What are the political themes in Antigone, and what is Sophocles's message?
The political themes in Antigone are the competing claims of public and private duty and whether one has an obligation to stand up against state power for reasons of conscience. Audiences and critics have found many messages in Antigone, but their views often conflict. It is by no means clear that Sophocles has a message, beyond the idea that life is tragic.
The main political theme in Antigone is the conflict between public and private duty; loyalty to the state and loyalty to one's family. This is somewhat complicated in the context of ancient Greece by the inclusion of religious obligation in the form of Antigone's duty to her brother. She wants to give Polynices a proper burial not only because she loved him, but because the gods require it. Creon is also shocking in his disrespect for religion when he talks of Zeus's eagles behaving like birds of carrion, conveying the pollution of the unburied corpse up to Mount Olympus. The conflict, therefore, is not only between family and the state, but between the state and the gods. There is a subsidiary theme, in the conflict between Antigone and Ismene, of whether those who are politically powerless have a duty to stand up against the state when they believe it is in the wrong.
It is not at all clear that Sophocles has a message, beyond the general view that life is tragic, and conflict is inevitable. Audiences and critics have generally been more sympathetic to Antigone than to Creon, but some have taken the opposing view, while others, such as Hegel, have said that both Antigone and Creon are in the right. Winnington-Ingram takes a modern perspective, but one with which many readers may find themselves identifying, when he says that both Creon and Antigone are wrong, and that true virtue and sanity reside with Ismene and Haemon, who want to avoid conflict and live in peace.
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