Analysis of the Play Antigone by Sophocles
Along with Euripides and Aeschylus, Sophocles is one of the three major ancient tragedians. He was born around 496 BC in the town of Colonus, near Athens. Sophocles came from a wealthy and respectable family and received good education. He had a cheerful and sociable character and did not shun the joys of life. Pericles was one of his famous and close friends. Along with Pericles, he even commanded the fleet during the War of Samos in 440 BC. In setting the scene of his first dramatic tetralogy (469 or 468 BC), Sophocles showed the great talent and won over glorified Aeschylus. By number of wins in the competitions between tragedians, no one could beat Sophocles. Experts in literature attributed about 130 tragedies to Sophocles. Sophocles' Antigone is based on the mythological story of the Theban cycle. It is not part of the trilogy, as in Aeschylus, but is a finished product. In his masterpiece, Sophocles reveals the contradictions between the human arbitrariness and the divine laws. He puts above all the unwritten divine laws. The tragedy of Antigone is named after the heroine whose actions and deeds have defined the main events in the play. Polynices, who is Antigone's brother and a son of King Oedipus, betrayed native Thebes. He took part in the expedition of the Seven against Thebes. He was killed in a fight with his brother Eteocles, a defender of the motherland. King Creon forbade people to bury the traitor and ordered to give his body to be devoured by dogs and birds. Against the order, Antigone performed a religious burial rite. For such a violation of the king’s demand, Creon ordered to wall up Antigone in a cave. Antigone, faithful to her duty – the implementation of the sacred laws, did not humble before Creon. Instead of obedience to the cruel king, the girl chose death and committed suicide. After that Antigone’s groom, Haemon, who was a son Creon, impaled himself with a dagger. In despair of her son's death, Eurydice, Creon's wife, committed suicide as well. All these misfortunes lead Creon to the recognition of his nothingness and humility before the gods. In general, the play is devoted to the conflict between the state and religious/family laws, in which the leading role belongs to King Creon as a despotic ruler defending his power by means of the letter of the law.
Essentially, all the characters of the play are involved into the conflict, but it is significant to understand that it is not a conflict of persons, but the conflict of ideas and principles. However, the analysis of the characters and their positions in the conflict allows revealing the main component of the conflict. Each of the main heroes of the tragedy expresses his/her understanding of what is happening. Throughout the drama, Antigone declares and uncompromisingly defends her right to perform the kindred duty to the dead brother and bury his body according to all the traditions and rites. It contradicts Creon’s order that the traitor is forbidden to be buried. From the beginning, Creon publicly declares his determination to consistently defend the interests of the state, which for him as a king, have an undeniable priority over all other values, not excluding the interests of his own people.
Another character in the drama who takes an equally consistent position is Tiresias, the blind seer. He considers there is nothing above the divine precepts. He fearlessly accuses Creon of violation of these precepts, incurring the wrath of the latter.
The other characters of the drama occupy less consistent and less independent positions. At first glance, Haemon, Creon’s son, seems to share the position of his father in the name of the state’s welfare. However, it is he who convinces Creon to cancel the decisions in relation to Antigone and the issue of the burial of Polynices by citing the need to win the favor of citizens Thebes dissatisfied with the activities of the new king. After having encountered a resolute refusal from Creon, Polynices openly takes the side of Antigone and nearly kills his father. Ismene and Eurydice are secondary characters clearly designed to set off the event: Ismene is Antigone's determination and inhumanity of Creon, Eurydice is the horror of Creon’s punishment.
There are three independent forces, constituting the conflict of the tragedy: the state, personified by Creon, clan, the values of which are defended by Antigone, and the gods whose will is opened to Tiresias. However, the conflict, according to the concept, needs a clash of two opposite sides. A close analysis of the tragedy reveals that it is so. One should consider that the meaning of a true work of art, as well as any creation of culture, goes beyond its temporal spiritual horizon, and thus, subsequent generations see something newer in it than contemporaries. It is worth noting that in the days of Sophocles, Antigone was perceived in the Greek spirit as a tragic collision of a man with powerful gods. Creon’s order breakes the ancient law hallowed by the authority of the Olympian gods. This law respects the right of relatives to a burial of their deceased family members, and at the times described in the tragedy, the law has a broader interpretation – to a burial of all the dead. That is why in proof of her innocence, Antigone all the time refers to the divine law and insignificance of the earthly laws compared with it. At the same time, Creon is not acting as a godless. He gets in a situation of confrontation with the gods unintentionally. Moreover, in his career, he comes from a legal sanctity of royal power, and, in this he is supported by the chorus, which is intended to express an independent position from the private interests and be a herald of righteousness.
However, for the Greeks, it was not important whether Creon’s acts were intentional or not. By making a stand against the gods, a man falls into the power of fatality, and no efforts can save him/her from atonement. No matter what the person is doing to avoid the reckoning, everything will turn against him/her, since his/her every action will lead to the tragic final. It is a tragic irony. It is of great importance to comprehend the role of Antigone and the reasons why she dies. One can point out several explanations. Firstly, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, and therefore, she is subject to the ancestral curse. Secondly, fatality cannot manifest itself; its action is performed by human hands. Creon and Antigone are both victims of the Doom, and their direct clash in the tragedy remarkably enhances the intensity of the events. For the Greeks, they are both wrong in their human pride. At the same time, Antigone can have an excuse: though not having humility, as it befits a woman and the more the daughter of Oedipus, she defends the religious commandments. They are close and clear for the Greeks, while Creon acts on his behalf. Creon represents the state, but the state power has much less significance compared to the total for all the Greeks’ religion fused with the legendary historical glory of the people. Therefore, the reader can feel that Sophocles as a Greek sympathizes Antigone and being a brilliant artist, he conveys his empathy to the reader.
By examining the reasons why Antigone could not prevent the desecration of her brother’s body, one can point to the following moments. Firstly, Antigone could not allow the desecration of her brother’s body because he was for her brother whom she loved deeply. This fact outweighs all crimes of Polynices. It was natural for Antigone to bury her both brothers, despite the fact that in life they were bitter enemies. In Hades, the Theban throne that the brothers were unable to divide, costs nothing, and therefore, there is no reason for hatred anymore. In addition, the loss of her brother was essentially irreversible to Antigone, because she will not see her brother again, while the loss of her husband would not make Antigone go against the citizens (Sophocles). Secondly, for the heroine, it was a simple and indisputable fact that it is necessary to honor all the dead as well as the gods of the Underground, whose power is so great that they can dispose of their death. Because of her generosity, Antigone could not tolerate the lawlessness performed by the will of Creon, and it is not the last factor that has led her to exploit. Thirdly, according to the ancient Greek notions, relatives of the unburied person were shamed if such a situation happened in their family. The decree of Creon created a contradiction: both Antigone and Ismene were covered with the shame of Polynices and the honor of Eteocles.
All these considerations did not leave for Antigone any doubt and she admitted that she served those who should serve. As a result, the girl rejected the request of Ismene to keep everything in secret: “Fear not for me: guide thine own fate aright” (Sophocles). Subsequently, Antigone operated openly. After the symbolic burial she violated the second royal decree, trying to perform a full funeral rite for the brother. She was caught by the guard. Nevertheless, being aware of her innocence, Antigone was not timid; her actions spoke of her courage. She is not afraid of Creon, because any punishment that he could appoint her would not be as bad as the fear before the evil gods insulted by the violation of their divine laws. On the other hand, she would die someday; thus, it is better to die before the deadline, but with a clear conscience and a sense of accomplishment. In addition, Antigone feels entitled to violate the human laws if they are contrary to the divine ones. The analysis of the tragedy shows that the predominant feature of the image of Antigone is willpower, which she shows in the struggle against Creon for the right to bury her brother according to the established ritual and laws. She honors the ancient law of tribal society. She has no doubts about the correctness of the decision. Feeling her innocence, Antigone defies Creon boldly:
Wouldst thou do more than take and slay me?...
Why then dost thou delay? In thy discourse
there is nought that pleases me,-never may
there be!-and so my words must needs be
unpleasing to thee (Sophocles).
Sophocles’ Antigone consciously goes to meet her death, but, like every person, she regrets to part with life that promises so much joy to a young girl. She regrets not about what happened, but about her dying young. She will never be able to see sunlight, hear marriage songs, and become wife, and mother. Her last worlds are the following: “Behold me, princes of Thebes, the last daughter of the house of your kings, - see what I suffer, and from whom, because I feared to cast away the fear of Heaven!” (Sophocles). The power of her mind and a big heart, who knows how to love, not hate, has led Antigone to certain fate. Antigone enters the conflict with Creon, who embodies the image of a harsh and inexorable ruler that puts his will above all. He sophistically justifies his actions by state interests. He says that in the sake of the motherland he cannot equally honor its savior and enemy. Creon is willing to apply the most brutal laws to people going against the state. Creon sees any resistance to his orders as an anti-state activity. Being the epitome of a tyrant, Creon recognizes the absolute subjugation of the ruler even if he is wrong (Sophocles): “Pass, then, to the world of the dead, and, it thou must needs love, love them. While I live, no woman shall rule me” (Sophocles). Thus, a central place in the play belongs primarily to Creon. The task of Antigone as the character of the play was to show that the rulers are capable of applying impious cruelty in order to strengthen their authoritarian dictatorship using the written laws of the state. In turn, Creon is particularly important as a good example that a man, even if he/she is the king, has no right to infringe on the rule of religious laws created by the gods. In contrast to Creon, Antigone implements "practical wisdom." She understands that someone needs to take responsibility for preserving the honor and dignity of the family by burying their brother. For this reason, she demands her sister to continue living since the honor and dignity of their family are already restored, and each of her family members can communicate freely with others without meeting reproachful gazes. Antigone managed to fulfill her duty, and although she does not want to part with the life that promises a lot of happiness and joy, she does not regret her actions. Antigone proves to Creon "how little respect she has for him and tries desperately to make him see that he is not above the law of the gods and should not fool himself into believing so" (Schmuhl). Antigone is a kind of a teacher who at the cost of her life teaches the king an invaluable lesson. This lesson is related to the idea that the power of the gods cannot be challenged by any of mortal men, even if they are kings. Divine authority is not subject to earthly power. Moreover, it is able to punish and demonstrate that no earthly law can have power over it. It is not a coincidence that Creon grows in understanding of this supreme law. Understanding comes to him not immediately, but even such an authoritarian ruler realizes the supremacy of the religious laws over the state ones.
To sum up, in the tragedy Antigone, Sophocles reveals one of the deepest conflicts of contemporary society, namely the conflict between the tribal unwritten laws and the governmental laws. Religious beliefs, rooted in ancient times, prescribed a man living in a tribal community to sanctify kinship and perform all the rites in respect of their relatives. On the other hand, in the time of Sophocles, every citizen of the polis had to follow the laws of the state, which sometimes sharply contradicted the traditional family and tribal norms. Sophocles’ Creon is an advocate of strict observance of the written laws of the state. Antigone gives preference not to the state laws, but to the laws of family and tribal consecrated by religious authority. That is why Antigone wants to bury her brother Polynices, even though it is forbidden by the state laws. Despite the fact that Polynices is a traitor and unworthy of the honor of being buried and mourned, Antigone cannot stay indifferent to him. She needs to do everything required by the laws established by the gods; that is to bury Polyneices according to all the rites. Antigone admits that she would not have violated the state laws for the husband, because her husband is not a blood relative. Creon does not respect a traditional tribal law, and following his social theory, he sentences Antigone to death as a violator of the law of the state.
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Sophocles sympathizes with Antigone and portrays her with great warmth. The great tragedian wanted to convey the idea that happiness for the citizens of the policy requires the unity between the state and family or tribal laws. However, at the time of Sophocles, the class state was far from its ideal. Sophocles does not only sympathizewith Antigone, but also depicts Creon as a despot and a tyrant, endowed with traits of legal formalism, hiding personal harsh under the words about the good of the state. Condemnation of tyranny is expressed at the end of the tragedy in Creon’s repentance and self-flagellation. One can assume that in this tragedy, the confrontation between Antigone and Creon ends with the victory of Antigone. On scales, Sophocles puts the state and the family laws, which are founded by the higher powers that are gods. Antigone, who expresses the will of the gods, becomes the winner. She is a true heroine with a strong, determined and courageous character, able to withstand even the king. Creon appears as a man who puts himself on a par with the gods and breaks the supreme law. For that, Creon pays the highest price.
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