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Classical works of literature usually share a common element: a memorable main character. Classics feature central characters with vivid, distinct personalities and strong points of view about the world around them. These characters often serve as the reader’s eyes and ears, providing a compelling vessel through which to observe the events of the novel. Many books become classics because they tend to express a universal truth about how humans perceive the world around them.

A true classic stands the test of time, finding modern audiences regardless of the period in which it was originally written. Classical literature begs to be read multiple times, revealing the new depth and meaning upon each subsequent reading. Classic novels tend to deal with timeless, universal themes. Whether it’s the eternal struggle of good vs evil, the inevitability of death, or the corruptive nature of power, a classic novel should attempt to examine some enduring, immutable truth about the way humans behave. 

Antigone, the last in a trilogy by Sophocles, tells the story of a woman rebelling against patriarchy and the establishment -a woman who is willing to sacrifice everything to stand up for what she believes is right. One of the major themes in the story is civil disobedience. Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other in a fight for the crown of Thebes. Their uncle Creon becomes king and declares that Eteocles will receive a holy burial while his brother Polynices is left unburied to rot at the gates of the city as a warning to other traitors. Their sister Antigone can’t accept this desecration.

Antigone is caught burying Polynices and is condemned to death. She feels it is a bad law because Polynices was her brother and he deserved his final rights. Greek custom dictated that a city was responsible for burying its citizens. But Creon believes Polynices forfeited that right when he led a foreign army against its rightful king. Antigone doesn’t care about that; she believes it doesn’t matter what her brother did, he still died a citizen of Thebes. Antigone is incapable of bending where her morals are involved. She believes that her brother should be buried, so she does it at the cost of her own life. During her interview with Creon, she doesn’t apologize for her actions but argues against his law. When her sentence is decreed, she hangs herself rather than allowing an unjust king’s unjust law to decide where and how she will die.

In Antigone, Sophocles describes the type of pride that allows men to create laws that substitute for divine principles. In other words, when Creon creates a law because he believes it is the divine will, that is the ultimate display of punishable pride, for no man can ever create a law that is equal to or above divine right. As a result, when Tiresias comes with the news that Creon will suffer, Creon realizes that he has made a terrible mistake, and yet still refuses to admit it, bending to the prophet’s message only because he wants to preserve his life, not because he knows he’s gone too far. As a result, he must suffer the loss of his family.

Antigone is a threat to the status quo; she invokes divine law as a defence of her actions, but implicit in her position is faith in the discerning power of her conscience. She sacrifices her life out of devotion to principles higher than human law. Creon makes a mistake in sentencing her and his mistake is condemned, in turn, by the gods -but his position is an understandable one. In the wake of war, and with his reign so new, Creon has to establish his authority as supreme. On the other hand, Creon’s need to defeat Antigone seems at times to be extremely personal. At stake is not only the order of the state, but his pride and sense of himself as a king and, more fundamentally, a man.

When faced with injustice, Antigone and Ismene react quite differently – the former aggressively, progressively, and the latter more conservatively. Ismene is not so much afraid of injustice as she is frightened of her demise – and she cannot bear to incur the wrath of men for fear of being condemned to the same fate as the rest of her family. After watching her father and brothers die, she believes that the best course of action is to lie low and obey. In the case of Ismene, it seems inaction is tied to fear-at least until she willingly offers to die next to Antigone, at which point we realize that she is not so much inactive as she is unsure of her place as a woman. Thus, while Ismene is a figure characterized principally by doubt, Antigone plunges ahead purely on self-belief and her firm convictions about right and wrong.

Antigone’s rebellion is especially threatening because it upsets gender roles and hierarchy. By refusing to be passive, she overturns one of the fundamental rules of her culture. Ismene is Antigone’s foil because she is completely cowed by the rule of men and believes that women should be subservient to them or risk incurring their wrath. Men are stronger, she says, and therefore must be obeyed. Ultimately, however, we see that she has merely bought into the problematic concepts that Creon espouses, for even when Creon realizes he may be wrong, he switches his defence, arguing that even if he were incorrect, he couldn’t admit defeat to a woman, for that would upset divine law even more than backtracking on his principles. It is this fundamental untruth that Sophocles’ play seeks to correct, mainly through the punishment that the Gods inflict on Creon as a result of his obtuse, misogynistic thinking.

Sophocles’ Antigone may be more than 2,500 years old, but its relevance to the #MeToo and civil rights movements of today makes it resonate as strongly now as when it was first written. Antigone continues to be a subversive and powerful play and the inspiration for generations of rebels and dissidents. In the 20th century, a version of Antigone rewritten during the Second World War became one of the most powerful texts of resistance against the Nazis. Antigone’s tragic protest against King Creon’s prohibition of mourning her dead brother makes the audience question what choice we have when our personal beliefs conflict with the laws of the state. The play also examines the effects that gender inequality and unbridled power have on society. The conflict between the individual and the power of the state was as pressing for Greek audiences as it is for modern ones.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.