Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675
Extended Character Analysis
Antigone is the protagonist of Sophocles’s play Antigone. She is Oedipus’s daughter and Creon’s niece. She is pious, brave, and loyal to her family. Upon returning to Thebes and learning that Creon has forbidden anyone from giving her brother, Polynices, a proper burial, Antigone decides to bury him herself. Rather than doing so in secret, Antigone is proud of her actions and readily claims responsibility. She accuses Creon of impiety and asserts the superiority of the so-called unwritten laws of the gods over the laws of men. Faced with execution, Antigone exclaims that she can die happily knowing that she preserved Polynices’s dignity in death.
Antigone and Her Family
Family is important to Antigone. As Jocasta and Oedipus’s daughter, she has lived with the legacy of being the offspring of incest. However, she still loves and cares for her father up until his death in Oedipus at Colonus. Upon returning to Thebes in Antigone, she sacrifices herself in order to give her brother a proper burial and asserts that the bonds between family members supercede Theban law. Though her family legacy has filled her life with “misery,” she still feels duty-bound to honor her fallen brother, and she disdains her sister, Ismene, for refusing to help. Antigone believes that she will be reunited with her family in death, a belief that helps her face execution with stubborn dignity.
Antigone and the Tragic Hero Narrative
Antigone is sometimes read as a tragic hero. She begins the play as a highborn woman who is betrothed to Haemon, the future king of Thebes. By this reading, her hamartia, or tragic flaw, is her lack of respect for Theban law and her pride in having defied it. By defying Creon’s will, she brings about her own downfall and is forced to confront the consequences of her actions. Just as Antigone’s mother, Jocasta, hanged herself after discovering that she had committed incest, Antigone also hangs herself after being entombed for her crimes. By this reading, her suicide is a form of penance.
However, many aspects of Antigone’s story do not fit into the narrative of a tragic hero. Antigone arguably begins the play at a low point rather than a high one. Her parents and her brothers are all dead, and, as women, Antigone and Ismene are relatively powerless in Theban society. Unlike her father, Oedipus, Antigone’s tragic fate is not determined by the gods nor does she defy them at any point. Indeed, Antigone defies Creon in order to uphold the laws of the gods. Teiresias suggests that the gods support Antigone’s actions and that Creon will bring ruin to Thebes by executing her. By this reading, Antigone is not a tragic hero; rather, she is a heroic martyr who sacrifices herself in order to prove the superiority of the laws of the gods.
Antigone as a Proto-Feminist
Antigone can also be read as a proto-feminist text. Creon’s prioritization of state superiority and Antigone’s prioritization of natural law epitomizes the gender expectations of ancient Greece. Whereas men were leaders and heads of state, women were expected to maintain the home and focus on building a family. This expectation is reflected in Antigone’s belief that the laws of the gods and the bonds among family members are more important than the laws of the state. Creon is obligated to look after the interests of Thebes; by contrast, Antigone is excluded from political decision-making and legal discourse on account of her sex. Instead, she is driven by her own moral code. This leads her to criticize the male-dominated government that prioritizes law and order over emotional and religious considerations. Unlike Ismene, who willingly bows to Creon’s authority, Antigone refuses to accept the common view that women are socially inferior. Narratively, Sophocles praises these attributes, aligning Antigone’s beliefs with those of the gods. At the end of the play, Antigone becomes a martyr for the idea that love and family are more important than Creon’s cold logic.
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