Sophocles’ The Antigone - An Appreciation

by christos

Aristotle has been quoted as saying that ‘it is impossible for anything at the same time to be and not to be’ , implying that the traits of two binary opposites could not coexist in the same entity. For example, there could never be a “civilised savage” or “manly woman”. However, when examining Sophocles’ The Antigone (ll. 441-526) it becomes clear that the character of Antigone possesses many such contradictory facets.

One of the ongoing debates surrounding Antigone is that of her gender identity. Although Antigone is a woman with many feminine traits, it can be seen that some of her actions are more befitting of a man . When exploring sexual difference, Bennett and Royle use the example of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper , which proposes the idea that society views women as subordinate to men and that they are not to be taken seriously. Creon’s attitude towards Antigone is in line with this, as displayed by the fact he does not deem to speak directly to Antigone in his speech (ll.473-90), rather he addresses the Chorus of men. The fact that Antigone chooses to bury her brother also reveals womanly aspects of her character. Tyrrell and Bennett state that women take pride in the burial of their philoi and control these rites . Therefore, it could be said that Antigone, although impassive, is acting as would be expected of a woman. Another interesting point is how Creon describes Antigone’s excuses as an attempt to ‘make pretty’ (l.496) her illegal actions, implying something innately aesthetic and feminine in her manner. However, this passage is, in fact, a translation of Sophocles’ original play and close inspection of alternative translations casts doubt upon this lexical choice and its inherent semantics. For example, R. Fagles chooses to translate the sentence ‘Oh but I hate it more when a traitor, caught red-handed, tries to glorify his crimes’ (R. Fagles, ll. 552-5). The choice to translate ‘glorify’ makes Antigone appear more masculine as it alludes to the Iliadic heroes whose lives amounted to a quest for kleos . Furthermore, Antigone declares that to die would be a ‘profit’ (l.462), a belief shared by Homer’s quintessentially masculine Achilles who placed a glorious death above all else. Despite her status and feminine acts, it is undeniable that in this passage Antigone acts in a way that can be deemed masculine, and Creon himself admits ‘I am not a man, but she is a man’ (l.484). For example, in their first exchange, Antigone imitates Creon’s manner of speech, repeating words such as ‘say…acted…deny’ (l.443). Not only does this imitation suggest Antigone wishes to take up the role of a man, but the repeated words are all verbs, implying actions unsuitable for a woman, whose role would be largely passive. In addition, the mere fact that Antigone disobeyed her king and patriarch suggests a masculine character. Further evidence for the manliness of Antigone can be found in Creon’s response to her. Creon is characterised as a very uneasy and paranoid ruler who fears that Antigone, having assumed a male sexual role, will usurp his throne (just as Polynices failed to do). However, it is possible that this does not mean Antigone herself is particularly masculine but simply refers to the precedent of female rulers in Thebes. For example in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Creon himself intimates that Oedipus and Jocasta rule ‘with equal power’ (R. Fagles, l.647). Furthermore, it has been suggested that Creon’s fear stems from the story of Heracles, the archetypal male whose ultimate downfall was caused by a woman . Therefore Creon enters into a sticomythic agon with Antigone in an attempt to rule her, thus Creon’s attitude towards his niece is not due to any particular masculine traits she may possess, but rather her feminine ones. Ultimately, Antigone can be seen as akin to an Amazon as she fills both feminine and masculine roles, which can make her appear to be a savage.

There are aspects of Antigone’s nature which would suggest that she is militant, rebellious and against the state. This is illustrated when the chorus respond harshly to her speech, calling her ‘savage’ (l.471), thus suggesting that she is defying their ideology of how to maintain a peaceful state. Furthermore, Antigone is compared to her father, Oedipus, and in the original Greek, the adjective omos is used, which is ‘reserved for the worst crimes and especially for the strong taboos pertaining to the sanctions of the family’ . This lends support to the idea of Antigone’s character containing savage elements as, like her father, she is not a barbarian but some of her actions can be perceived as wild e.g. her disobeying the king. An even more extreme suggestion is that Antigone is animalistic; Creon compares her to ‘spirited horses’ (l.477). In any case, Antigone is certainly impassioned, a trait often reviled, especially in women. This is more clearly displayed in R. Fagles’ translation of the text as Antigone speaks of leaving her ‘mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse’ (R. Fagles, l.521), a far more emotive phrase than Bennett and Tyrell’s ‘one from my mother, who was dead, go without rites’ (l.466-7) which suggests a more reasoned response.

Whilst parts of the given extract from The Antigone portray Antigone as savage, she also appears to fulfil the role of a good citizen, albeit a good Athenian as opposed to Theban . The political regime of Sophocles’ Thebes is totalitarian, yet Antigone seems to care what the Chorus (men of Thebes) think and discredits Creon by saying ‘their lips cower before you’ (l.509). This attitude is Athenian as the Chorus men would have been eligible to take part in the Assembly and vote and, as such, their opinions would matter to the state. Furthermore, Antigone berates Creon by making use of the possessive pronoun ‘your’ when referring to the citizens of Thebes, thus showing the extent to which the Chorus is under Creon’s control, undermining the autonomy implied by the Athenian political system. Contrary to the popular belief that tragedy evolved from religious festival, it has been suggested that it originated in an attempt to place epic in a civic context . Therefore, one who defies authority (such as Antigone) can be construed as being a “civic-Achilles” (who insulted and disobeyed Agamemnon (Iliad, 1:225-45)). This explanation seems plausible, as tragedy was performed in democratic Athens yet it depicted kingships and those who would seek to undermine them. Thus, Antigone could be said to be a good citizen by Athenian standards even though she is encouraging anarchy within Thebes. Moreover, Creon and Antigone attempt to settle their differences by engaging in an agon, the traditional means by which the Athenian law courts settled debates, again suggesting that Antigone he is a good citizen, especially as she adheres to the conventions of the agon by admitting that she may be in the wrong (l.523). However Antigone is, in fact, not Athenian but Theban, and she is disobedient of her king and his sacrilegious laws. This shows her as a non-conformist, despite the aforementioned aspects of her character which testify to her being a good citizen.

The sacrilegious nature of Creon’s edict forms the basis of Antigone’s defence speech (ll.450-70) and, as such, it appears that Antigone has assumed the role of upholder of the gods’ laws. As The Antigone would have been performed at a religious festival , this role is especially important to the characterisation of Antigone and the way in which the audience responds to her. In tragedy, the need to bury one’s kin is unwritten . In addition, it was illegal in 4th Century Athens to leave the dead unburied . Antigone’s religious views are made clear, as she invokes ‘Zeus’ (l.450), ‘Hades’ (l.519) and, ironically, ‘Justice’ (l.451) (the anthropomorphic personification of what Creon is attempting to administer by killing Antigone). M. Griffith goes so far as to suggest that, in this passage, Antigone takes on the role of Justice, as she is setting out the laws of the gods and ethical principles concerning the dead on earth, who will soon dwell in the Underworld . Alternatively, M. Griffith puts forth the idea that Antigone’s function is akin to Athena; the virgin daughter of Zeus (portrayed in this passage as a paternal figure, and guardian of the family in his role as ‘Zeus of the Boundary’ (l.487)) who upholds ‘moral-legal authority of the paternal’. Moreover, Antigone’s ideology conflicts with that of Creon, as she believes the gods’ unwritten laws to be more important than those of men and, as such, they should be obeyed even if this means disobeying those laid down by the state. Antigone’s reasoning for this is the longevity of the gods’ laws which were laid down ‘Not today or yesterday’ (l.456), as is the case with Creon’s edict. The concept of age bestowing authority is constant, and can be found in religious texts of today e.g. The Lord’s Prayer, which makes use of archaic lexis and grammar for an authoritative, ethereal mood despite having been revised for modern usage. Additionally, Antigone intimates the difference between the gods’ ‘traditions’ (l.455) and Creon’s ‘proclamations’ (l.450). The word “tradition” implies not only longevity, but also actions being carried out and Antigone implies that such customs supersede any mere verbal edicts. As such, Antigone disregards all laws not laid down by the gods as shown by her rejection of Creon’s decree as ‘Zeus was not the one who issued these proclamations for me’ (ll.450-1). This could be read as piety, however it also seems irrational given that Zeus does not lay down all laws for men.

There are many schools of thought concerning Antigone’s motivations for burying her brother and, therefore, it cannot simply be stated that she is exclusively an upholder of the gods’ laws. An alternative explanation for Antigone’s actions states that she did not act rationally, but rather on instinct (in this case defined as the irrational) and her pious speech is a later construct to excuse herself . Evidence for this can be found in Antigone’s speech; her rudeness to Creon, calling him a ‘fool’ (l. 470) as well as the Chorus’ comments on her passionate nature rather than the merits of her argument (R. Fagles l.471) suggest that she is angered by his edict. Therefore, it is fair to say that Antigone acted on instinct and uses the gods as a means to pardon her deed. However, aspects of Antigone’s speech suggest that she is of sound mind, thus discrediting this theory, for example her repeated use of sophisticated devices such as rhetorical questions (l.460, l.503) and tricolon (ll.469-70). A further theory suggests that Antigone’s wish to bury her brother and her ultimate willingness to die in doing so stems from an incestuous desire to gratify both her father and her brothers. Antigone is compared by the Chorus to Oedipus, as they are both ‘savage’ (l.471). As mentioned earlier, the Greek term omos can denote taboo behaviour, such as incest, thus implying that Antigone’s relationship with her father is on some level sexual. Moreover, Antigone appears to have no interest in exogamous relationships, hence the fact that she does not mention her fiancée Haemon at all in this passage. Furthermore, she does not care for the female members of her immediate family, thus neither Jocasta nor her sister, Ismene are mentioned. This excerpt shows Antigone as eager to die, given the fact that she asks Creon why he does not ‘seize… and kill’ (l.497) her. Although it has been suggested that this is an attempt to gain kleos through glorious death, it is also possible that this is due to a desire to join her deceased father and brothers in the Underworld, or even through a form of marriage to death, lie with them . Nevertheless, the evidence for this theory is sparse and hinges on the translation of ‘philos’ (l.523), which can be interpreted either as a familial relationship, or one more akin to physical ‘love’ (R. Fagles, l.524) (eros) .

It can be seen from the evidence available in the given passage that the character of Antigone is one which fulfils many roles. As these roles are often contradictory, it is easy to assume that they make Antigone’s character unbelievable, yet it is these conflicts within her which convey a believable humanity.


A. Brown, Sopchocles: Antigone, Aris and Phillips, 1987

A. Bennett and N Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory: Third Edition, Pearson Education Limited, 2004

R.W. Bushnell, Sign and Voice in Sophcles’ Theban Plays, Cornell University Press, 1988

A.R. Ferguson, ‘Politics and Man’s Fate in Sophocles’ Antigone’, The Classical Journal 70 (1974), 41-49

M. Griffith, ‘The Subject of Desire in Sophocles’ Antigone’, in The Soul of Greek Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama, Chicago University Press, 2005

Homer (trans. Martin Hammond), The Iliad, Penguin Group, 1987

J.C. Kamerbeek, The Plays of Spohocles Commentaries III The Antigone, Leiden, 1978

D. Konstan, ‘Greek Friendship’, The American Journal of Philology 117 (1996) 71-94

C.S. Levy, ‘Antigone’s Motives: A Suggested Interpretation’, Transaction and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 94 (1963) 137-144

J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, Macmillan Press, 1963

W.B. Tyrel and L.J. Bennett, Recapturing Sophocles’ Antigone, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998

Sophocles (trans R. Fagles) Antigone, Penguin Group, 1982

Sophocles (trans R. Fagles) Oedipus the King, Penguin Group, 1982

Sophocles (trans. E.F. Watling), Ajax, Penguin Group, 1953

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