Analysis Of Antigone

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Analysis of "Antigone"

Sophocles is very concise in laying out the issues of the play and the values most cherished by his characters. In the argument between Antigone and Ismene, Ismene seems doubly powerless. She provides a contrast to her stronger sister throughout the play. Though she is saddened by the fate of Polyneices' body, she does not believe that there is anything she can do. She reminds Antigone that they are only women and are relatively helpless. Though she is sorry to be unable to help her brother, she will not disobey the state: "Extravagant action is not sensible" (l. 78). Ismene also seems to think that Antigone will not even be able to bury the body, which might be guarded: "But you are in love / with the impossible" (ll. 104-5). She is convinced that burying Polyneices is not only imprudent because of law, but impossible because of logistics. Ismene's powerlessness takes another form: she is completely unable to sway the headstrong Antigone. Antigone's personality and values are sketched concisely in this first dialogue. She says that she will be a criminal, "but a religious one" (l. 85). Antigone reasons that the next world is more important than this one: "The time in which I must please those that are dead / is longer than I must please those of this world. / For there I shall lie forever" (ll. 86-88). Ismene is not even able to convince Antigone to be discrete: Antigone will not attempt to perform the rites in secret, but will "shout it out. I will hate you still worse / for silence" (ll. 99-100).

The position of women is an important theme of the play. Sophocles is aware of the impact of gender on Antigone and her choices. In the opening, Ismene reminds her sister that their gender makes them vulnerable, and Ismene's gender seems to have everything to do with her belief in her own powerlessness. Antigone does not stress her own gender explicitly, but the state does"¹Creon will later say that he cannot back down because the triumph of a woman is unacceptable. One interpretation of Antigone links the position of women to Antigone's fascination with death. She seems hell-bent on being executed, refusing even Ismene's entreaty to do the rites in secret. Creon later accuses her of being in love with death, and her own words do little to refute him. She speaks in this opening of lying down in the earth beside her brother, and her words reveal a morbid kind of longing. The importance of attending to the next world outweighs, in her mind, the importance of human laws. In an oblique way, the play links this willingness to die with Antigone's social position as a woman. She is a woman caught between obligations to two different men. The first is her dead brother, and the second is her hostile ruler. But Creon is more than her king: he is also her future father-in-law, as well as the man in charge of her well-being since the exile of Oedipus. Her obligations are not only to the abstract state, but to a man with whom she is intimately connected. In this case, struggle against patriarchy is made literal (patriarchy: rule of the father), as Antigone clashes with the man who has had a father's authority over her since she was a child, the same man who is her future father-in-law. The result is that Antigone is restricted and ruled not only by a distant state but by the closest familial relationships: indeed, the state is embodied in the men with whom she has these relationships. It is significant that Antigone, out of a sense of duty and filial piety as well as compassion, tirelessly helped Oedipus during his exile. Sophocles depicts her as a long-suffering and faithful aid to Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus, making Oedipus yet another man to whom Antigone was bound by serious obligation.

Held by this claustrophobically tight and conflicted system of obligations, the two sisters react in two very different ways. Ismene invokes her own supposed powerlessness as the defense of her inaction, while Antigone commits herself to a series of choices that she knows will result in her own execution. A common statement by critics is that Antigone seems to have a love affair with Death. The idea of a love for death is enforced by a grim symmetry between this "love affair" and her engagement to Haemon, Creon's son. Antigone is a bride-to-be, and though Haemon is devoted to her, her marriage will give her yet another man whom she will have to obey. Eventually, the groom she chooses instead is Death. Her morbid fascination with death may be the reaction of a strong-willed woman who, in life, is caught in a system that divides her between any number of male masters. In line with this reading, one can view Antigone as being frustrated by limitation and intoxicated by the power of martyrdom. This attachment to martyrdom may be part of her motivation"¹although clearly, she is also motivated both by a love for her brother and by the conviction that divine law has been disobeyed. But perhaps the death penalty makes the consequences of her action an additional benefit of burying Polyneices, rather than an obstacle. In her culture, the only power she can have is as a martyr, and by committing herself to becoming one she takes her agency back into her own hands.

In his talk with the Chorus, Creon praises the glory of the state while trying to make himself synonymous with it. He couches the worth of a person in terms of that person's patriotism: "anyone thinking / another man more a friend than his own country / I rate him nowhere" (ll. 202-4). Many of Creon's statements are in this vein, and it is in line with this perspective that Creon decides the fates of the two brothers' corpses: the loyal Eteocles honored, the dissident Polyneices horribly dishonored. He asks for the obedience of the Chorus, and they promise it"¹although their assent is couched in terms of the need to avoid punishment by the state. The elders do not comment on the ethical validity of the decree itself.

The selection of the Theban elders as the Chorus of the play is significant. The Chorus always functions as a way to comment on the action, but this specific group of elders has been called by Creon for a reason. Creon asks for their support, and he also sets the tone for his interactions with them by commenting on the importance of counsel. The Chorus in Greek plays often functions as a kind of barometer, with their reactions indicating to the audience how a situation should be read. In many plays, the Chorus is powerless to intervene in the events being witnessed. In Antigone, the Chorus acts in a slightly more active role, playing a part in Creon's crucial but belated decision near the end of the play.

The Chorus condemns pride, but in Greek tragedy, "pride" is used as an inclusive term for a complex set of weaknesses and virtues. Pride and its results constitute a central theme in any Greek tragedy, but it is easy for the reader to oversimplify the meaning of pride in these plays in a condemning or moralizing manner. These works are not simple morality plays in which the audience learns a tidy lesson about how "Pride goeth before a fall." The reader needs to remember that the Greek worldview is pre-Christian. In the wake of Christianity, pride is typically seen as a one-dimensional vice, one of the seven deadly sins and the opposite of the central Christian virtue of humility. The pride/humility binary is not central to Greek understandings of pride as it is to Christian morality: the reader is hard-pressed to find a single Greek hero known for his humility or modesty, and the gods are certainly above humility. In contrast, the central hero of Christianity, Jesus Christ, comes to earth in total humility, born in a manger and eventually forced to endure an utterly humiliating death. Tellingly, the Christian tradition attributes pride to Satan, linking pride to Satan's fall from heaven. In Greek tragedy and in the epic work of Homer, pride is always an inextricable part of greatness. Pride comes with dignity and determination; it also brings stubbornness, blindness, and cruelty. Pride can be seen as the origin of both strength and self-destruction. Antigone and Creon are both extremely proud people, and part of Antigone's pride is her unwillingness to yield to the laws of man. In her case, pride is an affront to the state rather than an affront to divine law. Though her fanaticism about her position can alienate the modern audience"¹as it would have alienated the original Greek audience"¹she is typical of a Greek hero in that her greatness goes hand in hand with excess.
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