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Conflicts in Antigone

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Each day we face conflicts, some large, some small. In this lesson we will analyze the conflicts in the play 'Antigone' and decide how they impact the work as a whole.

The Struggle Is Real

In literature, a conflict is a problem or struggle that a character deals with in a story. But of course, like characters, we deal with the same challenges in the real world. While real life conflicts may not necessarily be as dramatic as fictional conflicts, as readers we can connect to the plight of our characters through personality traits and similar emotional experiences.

Let's take a look at the conflicts in the play Antigone by Sophocles, and analyze the importance of each through the characters' perspectives.

Background Info

The play opens with two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, discussing the death of their brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. Their father, the infamous Oedipus, exiled himself and left the two brothers to take over the throne. Disagreements caused Polyneices and Eteocles to fight, and eventually Polyneices was banished from Thebes. He returned with an army to fight his brother for the throne, but both men ended up dying. This tragedy left the throne to their Uncle Creon, whose son Haemon happened to be engaged to Antigone. Talk about family drama...

Depiction of Family Tree
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Creon was close with Eteocles and felt that, since he remained in Thebes, Eteocles was true to his city. So Creon buried his body with military honors. But Polyneices fought against Thebes, and Creon felt he was a traitor. He left his body to rot in the street and ordered that anyone who buried the body be stoned to death.

Overarching Conflicts in Antigone

Antigone is heartbroken at the news of her brothers' deaths and decides she must bury the body to honor the laws of the gods. But when Antigone buries the body, she's going against the law of the newly appointed King, who happens to be her uncle. Creon, attempting to keep control over the people, must decide what to do with his niece. He decides to follow through with his stated punishment of death so he does not look weak.

Character Conflicts

Through these two overarching conflicts, the characters in the play are presented with many choices regarding loyalty, honor and integrity. Let's take a look at each character and analyze their internal conflicts, or person versus self, and external conflicts, or person versus person(s).

Antigone

  • Person vs. person: Antigone asks her sister Ismene to help her bury Polyneices' body. Ismene is shocked that Antigone would even suggest she break the law and cannot see past authority to realize her brother's body cannot get to the Underworld without a proper burial. Their conflict is never fully resolved because Ismene only has a change of heart after Antigone buries the body and is sentenced to death.

Antigone buries her brother even though she knows it is against the law.
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  • Person vs. person: Antigone spends the majority of the play fighting with Creon and held captive due to his orders. Antigone and Creon are both unable to see past their pride and communicate with one another, eventually leading to the tragedy of Antigone's death at the end of the play.
  • Person vs. self: Antigone is a strong woman who wants to honor her brother's death as her culture and religion dictates, but she is also unable to combat her pride, which eventually leads to her downfall. She welcomes her punishment of death with open arms and sarcastic comments. Even though Creon changes her punishment from death to imprisonment, Antigone resolves her internal conflict by taking her own life.

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