Sophocles’ “Antigone” is accepted as one of the most important pieces of ancient Greek literature. Sophocles (496-406 BC) is a Greek dramatist known with his masterpieces like Ajax, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. In Antigone, the protagonist of the tragedy is a woman named Antigone. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and the sister of Ismene, Eteocles and Polynices. Sophocles' Antigone is about a woman’s desperate search for justice and her courage against the laws of the state for her family honor and love.
In the story, we see that Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices fall down in a war but the king of Thebes, Creon, does not allow a funeral for Polynices whom he accuses as being a traitor. We see Antigone in great pains in the beginning of the story. Antigone talks with Ismene about this “injustice” taking place and says that they should do something. Ismene however, gets afraid of transgressing the law. “New we two left; and what will be the end of us, If we transgress the law and defy our king? O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, And we must obey in this…” (Sophocles, pg 128). Antigone unlike Ismene thinks that she could oppose to the decision of the ruler if it is wrong and then decides to bury his brother Polynices’ corpse without Ismene’s help. Antigone successfully does this and the sentry later explains the situation to Creon. “She was burying the man with her own hands, and that’s the truth” (Sophocles, pg 137). Antigone, after being captured, admits what she has done and accepts the punishment. She thinks that the order did not come from God and what Creon is doing is not just at all.
Antigone bravely challenges the laws of the state and uses her right to objection, which we see in today’s democracies. “What law of heaven have I transgressed? What god can save me now? If this is God’s will, I shall learn my lesson in death; but if my enemies are wrong, I wish them no worse punishment than mine” (Sophocles, pg 150). People of Thebes seem to support Antigone and criticizes what king Creon is about to do. Creon changes his opinion after the warnings of his son Haemon and the blind prophet Teiresias but learns that Antigone has been already executed and he is now too late to change the situation. Creon’s son and Antigone’s husband Haemon and Creon’s wife Eurydice commit suicide and the story ends in a great tragedy. Antigone character is very important since it is generally accepted as the first feminist character in world literature who resisted against inequality between men and women and like other men tried to use her right to oppose to the decisions of the government.
P.E. Easterling in his article “Character in Sophocles” mentions about the greatness of character creating in Sophoclean literature. He points out the uniqueness of characters although we are given so little circumstantial details about them (Easterling, pg 124). Moreover, in his view Sophocles’ characters have deep personalities and solid individual consciousness behind the words. Although we do not know too much about Antigone’s life or character, her unique aspects are solid, clear and well shown in her dialogues with Ismene and the king Creon. I agree with Easterling about the success of Sophocles in creating characters. Especially the main character -Antigone- is shown as a great female epic figure whose incarceration and execution is the main motive of tragedy in the story. Although we know few things about Antigone or Creon, we understand their personalities very well. For instance, after reading their dialogues we learn how Creon can be stubborn and authoritarian if his ruling power is challenged or how Antigone is courageous and chivalrous when he opposes to Creon by risking her life. This shows Sophocles’ greatness in creating characters and forming the drama.
On the other hand, G.M. Kirkwood in his book "A Study Of Sophoclean Drama" shows Sophocles' greatness in creating opinion. For instance, although Sophocles does not give a clear answer about Antigone's cause, by pointing out the nobility in her devotion and high-minded conduct contrary to Creon, he seems to have supported Antigone. Kirkwood also tries to show a fundamental difference between Antigone and Creon which could be our guide in learning Sophoclean understanding of citizenship. For Kirkwood Antigone has basically three motives in resisting to the decision of Creon. The first one a personal one; "the matter is one of family loyalty, where, she feels, Creon has no right to intrude (Kirkwood, pg 119). This is related to the limitation of state's power in regulating the life of the individuals. Antigone appears in the tragedy as a hero who opposes to the totalitarian understanding of state. Burial of his brother for Antigone is a family matter, a personal matter to which the state and the king should not be involved. That is why Antigone gets angry to her sister Ismene when she gets affraid of rejecting Creon's commands. In her idea, since Ismene is a member of the family she should have resisted to Creon.
The second important motive for Antigone is her religious beliefs which she thought to be superior than state's rules and laws. Antigone, when she opposes to Creon in their first meeting, claims that Creon's orders are not in convenience with Gods' laws. "That order did not come from God. Justice, that dwells with the gods below, knows no such law. I did not think your edicts are strong enough to overrule the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven, you being only a man" (Sophocles, pg 138). Antigone's argument here shows the imperfect nature of human beings although they may become the king and the perfectness in divine rule which is superior to positive laws. However, for Creon "the state is under the care of the gods and an insult to the state is an insult to the gods" (Kirkwood, pg 123). Creon has his own concept of right but he is not enough idealist to defend this and later changes his opinion. What Sophocles praises here in my opinion is the idealism of Antigone. For Creon, "a foe is always a foe, even in death" but for Antigone respect after the death is different and more important from politics (Kirkwood, pg 125).
The third important motive of Antigone is about her femaleness in a world that is under the control of men. For instance when Ismene shows her weakness by saying O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, And we must obey in this…” (Sophocles, pg 128), Antigone gets angry and says "Go your own way; I will bury my brother; and if I die for it, what happiness!" (Sophocles, pg 128). Creon on the other hand "has his everlasting fear of damage to this prestige, especially at the hands of women" as the male king character (Kirkwood, pg 126).
When we analyze Sophocles' characters in this tragedy, we can say that Sophocles' understanding of citizenship involves the protection of free individuals against the arbitrary use of the state's power since he seems to be on Antigone's side. Although he does not give an explicit clue for this, we can understand that he has much more sympathy for Antigone from the overall text. State's uncontrolled power that regulates everything even the burial of a brother who is accused to be a traitor for the state, is criticized here by Sophocles. Thus, we may claim that Sophocles first considers people as free individuals whose private lives and personal decisions must be respected by the state. This dilemma between public and private sphere is a very controversial topic in politics. More liberal people tend to limit state's power for the sake of increasing individuals freedoms whereas more authoritarian, more statist approaches focus on political loyalty to the state. For Antigone however, we see the primary importance of family loyalty, invidual freedom as a woman and divine law more than political loyalty. While Antigone is used as the symbol of freedom and idealism, Sophocles uses Creon as the absolute power of the state which could cause problems in a society.Creon's deeds not only leads to the execution of Antigone but also to the suicide of his wife and his son.
When we compare Sophoclean characters with that of Homer especially Antigone to Achilles, we may claim that Antigone is more idealist than Achilles. Although both Achilles and Antigone are very brave and honor-seeking characters, Achilles is selfish and he wants his name to be remembered by all people even after hundred years. Moreover, Antigone is female human-being whereas Achilles is a strong man who has some supernatural, godlike, features. It is highly questionable whether Achilles could be so brave without his godlike powers but Antigone is a weak female character whose power comes from her honor and idealism. In addition, Sophocles' characters and events seem more realistic since he had lived four centuries after Homer's death. Sophocles' stories can be said to be semi-myths whereas Homer's works seem to be complete myths. What Sophocles has pointed out (state power versus individual freedom, men versus women etc.) is still a controversial topic in politics everywhere and this shows the universality of his genius. Sophocles' characters care more about their freedom contrary to Homeric characters that are more obedient to the state and to the gods except Achilles who has some godlike characteristics.
Antigone is a very rich tragedy that has always stayed modern because of its universalistic features coming from Sophocles' genius. Problems between state power and individuals seem to continue even in the 21st century. Democratic states are the ones who has been able to make a balance between these two without causing an absolutist state but also a failed-state who is not able to punish guilty people. Sophocles in Antigone adresses to these modern fundamental issues which shows that there was a highly developed civilization in the ancient-Greece.
1 Sophocles, “The Theban Plays”, 1974, London: Penguin Books
2 Aiskhülos & Sofokles, “Eski Yunan Trajedyaları 1”, 1997, İstanbul: TEM Yapım Yayıncılık Ltd.
3 Easterling, P.E., “Character in Sophocles”, Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol: 24, No: 2 (October 1977), pp. 121-129
4 Kirkwood, G.M., “A Study Of Sophoclean Drama”, 1996, New York: Cornell University Press