Antigone Themes

Instructor: Alison Gu
Sophocles builds dramatic tension in ''Antigone'' by using themes based on conflicts. These conflicts create a rich dramatic texture that explores characters' intense emotions and gender roles, as well as their obedience to the rules of government and religion.

Emotion vs. Reason

In Antigone, Sophocles introduces various themes, or important ideas that appear throughout literary works. One significant theme that Sophocles explores in Antigone is the conflict, or the clash of inherent differences, between feeling and thinking.

Much of the play's action grows out of Antigone and Creon's intense emotions. Antigone fears that her brother Polyneices will be deprived of an afterlife if his body remains unburied, which the king, Creon, has ordered. Left in the open and preyed upon by wild animals, the state of her brother's body outrages Antigone -- just as her defiance and determination to bury Polyneices infuriates Creon, who is also afraid of the sympathy her actions might inspire in Thebes' other citizens.

Powerful as these emotions are, they're completely overshadowed by pride. Both Antigone and Creon are excessively proud of their convictions about whether or not to bury Polyneices. This type of pride is called hubris, an extreme and destructive emotion.

Hubris, of course, contrasts with reason. As Creon's son -- and Antigone's fiancée -- Haemon explains to his father, ''It is not reason never to yield to reason.'' Creon, however, cannot find reason until both his son and his wife kill themselves. When Creon finally attempts to bury Polyneices and save Antigone, she has already died. Haemon once told Creon, ''Reason is God's crowning gift to man,'' but Creon can't find the truth in these words until it's way too late.

Destiny vs. Self-Determination

Antigone descends from a tragic family known as the House of Thebes. The originator of this dynasty is the supreme god Zeus, whose great great grandson Cadmus kills a dragon, an action bringing great suffering to the descendants of Cadmus. One of these, Antigone's father, Oedipus --abandoned soon after his birth -- unknowingly kills his own father and then marries his mother. Oedipus's guilt for these actions weighs heavily on Oedipus's children. Early in the play, Antigone laments:

''You would think that we had already suffered enough
For the curse on Oedipus.''

Similarly, the Chorus speaks of the despair that has settled on Oedipus's family and suggests the tragic events of the play are not so much the results of the character's actions, but rather are fated. As a consequence, we find that for all the hubris shown by Creon and Antigone, the play's outcome is based largely on the fulfillment of destiny. As Antigone exclaims as she approaches the tomb where she'll be walled in alive:

''O Oedipus, father and brother!
Your marriage strikes from the grave to murder mine.''

Ultimately, then, Antigone blames the curse passed on from her father -- rather than Creon -- for her death.

Women vs. Men

A central conflict in Antigone focuses on the balance of power between men and women. In ancient Greece, men generally dominated women, who rarely left their homes. Sheltered as they were, women still played important roles in society.

Women took responsibility for washing the bodies of the dead and participating in funerals. Women also frequently appeared as powerful warriors and strong-willed goddesses in Greek mythology -- for example, in representations of mighty Hera, spear-carrying Artemis, or fierce Amazon fighters. In society women of a certain class held sway as well. Hetaera, as these women were called, were courtesans who were often well-educated, free to go out in public, and often highly influential among the powerful men with whom they associated.

While obviously not a courtesan nor a goddess, Antigone feels compelled to obey the customs of her culture and bury her brother Polyneices. Her determination puts her in direct conflict with Creon, who responds to her challenge not only as a king but also as a man. His manhood threatened by Antigone, Creon exclaims, ''Let's lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we?'' Creon's question remains unanswered, but in flaunting Creon's law -- unlike her more passive sister Ismene -- Antigone demonstrates an aggression that probably was uncommon among women in ancient Greece.

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