Calder Classics

A “Who’s Who” of Female Characters in Ancient Greek Tragedy: Antigone

Ancient GreeceRebekah JunkermeierComment

Who are the most important female characters in ancient Greek tragedy?

Inspired by Columbia Classics Professor Helene Foley’s talk for “Raise the Bar," this post is the first in a series highlighting the the most significant female roles in ancient Greek tragedy and their influence through the ages. 

Image taken from http://www.drama-sows.co.uk/antigone.aspx

Image taken from http://www.drama-sows.co.uk/antigone.aspx

Antigone: The Rebel

Sophocles’ play Antigone begins at the end of a civil war in Thebes. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, Thebes’ new ruler, has decided that Eteocles will be buried with honor, but Polyneices is to be left unburied in shame. Antigone, sister of Eteocles and Polyneices and fiancé of Creon’s son (Haemon), is outraged and, defying Creon, buries her brother Polyneices. Unfortunately, she is caught red-handed. Brought before Creon, she boldly acknowledges her deed and argues her case with him. Not to be persuaded, however, Creon imprisons her. Haemon then visits his father, imploring him to release Antigone. But his visit goes horribly awry, and instead, Creon decides to bury Antigone alive. Tiresias, a blind prophet, then prophesies that because of Creon’s actions, he will lose his own son and be hated by all Greece. Terrified, Creon agrees to release Antigone and bury Polyneices. But it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself and Haemon has stabbed himself after finding her body. Mourning his son, Creon then discovers that his wife has killed herself and cursed him with her dying breath. 

 

Antigone through the Ages

Antigone has not left our cultural mind. Addressing such fundamental questions as self versus other, individual versus state, and instinct versus rational thought, (among others), Sophocles’ tragedy has been restaged and reinterpreted since it was written in the fifth century BCE.

Hegel on Antigone

Image taken from http://www.britannica.com

Image taken from http://www.britannica.com

G.W.F. Hegel, the famous early 19th century German philosopher, claimed that Antigone was one of the “most sublime and most consummate works of art human effort has ever brought forth.” In his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), he interpreted the conflict between Antigone and Creon as that between divine law and human law. Moved by pathos to bury her brother’s body and perform funeral rites, Antigone (for Hegel) represented divine law; Creon, on the other hand, instituting and enforcing his own rule, represented the governance of the state, or human law.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Hegel saw Antigone and Creon’s conflict as the universal struggle between instinct (a kind of divine law) and rational thought (a kind of human law) writ large. When instinct and reason are at odds, which do we follow? Antigone depicts this eternal tug-of-war by exploring death, mourning, autonomy, and family love and kinship within the confines of a near-totalitarian state.

Existentialist Antigone in Vichy France…

Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Anouilh

Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Anouilh

In 1943, in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Anouilh wrote his own adaptation of Sophocles' work, a play with the same name, Antigone. Sophocles' tragedy was a source of inspiration for Anouilh, who watched his country struggle to maintain integrity in a time of moral compromise. Many have interpreted his existentialist play as an attack on Marshal Pétain's Vichy government. 

Continuing today…

Sophocles’ Antigone has continued to be fertile ground for exploring the human condition. More recently, two operas have taken up the story, one composed in 1986 by Marjorie S. Merryman and the other “The Burial at Thebes” in 2007-8 with music by Dominique Le Gendre and libretto by Seamus Heaney, based on his translation of the tragedy.

Image taken from http://leylakdali.blogspot.com/2012_11_01_archive.html

Image taken from http://leylakdali.blogspot.com/2012_11_01_archive.html

In 2004, theatre companies Crossing Jamaica Avenue and The Women's Project in New York City co-produced Antigone Project written by Tanya Barfield, Karen Hartman, Chiori Miyagawa, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and Caridad Svich, as a five-part response to Sophocles' play and the USA Patriot Act.



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