Antigone Literary Analysis
Antigone is another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing the Polis (public life) with the Oikos (private life). While religion was mandated by the government in ancient Greece, things like funerals were still seen as things to be handled within the sphere of the individual household. As stated in the play, ancient Greeks viewed the body of the deceased to still be important to that person in the next world. If they were not buried, their soul would be forced to live on earth, unable to get any peace by passing on to the underworld. It was seen as the worst possible punishment to leave someone out to rot when they had died, and by standards of Greek politics, it would have been viewed as unreasonably harsh even to make an out-and-out traitor to the state suffer such a fate, let alone simply a Greek noble who had simply taken the losing side in a civil war.
Shakespeare borrows many of these principles from Antigone in his work, Hamlet. Once again, the problem of how to treat the dead, and what sort of afterlife to sentence them to, becomes a matter of political intrigue. Polynices died politically unpopular, and therefore he was damned by his survivors. Because the victors write the history books, he was deemed to be unworthy of an afterlife, which was the cause of much religious outrage. The ancient Greeks would have seen Creon’s punishment as just for having flown in the face of the gods, using his government powers to violate religious law. This third sphere, the sphere of the divine, is one that was supposed to take precedent over both the Polis and the Oikos. The drowning of Ophelia turns the scenario on its side. In this case, because she is of noble and respected heritage, Ophelia is given a proper burial even though it is against religious law to do so because she is a suicide, and suicides are to be punished with damnation. But once again, the realm of divine law is infringed upon by political interests in controlling who goes where for the afterlife.
Another important theme in Antigone is the question of whether to make any sacrifices, including of all the nobility and pride that makes one themselves, in order to stay alive, or whether to die with one’s humanity intact (to be or not to be?). Antigone represents the epitome of the side that says one should be willing to stand by their principles even in the face of death, for those around her made the decision to retreat and live as easy as humanly possible. She could easily have had a comfortable life had she backed down. Haemon also represents this stance. He challenged his father to hold himself to a higher standard than to simply do what was necessary to hold on to his power and spare bloodshed. Bear in mind, ancient Greece was a civilization based on religion and military, two strong institutions that demand putting aside the interests of one’s own life.
Creon represents what the normative standards of the day would have regarded as cowardice. He is content to stay alive and stay comfortable, and has no regard for principles. He even goes so far as to let himself be swallowed up in fatalism if it meant allowing himself to let his family die so he could comfortably maintain his rule. Ismene is another example of this philosophy earlier on. She at least has some compassion and understanding for Polynices’ predicament, but she will not go so far as to risk her own life. Later, however, she has more resolve, but it is too late for anything to be done for her brother.
Fatalism and the role of fate comprises another major theme in Antigone. Several characters alternately embrace it and then reject it as it fits the plot and moves it forward. Even this, the fact that the plot must unfold in a certain direction regardless of inconsistency, can be viewed as a form of maintaining a fatalist course. The chorus in the beginning says that the entire story is laid out and cannot be changed due to the nature of tragedy. Later, they argue against Creon, as if there is hope (a concept they earlier despised). Creon, of course, is the other great convenient fatalist. He starts out as hopeful, thinking that he can reason Antigone out of going through with her plan. But as soon as he realizes she will not be moved, he decides that he cannot be moved either when Haemon tries to talk him out of killing Antigone. Only Antigone herself remains a consistent fatalist- from the beginning to end of the play she is constant in her acceptance of death.
Source for this analysis and plot summary of Antigone by Sophocles:
Sophocles. Antigone. Plays: One. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen, 1987. 77-139.