Antigone is credited as one of the best works of Sophocles, ranked by most modern critics above Oedipus the King. There are many aspects of Antigone that make it the play critics love to decipher and rave about. “Antigone must be received as the canon of ancient tragedy: no tragedy of antiquity that we possess approaches it in pure idealism, or in harmony of artistic development” hails critic Berhardy (Theatre History).
He goes on to rave “It is the first poem produced by the union of the whole strength of the resources of which tragedy was capable: of all the extant works of Sophocles it is the most perfect: no other exhibits such a striking combination of subject, language and technique”. There are a variety of aspects and elements open to interpretation and examination that shape and define literature and its message. One of the most commonly examined themes is that of pride.
Tragedy is usually concerned with a person of great stature, a king or nobleman, who falls because of hubris, or extreme pride and Antigone is no exception. Pride and its effects are a central part of Antigone’s plot and theme. The “Golden Age” of Greece is known for its contributions to the creative world, as well as its development of the play. These performances emphasized Greek morals and were produced for that purpose (Wilf 1). While the gods despise this trait and bring suffering to those who exhibit it, the Greeks consider it a part of greatness.
Pride, being part of their character and morality, overran in to their literature and was a complex and multifaceted concept in Greek tragedy, exemplified by Sophocles’ Antigone. In the play both Creon and Antigone were incredibly proud and unwilling to back down once they took their stands. “Pride is part of what made Antigone heroic” (Classic Notes: Themes). Creon had made a decision and was unwilling to compromise. He decided that Polynices was a traitor and was not to be administered proper burial rites for his treasonous march on Thebes.
Antigone was to die for her violation of the law, the sin of burying her brother. “After the completion of the deed, and the suffering endured for it, there yet remains the chastisement of insolence, and retribution for the destruction of Antigone: nothing less than the utter ruin of Creon’s whole family, and his own despair can be a worthy death-offering for the sacrifice of a life so costly. Therefore the king’s wife, hitherto not even mentioned, must appear quite towards the conclusion of the piece merely to hear the misfortune, and to make away with herself.
To Grecian feelings it would have been impossible to look upon the poem as properly closed by the death of Antigone, without any atoning retribution” (Theatre History). It is Creon’s own actions that brought about his family untimely ending and it is his pride that made his decision uncompromising. His pride may have been his greatest tragic flaw and the most influential factor in his downfall. Another issue illustrated through theme is the place or position of women during the time. Antigone’s gender had a profound affect on the meaning of her actions. Creon had an intense dislike for her disrespectful and rebelling nature.
His need to defeat her was all the more pressing because she was a woman (Classic Notes: Themes). “The ideal of the female character in Antigone is boldly and severely outlined. Her indignation at Ismene’s refusal to take a part in her daring resolution: the manner in which she afterwards rejects Ismene, when the latter, repenting of her weakness, offers to accompany her heroic sister to death, borders on harshness: her silence and her speeches against Creon, whereby she provokes him to execute his tyrannous resolution, are proof of unshaken courage” (Theatre History).
The freedom of Greek women was extremely limited and restrictive. The rules and limitations placed on them were great, even for the ancient world. Antigone’s rebellion is threatening because it upset the gender roles and hierarchy (Classic Notes: Themes). Her refusal to be passive overturned one of the fundamental rules of her culture and this is what infuriated Creon the most. Her relentless in pursuit of what she, a woman, thought was right. Another theme contained in the play is the threat of Tyranny or absolute power.
Athenians were sensitive to the idea of tyranny and the fine line between a strong leader and a brutal tyrant. Creon was a sympathetic character but abused his power. His fault does not necessarily lie in his lust for power as he had noble intentions and was loyal to the state. His weakness was that he was human and susceptible to poor judgment (Classic Notes: Themes). He didn’t consider public opinion until it was too late. One of the purposes of the Chorus is to illustrate the sway of public opinion. At first sight the chorus in the Antigone may seem weak, accommodating itself, as it does, without contradiction, to the tyrannous commands of Creon, and not once attempting a favorable representation in behalf of the young heroine. But it is necessary that she should stand alone in her resolution and its accomplishment, that she may appear in all her dignity: she must find no stay, no hold. The submissiveness of the chorus also increases the impression of the irresistible nature of the king’s commands.
So even in their last address to Antigone, there must be a mixture of painful recollections, that she may drain the full cup of earthly sorrows” (Theatre History). In the end of the play, Creon is ruler over an orderly city, but he has lost everything dear to him. Closely related to the theme of gender, the theme of Inaction/Lack of Agency versus Agency plays itself out in the contrast between Antigone and her sister Ismene. In the face of injustice, they react in very different ways.
Ismene chooses to do nothing under the threat of the law whereas Antigone chooses to act despite the possible penalties. “Antigone proves again and again that she is the character with the most agency. She is arguably the only character in the play who walks into her fate with her eyes open all along the way” (Classic Notes: Themes). The unities of time, place and action are key elements of the form of tragedy. “action may be though[t] of simply as motive or movement of spirit’ The action in Antigone is preserve rightness and order in Thebes’.
Antigone is a strange case because the movement-of-spirit’ arguably comes form two directions: Antigone and Creon are both championing what is right, but they define rightness through different sets of values. Key elements include the moments of reversal and recognition, although not every tragedy has these moments. Reversal means a great and unexpected turn in events when the action veers around and becomes its opposite. Antigone experiences no reversal, but Creon does: at the Chorus’ prodding, he finally backs down and listens to the advice he has been given, turning against the preservation of the kind order he cherishes.
Recognition means that a character gains sudden and transformative understanding of himself and the events he has experienced, moving from ignorance to knowledge. In Antigone, Creon finally recognized that he has been misguided and that his actions have led to the death of his wife and son. Ideally, according to Aristotle, the reversal and the recognition hit at the same instant, as they do in Oedipus the King” (Classic Notes: About Antigone), another great work of Sophecles. The Antigone is much admired for being the first and most enduring statement of the conflict between the need for social order and the feeling that on occasion higher law may supersede human law” (Encyclopedia Mythica ). Antigone’s persistence in disobeying Creons decree falls under the themes of Individual verses State: Conscience versus Law: Moral or Divine Law versus Human Law. These three conflicts are closely related, but this “crude set of pairings helps to untangle some of the central issues of the play.
Antigone and her values line up with the first entity in each pair, while Creon and his values line up with the second” (Classic Notes: Themes). Antigone decides that she must disobey Creons orders arguing that a law of man, which violates religious law, is no law at all (Encyclopedia Mythica). The moral focus of the play Antigone is the conflict between physis (nature) and nomos (law), with physis ultimately presiding over nomos. “Throughout Antigone, King Creon is the symbol for nomos, while Antigone stands on the side of physis. To portray these ideas, light and dark images are used as a recurring motif to reinforce the theme.
Light is used to show something good that is happening, whereas dark is utilized to show of something of which the gods disapprove. Following with tradition, this play uses light to portray what is right in the eyes of the chorus and darkness to reproach the other side. As the play is carried out, the chorus is constantly changing its opinions, first believing in the actions of Creon with respect to nomos, then unsure of what to believe, and finally seeing that Antigone’s actions are more consistent with the morality of the gods and the truths of physis.
Light and darkness are used to support in an emotional way the action of whoever the chorus is siding with at these various stages of the play” (Wilf 1). “Because the sole purpose of Antigone is to get a moral point across, the parallels between light and dark and physis and nomos are associated together, and used metaphorically to add diversity and imagery to an otherwise redundant script. In the first scenes, these light and dark images show the reign of Creon.
These are followed by the indistinct and ironic middle scenes, and ending with the gods choosing Antigone’s actions over Creon’s, leaving Creon spiritually dead and paying for his poor choices and conduct. These are very effective techniques, which allow Sophocles to more fully develop his play, and give it a more emotional edge” (Wilf 3). Antigone’s determination and persistence challenge the status quo and Antigone continues to be a subversive and powerful play. She invokes divine law as defense of her actions, but implicit in her position is faith in the discerning powers of her individual conscience. She sacrifices her life out of devotion to principles higher than human law. Creon makes a mistake in sentencing her <and his mistake is condemned, in turn, by the gods> but his position is an understandable one. In the wake of war, and with his reign so new, Creon has to establish his authority as supreme. On the other hand, Creon’s need to defeat Antigone seems at times to be extremely personal.
At stake is not only the order of the state, but his pride and sense of himself as a king and, more fundamentally, a man. Sophocles use of a variety of themes adds depth and character to his work. His understanding of humanity and society are illustrated through his characterization and content and has marked him as an insightful, literary mastermind. His play Antigone has been called the defining work of tragedy and has become a classic for literary exploration and interpretation.