Analyzing Antigone

Antigone by Frederic Leighton, 1882.

The playwright Sophocles (497 – 405 BCE) might have been amused to find that nearly twenty-five hundred years after writing about his eponymous heroine, the long-suffering Antigone is still making her resolute voice heard. While she cannot compare to her dear old dad-brother—Oedipus—-whose pathology is nothing short of institutional, the truth is that Antigone has been in analysis for at least as long as there has been analysis. Perhaps because she was progeny of an incestuous union, Antigone’s head has been examined by some of the finest minds; from psychotherapists to political theorists, poets and philosophers alike expound about her constancy while exploring the myriad motivations and mindset of this most complicated of characters.

The founder of psychoanalysis himself—- Sigmund Freud—believed Antigone was the product of primitive unconscious drives. The modernist author Virginia Woolf praised her as an “exemplar of heroism itself,” comparing her to the fearless suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst. Most recently, American philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler, submits that Antigone portrays a dangerous form of feminism. While experts may have tried to find common ground, in the end, there are as many theories about Antigone as there are theorists. As a result, she has been burdened with a wide range of labels: from matriarchist to anarchist, yet for all that has been written about her, who is Antigone, and what makes her one of the most intriguing of patients?

To begin to understand the psyche of Antigone, it is important to get a grasp from whence she came. Because mythology was ubiquitous to the ancient Greeks, the audience would have been all too familiar with Oedipus’s woeful tale and the cursed Laius family. Frequently performed in mythological sequence, Sophocles’ Theban saga—-Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—- was written out of sequence and therefore not considered a trilogy in the manner of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Each play of the Theban saga is a unit unto itself. Although the events in Antigone come last in the saga, in actuality, Sophocles wrote Antigone first (in about 442 BCE), preceding Oedipus the King by about twelve years. Thus, the Creon in Antigone has an altogether different persona than the Creon in Oedipus the King.

Cursed Family of Laius: A Summary

For those unfamiliar with the myth of Oedipus, a thumbnail sketch follows. On account of a prophecy that an infant son will kill his father—-Laius, king of Thebes, and his wife Jocasta—- abandon their baby on a desolate mountainside. But just to be certain that the infant perishes, they pin his ankles together. As in most myths about child abandonment, the suckling survives to become a torment to its natural parents, after all. In short order, Corinth’s king and queen adopt him and give him the name Oedipus (tender-footed). After hearinghe is adopted, a disillusioned Oepidus journeys to Delphi, where the Oracle predicts he will murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth.

Traveling by foot on the road to Thebes, he gets into a skirmish with an old man who attacks him. By defending himself he kills the old man (his biological father, Laius). Upon entering Thebes he discovers that the town is besieged by a Sphinx—-a monster with the body of a lion and the head of a human female. The Sphinx will only release the Thebans if someone successfully answers her riddle. All who have tried have failed, only to be devoured by the monster. But when Oedipus tries to solve the riddle, he succeeds— forcing the Sphinx to fling herself onto rocks, disappearing forever. In gratitude, the Thebans make Oedipus king, and he marries the widowed queen, Jocasta (his biological mother).

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Ingres, 1808. Oil on Canvas. Louvre, Paris.

Even though mother and son marry, all was well for many years and Oedipus and Jocasta begat four children—-Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. Then plague struck, thrusting Thebes into a tailspin. To ease the suffering, Oedipus consulted the Oracle at Delphi—-yet again—who proclaimed that the plague would cease only when the murderer of Laius is found. In order to rescue Thebes, Oedipus is determined to find the identity of the murderer but in the process, he discovers his own identity. After much investigation, not only is it revealed that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, but that Laius is his father and Jocasta his mother. Upon hearing the truth, Jocasta hangs herself.

When he finds Jocasta’s lifeless body—a grief-stricken Oedipus with tears rolling down his face—-takes the glittering gold pins holding her robe in place and puts out both his eyes with them. Jocasta’s brother, Creon, assumes temporal power in Thebes while ruling with Oedipus’s two sons. With Antigone by his side, a blind Oedipus dressed in rags leaves Thebes to become an itinerant beggar. In Oedipus at Colonus when Oedipus discovers that his sons banished him from Thebes, he curses them predicting they will kill each other. Although Oedipus is not present in Antigone, his presence can be felt when his prophetic curse is realized before the play begins. Under a pact between the two brothers to alternate rule of Thebes, Eteocles refuses to relinquish authority to his brother, so Polynices goes abroad to gather an army in order to attack Thebes. The day before the play begins, brother kills brother in armed conflict, and Polynices is defeated.

Obeying Which God?

The dead lie unburied and the living become buried in this story about a devout and determined young woman who defies a despot’s harsh edict which forbids the burial of her deceased brother. French philosopher Luce Irigaray calls Antigone, “The work of Sophocles which marks the historical bridge between matriarchy and patriarchy.” Representing the matriarchal tradition, which includes duties toward family and custom, Antigone frequently invokes the chthonic khthonios (underworld) deities who reside in the realm of the dead and are concerned with mysteries inherent in the cyclical patterns of death and rebirth which govern the fertility of the earth. The two most prominent chthonic deities are Hades and Persephone, lord and queen of the underworld.

Conversely, as an agent of civic authority, Creon represents the realm of patriarchy overseen by the celestial god, Zeus; human laws of states and governmental bodies fall under Zeus’s eagle eye. When he makes the burial of his nephew Polynices a crime punishable by death, Creon’s first act as king strikes at the heart of the chthonic tradition which regards non burial as blasphemy.

But exposure was only half of it, even mourning Polynices is a capital offense.

In the play’s beginning, an undeterred and incensed Antigone, informs her sister, Ismene, of Creon’s edicts in the hope of enlisting her to help bury their brother. On account of the incest of their parents, they are twice related; their mother is also their grandmother. Thus, they are sisters but also aunt and niece to each other. Antigone begins the scene by expressing her sisterly devotion to Ismene: “My own flesh and blood–dear sister, dear Ismene.” But as close as they are biologically, as the scene unfolds it is clear that the two sisters could not be farther apart. A study in contrasts, a passionate Antigone charges full-speed ahead, unafraid of the consequences of her actions, while Ismene is wary, contemplative, and helpless to do anything about it: “..think what a death we’ll die…if we violate the laws and override the fixed decree of the throne….Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men….” As a Greek woman, Ismene knows her place—- women were expected to be docile, obedient, modest, and above all, never to challenge male authority. Clearly, Antigone did not read that handbook.

Antigone and Ismene by Emil Teschendorff (1892)

Furious at Ismene’s perceived weakness, Antigone calls her a coward: “ I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be my glory.” If it means soothing the soul of her brother’s shade and appeasing the chthonic gods, Antigone is Achilles-like, preferring to die a youthful heroic death rather than living a long life of mediocrity.

A Woman’s Deadly Domain

Although Creon’s refusal to bury Polynices is directed against his nephew in retribution for attacking Thebes, it is Polynices’ surviving sisters who bear the brunt of it. In a society notorious for keeping women under wraps, it may seem surprising that funereal rites—-one of ancient Greece’s most sacred of duties—-were largely under their dominion. Almost akin to ancestor worship, the Greeks—-particularly their women—-took special care of their dearly departed.

In a public display of grief, women were expected to wail and tear out their hair, but they were also responsible for bathing the deceased, anointing it with oil, and adorning it with flowers, ribbons, and jewelry. However, of all the sacred funereal rites, burial was the holiest where it was believed that unless the departed were properly buried, their shades were in misery and pain—-doomed to flit about endlessly for all eternity instead of resting quietly in Hades.

While burial rites were all-important to the ancient Greeks, it was not unusual to deny burial to enemy combatants or traitors —in this way Creon’s edicts were not irregular. To be sure, the abandonment of enemies’ corpses outside city walls—-so they would not pollute the city—-was more or less the convention during times of warfare. Nevertheless, the bodies of enemy combatants would be left outside the city walls for family members to retrieve for proper burial.

The collection of the deceased during the time of war is exemplified in one of the most moving scenes from the Iliad. Not known for his compassion, even the brutal war-hero Achilles eventually rendered the slain body of his arch-enemy, Hector, to his grieving father, Priam, for burial.

Make no mistake, Creon is going above and beyond his characteristic cruelty by withholding the body of Polynices from his family for burial. This is especially harsh considering that Creon himself is family— because of the incest between his sister Jocasta and nephew Oedipus, he is twice uncle to Polynices. Moreover, aside from his wife, Eurydice, and his son Haemon, his nieces are all the surviving family he has.

Antigone on the side of Polynices, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1868

All the same, even exposure to his nephew’s body is not enough; the irreverent Creon seems to delight in envisioning a decaying Polynices often alluding to his rotting corpse with such phrases as “carrion for the birds and dogs to tear.” In fact—ever the family man— Creon mentions Polynices’ decaying remains more than he praises the heroism of Eteocles. Often at cross purposes with Creon, Antigone, on the other hand, is fiercely loyal to her deceased family members while upholding the traditions of the chthonic gods which call for filial piety and demand burial for her brother.

The Act of Defiance

So it is unsurprising that it does not take long before Antigone is caught burying her brother’s corpse—-by scattering dust over it—-and wailfully lamenting. The burial is largely symbolic yet considered a burial nonetheless. Decisive and assertive, Antigone’s action of burying her brother against the dictates of the state is transgressive and one for which she takes full responsibility. When she is brought before Creon on criminal charges straightaway he sets the tone by incredulously asking if “she had the gall to break the law?” Singular in fortitude, Antigone is not only unafraid of death, more importantly—-to his great distress—-she is unafraid of Creon. With her characteristic defiance on full display, she retorts: “Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least who made this proclamation—not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for me.”

Defending the sacred over the secular—with a piety that rivals that of priestesses—Antigone points out that a mere mortal could not override “the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” the laws of the chthonic gods that govern not only the dead, but family and custom to which she stridently adheres.

Conversely, the contempt Creon heaps on his nephew is nothing compared to the profanity he piles on the chthonic gods displaying disdain for them throughout the play: “….she will learn at last what a waste of breath it is to worship death.” As depot, his contempt towards the chthonic gods—who unlike Zeus—-are not inclined to advance his dynastic ambitions, is on par with the hubris he displays toward the powerless masses who are subject to his authoritarian rule: “Am I to rule this land for others—or myself?” and “The city is the king’s—that’s the law!”

Creon’s Authority

Surrounding himself with sycophants, it is no wonder that the autocratic Creon is taken aback by Antigone’s insolence. Moreover, that such impertinence should come from a woman is doubly egregious. After all, women were supposed to be confined to the domicile; forbidden from taking part in the operation of the polis or activities in the public square. Throughout the scene between Antigone and Creon, an emasculated Creon repeatedly refers to Antigones’s gender by describing her as “manly” and making comments that allude to her manliness: “I am not the man, not now; she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free.”

The absolutism of his authority is threatened by Antigone’s resistance. According to Creon’s authoritarian logic, if she wins, he loses. In her seminal book Antigone’s Claim, Butler affirms that not only does Antigone’s defiance unman Creon, but her act of defiance is a law unto itself.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), Antigone

All the same, although Antigone acts like a Greek hero, the truth is she is not even a Greek heroine; she has none of Medea’s power nor Clytemnestra’s sovereignty. Instead, as a young unmarried woman—likely no more than sixteen years of age—-she has no rights and even less authority. In view of the fact that power relations between the two protagonists are greatly unequal, not much time elapses before this battle of wills devolves into a death sentence for Antigone:

“Never! Sister’s child or closer in blood than all my family clustered at my altar worshiping Guardian Zeus—-she’ll never escape, she and her blood sister, the most barbaric death.”

As young unmarried women whose father is deceased, both Antigone and her sister Ismene are under the guardianship of none other than their twice-uncle, Creon himself. Thus, the very man who is supposed to be protecting their interests is actually threatening their very existence.

But a defiant Antigone takes her death sentence in stride. Willing to die nobly for her cause she retorts “If I am to die before my time I consider that a gain.” When Ismene tries to share blame for the burial, Antigone will have none of it, wearing her death sentence like a badge of honor she is unwilling to apportion it to someone she considers unworthy of it—- like sister Ismene: “You chose to live, I chose to die.”

Death’s Embrace

Throughout the play, it is striking how often Antigone embraces death. When she is initially brought before Creon she alludes to it when referring to her tragic family background: “Who on earth alive in the midst of so much grief as I could fail to find his death a rich reward?” Shortly thereafter when Creon pronounces his death sentence, a stoic Antigone comments: “I gave myself to death, long ago, so I might serve the dead.”

Antigone’s predisposition for the dead is even apparent to the self-centered Creon when he attempts to convince his son Haemon to abandon his would-be bride: “Spue and cast her off, Bid her go find a husband among the dead in Hades’ house.” If any in the audience are still doubtful of Creon’s tyranny or the virtue of Antigone’s act, those doubts are laid to rest when a heartbroken Haemon relates how the commoners feel about Antigone’s death sentence:

“The man on the street you know, dreads your glance, he’d never say anything displeasing to your face…the city mourns the young girl,” and that the people believe she is not deserving of “such a brutal death for such a glorious action.”

But Creon stands firm and is as heedless of his son’s entreaties as he is of his niece’s. He accuses Haemon of being a “woman’s accomplice” and a “woman’s slave.” A frustrated Haemon vows to die alongside Antigone to which the cruel Creon prophetically responds: “Now by heaven, I promise you, you’ll pay….she’ll die now, here, in front of his eyes, beside her groom.”

Painting by Sebastien Norblin, 1825 CE, Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Only as Antigone is approaching her death vault—–in what might be the most authentic moment of her short life—-might the audience catch a glimpse into her deepest feelings. This most pious of women who unceasingly calls upon the chthonic gods and is loyal to her family beyond measure contradictorily tells the audience that she would not have broken the law for any relation but a brother: “A husband dead, there might have been another. A child by another too, if I had lost the first.” But her loyalty to her deceased brother is something else altogether since “mother and father are lost in the halls of Death,” thus her deceased parents—-mother and son—-would not be able to reproduce again: ”no brother could ever spring to light again.”

This astonishing comment from the child of an incestuous union has led more than one scholar to opine that in addition to fraternal love, Antigone may have harbored an incestuous love for Polynices. In fact, her incestual feelings for Polynices are apparent early on in the play when talking to Ismene about his burial she states: “I will lie with the one I love and be loved by him.”

Furthermore, the “loyalty to family” Antigone references throughout the play extends only to its deceased family members: her incestuous parents and her insurgent brother—who she more than a little resembles. While a besotted Haemon and loyal sister Ismene are both prepared to die for Antigone, clearly, she would not have done the same for them. After the first scene, she has nothing but contempt for her “cowardly” sister and never once mentions her betrothed in any of her protracted dialogues about loyalty to the chthonic gods and family. What is more, when Haemon is referred to at all it is Ismene who names him.

Alas, poor Haemon; he is more loving than loved. After following Antigone into her crypt, he finds it is already too late. In a mad rush to death, Antigone hung herself. Meanwhile, at the palace, the ever-steadfast Creon begins to waver. With the help of the blind seer, Tiresias, Creon sees the impiety of his acts and—at long last—-orders the burial of Polynices and the release of Antigone from her underground vault. But as Creon is approaching Antigone’s tomb, he is met with the piercing scream of his son “wailing for his bride,” and witnesses in horror Haemon plunge a sword into his chest.

Defiant to the last, Antigone’s death brings an end to Creon’s patrilineal ambitions.

That is not, however, the end to Creon’s grief. When his wife Eurydice discovers that their only surviving son has killed himself, she follows suit. Alone and desolate, the play leaves Creon, “a wailing wreck of a man” with the chorus affirming ”….reverence towards the gods must be safeguarded, the mighty words of the proud are paid in full…” Like all good despots, Creon was right until history proved him wrong.

In the end, the gods did not come out for their devout disciple; there is no Deux ex Machina descending from the heavens to rescue our heroine from her grim fate. In this play about divine retribution, the gods are remote and inaccessible yet they endorse Antigone by orchestrating events that cruelly condemn Creon. Steadfast, heroic, and fiercely defiant, Sophocles could not have known that he was creating a heroine whose voice is as compelling in the ancient world as she is today.

Published in Classical Wisdom September 2022

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