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Sophocles wrote during the Classical Period in Athens, a time of transition between the ancient Greek traditions and the creation of a new kind of civilization. Cultural and political events in Athens were reshaping the culture in Athens, and Sophocles was part of that cultural reformation as the most prolific and successful playwright of this time. Sophocles undoubtedly wrote his views about how the new Athens should look and perhaps his warnings about what should not be part of this new culture. Antigonedisplays three key themes which Athens should consider as it shapes its cultural identity.
The first issue in Antigone is the role of women in society. All of the men in Antigone's family are dead except for her uncle, Creon; it is now her responsibility to do what must be done for her family. Antigone defies Creon's wishes and performs the sacred rite and duty of burying her brother, even when her sister will not help her. Antigone has always been loyal to Creon, because he is the king as well as her uncle and her future father-in-law; but his edict forces her to choose between her duties to her family and the law. Family wins, of course, and Antigone willingly accepts the punishment for her defiance--even to the point of death.
It is true that Antigone is as intractable as Creon; however, her stubbornness is based on family pride rather than personal pride. Women were not traditionally part of the Greek culture, so having a woman speak and act as Antigone does is may be Sophocles' way of suggesting that women's voices add value to a culture.
A second point Sophocles may be making in Antigone concerns personal identity. Polyneices did bring an army to fight against his own brother and his own town and may therefore be considered a traitor; however, he is also family--the brother of Antigone and Ismene and the nephew of Creon. Polyneices' identity is the point of contention between Antigone and Creon: should he be accorded the respect and recognition of a proper burial or left to rot.
The role of personal identity in any culture will determine how it conducts all aspects of life. Sophocles questions the simplistic view of identity by having Creon forbidding a sacred burial for his own nephew and Antigone dying because she disobeyed Creon's edict and gave her brother the funeral he deserves.
The last issue Sophocles comments on in Antigone is the role of power and authority in a culture. Creon is the king and can do essentially whatever he chooses; in this play he chooses not to allow Polyneices a proper burial. While that may be the right choice because of Polyneices' traitorous acts, it is certainly not the humane choice.
Antigone tells Creon he is violating the "unwritten laws" of decency; the chorus and Teiresius warn him that he will suffer for this choice. Creon remains obstinate and enforces his order; his unyielding adherence to this edict costs Creon his family. Sophocles may have been offering his advice to the rulers of Athens about the balance between maintaining order and demonstrating humanity:
“A city which belongs to just one man is no true city."
Antigone is a woman, but she does what she knows to be right in the face of an unjust edict. Polyneices is a traitor, but he is also a man. Antigone has no power; Creon has power but is left powerless by his unyielding pride. These are important lessons which Sophocles undoubtedly wanted Athens to heed as it reshaped its cultural identity.
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