Antigone Themes
by Sophocles

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Antigone Themes

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.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,712 words.)