Antigone and the Greek Tragic Mythos – An Overview

Sophocles’ Antigone, part three of the so-called Theban trilogy is perhaps the best example of all these fine Sophoclean tragedies to illustrate the Greek preoccupation with fate and how it rules the lives of men. In the play the daughter of Oedipus, Antigone is cast in a hopeless role to either obey the rigid, overbearing Creon who rules over the shaken city of Thebes, or obey her familial duty and bury her recently battle slain brother Polyneices.

Of course Antigone opts to bury her brother. And how could she not? The underlying message in her actions goes far beyond the interment of a beloved sibling; by burying Polyneices, Antigone is attempting to bury forever the sordid, disgraceful past of her entire family. Oedipus was born of Laius, a king who, childless, was told that he’d bear a son who would kill him. When Oedipus was born, the infant was abandoned in the wild to die, where a shepherd took pity on him. As an adult, Oedipus did indeed kill Laius. He went on to marry his own mother, Jocasta, setting the stage for the family disgrace and subsequent chaos.

Another impulse behind Antigone’s actions is, then, to appease the gods, who are angry not at the entire Lapdacus clan, but because the unburied Polyneices belongs to them. Hades, the god of the underworld is being deprived of a soul that is now his provenance. Antigone uses this argument to win her case with Creon. But the unbending Creon, worried about changing his mind to kill Antigone for disobeying his strict instructions, embodies another taboo among the Greeks. Such fanaticism is against the Greek ideal of moderation. Meanwhile, Ismene, Antigone’s sister has refused to help bury Polyneices, stating that she will not go outside herself to fight against men, nor to disregard the social code as it pertains to passive, obedient women in Greek society.

Then blind Tiresias, the most trusted advisor in Greek society, calls on Creon telling him of ominous signs the old man has sensed, a foreboding that, if his advice is ignored, will cause Creon to be plunged into despair, and Thebes in further chaos. Tiresias tells the ruler to, in effect, let Antigone go.

As rigid as ever, Creon accuses the blind old man of acting irrationally, and of looking for money instead of forecasting objectively. The chorus then gets involved, warning Creon that Tiresias has never yet been wrong, and that he’d better pay attention. This is the apex of the play: The antagonism between Antigone and Creon has reached its zenith; the players have committed to their prospective paths; everyone awaits the resolution, which all know won’t be long in coming. Sophocles has written the play to take place in the span of one day.

The background to the coming clash of interests, and resulting denouement is that Creon feels he is right, particularly since his actions intend to protect the city, while punishing one who sought to destroy it. Thebes has just endured a civil war; the city is still in shock; Creon has been installed as ruler, and he sees his duty in that light. Antigone knows she cannot allow her dead brother’s body to lie afield, to be picked at by birds and wild beasts. Ismene sees her role as protecting the Greek sensibility surrounding women, moderation and deference to duly appointed authority. The end comes when Creon listens to the chorus, and Tiresias, cancels his order to have Antigone starved to death in her cave, and rushes to secure her safety only to find his beloved son Haemon already at Antigone’s cave, which is now the site of her suicide by hanging. In the ensuing conflict Haemon once again accuses Creon of turning a deaf ear to the city’s cry for mercy, and subsequently kills himself to be with his beloved Antigone. Then Creon’s anguish is further intensified as his wife Eurydice learns of her son Haemon’s death, and kills herself as well.

The play concludes with the death of five of Thebes’ sons and daughters, ‘a brace of kinsmen’, as Shakespeare would write a thousand years later. Creon is bereft, not knowing if his dictate was right or wrong, not realizing that fate has driven him regardless. The underlying satisfaction, as it were, of this most Greek of tragedies is that the audience would have applauded, and likely did, the takeover of the play by the fates. At the point of total conflict, when the match was lit so to speak, neither of the characters had control of the outcome. This was a comforting concept to the ancients: that once we reach a certain point, fate takes over, and the outcome is no longer in doubt.

Mildred K. Pearson

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