The main themes in Antigone are fate versus free will, respect for death, gender roles, and justice.
- Fate versus free will: The play encourages the audience to appreciate the role of fate in creating divine balance.
- Respect for death: Death is inevitable and can be even seen as a reward—one which Antigone is granted and Creon is denied.
- Gender roles: The powers of women are shown to be derived from the gods just as much as political power is.
- Justice: The true justice of Zeus is derived from a blend of Antigone’s and Creon’s perspectives.
Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1712
Fate Versus Free Will
A major source of tension in Antigone is the conflict between fate and free will. There are many ways to argue either side. For example, it is simple to point out Creon’s obstinate dismissal of other perspectives, or his selfish and cruel desire to have his son’s bride killed, and argue that these are conscious choices he makes and that he must pay the price. Antigone, similarly, could easily choose to try to reason with the king, or she could choose not to act at all, submitting instead to a quiet grief like Ismene’s. Indeed, Ismene points out to Antigone that her abject rebellion against the king is a choice that will get her killed, and for it is for this reason that Ismene refuses to participate. As a result of this choice, Ismene manages to survive the tragedy.
But on the other hand, it is equally fair to argue that Antigone’s death, especially in the context of her duty to family, is fated to happen from the beginning, as the natural outcome of Oedipus and Jocasta’s incestuous family line. Similarly, Creon’s losses are prophesied by Tiresias and foreshadowed on numerous occasions as the work of the Furies, who seek vengeance on behalf of the wronged gods. Seen this way, Creon could never have intervened to prevent the death of his son and wife.
But Sophocles offers a third option. The conflict of the play stems from Creon’s political incursion into the realm of the divine and Antigone’s religious incursion into the realm of politics. This fundamental imbalance of opposing powers creates the necessity of resolution. If Antigone is conceived as not so much an individual as she is a force for the gods, and Creon is seen as the embodiment of the human political realm, then the conflict in which they are engaged is clearly fated toward a self-destructive conclusion with losses on both sides. In this way, Antigone and Creon can be both responsible for their own behaviors and subject to fated outcomes beyond their individual control. The end result, therefore, is that both Antigone and Creon are devices of the gods to establish a balance between the political realm and the realm of the divine.
Respect for Death
A modern audience may find some aspects of Antigone’s tragic conclusion baffling, given that nearly every main character dies for reasons that could seem foolish today. But death, and particularly ensuring that death—as a concept and as a deity—receives the respect that it deserves, is one of Sophocles’s major concerns. The inciting incident of the play occurs when Polynices is denied his right of burial, which Tiresias describes as akin to Creon “killing the dead twice over” (line 1140). Leaving Polynices unburied is a punishment intended to harm him beyond the grave, ensuring that he will never be able to reach the afterlife in peace, and this disturbs the way in which death is naturally organized in ancient Greek society and religion. This injustice, not death itself, is the crime that Antigone is willing to die herself to rectify.
In the case of Antigone, some of her earliest lines with her sister Ismene concern the grief their family has suffered. Antigone’s life proves no different from those of her forebears. But Antigone’s role as a “lover of death” is not just simple morbidity. For the ancient Greeks, death is a proud force that is not to be reviled, but rather to be respected. Given the inevitability of death—the extent to which Antigone and everyone else is fated to die—it might make more sense to conceive of death as a necessary rite of passage.
For Antigone in particular, death offers the only opportunity for her to be among those she loved. It is not the case that Antigone desires death, however. When she is led to the tomb in which she takes her own life, she reveals her fear of death and admits that she does not want to die. It is not a desire for death that leads Antigone to action: it is a respect for death as a natural and good progression for all living things. Because of her respect, there is a sense in which Antigone’s death serves as a reward for the suffering she endured in life.
Creon, on the other hand, disrespects death by attempting to usurp its power for his own. His punishment ultimately involves all of his loved ones coming together in death, leaving him alone and miserable. As the chorus reminds him that he will have to wait for his time to die, there is a clear sense in which Creon’s continuing life is actually a punishment far worse than death. In this way, Sophocles shows death as something decidedly solemn, yet not entirely unwelcome.
Antigone, as a character, can be something of a paradox, in that she is both powerless and powerful. As a woman, she holds no political power, which Ismene reminds her about when they speak together early in the play. And yet, Sophocles does not depict powerless women. Indeed, even Ismene’s reminder—“Remember we are women, / we’re not born to contend with men” (lines 74–75)—is almost self-contradictory. Her broader role within mythology as well as within the Oedipus trilogy helps the audience to understand that even Ismene herself likely doesn’t believe the content of this line to be true.
It may be helpful, therefore, to draw a distinction between political gender roles in ancient Greek society, on the one hand, and socioreligious gender roles on the other. It is true that Antigone, and women in general, have very little political power within a city-state such as Thebes. Despite being Oedipus’s direct offspring, neither Antigone or Ismene inherit the throne of Thebes; instead, it goes to Creon, Oedipus’s brother in law, simply because he is a man.
However, as is clear from the conclusion of the play, political power is not the only form of power. The ability to create and sustain bloodlines is one directly endowed to women, as is the duty to provide for the rights of dead relatives. Sophocles reminds the audience of this distinction in traditional gender roles in order to show the specific religious realm in which Antigone has power and Creon does not. Creon is in control of his realm, and Antigone is in control of hers.
Even despite her lack of political power, Antigone’s ferocity of will proves more effective than that of the king himself. Indeed, Antigone effects change and causes Polynices to be buried. She rises up in the hearts and minds of Thebes as a pious heroine. Creon, on the other hand, does not issue any effective orders, at least in the ways he intends. Among Creon’s character traits is also a recurring misogyny, a hatred for women that even an ancient Greek audience would find peculiar. He consistently blames those he opposes for being womanlike and asserts that women are forces of anarchy (line 751). He is categorically unwilling to yield to a woman’s will, as to do so would be, in his mind, emasculating. The irony of this sentiment, within Sophocles’s construction, is that the audience knows that Creon is the one who is being anarchistic and irrational—the very things he believes make women hateful—and that yielding to the will of women is precisely what he will eventually do.
As such, even as Sophocles shows women within gender roles that are honest to his time and context, the women of Antigone are not powerless and do not restrict themselves to traditional roles. Instead, Antigone embraces her power as divinely ordained, and she uses it skillfully and effectively. In the end, Antigone sees Polynices buried, and the only hand that causes her death is her own.
Aside from being a piece of classic literature, a religious and mythological text, and a piece of Greek theater, Antigone is also a deeply political work concerned with the nature of justice, specifically within the Greek city-state. A topic concerning much of ancient Greek philosophy is the ways in which an ideal state ought to be organized in order to best ensure human flourishing and divine blessing. Many Greek philosophers posited an ideal city-state that is organized in a way that mirrors the cosmos themselves, with human interaction as the medium between the heavens and the crude matter of the world. In this regard, Sophocles was no different. Antigone was written, at least in part, to serve as an example of Zeus’s divine justice for the city-state; specifically, it offers an answer to the question of how the state may best achieve political authority within the confines of divine piety.
In order to engage with this question, Sophocles creates a conflict between Antigone, who represents the will of the gods, and Creon, who represents the state of Thebes. By virtue of being a traitor and a blood family member simultaneously, Polynices serves as a means of conflict between these two archetypes. Antigone adopts the unyielding perspective that Polynices must be buried as if he were one of their own, and Creon remains similarly unyielding in his position that Polynices is an enemy to the state and must be treated as such. Sophocles attempts to provide an answer for how Thebes ought to ensure justice in such a scenario by showing the self-destructive results of any immovable conflict between two perspectives upheld by Zeus.
Through the ensuing tragedy, the audience comes to understand that what both Antigone and Creon lack all along is respect for each other’s perspectives. Antigone, despite being pious, nonetheless defies a king, whose power is upheld by Zeus. Creon, conversely, is the justified ruler of Thebes, but he nonetheless defies the demands of the gods. Zeus’s true justice, therefore, must exist somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives. In this way, Thebes can become a place that upholds political law only insofar as the demands of piety allows, and is only as pious as due respect for the laws of the city-state allow. This is the nature of the justice that Sophocles hopes to show his audience.
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