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The character of Antigone is one of the most extraordinary portraits in classical Greek drama. It occupies a unique place in the consciousness of western civilization, from the ancient Greeks to the present. Sophocles’ Antigone (like his later play, Electra) focuses on a strong-willed woman who wins the respect of the audience by her unyielding adherence to an ideal, regardless of the consequences.
The obstinacy of both Antigone and Electra and their unwavering commitment to a sacred purpose continue to captivate modern audiences. While Electra’s purpose is to avenge her father’s murder, Antigone insists on burying her dead brother, Polynices. Antigone sets her intractable will against the forces of fate. It is her inner strength that enables her to resist manipulation by those who try to draw her away from her purpose.
For most of the play, Antigone contemplates death stoically and remains morally undefeated. Sophocles portrays in Antigone a figure through whom he can express his faith in the tremendous spiritual potential of humankind. He endows his heroine with the noblest qualities of mind, heart and soul, setting her up as the highest ideal for all humanity. Her highly developed consciousness stands above and outside all of human law. She makes the supreme sacrifice of giving up her life to uphold what she believes is right.
Antigone possesses a well-developed sense of duty based on family ties. It is this which prompts her to decide that she must bury Polynices’ body. She is keenly aware of the fact that divine law ordains that a corpse must be buried with the appropriate religious rites. (The Greeks firmly believed that a soul could not enter the Underworld after death unless the burial ceremonies were properly conducted.) Furthermore, Antigone insists on giving her brother a decent burial because it is the last right that every human being is entitled to. It is a social obligation owed to the dead by the living.
From the opening scene onwards, the audience sympathizes with Antigone completely. She permits no doubts to undermine her decision and allows no hesitation to deter her from her course of action.
However, conflicts do arise, not from doubts within herself, but due to her relationships with the other characters that surround her: Ismene, Haemon and Creon. The first conflict occurs when Antigone asks Ismene to join her in burying their dead brother and Ismene refuses because she does not want to give up her life. In rejecting Ismene’s argument for life, Antigone resists the conventional temptation of the pleasures of youth. She is also able to resist the call of love, for in choosing to die, she eliminates her chance of marrying Haemon, to whom she is betrothed.
It is Antigone’s encounter with Creon that brings out her strengths. Creon’s world of material and physical power cannot stand up to the idealistic strength of Antigone’s greater world of spiritual power. In the climactic scene of the play between Creon and Antigone, one witnesses how her towering will remains firm, calm and composed while Creon is reduced to a quivering mass of rage and slighted vanity.
She is not the mere mad woman that Creon takes her to be. Her stubborn defiance of his authority merely underscores the sacred tenet embodied in Antigone’s character: individual conscience and morality stand far above any man-made law. Yet one must not understand Antigone to be a perfect character. She is no saint: she is infuriatingly stubborn and cannot be swayed from any decision she has set her mind to.
Some critics have accused Antigone of being a martyr. She combats Creon’s interrogation with an almost unheard of insolence towards civil authority. She obeys “the infallible, unwritten laws of heaven” although she knows that her determination to do her duty towards her unburied brother will bring her an unjust death. But, as Antigone herself says, death is no great pity: “Who does not gain by death/ That lives, as I do, amid boundless woe?” And she strikes out effectively against Creon’s poor judgment when she says: “I am foolish only in the judgment of a fool.”
In the final analysis, Sophocles humanizes Antigone. As she goes out to meet her death, she appears almost like Christ, who, on the eve of his death, agonized over it in the garden of Gethsemane. She speaks movingly of her impending death and of the fact that she has lived an incomplete life, for she has:
“.......never known Or married joy or tender motherhood. But desolate and friendless I go down Alive, O horror, to the vaults of the dead.”
Surely Antigone’s obstinacy and insolence for the right cause is far more admirable than Creon’s opinionated defense of the wrong cause. Antigone does not choose to stand idly by and watch an evil world roll on in its heartless, mindless grind. She prefers to die a glorious and stoic death.