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.
Why does Ismene object to Antigone's plan to bury Polyneices?
Ismene believes the men who rule Thebes must not be disobeyed because men are stronger and their will must be respected.
How does Antigone demonstrate pre-feminist ethics?
Antigone believes that a woman's duty is not to the men who rule a domain, but rather to her own instincts and her own sense of right and wrong. She believes that the gods do not dictate through a ruler, but rather through individual beliefs.
When does Creon become apologetic for his actions?
Creon never apologizes for his actions. Instead, he simply orders Antigone to be freed because he knows that Teiresias is never wrong - and therefore that his own life is at risk. However, he never truly believes that his order to imprison her was the wrong course of action.
What is the seeming reason for Haemon's suicide? Does he kill himself only out of desperate love for the dead Antigone?
Haemon's suicide seems to have two motivations - first out of anguish over Antigone's death, but also because he is so furious with his father for having betrayed his trust. Early in the play, Haemon tells his father that as long as he offers wisdom, Haemon will follow him. But now it is clear that his father led him astray, and for that Haemon believes that one of them must die.
Why isn't Creon killed by the plague that befalls him at the play's end?
Creon's punishment is to suffer without a family, and to suffer the guilt of knowing he destroyed the lives of innocents to preserve obsolete traditions and a misconceived legacy of misogynist rule.
What is Creon's tragic flaw?
Creon's tragic flaw is that he believes that men have the right to interpret divine will and impose absolute power in their name. As a result, a simple belief - men cannot be wrong in the face of women - is elevated to law and thus leads to multiple (unnecessary) deaths.
Is Antigone ever apologetic for burying Polyneices?
Though Antigone bemoans her fate and believes death is a cruel and unnecessary punishment for burying Polyneices, she is never apologetic for actually covering his body. She believes until the end that she did the right thing.
Why does Antigone not allow Ismene to join her in her death sentence?
Antigone does not want her sister laying claim to an act that was solely hers for two reasons: one, because she wants her sister to remain alive, and two, because she wants her sister to feel the shame of abandoning her principles for the sake of staying alive and being subservient to men.
What is the role of the Chorus?
The Chorus is meant to reflect the conscience of Thebes - they are the elders who expect Creon to guide them towards wisdom. As they lead him astray, they begin to sense this and reflect their feelings in their choral poems.
What is unusual about the Watchman's speech?
Unlike the other characters, the Watchman's speech is written in more natural rhythms and dialect.