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We're going to talk about Antigone through the ages—because dang if she doesn't have a traumatic family history.
Antigone is a no-nonsense kind of woman—and even, when she first appears to us at the end of Oedipus the King— a no-nonsense little girl. Sophocles doesn't give her any lines, but her presence seems to be symbolic of the legacy of shame caused by Oedipus's horrific mistakes. Oedipus laments the life of humiliation that his daughters will have to lead. Ironically, he also gets Creon to promise to take care of his daughters. (So much for promises.)
Oedipus at Colonus is also graced with Antigone's presence. In this play, we see that she's become her father’s devoted companion in exile. Once Oedipus dies, Antigone has to find someone else to be blindly loyal to (pun intended). So, she heads back to Thebes where she can support her brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles.
In Antigone Antigone gets promoted to protagonist. It's not a job we would want; Sophocles' protagonists always fall and fall hard. They don't call them tragic heroines for nothing. Antigone's fate seems to be sealed even from the prologue. We learn that her brothers have killed each other in a war over their father's throne. Creon, the new king, declares that the body of Eteocles will be honored, but that Polyneices's corpse will be left to rot. Anyone who attempts to bury Polyneices will be executed.
Antigone's fierce devotion is once more on full display when she declares that she'll bury Polyneices despite Creon's law. It is this rebellious act and Antigone's determined loyalty to the memory of her brother that forms the spine of the play. Her stubborn loyalty becomes her hamartia, her tragic error, and ultimately causes her downfall. Antigone is a great example of how a hamartia doesn't necessarily have to be a character "flaw" as it is often described. Most people would call loyalty an admirable trait. Antigone's devotion is so extreme, however, that it brings tragedy once more to Thebes.
You probably noticed that "loyalty" is a big word when it comes to Antigone. Family devotion especially is a big thing. She sacrifices her own life in the name of it. Her determination is so strong that her character becomes symbolic of family loyalty or blood ties. When we see her clash with King Creon, it's almost as if Sophocles is asking: "Who do we owe more loyalty to? The government or our families?" It's not a hard question for Antigone to answer... but it might not be as clear-cut as you think.
Imagine if you will: a top American general has allied himself with terrorists and attacked the U.S., killing millions. The general died in the battle and the U.S. government has declared that anyone attempting to bury him will be put to death. What would you do if this general was one of your family members? Risk life and limb just because you were related? Even if you were really close to the person, would you go against the government's wishes?
Antigone's other big thing is her fierce loyalty to the gods. Their divine laws are what she holds most sacred:
I urge no more; nay, wert thou willing still,
I would not welcome such a fellowship.
Go thine own way; myself will bury him.
How sweet to die in such employ, to rest,--
Sister and brother linked in love's embrace--
A sinless sinner, banned awhile on earth,
But by the dead commended; and with them
I shall abide for ever. As for thee,
Scorn, if thou wilt, the eternal laws of Heaven.
She couldn't give a flip about laws of man, as represented by Creon. When these two willful characters collide, the clash isn't just symbolic of government vs. family; it's also symbolic of man vs. the gods.
Throughout the play there are signs in the natural world that the gods are on the side of Antigone. For one, there are no footprints left beside the body when Antigone first puts dust on Polyneices. It's as if the earth itself is attempting to aid Antigone in her "crime." When the Sentry reports this strange phenomenon, the Chorus asks Creon if it might be the gods' work. The King dismisses the idea, saying the gods wouldn't want to help out somebody as terrible as Polyneices. (Boy, is Creon wrong.)
We also see divine support for Antigone, when the storm rages outside of Thebes. The Sentry and friends go back to Polyneices's body and wipe away the soil that Antigone sprinkled there. No sooner do they do this than the dust erupts from the earth and blots out the sky. In the center of the storm stands Antigone, wailing for the gods to destroy whoever has re-desecrated Polyneices's body. Seems like a pretty clear sign that Creon had better watch his back.
Antigone's divine symbolism is also seen when she is dragged before Creon just after the Chorus's famous "Ode to Man." There's more on this in the Chorus's "Character Analysis," but basically the Chorus has just gotten done singing a song about how awesome man is for conquering nature and how no one should step to our mighty laws. As soon as they're done singing, Antigone is hauled in. It's almost as if Antigone is the gods' answer to the Chorus's overweening pride. She is like a Fury, the gods' tool for revenge.
Antigone is also a symbol of feminine revolt. She's nowhere near as radical as Euripides' Medea, who assassinates the royal family and murders her own children in the name of women. However, Antigone sacrifices her own life, trying to stand up to the patriarchal society in which she's imprisoned. You can look at Antigone's clash with Creon as symbolic of the larger struggle of man vs. woman.
Ismene warns Antigone in the prologue that they are just weak women and can't stand up to the men-folk. Antigone proceeds anyway. When Antigone argues that her actions were justified by her loyalty to her family and to the gods, Creon dismisses her as an overemotional woman. Antigone barely gives this notion the time of day, and stands before her accuser unrepentant.
It's interesting that though Antigone is definitely a feminist symbol, she's spent her life being dutiful to men. Her childhood was spent following Oedipus around. Now she's giving her life for her fallen brother. We wonder if, even though she's a strong independent woman, she needs these male presences for emotional sustenance. We also notice how cold she is with her sister Ismene. Could it be that Antigone is a woman-hating woman? Maybe... or maybe not. What's your take?
Why is Antigone so fearless? Interestingly, she seems empowered by her feeling that she’ll be cursed no matter what. Basically, Antigone has nothing to lose. This ship is going down. At times, she even expresses a seeming fervor to die. As she's led to her tomb, she characterizes Death, not Haemon, as her future husband. She describes her tomb as a bridal chamber:
Friends, countrymen, my last farewell I make;
My journey's done.
One last fond, lingering, longing look I take
At the bright sun.
For Death who puts to sleep both young and old
Hales my young life,
And beckons me to Acheron's dark fold,
An unwed wife.
No youths have sung the marriage song for me,
My bridal bed
No maids have strewn with flowers from the lea,
'Tis Death I wed. (806-813)
Though she also expresses fear, she definitely seems to be a little in love with death. Perhaps, it's because she's been around such tragedy all her life. Maybe, she's weary of her cursed, obligation-ridden life and just wants to return to her father and brothers. What do you think?