ANTIGONE: Still a Tragic Protagonist
QUESTION: Aristotle reportedly said that this play did not fit his definition of a tragedy. Many people observe that Antigone did not learn anything from her experiences and claim that Creon was too mean to be a fit tragic hero. If Antigone is the heroic protagonist of the play, in what sense is she heroic? Is she saintly, or does she have flaws? Does a protagonist have to be free of flaws for us to admire her?
If Antigone is the heroic protagonist of the play, in what sense is she heroic? She is heroic in the sense that she chose her own destiny. She did not allow the King or anyone else to make decisions for her. That in itself is heroic. When everyone else was scared to death of Creon, she spoke her mind, and did not back down from him. She even told him that he was the only one who felt that her giving her brother a proper burial, was a crime, and that no one dared speak up for her because they were terrified of his wrath. “I should have praise and honor for what I have done. All these men here would praise me were their lips not frozen shut with fear of you. (Bitterly) Ah the good fortune of kings, licensed to say and do whatever they please!” Her loyalty to her brother was also admirable. She was determined to give him a proper burial, even if it meant the death of her.
Is she saintly or does she have flaws? She definitely has flaws. First of all, she is the product of an incestuous relationship, not to say that makes her flawed, but it most definitely takes her out of the running of being considered saintly. Second of all, she values the opinion of the dead, more than she does of the living. That is obvious when she states, “But I will bury him, and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy. I shall lie down with him in death, and I shall be as dear to him as he is to me. It is the dead, not the living, who makes the greatest demands: we die forever”. Let’s also mention the fact that she is engaged to her cousin, Haimon, who ends up killing himself over his love for her. She knew that death was imminent once she decided to go against Creon wishes. She chose death, even though she had a sister and a fiancé, who loved and adored her. Haimon loved her so much that he even went up against his father, the King, someone whom he also felt very deeply for. He goes to her defense against his father, and when Creon shouts, “Every word you say is for her!” Haimon replies quietly with, “and for you. And for me. And for the Gods”. He was torn between the women that he loved, and the love and admiration he had for his father. In the end, his love for her was so overwhelming that he took his on life.
However, in life, she could have cared less about his love for her. If she did, then her loyalty to the dead would not have gotten the best of her. She is further flawed by the fact that she contradicts herself, albeit, unknowingly, when she responds to Creon’s statement, “An enemy is an enemy, even dead”. Antigone’s reply was, “It is my nature to join in love, not hate”. If that really was the case, then she would have thought better against committing an act that guaranteed her death, when her sister and fiancé loved her dearly. It was a form of suicide from the very beginning, and suicide in my opinion, is done when one hates him or herself. Some of Antigone’s flaws also included caring more for her deceased brother, than she would have had it been her deceased child. She states in the play that she would not have reacted the same way had it been her husband or her child. But because it was her brother, and both of her parents were dead, she felt obligated to carrying out the ritual herself. Her reasoning for not doing the same thing for her child was that she could always have another child to replace the dead one. In my opinion that is a major flaw, or maybe it’s a lack of maternal instincts, I’m not sure. If I am willing to die for a dead brother, then I sure as heck will be willing to die for my own child! She is flawed even more because of the fact that she pretty much disowned her sister, because her sister valued the rules and laws that governed them. She turned real nasty real quick when her sister, her closest living relative, tried to convince her to not go against the king. “Go away, Ismene: I shall be hating you soon, and the dead will, too.”
Which brings me to the last question; does a protagonist have to be free of flaws for us to admire her? The answer to that is NO! I most definitely admire Antigone, even with all of her flaws. She is to be commended for being courageous and strong, and she reminds me of myself. It’s something I would have done, only, I probably would have been more careful not to get caught. However, I love the way she stands up to the King. She lets him know that he is still inferior to the Almighty God. When asked how she dared to defy his law, she responds with, “It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice that rules the World makes no such laws. Your edict, King, was strong, but all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal laws of God. They are not merely now: and shall be, operative forever, beyond man utterly”. She lets Creon know, that his sentencing her to death was nothing special, and that in fact, she welcomed it! “I knew I must die, even without your decree: I am only mortal. Can anyone living, as I live, with evil all about me, think Death less than a friend”? I can totally empathize with her here, when her life has been nothing but heartache after heartache. She even states that “the blasphemy of my birth has followed me”. She is referring to the fact that her mother, Jocasta, and her father, Oedipus, were not only husband and wife, but mother and son. Her parents had four children before finding this out, and when the truth was revealed, her father/brother, blinded himself. Her mother, as her sister mentions in the play, commits suicide, which is not hard to believe seeing as how her daughter eventually imitated her. The curse of the family continued when both of her brothers killed each other. One brother got a “proper burial”, while the other was left out to rot in an open field, which is the basis of this story. This particular brother, Polyneices, ended up being the dearest to her heart, as you can tell by one of her final statements before being carried away to her doom: “O tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock, soon I shall be with my own again where Persephone welcomes the thing ghosts underground: and I shall see my father again, and you, mother, and dearest Polyneices-dearest indeed to me, since it was my hand that washed him clean and poured the ritual wine: And my reward is death before my time!”
Yes, Antigone is flawed, but still admired. She is the true tragic hero of this very sad story. She died way too young after suffering a life filled with tragedy and heartache. However, her death was her own doing. She stood strong, and never backed down from what she felt most strongly about, which was her love for the dead. I feel so sorry for her sister, who understandably wanted to die with Antigone, rather than to live her life alone. In the end, I wondered what happened to her. Hopefully, she was able to live a more content and peaceful life, than that of her dead family members.
Posted by permission of the writer in March, 2005.
This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.