Morality is often regarded as objective, completely black and white. Although, the circumstances and consequences of actions broaden the picture and allow for condemnation or justification. Accusations of the extreme are polluted by one’s surroundings. The contextual power of culture and ingrained tradition supports multiple interpretations of morality. Sophocles’ Antigone demonstrates this truth. The understanding of women as inferior and undeserving of a voice is essential to the recognition of Antigone’s role in her society. The patriarchal system of Antigone’s time reduced the image of women to timid creatures who are incapable of making decisions, and are therefore undeserving of a platform for communication. Antigone defies her king and uncle in defense of her brother, a rebel of the state, yet in Antigone’s view her brother deserves a proper burial. Antigone’s bold claims allow her to assume a prominent position while facing her own death. This message would not have resonated in a culture that embraced women. Antigone lives in a world with a broken system, yet we argue that it is precisely this flaw that allows her to adopt her voice.
The story of Antigone demonstrates the paradoxical qualities of society. At times, tragedy is necessary to unveil the obvious. Additionally, there is no real resolution present in Antigone’s story. Kreon’s death signifies the lessons he has learned and the agony that his immoral actions have caused both him and others. Although, there is no overwhelming decision that surrounds Antigone’s central conflict: rules of order that seem to be in contradiction, such as power, family, fate, and obligation. The resonance that the behavior of Antigone bears upon her culture demonstrates the fragility of the system. Antigone’s righteous intentions fall in disagreement with the egotistical priorities of the men in her society, such as her uncle Kreon. It is precisely this personal disagreement that elevates her argument. Kreon is her uncle and Polyneices is his family too, although Kreon constructs a hierarchical system that secures his power. Antigone is the wrench thrown in the political works. Her issue is one of importance and universality, all members of her culture recognize the significance of family. This allows her character to develop her main claim and show the argument’s prominence through the manipulation of the system that she demonstrates. In her story, Antigone takes advantage of the insignificance of women and their words in order to dramatize her argument. Essentially, her status does not detract from her main point; it allows her to garner attention and use her “inferiority” successfully.
Women were seen as unfit members of a society. Their sole duty was obedience. Submission included the acceptance of the fact that they are inadequate and uninformed. This is a belief expressed by not only the men in the story, but also the women. Antigone is the exception to this belief, she openly defies all labels that are thrust upon her. Her valiance is depicted in contrast to the traditional women of her time, an archetype fulfilled by characters such as Ismene and Eurydice. During her conversation with Antigone about her plan, Ismene states, “No, we should be sensible: we are women, born unfit to battle men; and we are subjects, while Kreon is king” (Sophocles 73-75). Ismene’s definition of sensibility as related to womanhood is one of traditions; She recognizes her mediocrity willingly. First she states that this is inherent, they were “born unfit.” The secondary support for her defiance to Antigone is the fact that their uncle, Kreon is the leader. Naturally, Kreon’s mandate must not be questioned. Yet, on the basis of Ismene’s claim, a question arises: how is it that Kreon’s power is a secondary concern when compared to women’s lack of power? Another example of the fulfillment of traditional roles is Eurydice. Eurydice appears only briefly at the end of the play. She interacts with the messenger to discover that her son, Haimon has taken his own life. His suicide was brought about by the actions of her husband. Haimon was engaged to Antigone. His reaction to her death was so great that he took his own life. In turn, Eurydice also commits suicide as she cannot bear the grief a mother experiences upon the loss of her own child. Before the news of Eurydice’s suicide the messenger says that “She is intelligent. She will not do wrong” (Sophocles 1446). Koryphaios responds stating, “I think that too much silence is more serious than futile outcries” (Sophocles 1448-1449). Eurydice’s silence led to her downfall. Correspondingly, Antigone’s outcries led to her downfall. The fate of both of these women illustrates their fortitude among a flawed system. Antigone and Eurydice operated on both sides of the spectrum of social nonconformity, yet the consequences they suffered were not of their own foolishness. Eurydice chose silence and Antigone chose sound.
Kreon’s role as king heavily influences how he reacts to Antigone’s rebellion and how Antigone’s voice is able to shine among the darkness of her situation. As king Kreon’s duty is firstly and foremostly to uphold the rules, laws and edicts in order to maintain control over his kingdom and loyal subjects. However, the fact that Antigone—a woman no less—defies his commands is unacceptable and deserving of punishment. In order to keep his word he must sentence her to death, so that the kingdom knows that no one will be an exception to his edict. When speaking to his son Haimon, Kreon says: “I caught her in open rebellion, her alone out of all the nation. I won’t be a leader who lies to his people” (Sophocles, 796-798). Kreon’s role as a leader of his people is tested when the involvement of family interferes with his edict. He is caught in between loyalty to his family or loyalty to his word; unsurprisingly he chooses loyalty to his word and has Antigone arrested. Once she is brought before him, he questions her and asks if she is ashamed to have disputed his word. Antigone replies saying, “No, they keep silent to please you. Why should I be ashamed of loyalty to my brother?” (Sophocles, 623-624). Antigone defends her actions, knowing the full weight of her situation and understanding that her defiance will be met with consequences. She is able to use her powerful voice to refuse Kreon’s power and show that Kreon’s demeaning words paradoxically give her a platform to speak and rise above her circumstances.
By demeaning Antigone’s voice, Kreon paradoxically allows her to gain a platform to speak, whilst defying the standards set against her in the world she lives in. Kreon belittles Antigone and her sister Ismene when Ismene is brought to the king and told the fate of her sister. When confirming with Koryphaios that Antigone will die, Kreon says: “Now they’ll be have to be women and know their place. Even men, rash men, run when they see how close death is to life” (Sophocles, 716-718). Kreon nonchalantly diminishes Antigone and Ismene personally and makes Antigone’s actions seem beyond foolish when compared to rash men. He states that they need to “know their place” and submit to his authority. Antigone, however, refuses to “stay in her place” as many of the other women of her time would have and let her brother remain above ground without a proper burial. Not letting anyone stop her, Antigone throws all the rules out the window by defying Kreon and giving her ‘from the soul’ speeches as she is taken away to be killed. Kreon unintentionally allows Antigone to speak out against the injustice she faces because of her actions to allow her brother to have a proper passage into the next life when she is being led off to her death. Kreon is then represented as the broken ends of the system which their world lives in, in that a woman—no matter her status—is unable to receive the proper treatment and justice that a man would have received. Antigone eloquently says to the citizens as she is taken away, “now I have made you my witnesses: how, friendless, unmourned, I go to what strange funeral and under what kind of law” (Sophocles, 996-998). Antigone calls out Kreon’s ruling and questions the validity of the law and in turn, whoever enacted the law. Above all odds and expectations she is able to use her voice to make a cry for justice, while living in an unjust system. Burying her brother and going against the edict from Kreon, the actions of Antigone can be contributed to self-awareness, choices carried by the belief of pursuing freedom. Burying the body of close relatives is human nature, which doesn’t require the laws of gods to carry it out. Even though that is the reason that Antigone uses to argue with Kreon in the play, it can also be understood that she is only doing this because there is no one besides her for going against the order of Kreon. It is humanism that demands Antigone to perform what she has done. What has occured to Antigone is, in fact, the challenge from a broken system with its unreasonable rules, even Kreon has said in the play that “For the state is safety. When she is steady, then we can steer. Then we can love.” (Sophocles 227). However, in the mind of Antigone, she was born to “to love both (brothers) together.” (Sophocles 642). The ruthless system with its inhumane edicts is inevitably contradictory to the love of Antigone that is based on her humanism. Therefore, her pride does not allow her to yield. In the play, after hearing the argument of Antigone about her belief in the laws of gods, Ismene was not moved by her sister. She refused to work against the order of the king. Ismene’s action shows that even in Thebes at that time, Antigone did not have to do what she has done. The laws of gods are not a necessary belief, instead the choice of individuals are. It is Antigone herself who chose this action, this destiny. When Antigone is fully aware of the unfairness of the broken system, she looks for ways to improve it. From awareness of self to awareness of the world, to changing the world, it’s the awakening and evolving of human consciousness. It’s the evolution of humankind.
Antigone is not only trying to defend the family honor, to seek glory, but also to pursue moral perfection. Antigone’s death is solemn and stirring, but to her, such sacrifice is an honor. Just as Antigone said to Kreon in the play, “You, the nation’s leaders, look at the last daughter of the house of your kings, and see what I suffer at my mother’s brother’s hands for an act of loyalty and devotion.” (Sophocles 1095) She also said that “As I go, I nurse the hope in my heart that you, Father and Mother, will love me and be with me.” (Sophocles 1050) She clearly hopes her parents can be proud of what she did, which adds a layer to the character of Antigone and causes what Antigone does becomes more heroic, but burying her brother seems to be a strategy. She “sprinkled dust over” (Sophocles 311) the body of Polyneices, twice, instead of burying the body. At the same time of pursuing high standards of morality, Antigone is also trying to let what she pursues affect the broken system through her individual efforts. Since this effort is irrational and blinded, it is repelled by the semblance of order of the broken system. The action of Antigone, that has done in the name of defending family honor, is the guard of morality and humanity, the fulfillment and perfection of individual emotions, and the awakening and pursuit from the heart.
Throughout the play, there are a few characters that may seem out of place. These characters are the Chorus. The Chorus offers an outside and updated commentary on the action of the play, gives context, and connects the play to other myths. The Chorus in Antigone represents the people of Thebes. It consists of a group of old men who, in some way, represent the deeply embedded patriarchal society that Antigone defies.
At the beginning of the play, the Chorus supports Kreon, as he is the King of Thebes. Also, Kreon is trying to return to Thebes to stability after the attempt by Polynices to take Thebes from his brother, Eteokles. Similar to Kreon, the Chorus does not want to show leniency on anyone who would honor those who fought against Thebes. But during the play, something shifts in the Chorus and their views.
The first time we see the Chorus is when they explain the context of the play. They sing about the battle that has just been fought. We are also presented with the fact that the people of Thebes are furious at Polyneices for betraying and attacking them. This helps strengthen Kreon’s position about the traitor’s burial. But the second time we hear from the Chorus is the First Ode, which is considered to be the most famous choral ode in all of Greek Tragedy. This ode is more commonly known as “Ode to Man”. In it, the Chorus sings about the accomplishments of man and how “many marvels walk through the world, terrible, wonderful, but none more than humanity” (Sophocles 414-416). The list of the Chorus includes that humanity has built ships to sail and conquer the seas, has created tools to move the earth, have made animals bend to his will, and have built houses to stay away from the snow and rain. In this list, everything has a common thread: man asserting his will over nature. When the ode comes to an end, Sophocles ironically depicts Antigone who comes in with chains, a juxtaposition is presented as the Chorus has finished singing about the hate they have for rebellious people against Thebes. When Antigone appears at the end of the First Ode, it is almost as if she is the gods’ answer to the pride described in the Chorus’s song.
As the play continues on, the view of the Chorus begins to shift when Antigone was identified as the one who defied the decree. At first the members of the chorus act as loyal subjects, but as time progresses through the play and actions unfold, they break free from the binds of strict allegiance to their king, and begin to support what is right. They urge Kreon to reconsider the punishment announced the decree, causing Kreon to lose some support from the citizens of Thebes. The Chorus completes the shift after the prophecy was told that the gods and nature were offended by Kreon’s actions and stands on the side of Antigone, the support of the Chorus shifted to that of Antigone’s. The Chorus acknowledged that Antigone had power from the gods and they did not want to be on the opposing side. By switching views, the Chorus recognizes that she was going against the status quo of society.
Antigone was ahead of her time. Most of the women of her day had no rights at all in their male-dominated society. Girls were required to do whatever their dad says until they married and then would obey their husband. Throughout her life, we see Antigone defying the system. A system of separation and condemnation. Women in ancient Greece were generally fearful that rebelling against male authority would lead to unfortunate circumstances. Because Antigone went against the orders of Kreon, she showed female power in a patriarchal society. Antigone followed her beliefs on family and justice strongly, and ignored the threats of higher powers telling her to do otherwise. She embraced the responsibility of her actions, and did not try to hide the fact that she was rebelling. By making her own decision on defying the law, she shows that she was capable of being independent, and in the process created her own kind of communication platform that could be heard by every man.