Antigone is another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing the Polis (public life) with the Oikos (private life). While religion was mandated by the government in ancient Greece, things like funerals were still seen as things to be handled within the sphere of the individual household. As stated in the play, ancient Greeks viewed the body of the deceased to still be important to that person in the next world. If they were not buried, their soul would be forced to live on earth, unable to get any peace by passing on to the underworld. It was seen as the worst possible punishment to leave someone out to rot when they had died, and by standards of Greek politics, it would have been viewed as unreasonably harsh even to make an out-and-out traitor to the state suffer such a fate, let alone simply a Greek noble who had simply taken the losing side in a civil war.
Shakespeare borrows many of these principles from Antigone in his work, Hamlet. Once again, the problem of how to treat the dead, and what sort of afterlife to sentence them to, becomes a matter of political intrigue. Polynices died politically unpopular, and therefore he was damned by his survivors. Because the victors write the history books, he was deemed to be unworthy of an afterlife, which was the cause of much religious outrage. The ancient Greeks would have seen Creon’s punishment as just for having flown in the face of the gods, using his government powers to violate religious law. This third sphere, the sphere of the divine, is one that was supposed to take precedent over both the Polis and the Oikos. The drowning of Ophelia turns the scenario on its side. In this case, because she is of noble and respected heritage, Ophelia is given a proper burial even though it is against religious law to do so because she is a suicide, and suicides are to be punished with damnation. But once again, the realm of divine law is infringed upon by political interests in controlling who goes where for the afterlife.
Another important theme in Antigone is the question of whether to make any sacrifices, including of all the nobility and pride that makes one themselves, in order to stay alive, or whether to die with one’s humanity intact (to be or not to be?). Antigone represents the epitome of the side that says one should be willing to stand by their principles even in the face of death, for those around her made the decision to retreat and live as easy as humanly possible. She could easily have had a comfortable life had she backed down. Haemon also represents this stance. He challenged his father to hold himself to a higher standard than to simply do what was necessary to hold on to his power and spare bloodshed. Bear in mind, ancient Greece was a civilization based on religion and military, two strong institutions that demand putting aside the interests of one’s own life.
Creon represents what the normative standards of the day would have regarded as cowardice. He is content to stay alive and stay comfortable, and has no regard for principles. He even goes so far as to let himself be swallowed up in fatalism if it meant allowing himself to let his family die so he could comfortably maintain his rule. Ismene is another example of this philosophy earlier on. She at least has some compassion and understanding for Polynices’ predicament, but she will not go so far as to risk her own life. Later, however, she has more resolve, but it is too late for anything to be done for her brother.
Fatalism and the role of fate comprises another major theme in Antigone. Several characters alternately embrace it and then reject it as it fits the plot and moves it forward. Even this, the fact that the plot must unfold in a certain direction regardless of inconsistency, can be viewed as a form of maintaining a fatalist course. The chorus in the beginning says that the entire story is laid out and cannot be changed due to the nature of tragedy. Later, they argue against Creon, as if there is hope (a concept they earlier despised). Creon, of course, is the other great convenient fatalist. He starts out as hopeful, thinking that he can reason Antigone out of going through with her plan. But as soon as he realizes she will not be moved, he decides that he cannot be moved either when Haemon tries to talk him out of killing Antigone. Only Antigone herself remains a consistent fatalist- from the beginning to end of the play she is constant in her acceptance of death.
Source for this analysis and plot summary of Antigone by Sophocles:
Sophocles. Antigone. Plays: One. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen, 1987. 77-139.
The Oedipus myth was well known even in Sophocles’ day, so his audience already knew what would happen at the end of Antigone. The contrast between what the audience knows and what the characters know sets up the tension, the dramatic irony. However, Sophocles uses dramatic license and adds events that are not found in any previous account of the myth, including the quarrels between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone’s two attempts to bury Polynices, Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon, the entombment of Antigone, Tiresias’s argument with Creon, and the suicides. These added events serve to intensify the play.
Although the last play in the Oedipus trilogy, Antigone was written first. The play won for Sophocles first prize at the Dionysia festival. It is still a popular play, with many stage and screen adaptations, including Jean Anouilh’s famous stage production Antigone (pr. 1944, pb. 1946; English translation, 1946), placing the story in a World War II setting, and Amy Greenfield’s 1990 stark, interpretive dance-film version (Antigone—Rites of Passion).
The conflicts within the play, represented by the conflicts between Antigone and Creon, are powerful human struggles that are still relevant today: the state versus the individual, the state versus family, the state versus the church, the old versus the young, and man versus woman. Although the Chorus delivers the moral of obedience to the laws of the gods before all else, the moral is not a tidy conclusion. Many questions remain unanswered, many conflicts unresolved. For example, when is family more important than the state? In ancient Greece, it was the duty of women to bury family members. Leaving Polynices unburied was a violation of not only the laws of the gods but also the laws of the family. In addition, Creon was willing to put his own niece, and his son’s fiancé, to death. After a brutal civil war, however, restoring order is the responsibility of the king. When, and to what extent, do the laws of the gods and of the state override the laws of the family?
Connected to the above themes is the theme of choices and consequences. The characters in the play have free will to choose, but the consequences of their choices are guided by fate—determined by the gods. To what extent, however, do the characters truly have free will? Antigone’s conscience is pressured by the demands of family tradition and obedience to the gods, while Creon is tasked with preserving law and order. How much is each bound by their position in society, or by their conscience? Both Antigone and Creon stick stubbornly to what they feel are logical choices—but they are limited in their knowledge and cannot foresee all the consequences of their choices. Too often they stubbornly refuse to listen to council, which tries to guide them in their choices. Had Antigone and Creon listened more, the tragedies may have been averted, but each would have had to sacrifice some pride as well as give up a little of who they are.
Antigone is a complex play, one that defies ready interpretation. It is a study of human actions, with complex emotions. Each character represents a moral ideal, a moral argument, and the play becomes a great debate. The two major debaters in the play, Antigone and Creon, are both destroyed at the end, leaving the debate with no clear winner. Antigone demands its audience to continue the debate.