Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Classics Club: Antigone

For this month's Let's read Plays, I read Antigone by Sophocles.  A shortish play that forms part of the Theban plays, together with Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus.  

It is a tragedy, as many of Sophocles' plays, but with a slight twist:  here the main character is a woman, a woman defying the limitations of her gender at the time, a woman ready to accept the consequences of her actions.

Her father is dead, her brothers are dead, and Antigone is now left alone with her sister Ismene.  But while Ismene is the typical fairy creature, Antigone is a boyish creature (she reminded me of Joan of Arc), wishing to go beyond the rights given to her gender.  But her uncle Creon, who is now king, will not allow for this.  She is to marry his son, Antigone's cousin, Haemon and do great things for Thebes.

Antigone, however, has different views.  Her brothers died a vicious death, trying to kill each other for the throne of Thebes.  Creon only buried one of the brothers, Eteocles, leaving the second to rot in the elements - something against the customs of the time.

While this is a compact play, there is a variety of themes across the story:  should the family / moral values supersede those imposed by the establishment in the city? for whatever reasons, Creon has banned the citizens from covering Polynices and has even warned anyone with severe punishment.  Still, Antigone cannot let this deter her from her sacred duty towards her family.  Not only that, she's willing to accept her punishment and she will even go against her sister, who's trying to reason with her.  But therein comes the second theme:  that of blind arrogance.  Both Antigone and Creon believe their side of the story the correct is.  The difference between them is that Creon becomes so consumed with his anger towards the "insubordination" of Antigone, that he orders his guards to keep a close leash on both sisters so that they... behave like women again (*insert slight sneer*).

But the biggest theme must be the curse of the house of Oedipus.  All three of the tragedies are very detailed on the misfortunes that befall on the last remaining members of the family, Antigone and Ismene.  They cannot escape:  ever since the glorious victory of Oedipus and his marriage to Jocasta, disaster has remained in this house, "eating up" its members one by one.    But the play also makes a case for love:  Haemon tries to make Creon see reason and not bury Antigone alive and even hints at a possible suicide if Creon doesn't change his mind.  While by today's standards all this would be considered overwhelming and irrational, it is the purpose of this tragedy to show that humans have limited capabilities, their emotions can be destructive and only the fate dictated by the gods should be their guiding light. The only way to convey this message is to exaggerate and present all the horrible results if humans do not abide.
Even the end reads like a list of lessons learnt:  pride can be damaging, wisdom is welcome, obedience to gods compulsory and most important of all:  there is no purpose in violence...

Also read for the 2013 Back to the Classics challenge

Sophocles' Antigone (in both Greek and English) is available on Project Gutenberg.    
This post will also be published on Project Gutenberg Project.


  1. I have an Antigone obsession. This story resonates with me and I still feel for all the loss and damage. Before reading the "original version" by Sophocle, I had first discovered it through its modernized version by Jean Anouilh, which I heartily recommend.

    1. Actually, as I was looking for a cover to include on this post, I realised that there was this version as well! I agree, the themes in this play are very thought-provoking -- glad you liked it!

  2. I like your description in Greek tragedy and the ending. Oedipus is the only I've read from Sophocles. I might read Antigone someday. And...(confession), all these times I thought Antigone is a male! *blushing*

    1. no worries - all the more reasons to read it now!




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