis of Antigone in his excellent The Faber Pocket Guide to Greek and Roman Drama (Faber’s Pocket Guides), whereas Creon’s authority had previously seemed to speak for the whole of Thebes, now it sounds like ‘naked self-assertion’, the words of a man who is determined to impose his will, even if he knows it’s the morally wrong thing to do.
Despite its title, Antigone is really Creon’s play more than it is Antigone’s. He is the real tragic figure at the centre of the play’s action, in that it is his tragic flaw – his inflexibility – which is his undoing, and for which he must undergo suffering or catharsis by the end of the play.
He also speaks more of the play’s dialogue than Antigone, who spends much of the second half of the play walled up in a cave before returning as a corpse. In this respect, Antigone is like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which may be named after the Roman general but is really the tragedy of Brutus, not Caesar.
Nevertheless, Antigone is one of the most significant female characters in ancient Greek tragedy, and this is one reason why the play has continually proved popular to new generations. The other is that although at first glance the play appears to be about a largely unfashionable clash between civil and religious law, it has endured, and continues to be relevant to modern readers and audiences, because it is really about honouring family in the face of inhumane and unjust – indeed, immoral – laws that forbid such a thing.
It’s no accident that the play attracted a twentieth-century writer like Bertolt Brecht, who translated it in the late 1940s: whenever there is tyranny, there will be Antigone to remind us of the importance of doing the right thing.
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I teach this play to my AP juniors as part of the civil disobedience unit, then I follow it with F451. There is a modernized version with two Dr Who actors: Eccleson and Whittaker. I’d sure appreciate finding a full copy of that one. The play transfers well into modern times.
Thank you for writing about Antigone. To this day, some 50 years since I first read it, it remains the most memorable of Greek plays for me. I grew up in a family where I had four older brothers and six younger. Our mother instilled in us a sense of loyalty to one another. For me, Antigone’s love for and loyalty to her brother was profound, and something with which I could identify. I wonder if the play bears her name because of her heroism – in the way that Homer named his epic story after the hero Odysseus.
I love Antigone – the play and the character. Thanks again for bringing her to mind.
Thanks for the lovely comment, Mary – and I agree. It’s heartening to know that a play written over 2,000 years ago still speaks to us about family loyalty, especially when it comes to defying unjust laws to honour them.