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Antigone Criticism

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Objective for this Page: To present secondary sources which may deepen your understanding of the play. 

AristotleAristotle's Poetics, chapter 4, defines and analyzes tragedy as Aristotle found it in ancient Greece, especially Athens.  Supposedly, Antigone didn't fit well his definition of a tragedy because Antigone didn't realize anything; those who would differ point to her last speech where she lists what she is losing by dying young.  Perhaps, though, Antigone best fits a modern notion of heroic protagonist because she dies for a principle, nobly, but at the hand of an oppressor.

Frank, Bernhard . "Sophocles' Antigone." The Explicator, Summer 1998 v56 n3 p170(2). 

Incest: Prof. Frank of Buffalo State College suggests that Antigone's concern [and perhaps her affections?] focus not on Haemon but on Polyneices. Thematically, this notion continues the incest motif established in Oedipus.  

Hope: In his conclusion, Prof. Frank suggests that Ismene, who rejects Antigone's invitation to a virtual suicide pact in the opening scene, is the sole survivor of the play--and the only hope of the family.  He speculates that she will marry outside the family and bear children not infected by the family curse.

Holt, Philip. "Polis and Tragedy in the Antigone."  Mnemosyne Dec 1999 v52 i6 p658(33).

Holt, according the abstract in the InfoTrac Expanded Academic Index, examines "5th century Athenian beliefs regarding the polis, law, citizen solidarity, family loyalty, structure of the drama, and differing responses to things in real life and those in the theater."

Jones, Adrian.  Antigone and Modern Feminists is posted in the archive of the Jolly Roger/Moby Dick discussion forum.  It considers several ways in which Antigone does (and in some ways, perhaps, does not) act in a way consistent with feminism.

Knox, Bernard. The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. University of California Press, 1964.  Excerpted in John Schilb and John Clifford, Making Literature Matter, Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2000: 1346-1347.

Though motivated by personal passions, both Creon and Antigone appeal to conflicting greater sources of obligation--peace for the society (polis) or divine law.  Creon rejects the obligations of family by refusing burial to a nephew, burying alive a niece, and refusing marriage to his son.  His ruin comes back to him through his family, who turns against him.  But Creon can't really claim that he acted for the good of Thebes; instead, he is a tyrant, imposing his will on everyone and even claiming that he owns the city more than its citizens do.  Even the gods turn against Creon because he was wrong.

Antigone championed the family--but in the end realized that she acted only for her specific dead relative and would not act so for a different [replaceable] family member. Antigone is vindicated while Creon is vilified.  But Antigone acts more against Creon, it seems, than for the greater good of Thebes; her action is personal--to save her brother, not to save the city.

Creon was motivated by hatred, Antigone by love, as is evident in her last speech when she anticipates seeing her parents and brothers.

Kott, Jan. "Why Did Antigone Kill Herself?"  New Theatre Quarterly, 1993.  

This article centers on why Antigone was so concerned over the body of Polynices and why she committed suicide. [Of course, these are A's two acts of defying Creon, but I don't know if that's the thrust of this article.]

Lines, Patricia.  "Antigone's Flaw."  Humanitas. Spring 1999 v12 i1 p4.  

Lines suggests that Antigone's flaw is self-righteousness and self-certainty that led to her self-imposed isolation by not listening to Ismene or seeking out Haemon.  Perhaps in Antigone's final speech there is a sort of recognition of what her hamartia has cost her.

Morwood, James.  "The Double Time Scheme in Antigone."  The Classical Quarterly (Jan-June 1993 v43 n1 p320(2)).

Unity of Time: Morwood suggests that there are separate time schemes for Antigone and for Creon.  Although Antigone's tragedy may have played out in a day, the decomposition of Polyneices' body suggests that Creon's fate takes a bit longer.

Nussbaum, Martha.  The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.  Cambridge University Press, 1986.  Excerpted in John Schilb and John Clifford, Making Literature Matter, Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2000: 1347-1349. 

Antigone is devoted to the dead, cold to the living.  Creon desires to possess the inert, to use everyone as material.  Antigone's "ambition" seems to become a "corpse beloved of corpses."  Although no one, the chorus points out, escapes the impact of Love (eros), but Creon sees interchangeable breeders where Haemon sees love, and Antigone sees beloved people only among the dead, not the living, despite the devotion of Ismene and Haemon.  Creon learns that he has to adopt the values of the city; Antigone learns that mourning is a communal act, so she cannot ignore its public aspect.

Antigone is more admirable than Creon because she only denies a [sudden] civic regulation while Creon violates a divine religious law and communal practice of burying the dead.  Although Antigone is derided for her single-mindedness, hers serves an unwritten more of the community, which Creon stubbornly violates.  Antigone, ultimately, is responsible only for her own principles; Creon seeks to impose his (wrong ones) on an entire community. Antigone is complex yet vulnerable and ultimately rational; Creon simplifies to the extreme and seems, in the end, quite irrational.

Russell, Mark.  Contributing to discussion at the open Moby Dick forums, Russell points out that Antigone's motives are complex, not just familial and not just political.

Segal, Charles. "Introduction."  Antigone, The Greek Tragedy in New Translations.  Trans. Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003: 3 - 35.

Oppositions that increase the tension of this play include:

laws of the gods vs. laws of the state, or at least the ruler  =  religion vs. politics = divine vs. human
private vs. public = home/hearth vs. polis/civic duty  = "ties of blood and birth" vs. Kreon's decree = "the traditional authority of the old aristocratic families to honor and bury their dead" vs. "Kreon's authority" (4-5)  = custom vs. law    
feminine vs. masculine    "friend and enemy, citizen and ruler, father and son, male and female, justice and injustice, reverence and irreverence, purity and pollution, honor and dishonor, . . . powerful or helpless, 'wonderful' or 'terrible, . . . ' (6).

"Each protagonist can act only by attacking . . . the central values of the other" (6).

Shelton, Jo-Anne. "Human Knowledge and Self-Deception: Creon as the Central Character in Sophocles' Antigone."  Ramus 1984.

This scholarly article documents reasons why Creon should be considered the protagonist of the play and that the play's theme focuses on self-deception and "the paradox of human knowledge."

Assessment: Choose, locate, and read one secondary source. Write a paragraph summarizing the criticism. Consider too: How has it changed the way that you understand and interpret the play?


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This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.