Sophocles’ Antigone – An analysis

Sophocles’ Antigone, the play dealing with the Theban Post-Oedipus problems, highlights the conflicting viewpoints and philosophy of two women, Antigone and Ismene, set against each other through the trials of fate. As is the classic Greek way, neither stance is necessarily wrong. Both contain within themselves a logical thought process, they merely travel on different lines.

Sophocles’ Antigone begins with the news that Antigone and Ismene’s two brothers (Eteocles and Polynices)  have perished  while fighting each other in battle. Since Eteocles fought on the side of Thebes, and Polynices was the aggressor against his own city, on their deaths Eteocles was granted full burial rights while Polynices was deemed a traitor.

As per Greek law, a traitor’s body is to be left out to rot, to be consumed by dogs and crows, and the crime of burying a traitor against the order of the State is punishable by death.

Keeping in mind the recent turmoil the state has undergone with first Laertes, then Oedipus and now Eteocles and Polynices being disposed of due to a variety of reasons, Creon, who had taken over the throne in the meantime, thought it best to restore law and order by following the letter of the law blindly. Hence, Eteocles was buried with full honors and Polynices’ body was left unattended.

Until this point in Sophocles’ Antigone, the play had been pretty phallogocentric, but at this point Antigone and Ismene emerge from the peripheries to uncover the integral dilemma of the play.

Antigone has seen her father struggle to find a solution to Thebe’s plague, only to find that he himself was the cause. She has discovered that she was birthed from an incestuous marriage bed. She has borne the grief of her mother’s suicide and her father’s self-imposed exile. And lastly, she watched her own brothers hack each other to death. The last straw was Creon’s order that Polynices was not to be given his burial rights. Under Greek religion, that is as good as consigning him to an eternity in limbo, as the burial rites are essential to guarantee the safe passage of a soul into the Underworld.

Antigone, given the ordeals already suffered, decides that she will bear no further and puts her foot down. Her point is poignantly made. Earthly life, she reasons, is but a blip in existence, the afterlife is eternal. Therefore, a sacrifice on her part in this world is a small price to pay in order to purchase with it eternal peace for her brother’s soul. Here, the classic case of Religion vs State is brought out, where the futility of imposing a law upon a person who believes in an eternal afterlife is revealed through a dialogue between Antigone and Creon. Antigone has been perceived by many to be a feminist figure, combating at once the Law, her status as a woman in a patriarchal kingdom and the pleas of her family. She exudes strength, determination and conviction and, fully knowing her path leads to death, nevertheless resolves to do what she feels is right. Keeping in mind the status of women in Greek times, her character would be borderline scandalous and downright blasphemous in the eyes of the orthodoxy.

Ismene presents the perfect counterfoil to Antigone in the play. She has suffered through all that Antigone has, but she deals with it in a way that is more in keeping with the Greek ideal of what a woman should be. She accepts that Polynices has been dealt an unjust punishment, and she sympathizes with Antigone’s sentiments, however she does not see the benefit in compounding the familial woes by revolting against Creon’s judgement and being put to death. She is of the view that a woman’s place is to suffer in silence. She has no place in politics or law-making, and she is powerless to influence matters in a patriarchal society. She chooses the path of prudence and remains silent, though in her heart she bears the same regret about how things have turned out with her brother.

In a modern reading, the readers will view Antigone as the brave revolutionary figure, while Ismene will cop criticism as a cowardly figure who reinforces the subjugation of women.

However, there is another way of viewing this. Antigone’s path, though undoubtedly heroic, did not achieve much and led only to her death and compounded woes for her family and the kingdom at large. Ismene chose prudence and caution, and regardless of whether the motive was fear or otherwise, the fact remains that she survived and thus still had some influence, however minimal, on how things may turn out. A survivor has options before him/her, a martyr is already dead.

In this way, through the juxtaposition of Antigone and Ismene’s characters, Sophocles outlined two paths that can be taken at any given moral decision, with almost equal justification for both, as an almost eerie prediction of Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of radical freedom.

Which choice is the right one to make depends entirely on the kind of person you are and the values you hold dear. But Sophocles’ Antigone shows us that there is an Antigone and an Ismene in all of us and it is up to us to as to which path we choose to honor with our efforts.

Dice

In her sacred seat atop the hills
She whiles away the days
Amongst the blooming daffodils
Where all but love decays

From my lonely room, I gaze without
To view the starlit skies
Smog invades and obscures the route
Hope withers, then dies

Tinged with tinctures of delight
Her lilting voice beguiles
Her words betray keen foresight
Her lips betray a smile

Harsh, from bemoaning every trial
That Fortune throws my way
I frown, secure, in obdurate denial
And my frown is here to stay

Weaver of Fates, what madness took you
To thus unite our threads
To banish the solace and the virtue
Of solitude from our heads

Whence will come the resolution
Of dissonance with clarity
Of unity with dissolution
Of Ego with charity?

Why force two opposites together
When both stay wilfully apart
Why bind two souls with one tether
When only one contains a heart?

Were it your will to end this game
It would be over in a trice
But you persist, and you’re alone to blame
God, alas, plays dice.

Theseus’ Paradox

Every day, I lose a bit,

Every day I grow anew;

Every cartilage still fits,

Every symmetrical sinew.

 

Where are all the parts I lost?

Are they still a part of me?

What is my production cost?

Who composed my symphony?

 

Is my entity complete

Without the parts that went away?

Does my unity deplete

Further with every passing day?

 

And what of the replenishing stock

Of cells that now make up my frame,

That mark the progress of the clock

That ticks eternal ‘gainst my name?

 

Do they possess an equal claim

As those who left me in the lurch

To share in my immortal fame,

To pour libations in my church?

 

Why am I not viewed as one,

But a manifest multitude?

Why haven’t I dominion

Over my self created brood?

 

Do I grow or just break apart?

From whom is this judgement due?

And when I cease my beating heart,

Who, mortals, will be judging you?

Unravelled

Two strands of Fate, once entwined,
Set out their destinies to unravel;
To find what freedom they could find,
To travel where they longed to travel;
Into nothingness traversing blind,
To submit to Escape’s mighty gavel.

They weren’t the first to choose that path,
But those before had left no signs,
No guidebook to escape Reality’s wrath,
No landmark that their route defines,
To soak their selves in the bloodbath
Where matter and anti-matter combines.

They happened across a kindly sage
And stopped to hear what he would say;
And hoped the wisdom that comes with age
Would help prevent them going astray;
And hope his discerning eye would gauge
Their plight and help show them the way.

“Pardon me, sir, we need some direction,
We search for death or obscurity,
Where no parent frowns on imperfection
And no priest insists on purity,
Where there is no chance of resurrection,
And oblivion is a surety.”

The sage replied, “Death is not hard
To find at all, I hardly think you two,
Whose minds I hold in high regard,
Have ever harbored any intention to
Take measures to ignominiously discard
That shell that your soul suffers through.”

The two sat in silent, stricken wonder,
At the sage’s omniscient sight,
And answered, voices dark as thunder,
“’Tis true, death gives us no delight,
We seek body and soul thus to surrender,
That our body lives but soul takes flight.”

“Ah”, said the sage, “The truth at last.
So that’s where you two wish to go,
Insanity, the refuge of the harassed,
The shelter from intellectual vertigo,
The world that offers grim repast
To thirsting hearts drunk with woe.”

“Of life, of reason, of expectation,
Where is oblivion, where the end?
I will show you the way to your destination,
But pray you don’t reap the dividend
Of this flirtation with abnegation;
Insanity, you’ll find, is just round the bend.“