Not much is known about the life of Sophocles. Some sketchy details have survived and the rest has been gleaned from the 10th century Suda Lexicon, a Greek dictionary and Sophocles: Life and Works, an anonymous work that was discovered in the 13th century. Sophocles was born around 496 B.C. to a wealthy weapons maker who lived in Colonus. By his birth he was destined to play an important role in the Athenian society.
Right from a young age, Sophocles had showed great skill in music and dancing. The education he received equipped him for a leader’s life in the army, foreign affairs and the arts. But his primary interest was drama and it is very likely that he was tutored by the great Aeschylus. In 468 B.C., his play Triptolemus won the first prize for tragedy relegating Aeschylus to the second place. Sophocles wrote 120 plays of which only seven complete tragedies have survived. Bits and pieces of several others remain.
Oedipus the King is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It is the first in the Oedipus trilogy. It depicts the myth of the man called Oedipus who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Though often referred to as a trilogy, Sophocles did not write them to be performed as a single organic play. All three have unique qualities with the characters being treated in strikingly different ways.
Theater was a unifying force that helped people through hardships and war. Ancient Greek myths were known to everyone and the dramatization of tales from the common heritage helped to nurture and preserve a cultural identity. Plays were considered a celebration of the God Dionysus and to attend theater was considered the duty of all citizens.
Relevance of the Title
Antigone is the heroine of the play making it a perfect choice for a title. Ancient playwrights often chose direct titles for their plays. The audience consisted of large chunks of unlettered people. A direct and simple title made it possible for them to know what to expect during the course of the play.
The Power of Unwritten Laws
Sophocles keeps the power of unwritten laws and customs at the centre of this play. Creon is an autocrat who believes that he can pass any law he wishes giving people no freedom to choose a course of action according to their conscience. In ordering that the body of Polynices be left to rot, unburied, he goes against the custom of the city which ordained that it was the duty of the family to bury its dead. It was nothing to do with the state. Leaving the body rotting was an obscenity which people need not follow. This was Antigone’s appeal.
Free Will and Its Limits
Greeks had complete faith in the power of the oracle to foretell future. Though they take action to prevent some of the most disturbing prophecies like that of Oedipus marrying his mother and begetting children on her, they nevertheless came true. Oedipus blinds himself to expiate his sin but the prophecy has been fulfilled. Prophecies and faith in their accuracy limited man’s choice of action. It appeared that through convoluted paths whatever was foretold happened.
The characters in the Oedipus trilogy are completely different in each of the plays strengthening the belief that they were not written as a trilogy but three separate plays. The Creon of Antigone is an autocrat, a monarch who believes in the divine right of kings. He believes that the power and the position as a head of state are vested in himself. In the city states, kingship was a duty that the chosen one had to carry out. But in violation of this tradition, Creon considers the throne as his unalienable right and rules by his own will rather than by the laws laid down by the gods. Creon’s lust for power brings him to the point where he listens to neither his son nor to Tiresias. By the end of the play, he has been punished by the gods and reduced to “Nothing”.
On the face of it, Antigone seems to grapple with the unreasonable ways of her uncle, Creon who was the King of Thebes. But the larger picture suggests that it is fate that she is fighting. Her courage and decisiveness is in sharp contrast to Ismene’s timid passiveness. It is no surprise that this play has been named after Antigone as her courage and determination overshadows the attempt of Polynices to capture Thebes. Antigone wants to give Polynices a ritual burial not just because he is her brother but also because the laws of the gods demand it. In championing what is right and honorable, she takes the high moral ground compared to Creon who comes off as being autocratic and tyrannical. She has her moments of doubt as any young girl would. When she is being led to her death, Antigone is sad that her life will soon end due to her insistence on doing what is right, but that makes her strength stand out as even more striking.
Ismene has been depicted as the perfect Greek girl of her times. She thinks that decisions made by men cannot be challenged and authority cannot be questioned. She is timid and emotional and lacks Antigone’s spirit. In this she is a perfect foil to Antigone. She loves her sister but she is unable to support her in this dangerous venture. She is the only survivor of the House of Oedipus and one wonders how she would have coped when left alone.
The attempt to lay siege to the city of Thebes by Polynices, and his allies has failed but both Polynices and his brother Eteocles are dead, killed by each other, as a result of their father Oedipus’s curse. Creon, the King of Thebes has decreed that as punishment, Polynices should be denied the final rites of burial and his body should be left to rot as a lesson to other invaders. On the other hand, the body of Etiocles is to be buried with full honors though both men were Creon’s nephews. The two sisters of the young men wait outside the city gates. They wish to have their brother buried but Creon has decreed that anyone burying Polynices will be stoned to death by the citizens for violating the king’s decree. Antigone has no fear and she has a plan to bury her brother in secret. Ismene does not have the courage to go against the king’s order. Antigone decides to carry out the burial alone.
Creon comes to know that someone has tried to give a ritual burial to Polynices and has the guilty person brought before him. He is furious when he discovers that it is Antigone, his niece who has defied his orders. But Antigone defends her action making an impassioned argument against Creon’s decree, declaring it to be against the laws of the gods themselves. This enrages Creon further, and he orders Antigone and her sister Ismene to be put to death by stoning for disobeying his orders.
Haemon, Creon’s son who is betrothed to marry Antigone implores his father to reconsider his decision but father and son end up arguing with Creon accusing Haemon of being unmanly in siding with a woman. Haemon walks out of the court in anger, swearing he will never come back. Later Creon changes his pronouncement on Antigone and her sister: Ismene is to be unharmed while Antigone will be enclosed in a chamber and left to die of starvation instead of being stoned to death by the citizens. But he does not amend his original decree of leaving Polynices body unburied.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Creon that his action of leaving Polynices unburied has angered the gods and they will punish him with the death of his own son. Creon rejects the prophecy angrily but decides to anyway bury Polynices and free Antigone. But this change of heart is too late for Antigone. Creon finds that she has hanged herself and unable to bear her loss, Haemon too has committed suicide. The queen, Eurydice, curses Creon holding him responsible for her son’s death and later kills herself. Creon is now left alone to accept responsibility and regret his actions. He prays for a quick end to life. The play closes with the solemn warning that hubris will be punished by adverse fate.
Oedipus’s scarred feet
King Laius had his infant son Oedipus left on the mountain with his feet bound so that he would not escape. It had been foretold by the oracle that Oedipus would kill Laius and marry his mother Jocasta. Nevertheless events bring Oedipus back to Thebes many years later. The scar on his feet indicates that the Gods had ‘marked’ him for suffering and pain.
Several times in the play, three-way crossroads are mentioned. Crossroads indicate critical junctures in a person’s life when a choice has to be or when something momentous happens which is not in the hands of the characters.
My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us while we still live and breathe? There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your grief and mine.
This play concerns itself with familial relationships. The words spoken by Antigone to her sister calling her “My own flesh and blood” makes that clear. The siblings were born of an incestuous relationship and they were doomed from the day of their birth. The curse that befalls their parents extends to them too. But there is no dearth of love between the children. Antigone agonizes over the command by Creon that her brother Polynices’s body should be left to rot, unburied. That, she feels is against custom and God’s ordainment. Enough had already been done that challenges the established laws and this is going to be another sin.
- Anarchy—show me a greater crime in all the earth! She, she destroys cities, rips up houses, breaks the ranks of spearmen into headlong rout. But the ones who last it out, the great mass of them owe their lives to discipline. Therefore we must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us. Better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man—never be rated inferior to a woman, never.
A reading of this passage may lead the reader to assume that Creon is speaking of Antigone here. But that is not so. He uses the feminine pronouns as in Greek ‘anarchy’ was a feminine noun. Creon here stresses on the importance of obedience to laws as disobedience leads to anarchy which can completely destroy a nation from inside out. Creon always refers to the ruler as a man and the challenger as a woman.
- Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can. And as for this marriage with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing at all— Live, Oedipus, as if there’s no tomorrow!
Jocasta in these lines speaks of incest almost flippantly. One can presume that the prophecy worried Oedipus as many times he had been warned of the fate that would befall him. But Jocasta treats it lightly as though it happened all the time. He wants him to “live at random” without worrying about future.
- People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
This is the chorus summing up Oedipus’s plight. He was powerful like none other, brilliant like none other and miserable like none other. All that he and the audience can wait for is the end. In no way can Oedipus be held responsible for what has befallen him. There is no moral here, no line of action that can be avoided. Whether a man was happy or unhappy can be settled only after his death.