One of the most popular and enduring dramas of all time, Sophocles Antigone has intrigued and provoked audiences for nearly 2500 years through its heartbreaking story of a tragedy that could have been avoided if it were not for the inalterable wills of its two main characters. Even in light of its absorbing tale, however, it might be said that what keeps us coming back to this great work is that its central theme is one of mankinds oldest and greatest strugglesthe conflict between mans law and divine law.
The characterization of this struggle is very evident in the play, with Creon acting on behalf of civic law and Antigone on behalf of divine law. Creon can be seen early on defending his decree against Polynices as a patriotic duty. In his first speech, after giving the order, he closes by explaining: Such is my purpose, and never by any deed of mine shall the base be held in higher honor than the just. But he who is a friend to this city shall be honored by me as such in death as in life (206-210).
Antigone also shows her viewpoint early in the play when admonishing her sister Ismene for not sharing in her conviction about burying their brother Polynices, saying: Be what you please; I shall bury him. It will be fine for me to die in doing that. I shall lie with him, a loved one with a loved one, guilty of a righteous crime But if you think it right, be guilty of dishonoring the things that the gods honor (70-78). So we see from the very beginning that this play is about the struggle between god and man, and about whose law comes first.
But this play also can wash over us too quickly if we do not stop to see whether or not the characters truly act in accordance with what they say. In reading this play, it is too easy to consider Antigone as being a devoutly religious woman who was martyred for standing up to a cruel king who had issued a decree that went directly against the laws of the gods. But was Antigone truly championing the will of the gods, or did she believe in the moral uprightness of her actions to the extent that in her mind she turned those actions into the will of the gods
First of all we should consider the attempts by Ismene to restrain Antigone from embarking upon her mission. She asks that Antigone consider the damage already done to their family, as well as the legal ramifications of this unlawful act. When accused by Antigone of dishonoring the gods she replies, I do not dishonor them, but I have no means of acting in defiance of the citizens (79). So early on we see Ismene questioning the motives of Antigone.
So we see that Ismene does not disagree with Antigone that their brother should be buried, but instead that she believes that it is not so good to bury the dead that it justifies the death of another. Not only does this early dialogue suggest that there is opposition to Antigones plan, but also the cruel nature of her last reply hints that she may be driven more by an intense rage than by love of the gods. Next we should look at the view of the commoners, represented by the chorus, toward Antigone.
Antigone claims that the common people are with her, saying of her moral ideals, It is their view also, but they keep their mouths shut for you (509). It is important for the success of Antigones arguments that her view is agreed with since there was no holy book for the ancient Greeks to look to for answers. Throughout the course of the play, however, the chorus looks down upon her actions and is taken aback by her motives. Even at the time of her death, the chorus make no bones about their view of her actions saying, Advancing to the limit of daring, you stumbled with your foot, child, against the high pedestal of Right (855-6).
And so through Ismene and the Chorus we see that the view of the public is that Antigone is filled with rage and that her actions are imprudent. The final step to examining Antigones theological beliefs is to look at the consequences of her actions. It should be noted that the only direct results of her actions are her death, coupled with the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice. Also note that when Tiresias tells Creon the will of the gods he says that Polynices should be buried (e. g. Give way to the dead, and do not stab a fallen man.
Where is the prowess in rekilling the dead (1029-30)) and he prophesies misfortune for Creon. But what is most notable about his prophecies is what is not said. Although it is the will of the gods that Polynices be buried, Antigone is not mentioned at all in her quest to do this. If this is the will of the gods even absent of Antigones actions, then should we not assume that the gods would have had him buried regardless of them Also, Creon is eventually punished for his actions, but once again what did not happen is more notable in that Antigone is in no way rewarded for her actions.
Throughout Antigone, Sophocles has left us many clues as to the validity of the theological position that the title character held. We are disposed through our Judeo-Christian society to view Antigone as a woman who breaks the law because of a religious conviction and is thereby martyred, and, as such, as a woman deserving of awe and respect. Through the text he has left us, however, Sophocles shows that he had a much different conception of Antigones nature and of the validity of her actions.
In the end though, we should acknowledge that regardless of whether Antigones theology was correct and her actions were the will of the gods, she never gave up the ferocity of her conviction that they were–even to the moment of her burial when she uttered these final words: Oh Theban land, city of my fathers, and oh my ancestral gods, they are taking me away; the time has come. Lords of Thebes, behold me, sole remnant of your royal house; behold how I am treated, and by what manner of men, for doing reverence where reverence was do (939-42).