In analyzing the masterpiece that is “Antigone” by Sophocles, one cannot discredit the era when it was conceived. The culture of the Greeks is strongly discussed in the play. Ancient Greece during that time held ideals that tried to pose solutions to their lives’ very complicated queries. From spending a lot of energy on the lives of God, it was at this time in Ancient Greece where man focused on himself. The seeds of democracy were being planted and from monarchy to a form of government where groups of men ruled, society was continually evolving.
With this social evolution came many conflicting ideals that made dilemmas more complex.
Antigone was a play that reflected the complex transformation ancient Greece was experiencing. Sophocles was at those important parts of the backdrop of these debates because he was privy to matters of politics for Pericles was his friend.
“In 444, when the Athenian people chose Pericles as their leader, they demanded greatness: democracy combines with imperialism.
Periclean democracy meant free speech, free association, and open access to power limited by law; for assuming that intelligence is born in all, law created by all is the best ruler.” (Braun, 1973:3)
These conflicts and drama happening in Greece can be seen in the play where Creon battles Antigone over a philosophical war that is tearing Greek ideals apart. Throughout the play, both characters try to be hero and villain to each other’s beliefs. They both feel they are right and both believe that the other person is wrong. Essentially, their morals are clashing due to the contradictions of how they define morality.
The conflicts that make up the tragedy involve Antigone versus Creon. It also describes the conflict of believing in Heaven’s Laws versus Man’s Laws. Antigone challenges Creon in her line:
“I do not think your edicts strong enough to overrule the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven, you being only a man.” Antigone’s belief is so strong that she will die to make sure her brother will be buried properly and enter the gates of Heaven even if it costs her life. On the other hand, Creon will kill just to make sure Man’s Laws are fulfilled and he is able to enforce power over his land and ensure peace and stability.
Ancient Greece was very privy on the roles of their government and its scope and limitations. Government controlled the lives of people including their religious matters. With Antigone being published, it can be assumed that people in Greece had problems with having the government dictate to them their spiritual choices. It was close to saying that the government can be powerful but there were limitations. Government must respect the dead and traditions pertaining to the dead. In the play, Creon foolishly crossed the line when he decided that Antigone’s brother since he lived a life of a traitor didn’t deserve proper burial as against the other sibling. Such foolish editing of a spiritual code proved fatal to the new ruler who was mesmerized with his new found power.
The play warns future leaders who like Creon will follow the steps of doom due to the corruption of power that seems to come naturally to most leaders once they are posted on the “throne”.
This abuse of power has led Antigone to be unmoved by her decisions to rebel. She even went as far as getting her sister to be part of her disloyalty to men’s rules. The sisters quarreled over this issue. Ismene falls into the person who wants to be practical and reasonable and safe and most of all obedient while Antigone poses as the rebel, recalcitrant, moody, shallow and resistant to the masculine paradigms. Antigone is a symbol of feminism that modern day feminists have time and again referred to. Her struggle has enlightened the dual role women play in Ancient Greece. And Sophocles masterfully decided that in the end, women will go together and protect each other. Ismene in the scenes that clearly lights up her stand on Antigone’s situation is shoved away from being the heroine. Ismene become the antithesis of Sophocles’ woman that Antigone hates. Antigone hates Ismene not because she doesn’t want to bury her brother but because Ismene exudes the woman that men desire. She is passive, obedient and beautiful while Antigone curses her feminism right from her girlhood.
Another illustration shown by Sophocles through the rivalry of Antigone and Ismene is the two opposite gender roles that is clashing during this time in ancient Greece. While the social paradigms shifts to man-centeredness, women issues towards these change is clearly depicted in the sister’s conflict. From women like Antigone who would rather obey the rules of God and Ismene who decides to obey the rules of Man, both are condemned to death, anyway. Gender roles have always been double standard thus making women confused and make them turn against each other. In any social paradigm shift there is always the women issues that take a lesser appropriation of energy.
However, it is interesting to note that in this masterpiece, it is women who stir the calm. The being opposites of men and women strike a counter balance that poses another perspective to society. It is women who have time and again had to courage to go against men’s rules that subjugate women. Men cannot understand this up till now on the how’s and why’s that women cannot just simply follow rules of men like they were rule of God. Aptly put in these lines of Antigone, “Yes, because I did not believe that Zeus was the one who had proclaimed it; neither did Justice, or the gods of the dead whom Justice lives among.” (Braun, 19733: 39)
The formula for this tragedy started with the tragedy of Oedipus. The continuance is a reiteration of the elements of Tragedy that Sophocles has masterfully projected. Tragedy pure and simple cannot be stopped. Inherent in the characters where interests adhere to evil schemes as a necessary tool until the evil is able to control the character and lead the character into doom Death is the most tragic of all things in this world. No matter how hard Creon tried to save his plight by reversing his decisions, he ends up losing his son and wife and leadership. Realization of tragedy is fast in Antigone. The reader or audience will feel the haste that will lead to waste. Inevitability is also an important element in Sophocles tragedy. As a continuation of Oedipus’ fate, Antigone embraces here fate and consequence to what she believes in. Due to this stir, Antigone is able to win over evil even through death.
In this play, three suicides decorate the tragedy. The suicide of Antigone, Haimon and Eurydice comes almost surprising enough. These characters going to their deaths are pure of heart and noble indeed their aspirations. They are ready to lay down their lives not for themselves but for their beliefs. Antigone’s life was laid down for right. Haimon’s life was laid down for love and land. Eurydice life was laid down for son. Three times, sacrifice was being invoked by Sophocles from the rulers of Greece in order to maintain democracy in its purest form.
The element of “suspense” is also used in the tragedy keeping the audience and reader glued to the events that will come. Human edicts note that man is basically good and can basically be saved. The suspense lies on the possibility of forgiveness, the extent of the punishment and the coming of death. Unfortunately for characters in tragedy, they cannot help but follow the formula of tragedy as it happens in real life as well. The tragedy tells us that as lives are linked, actions and consequences cannot be controlled one hundred percent. Absolute rule is a true failure because people have their own Antigone’s in their own beings. Ancient Greeks though in the middle of transformations, are critical of their leaders and members of the ruling class. Discussions are held and spread. As politics is developed, it is supported by the cultural movement of a people who very well knows that if one allows tragedy into a plot, there is not reversing the outcome.
Contradiction is a play’s vital organ. Contradiction suspends time and everyone in the play, actors and audience takes that one moment to savor and learn from contradictions and dilemmas. Creon, while successfully promoting the ideals of Greeks of democracy and promoting the rule of men, broke his own consistency which started his demise that Antigone saw and acted on. The freedom of religion was defied when Creon decided not to give burial rights to Antigone’ brother. Deep down he knew there was a dilemma but his interests as leader got the better of him. He had to hold on to his decision and was afraid that his reversal of decision towards a woman would make him be seen as a weakling.
His prejudice against women as a second class citizen is held evident in the conversation he had with his son, Haemon. As in the society of Greece, women still held a second class position. “There are other fields to furrow. There is no match when the wife is worthless. Stop wasting my time, take them both inside. Now they’ll have to be women and know their place.” (Braun, 1973: 44)
Haemon announces that the whole town was all for Antigone but were very much afraid of the pronouncements of punishment by death for anyone who challenged Creon’s law. As Creon realizes this unpopularity, he holds his ground and becomes unreasonable and unjust himself. Only did the death of his own kin was he able to repent and realize the wrong that he has committed.
Antigone by Sophocles will live a hundred more years. As man’s paradigms on politics and governance continue to evolve, men need to be reminded of the tragic ruin that abuse of power brings forth. Antigone also capitalizes the struggle towards democracy where freedoms of speech, freedom of religion were fought with life and death. The chorus was an important tool in the play that symbolized the city state’s conscience. Sophocles masterfully used the chorus to bring forth his message on politics and how men will rule should they decide to abandon the laws of the Gods.
“Kreon’s flagrant misdeed is his invasion of personal and conscientious rights. Neither should the ordinary individual, who is wrong, rule the majority, who are passive, nor should the extraordinary individual, if right, acquiesce. The tragic problem of popular rule – where free citizens seem to violate by consensus the rights of minorities or of individuals, unusual ordinary is only suggested.” (Braun, 1973: 18)
Until rulers have the wisdom to lead and hone their political power towards self-sacrifice than satisfaction of self-interests, there will be more Antigone’s defying and being born to oppose the oppression brought about by self-serving rule. In a democracy, gentleness will prevail because the suspense of civil disobedience or criminal act will always serve as a tragic beacon against dictatorship or other forms of government against democracy.
Beacham, Richard C. 1992. “Antigone by Sophocles.” The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays. Edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady. St. James Press
Braun, Richard. 1973. Sophocles, Antigone. Oxford Press.
Whitman, CH. 1951. Sophocles. Cambridge. Mass.
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