At a Glance
- Fate vs. Free Will: One of the most important themes in Antigone is the struggle between fate and free will. Antigone would seem to seal her fate by defying Creon and burying her brother Polynices.
- Consequences: Antigone teaches us that every action has its consequence. For example, Creon's choice to ignore Haemon and Tiresias leads to the suicide of his son and wife.
- Family & Loyalty: These are intertwined themes. Antigone chooses her brothers over loyalty to Creon. Conversely, Creon prioritizes the needs of the state over the needs of his family.
Antigone was written over two thousand years ago, in a land that is still considered the birthplace of democracy. Sophocles was a part of this democratic movement, but custom, tradition, and the rules of the gods also played an important role in Greek life. This is reflected in the themes present in the play: choices and their consequences; custom and tradition; gods and religion, and betrayal. These issues make Antigone constant in terms of its relevance to audiences of all times, as these issues represent some of the fundamental challenges faced by humankind.
Choices and Consequences
Just as in life, choices in Antigone have their consequences. From the outset, Antigone's decision to bury Polyneices seals her fate. Her refusal to obey Creon's edict to leave her brother's body to be consumed by wild animals leads to her capture and to her death. Similarly, Ismene's refusal to help Antigone ends her relationship with her sister. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is refused the honor of sharing her fate and instead is forced to live on alone, tortured by a loss of family and the knowledge that she may have made a cowardly choice.
Creon's unyielding government and his choice to ignore both the advice of Teiresias and the pleas of Haemon result in the loss of both his son and wife—as well as bad relationships with neighboring cities. His refusal to bend to the will of the gods effectively ruins his life. All choices in the play— Antigone's, Ismene's, and Creon's—are made freely, but the consequences are predicted by the prophet Teiresias and, therefore, are considered to be governed by fate. In Greek culture in the fifth century B.C., much emphasis was placed on fate; oracles (prophets) were commonly consulted and prophecies were made. Though the characters make choices of their own free will, the consequences of these choices are viewed as being controlled by fate, that is, determined by the gods.
Sophocles may have wanted to show that choices made for apparently logical reasons—Antigone's burial of her brother according to "unwritten law," Creon's need to keep order after a civil war, and Ismene's following of the traditional role of women—can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Though all three characters make the choice that seems right to him or her, the results are disastrous. Antigone dies, Creon loses his family and power over the state, and Ismene is doomed to live the rest of her life alone, knowing that she did not try to help her family.
Custom and Tradition
The Ancient Greeks were polytheists, which means that they believed in many gods, and each god represented a specific aspect of life. Zeus, however, was the king of the gods, and he ruled over all. Antigone invokes the name of Zeus several times in the play as she defends her burial of Polyneices. Greek custom and tradition dictated that the women in the immediate family of the deceased should carry out the burial rituals, which meant that Antigone and Ismene were responsible for the burial of both of their brothers. When Creon orders Polyneices left unburied, Antigone felt she was acting according to the "unwritten laws" of Zeus by burying him. To her, all dead should have the honor of burial, no matter what they did in life, and she felt she was justified in fulfilling this custom and obeying the law of Zeus.
Teiresias warns Creon that ignoring Zeus's "unwritten law'' would bring tragedy to his...
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