Who is Antigone?
Sophocles' Antigone is a play in which the reader sees Antigone be punished for burying her brother. King Creon decides that her final punishment was entombment. Antigone can be seen throughout the play in a variety of ways. I would like to focus on the view of Antigone as the heroine. I think that to see Antigone as the heroine, some of the social standards and laws of the polis should be taken into consideration. The laws of ancient Greece did not permit the man and woman to even live in the same quarters. The woman was to not even to be in the same room when her husband had company. Also in ancient Greece , the burial process could easily be regulated by the state. The actions of Creon were justified according to ancient law. That is what makes Antigone stand out as the heroine: She stands up against those set standards of woman, and goes against the state. I think the easiest way to understand how Antigone can be viewed as the heroine of the play, is to try and understand ancient Greece and their practices.
Women were always considered property. Singh writes, “Women were always considered minors, either their father's or their husband's,” (Singh 10). The woman in the ancient world was not afforded the same rights that women in the 21 st century are accustomed to. What a woman could wear, and who she could talk to were decided by the male in her life. Singh goes on to say:
Where they were able to walk what they were able to wear, what they were able to eat, how they were to do their hair, were all matters controlled by legislation. In contrast to men, who were given an education in gymnastics and in the arts of rhetoric so as to enable them to participate in the life of the polis , women led cloistered and confined lives. A female's life revolved around hearth and home, first her father's and then, after marriage, her husband's. (Singh 10).
As Singh describes, the woman didn't have a place in society. Singh talks about the woman in the ancient world as if she were second, not first. She didn't even pass time with her husband. As Katz writes, “In the home they had a private apartment where the men never entered. When their husbands entertained for dinner, they rarely presented themselves at the table; the decent women went out before the end of the meal, and the others never appeared at the beginning,” (Katz 11). As Katz described, the woman could not be around other men than her husband. This, I can imagine, led to a very retired life. There could be some interaction between husband and wife, but only in certain parts of the day.
The status of woman in ancient Greece as weak was reinforced by medical professionals. Singh writes, “The Hippocratics saw menstruation as evidence of woman's inherent physical weakness, while Aristotle believed it caused women to become weak,” (Singh 10). During this time period in 5 th century Athens it was commonplace for someone to find a woman weak simply because she was a woman and had a menstrual cycle.
Singh goes on to say, “In addition, since Hippocratics also believed that physical exercise caused her uterus to become dry and migrate and attach itself to wetter bodily organs like the heart and brain, they also advised women not to engage in activity that involved strength,” (Singh 10). So, basically the woman was to have no part in physical activity, because that could have the potential to make them infertile.
Also Singh writes, “From being a merely physical quality required for the proper functioning of the reproductive organs, weakness became a way by which women came to see themselves in relation to the sociopolitical structure, the male-controlled state: powerless,” (Singh 10). The woman was seen as weak, and thus they began to feel that way as well. As the reader sees in the character of Antigone, she is everything but weak. She goes against the King's edict and in doing so sentences herself to death. She is not weak in any sense of the word.
The woman in ancient Greece was to remain silent and submissive to the will of others at all times. Ismene is a prime example of that factor, while Antigone is the polar opposite. Ismene says, “We are only women, / We cannot fight with men Antigone! / The law is strong, we must give into the law / In this thing, and in worse. I beg the Dead / To forgive me, but I am helpless. I must yield / To those in authority. And I think it is dangerous business / To be always meddling. (258-259). Ismene is very much afraid of what the men will do if they try and bury their brother. She is consumed with the thought that their crime would come back to them in the future.
Antigone is the polar opposite of her meek and submissive sister. Antigone says to Ismene, “Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way,” (Sophocles 256). Antigone is not worried about her uncle Creon and what the ramifications of her actions may entail - she just wants to properly bury her brother, a right that was afforded to her other sibling without question. Antigone talks about the laws of the gods, and that because of those laws, it would only be fair that both brothers were afforded a proper burial. She says to Ismene when she refuses to help, “I say that this crime is holy: I shall lie down / With him in death, and I shall be as dear / to him as he to me. / It is the dead, / Not the living who makes the longest demands / We die for ever... / You may do as you like, / Since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you,” (Sophocles 257). The laws of the gods mean more to Antigone than does the law of Creon.
Antigone is not worried about what will happen to her, that can also make her seem the part of the heroine. Creon gives a speech about what is to happen about the brothers and their burial process and still she fights back. Burns argues this, ““Antigone's principal argument in the play in defense of her act of disobedience to the edict of her uncle Creon is that the edict in question conflicts with this ancient customary law, which she considers to be divinely sanctioned,” (Burns). In other words, Antigone did not care about what the polis would do or say to her regarding trying to bury her brother in such a way that she found appropriate. She is more concerned with pleasing the gods by burying Polyneices just as Creon had buried her other brother Eteocles.
The woman's role in the polis was a limited one. The polis was controlled by the men of society. The King could set any law that he wanted, including the burial process. Phillip Holt writes, “Broad construction of the public interest gave the Athenian polis considerable power to regulate what its citizens did,” (Holt 663). The woman was not only bound by social laws, but by institutional laws as well.
Holt goes on to say: “Among other things, the polis could regulate funerals. A funeral was basically a family function, but the display and ostentation the family could employ was restricted by the state,” (Holt 663). The funeral in the ancient world was basically a family function, but if the person who had died was an enemy of the state, the state decided what happened with their relative. A funeral mass could be denied based upon what the individual had done in their lives (e.g. suicide, or in this case crimes against the polis ).
Holt continues with this, “Whatever the letter of the law, the principle that burial could be denied to particularly egregious offenders was established to people's minds well before Sophokles' day, and it stayed in their minds well after,” (Holt 664-665). The practice of regulating funerals was well established by the 5 th century B.C. so the punishment of Antigone's brother probably does not raise as many questions as it does in our 21 st century lenses.
To sum it up, in fifth-century terms, Creon is within his rights as the leader of his polis , and his ban on burying Polyneices is a reasonable sanction. In fifth-century terms, Antigone's defiance of that ban is seriously, perhaps even shockingly, out of line: an individual defying due authority in the polis , in time of crisis, on behalf of a national enemy, and moreover a woman defying the male authority,” (Fox 667-668).
Creon was within his right as ruler to impose such a penalty. Antigone can be seen as a heroine when questioned about her crime. Creon questions her on her actions and she replies, “I do. I deny nothing,” (Sophocles 268). Her cause is right, and she stays with it, even though it means death.
The crime for which Antigone is being punished is the crime of burying her brother when Creon said he was to remain untouched in the fields. As Singh states, “The crime for which Antigone is being punished is the crime of cultural trespass, of overstepping the rules and limits that fifth-century Greek society imposed on women,” (Singh 12). Antigone is not being punished for burying her brother, she is being punished for going against the standard of what a woman was expected to be. This can be illustrated when Creon says, “This girl is guilty of a double insolence, / Breaking the given laws and boasting of it,” (269). Antigone does not deny her crime. It is almost as if she is proud of it.
As a result of Antigone trying to bury her brother, her punishment was stoning. However, this punishment changes to entombment. Antigone at the beginning of the play she was trying to convince her sister Ismene to help her to bury her brother. Antigone says, “That is what they say, and our good Creon is coming here / To announce it publicly, and the penalty– / Stoning to death in the public square!” (Sophocles 256). There were many reasons and justifications for stoning in the ancient world.
In book X of The Republic , Plato sanctions stoning for treason, tyranny and sacrilege, and for deliberate patricides, matricides, fratricides, and soroicides. Stoning, however, was essentially an embellishment, a posthumous punishment inflicted on a corpse killed by other means and subsequently taken out of the city. Since it deprived the individual of life, of family, and of native land, stoning was the ultimate penalty the state could inflict on one of its citizens. (Singh 9).
In the ancient world stoning was used for religious purposes. Singh writes, “In Athens, this stoning was a collective activity. Starting from the centre of the city, the citizens pelted the individual to be expelled. This purpose was not to kill him, but to chase him over the border into the savagery of non-Greek space,” (Singh 9). The purpose of the initial punishment of Antigone was to drive her out of society - not to kill her. Creon was emboldened by Antigone's outright defiance, I think, that he changed her punishment to entombment.
Singh goes on to say, “Antigone meets the political criteria for receiving death by stoning. She is a citizen who committed treason by violating the king's edict,” (Singh 9). She is a citizen of Athens who defied the King's order, so that qualifies her for a public stoning. Her punishment is changed though - Why is that? Singh writes, “Why does she receive the passive form of stoning, enstoning, rather than what the laws prescribe as the punishment for her crime–a death by some other means followed by a posthumous stoning outside the city?” (Singh 9). It would seem that Antigone is being punished for more than just defying the King. If it had been just her defiance that angered him so, the punishment would have been stoning. Instead he orders to have her entombed - to slowly die of starvation.
Singh goes on to describe the punishment of live enclosure in Greek literature as such, “In Greek literature, the punishment of live enclosure, be it in a tomb, a jar, a chest, a vault, a cell is restricted to females who defy male control and resist conforming to the norms of womanhood,” (Singh 10). What happens with Antigone is that Creon is trying to establish himself as King, and she defies him - a member of the royal line. She defies her position as a woman in a male dominated society by taking an active role in the religious practice of burying the dead.
Annie Pritchard says, “Antigone is motivated to defy Creon's edict by her pride in her lineage, her duty to the gods, and her unique love for her brother,” (Pritchard 81). Pritchard's comment makes it seem as if there was no conscious effort on Antigone's part to defy the King. It would seem that because of the pride that she felt towards her family and the love she felt for her brother that it was just a knee jerk reaction to a stressful situation. Pritchard describes Antigone's reaction to Creon in this way:
The depression that overtakes us after some difficult life event, such as grief at the loss of a parent, despondency after prolonged unemployment, loneliness and self-reproach after the end of a long-term relationship, comes at least part from the consequent shift in our social ‘place,' our locatedness in the web of social relationships, in our sense of identity. Antigone suffers precisely this type of dislocatedness and concurrent ambiguities: on moment she says she is acting out of duty to the gods, the next she appears to be taking delight in the defiance of Creon; at times she does seem arrogant and heartless, and then she falls into the hopeless grief over her lost brother. Our sense of self relies on our connection with others; without this we cannot even maintain the illusion of being wholly consistent individual ethical agents. (Pritchard 85).
Pritchard here is saying that on our worst days it is easy for us to become detached and appear to be what we truly are not. Antigone at this point in her life has found out that her father and mother really aren't who they seem to be, her father and mother are dead, now both of her brothers are. She was refused help in burying her brother by her only remaining relative. She is essentially alone in the world. Without that human connection, life can seem difficult and almost unbearable. Antigone as emotionless or cold comes up often, but one must try and place themselves in her mind. Not everyone could be rational beings and sit there and watch their family be dishonored. That is exactly what is happening to her family, because Creon will not bury Polyneices in a proper way.
Also in Greek Literature, “In putting these women back into confined spaces from which there is no release, the men whose power had been threatened regain their authority too control woman,” (Singh 10). By placing Antigone into a tomb to die, he is in fact putting her into the place that he feels she needs to be in. She is placed inside of a womblike enclosure to die. He is silencing her. With her put inside of there to die, there is no woman that is going to question the authority of himself, therefore, erasing a threat. Singh goes on to say, “The image of the strangled Antigone, the self-strangled Antigone, strongly confirms the relationship between being and becoming silent and being a ‘good' woman,” (Singh 10). The woman was to remain silent, no objections to the state or anything for that matter. With Antigone hanging herself, that in effect takes away her literal voice.
The ancient Greek audience that was viewing this drama in the 5 th century would not have seen the play in the same way that we, the reader, do now. Antigone's boldness in defying her uncle shows a different view on the role of woman in society. As Fox says, “Antigone's defiance of Creon involves a degree of self-assertion and boldness which would be hard to find, perhaps even hard to conceive of, in a real-life Greek city, but her play lets the antisocial voice speak on stage and gives the audience reason to root for it in spite of itself.,” (Fox 687). Antigone gives the audience a reason to root her on. She is fighting to the death for a good cause - something that means the world to her. It didn't matter to Antigone which brother was in the right or in the wrong, it mattered that they were given just burial. In the end, she is entombed for wanting to honor the gods and give proper reverence for the dead.
Ierulli writes, “Antigone's very name means ‘against generation'; her loyalties are not to any future family she may have, (Ierulli 483). Antigone was betrothed to her uncle's son. It would seem odd that throughout the play, Antigone does not mention her fiancé. She was willing to die for her brother without considering who she would be leaving behind. Some view that as Antigone being cruel, others view her as the heroine. Views as cold because she doesn't care who she is leaving behind and heroic because she is focused on family burial and honoring the dead.
Antigone seems almost cold in the beginning of the play when Ismene refuses to help her bury Polyneices. Ismene says, “We are only women, / We cannot fight with men Antigone! / The law is strong, we must give into the law / In this thing, and in worse. I beg the Dead / To forgive me, but I am helpless. I must yield / To those in authority. And I think it is dangerous business / To be always meddling. (Sophocles 258-259). It is after that speech that Antigone turns her back on her sister. She expected her sister Ismene to want to help to bury Polyneices, but she didn't. I can imagine that it would be almost normal to get angry with someone for not helping to do an honor for a brother that you equally love.
Antigone seems cold when she won't let Ismene die with her. She tells her, “Yes. Save yourself. I shall not envy you. / There are those who will praise you; I shall have honor, too,” (Sophocles 272). Antigone is telling Ismene that she doesn't want her to die, basically because there was no honor in Ismene. There was no honor because she refused to help in the first place. I see this as the role of heroine still, because she is still sticking to what she believes in. She is taking her position to the death, and doesn't want her sister to suffer and die because of something that she did not do.
Antigone can also be seen as the heroine in that she does not protest her punishment. She lets Creon's men lead her away to her death. Antigone says:
O tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock, / Soon I shall be with my own again / Where Persephone welcomes the thin ghosts underground / And I shall see my father again, and you, mother, / and dearest Polyneices– / dearest indeed / To me, since it was my hand / That washed him clean and poured the ritual wine / And my reward is death before my time! / And yet as men's hearts know, I have done no wrong, / I have not sinned before God. Or if I have, / I shall know the truth in death. But if the guilt / Lies upon Creon who judged me, then, I pray, / May his punishment equal my own. (Sophocles 283)
Here, Antigone is recognizing that her actions were correct. Even if they were incorrect she prayed that Creon's punishment would equal her own. That prayer was granted. His son, Haimon, his niece and his wife all killed themselves. Creon was left alone with his kingdom. The only thing good that came out of this play was Creon's turnaround. Creon finally realizes, although entirely too late that his actions had their consequences. He entombed a woman because he felt she deserved it for defying him. In turn, all are dead whom he loved.
Throughout the play Antigone , Sophocles gives the reader an interesting view on the
human condition. I think that Antigone is the story of a woman who risks her life to make sure that her family and her lineage are honored. I think that historically Antigone can be viewed as the heroine, because she steps out from behind the curtain and shows you the complete opposite of what a Greek woman was to be. Antigone as Harris writes, “This play is, in effect, the first known dramatization of the conflict between duty to the state and private conscience,” (Harris). This play is more than just one woman who defies the King.
Singh writes, “Antigone flaunts the definition of what it means to be a woman in the male dominated, male-privileged world she lives in,” (Singh 11). Antigone does not fit the weak stereotype that the Hippocratics felt was commonplace for a woman. The woman did not stand up and argue like a man with the king. The traditional woman was like that of her sister Ismene, never questioning male authority, retiring to her quarters. This is a Greek drama in which we see a woman step out of traditional ideologies of womanhood and into a more bold character. This piece of drama does show the female in a new light - as someone who is not quiet and passive - someone who fights to the death for what she believes in and that is heroic.
Burns, Tony. Sophocles' Antigone and the History of the Concept of Natural Law. Political Studies: 50 (2002): 545-577.
Harris, Nathaniel. History of Ancient Greece . China : Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2000.
Holt, Phillip. Polis and Tragedy in the Antigone . Mnemosyne . LII (1999): 658-690.
Ierulli, Molly. The Politics of Pathos: Electra and Antigone in the Polis. The South Atlantic Quarterly: 98 (1999): 477-500.
Katz, Marilyn. Ideology and `The status of women' in ancient Greece ' . History and Theory: 31 (1992): 70-98.
Pritchard, Annie. “Antigone's Mirrors: Reflections on Moral Madness.” Hypatia 7 (Summer 1992): 77-93.
Sophocles. Antigone . Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan.
New York : Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990.
Singh, Frances B. “ Antigone's Changed Punishment: Gynaecology as Penology in Sophocles' Antigone.” Australian Feminist Studies 18 (2003): 7-16.
- Brandy Woodruff