Antigone the Unheroic
Sophocles is considered by many literary critics to be among the very greatest dramatists in history, mostly for the emotion and depth in his characters and the powerful social messages contained in his plots. He is most notable as a master of the tragedy, a form of drama that focuses upon the trials and tribulations of one particular tragic hero. What is unusual about his play Antigone is that the story features the downfalls of not one but two such unlucky protagonists - specifically, King Creon and the title character, Antigone. Interestingly enough, these two characters personify the opposing sides of the most fundamental philosophical controversy contained in the drama, the issue of religious law versus state law. However, perhaps because the resolution of the play seems to favor Antigone’s ethics, representing the precedence of the Divine, over Creon’s, representing the State, one cannot consider Sophocles’ treatment of the two viewpoints as egalitarian. Indeed, while clear connections can be made from the flawed Creon to the tragic hero as defined by Aristotle in The Poetics, such connections from the character Antigone are far less apparent. Because her fate, despite being an unfortunate one, does not follow Aristotle’s pattern of an archetypal tragedy, Antigone cannot truly be considered the tragic hero of the play.
One important aspect of Aristotelian tragedy lacking in Antigone’s fate is the concept of anagnorisis, or a change to knowledge from ignorance on the part of the hero or heroine. In general, a tragic hero does not understand the nature of their destiny until a particular, well-defined moment in the play. However, Antigone says in the very first scene, “...; I will bury my brother; / And if I die for it, what happiness! / Convicted of reverence – I shall be content / To lie beside a brother whom I love, / ...” (128)*. Here, the woman is very clearly recognizing what it is she will do – and must do – for her brother, embracing the necessity of her own demise. In contrast, Aristotle’s tragic heroine must experience a moment of true recognition, when she comes to understand her “place in the scheme of things.” Certainly, if Antigone understands exactly the fate to which she will succumb from the moment of her decision, she cannot undergo such a moment of anagnorisis. But this can be further reinforced by considering her lamentation in Episode Four, during which the Chorus, representing society, empathizes with her suffering. In this section of the play, Antigone certainly feels sorrow over her fate, yet she also anticipates the welcoming arms of her father, mother, and brothers as an almost-joyful greeting to her in the underworld. This demonstrates that her decision to disobey Creon’s edict was well thought out, and that she knew and accepted all of the likely consequences even before she performed the burial. A true tragic hero, like Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, however, must not fully realize these consequences until his or her moment of anagnorisis. Finally, Antigone’s final speech of the play, at the end of the fourth Episode, is a clear rebuke of Creon, representing a well-planned attitude of martyrdom on her behalf. By sacrificing herself for what she believes to be the will of the gods, Antigone is both evoking the pity of the Theban populace and antagonizing Creon. Again, this merely reinforces the fact that Antigone knew full well just what her place in the grand scheme things was and was entirely willing to meet this destiny voluntarily. Because such understanding throughout the play contradicts the foundation of the concept of anagnorisis, Antigone must be eliminated as a tragic heroine, even in this single aspect of what Aristotle defines in The Poetics.
Related to the lack of anagnorisis in Antigone’s downfall is her lack of a clear reversal of fortune, or what Aristotle called the peripete. One element of this lack is that she does not begin the play as renowned or prosperous, two of Aristotle’s prerequisites for a tragic hero. Because of this, Antigone’s downfall at the hands of destiny serves not to reverse the tides of fortune, but to continue the pattern of sadness and oppression in her life. Not only does this contradict the required peripeteia or reversal that is found in a true tragic hero or heroine’s story, but it opposes the very spirit of tragedy itself. Specifically, tragedy is dependant upon the audience’s empathy for the tragic hero to evoke more powerful emotions in the viewers’ hearts. When the tragic heroine falls from moderate trials to the very severest of adversity, this empathy is not as accentuated within the audiences’ minds. As such, Antigone’s lack of fortune at the beginning of the play demonstrates the absence of the concept of peripeteia in her story, a lack that has profound consequences upon the audience’s perception of her as a heroine. In addition, however, Antigone is a drama entirely concerned not with a reversal of fortunes but with a fulfillment of a prior destiny; specifically, Antigone’s fall represents a final blow to the house of Oedipus, rubbing salt in the prophetic wounds of long ago. As the Chorus states in the second Ode, “In life and in death is the house of Labdacus (Oedipus’ grandfather) stricken. / Generation to generation / With no atonement, / It is scourged by the wrath of a god. / ...” (142). This quote summarizes for the audience the plagued nature of the lives of Oedipus’ descendents, a predestined web of sorrow in which Antigone cannot help but be trapped. Since the very essence of this family curse is its longevity and unabating nature, an unhappy destiny for Antigone is not a reversal, but a continuation of fortune. Lastly, there is the Chorus’s fourth Ode, which again emphasizes Antigone’s own lack of power at the hands of Fate. In particular, the Chorus compares Antigone’s situation to those of other mythical woman who had been condemned to imprisonment or death, fates which they, like Antigone, were entirely unable to escape. The heart of this Ode is the concept of Fate as unrelenting and unchanging, a distinct contradiction to the peripeteic idea of a reversal of fortune. In general, because Antigone makes no clear transition from success to suffering at the hands of a switch in her destiny, her story does not conform to the tragic figure of peripeteia, another of Aristotle’s requirements for the tragic hero or heroine.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sophocles’ portrayal of Antigone does not fit her into the mold which characterizes true tragic heroes. First, as previously discussed, Antigone does not begin the play as a “renowned and prosperous” figure. This eliminates one of the simplest requirements for a tragically heroic character, namely, that they fall to doom from an initial position in which the audience can look up to or admire them. Antigone, however, begins the play as a forlorn woman who has lost most of her family and all of her earthly success to the curse on Oedipus’ line. As such, it is impossible for the audience to admire or appreciate her life before her tragic fall, making the feelings of empathy they have for her far weaker and the decreasing the effectiveness of the play. Another issue with Antigone’s characterization that makes it unlikely she would be the tragic hero of the play is her role as a powerful, impassioned woman in a society that is ruled by men. As Aristotle discusses in The Poetics, the valor and fortitude Antigone displays in the face of adversity might be heroic in a male figure, but in the context of a male-dominated culture, seems overly bold and audacious. In general, tragic heroes and heroines remain appropriate to the cultural schemes of which they are a part. Despite the obvious obsolescence of this sexist worldview, it would be folly to reinterpret the very foundation of Antigone to fit into modern society’s reevaluation of gender roles. Since it is unlikely Sophocles’ people would have accepted Antigone’s character as a proper example of a woman, one should be reluctant to identify her as the tragic hero, for this inappropriateness would further interfere with the audience’s feelings of empathy for her.
A last essential aspect of Aristotle’s tragic heroes and heroines is that they be flawed in and of themselves, possessing a particular weakness that the philosopher referred to as harmartia. Considering Antigone’s actions, however, she possesses no such flaw in her character, except a stubborn refusal to accept Creon’s Law over that of the gods. While this stubbornness could ordinarily be considered an instance of the tragic flaw, in Antigone it is instead treated as a particularly strong aspect of the heroine’s personality. A prime example of this treatment is the Chorus’ support of her in Episode 4: “But glory and praise go with you, lady, / ... / ... you have gone your way / To the outermost limit of daring / And have stumbled against Law enthroned. / ...” (148-149). While still implicitly supporting Creon’s judgment, the Chorus nevertheless serves to elevate Antigone for her strength and perseverance in a hopeless cause. In this manner is Antigone’s stubbornness less a flaw than a blessing, for her uncompromising adherence to her principles is something one would do well to emulate rather than avoid. Overall, Antigone possesses a variety of traits that contradict what is expected of a tragic hero by audiences and by Aristotle, making it impossible for her to play this role in Sophocles’ drama.
It is because of these very discrepancies between Antigone’s fate and that of a traditional tragic hero that she cannot be thought of as the central figure of the drama. This is reasonable, because all of the qualities of a tragic hero can be found elsewhere in Antigone: specifically, King Creon possesses all of the required traits. Because of the pitiable, alien nature of Antigone’s character, it is more difficult for the audience to empathize with her than with a well-intentioned but misguided hero like Creon. Distinctions like this one, and the associated decisions about plot, style, and dialogue that must be made by a playwright, are what define Sophocles as a master of tragedy and drama in general. Certainly, the powerful emotions experienced by both the audience and the characters are what make Antigone so notable as an example of great literature. Truly, there are many lessons to be learned about humans and their ability to come to terms with their destinies from the work of Sophocles and from other of the great tragedies in history.
* All quotations are taken from
Sophocles. Trans. Watling, E.F. The Theban Plays. New York: Penguin Classics, 1947.