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.
The personalities of the two sisters; Antigone and Ismene, are different from one another as tempered steel is from a ball of cotton. One is hard and resistant; the other: pliable, absorbing and soft. Antigone would have been a strong, successful 90’s type woman with her liberated and strong attitude towards her femininity, while Ismene seems to be a more dependent 1950’s style woman. Antigone acts as a free spirit, a defiant individual, while Ismene is content to recognize her own limitations and her inferiority of being a woman.
In the Greek tragedy “Antigone”, by Sophocles; Antigone learns that King Creon has refused to give a proper burial for the slain Polyneices, brother of Ismene and Antigone. Infuriated by this injustice, Antigone shares the tragic news with Ismene. From her first response, “No, I have heard nothing”(344). Ismene reveals her passivity and helplessness in the light of Creon’s decree. Thus, from the start, Ismene is characterized as traditionally “feminine”, a helpless woman that pays no mind to political affairs. Doubting the wisdom of her sisters plan to break the law and bury Polyneices, Ismene argues:
We who are women should not contend with men;
we who are weak are ruled by the stronger, so that
we must obey….(346)
Once again Ismene’s words clearly state her weak, feminine character and helplessness within her own dimensions. Antigone, not happy with her sisters response chides her sister for not participating in her crime and for her passivity, saying, ” Set your own life in order”(346). For Antigone, no law could stand in the way of her strong consideration of her brother’s spirit, not even the punishment of an early death. Ismene is more practical ; knowing the task is impossible, she feels the situation to be hopeless.
It is a wonder, which of the two sisters are really guilty of these chronic charges. Of coarse, Antigone acted so quickly, and failed to take the advice of the moderate sister, Ismene. Instead, going against Creon’s words, Antigone rashly goes ahead and breaks the law. Antigone is a fool, she must learn that such defiance, even when justified, is not conductive to longevity. Although Antigone is foolish, she is also courageous and motivated by her morals. Proper burial of the dead was, according to the Greeks, prerequisite for the souls entrance into a permanent home. Therefore, perhaps Ismene is also foolish for her quick refusal to help Antigone perform the duty of Polyneices proper burial. Ismene definitely seems hasty in her acceptance of personal weakness. Perhaps in some way, both sisters are guilty of the same tragic sins. Perhaps it is this rashness, more subdued in Ismene’s case, that leads both sisters to their own destruction.
To my surprise, there is a strange twist in both sister’s character towards the end of the play. Antigone makes a rather contrasting statement, “Not for my children, had I been a mother, Not for a husband, for his moldering body, Would i have set myself against the city As I have done”(368) These words defy rational explanation. To judge from her attitude towards authority and law, Antigone would probably take on any task to preserve family dignity and human justice. In Ismene’s final words, she abandons her practical attitudes with a sudden rush of devotion towards the sister she abandoned in time of need. “Let me stand beside you and do honor the dead”(358). Ismene heroically takes a stand and shares Antigone’s crime.
The two sister’s were crushed by the vindictive Creon, yet they were winners in spirit, in their determination , they died together, as one. Nobility shall live in their hearts forever.
Filed Under: Greek Mythology, Literature, Sophocles