by E.J. Lawrence
When I first brought up the notion of doing a blog that focused on women’s roles in ancient literature and history, K.P. Kulski and I tossed around several ideas of what we could call the site. I kid you not (this is how we knew this relationship was fated), she suggested “Antigone” at about the same time I was thinking it.
Ultimately, we decided on “Unbound” (playing off of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and also the idea of the binding and unbinding of hair), but I just couldn’t shake the Antigone reference, and how, when I first read the Ancient Greek play, Antigone became one of my top ten literary role models. Even though she is from a time centuries (millennia!) past, she now seems more relevant than ever. Thus, it seemed fitting for Antigone to kick off our look at great women in literature.
“She never learned to yield,”1 the chorus tells Creon in Antigone, referring to the titular character. Another translation says, “to the storm she bendeth not”2; and still another, “she knows not how to bend before trouble.”3
That line can pretty much tell you everything about why she is my literary role model. If you’ve never before read Antigone, you should. Right now.
Or perhaps, you can knock it out later… it’s a very short read, and you’ll find links to three different translations at the bottom of this post. I first encountered this play as a sophomore in high school, and I found it so incredibly…modern. I mean, no one can accuse the Ancient Greeks of being feminists — certainly not by modern standards, in any case. But Antigone offers us one of the most powerful female characters in all of literature.
To give you some context, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. Yes, that Oedipus–the one who killed his father and married his mother through a tragic act of fate. Side Note: I remember when we read Oedipus Rex as seniors, the boys were super grossed out. It was funny as a student. Then I became a teacher, and my department chair said, “Have them read this.” And that was the most uncomfortable teaching experience of my life.
That’s beside the point — you came to hear about Antigone. Antigone had two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. These two brothers went to war and killed each other, leaving no direct heir of Oedipus to take the throne (gotta love a good Greek tragedy). Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is the next in line, ordering that Eteocles (whose side Creon agreed with) would receive a hero’s burial, while Polyneices (whose side Creon did not agree with) would receive no burial whatsoever, and be left to the birds and dogs. Ouch.
Now, you have to understand a few things about Ancient Greek culture to fully get the weight of this. The main point being, no burial = no afterlife. Creon isn’t just saying Polyneice’s body can be eaten by carrion birds . . . he’s saying Polyneice’s soul can never find rest. He’s damning him to an eternal punishment, one not confined to physical torment. The spiritual torment in this case is far, far worse.
Furthermore, whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will himself be condemned as a traitor. Angered by this denial of her brother’s soul, Antigone resolves to bury him, sneaking out at night and sprinkling dirt on his corpse. The first night, the sentries brush off the dirt and then report the act to Creon, who flies into a rage, accusing his guards of doing it themselves and threatening their lives if they don’t bring forth the perpetrator.
They soon catch Antigone in the act, as she goes back to bury her brother’s body again. She’s brought before Creon and condemned to death. Everyone, including his son (Antigone’s fiancé), tries to reason with him, but Creon, in the throes of power, is beyond reason.
In true Greek tragedy fashion, the play ends with the death of everyone Creon has ever loved, leaving him, the tyrant, alone with the realization that he is the instrument of his own suffering.
“Wow, E.J.,” you say. “That sounds morbidly depressing, and what on earth does that have to do with this blog you’ve set up, celebrating the roles of powerful women in literature and history?”
I’m so glad you asked. Antigone, at its core, is about the dangers of pride and overreaching. Creon believes himself to be the ultimate law, but Antigone knows the laws of the gods are higher, and she resolves herself to follow them, not Creon. To say Antigone is courageous almost understates her resistance. Here, I’ll try and show you what I mean:
Antigone proves that there is no fear in doing the right thing. Okay, that sounds a bit moralistic. I get it. Yet…that’s the beauty of her story. Standing there, before Creon–the man who holds her life in his hand–and saying, “All these men here would praise me if their lips were not frozen shut with fear of you. Ah, the good fortune of kings. Licensed to say and do whatever they please!”4
Dang, girl. She not only tells him she’s not backing down, but she calls out Creon’s tyranny and the cowardice of the men around her, all in a single breath.
Creon responds in kind, saying that she is the one guilty of a crime, not them.
She persists with “There is no guilt in reverence for the dead.”5
Everything about her says she stands on solid moral ground. Ultimately, the tragedy of this play is Creon’s, not Antigone’s. Sophocles makes it clear that Antigone follows a law that exists above even the King of the land, and in following the natural law (the law of the gods), Antigone, for all Creon’s bluster, is right.
There’s nothing overblown about her rightness; no real smugness or flying at Creon in a rage. No fear or even anything close to backing down.
She doesn’t have to.
And that’s why I love Antigone. Her strength is more than just some flippant human nature rebellion against authority; rather, she stands firm in her conviction that true justice prevails.
In the end, Antigone, her fiancé Haimon, and her aunt Euridice all lie dead because of Creon’s rash decree, and we the audience are left with these final words from the Chorus:
“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom
No submission but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.”7
The reasoning in this last stanza, even when compared to varying translations, is so poetic. You can’t be happy without wisdom; wisdom means being humble; “proud men” can never stay that way. Therefore (to honor the Greeks and make this a syllogism), pride is always foolish. In the end, natural justice will prevail, raising up the humble and laying low the prideful fools.
I mean, for a tragedy, it actually ends on a great note of hope. The common English proverb says, “Pride goes before a fall.”8 It’s reassurance that, in the end, the proud engineer their own destruction.
I like happy endings. Hopeful conclusions. Stories where doing the right thing means the good guys win. But sometimes, life doesn’t always work out that way.
Still, even though Antigone’s story ends in her death, her untimely demise in no way detracts from her boldness, her conviction.
Do the right thing. Always. The world promises you no reward for it, but it does promise you self-respect.
“I dared,” Antigone says when Creon expresses surprise that she defied his decree. “[Yours] was not God’s proclamation… I knew I must die, even without your decree. I am mortal…This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left by brother in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.”6
Incredible. Her refusal to suffer under tyrannical, unnatural law is what gives her freedom and peace. When she lives under the freedom of doing what is right, no one, not even a king, can has the power of death over her. No wonder she will not yield to Creon’s storm…the power he holds is far less sufficient than her own.
May we all stand as strong in the storm.
- Fitts, Dudley and Robert Fitzgerald. Antigone. Line 376. https://mthoyibi.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/antigone_2.pdf
- Murray, George Gilbert Aimé. Antigone. vv. 477-500.
- Jebb, R.C. Antigone. no lines.
- Fitts and Fitzgerald lines 369-372
- line 406
- lines 399-403
- lines 1039-1042
- Though the common phrase is “Pride goes before a fall,” the actual verse states: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18, The Holy Bible, New International Version