In a time where women are considered weak and inferior to men, it’s hard to believe there would be a story with a female protagonist who is now considered a “feminist hero.” In a play by Sophocles called Antigone, that is exactly what went down. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus Rex, is portrayed as an independent, loyal, and courageous woman.
With this in mind, we lead into Antigone’s trait of independence. It is showed prominently very early on in the play when she asks her sister Ismene to help her bury her brother Polyneices, as this was an important rite in Greek culture; it was believed the gods wanted a proper burial for the deceased to make sure their souls departed with peace. Ismene declined her sister’s offer arguing that they shouldn’t break the law and go against the ruling of men because as women it was not their place. Antigone promptly responds with “I’ll still bury him. It would be fine to die while doing that. I’ll lie there with him, with a man I love, pure and innocent, for all my crime.” She vows that even without the help or approval of her sister, she will bury Polyneices on her own. She continues showing her independent nature when Ismene pleads further for her not to commit the crime. “So leave me and my foolishness alone – we’ll get through this fearful thing.
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I won’t suffer anything as bad as a disgraceful death.” In this conversation with her sister, Antigone basically tells Ismene to make tracks and leave her to her duty and fate. Later in the play she has a confrontation with Creon, the king of Thebes. Creon acknowledges that she is the sole citizen in Thebes that rebels against his law by saying “In all of Thebes, you’re the only one who looks at things that way…These views of yours – so different from the rest – don’t they bring you any shame?” She responds to him by recognizing she is the one who speaks out because the people of Thebes are struck by fear.
Furthermore, towards the end of the play, when Antigone is sent to die, Ismene tries to take the blame for the actions of her sister. Antigone stays strong with her self-reliant spirit when she says “Don’t try to share my death or make claim to action which you did not do. I’ll die – and that will be enough.” The Chorus also chimes in, proving her independence, “You were in charge of your own fate. So of all living human beings, you alone make your way down to Hades still alive.”
In addition to independence, Antigone shows the trait of loyalty. Her sense of loyalty is shown all throughout the play starting when she gets the news of Creon not permitting the burial of Polyneices. She believes she has a moral obligation to bury Polyneices with or without the help of Ismene, “Yes I’ll do my duty to my brother – and yours as well if you’re not prepared to. I won’t be caught betraying him.” Her powerful use of the word “betraying” shows the immense love and loyalty she has for her brother. Even though she knows the consequences she will face if she conveys her devotion to her brother, she still goes through with burying him. Later in the play, she is brought upon Creon to explain herself for committing the crime.
Antigone stays true to Polyneices claiming, “But where could I gain greater glory than setting my own brother in his grave?” In the play, it is also said by Haemon that the people of Thebes respect Antigone for remaining faithful to Polyneices, “…the city is upset about the girl. They say of all women here she least deserves the worst of deaths for her most glorious act.” Antigone stays true to her brother still when Creon’s guards take her to a cave to die. Right before she is sent off she announces that she has no regret for what she did for Polyneices, “When you died, with my own hands I washed you. I arranged your corpse and at the grave, mound poured out libations. But now, Polyneices, this is my reward for covering your corpse. However, for wise people, I was right to honour you.” Antigone’s homage to Polyneices leads to an honourable death on her part but creates a burden to Creon.
The final, and equally important trait Antigone exerts is courage. Most of Antigone’s courageous personality is shown when she confronts Creon about disregarding his law of burying Polyneices. However, she does show it in the beginning of the play for a moment when her sister Ismene bickers about not breaking the law, “Think of how we’ll die far worse than all the rest, if we defy the law and move against the king’s decree, against his royal power. We must remember that by birth we’re women, and, as such, we shouldn’t fight with men.”
Contrary to Ismene, Antigone does not fear the fact that she is a woman. She stands up to Creon and his unjust law, ignoring the patriarchal views of society at the time. Antigone even pushes Ismene to tell people about the crime she is about to commit, “No, no. Announce the fact – if you don’t let everybody know, I’ll despise your silence even more.” When she is caught by Creon’s guards and brought before him, Antigone does not cower or stand down. “She was not afraid at all. We charged her with her previous offence as well as this one. She just kept standing there, denying nothing.” When asked about performing the rite of Polyneices burial she simply said, “I admit I did it. I won’t deny that.” Antigone further commits to a courageous attitude by belittling Creon’s law comparing it to those of the gods, “I did not mean to let a fear of any human will lead to my punishment among the gods. I know all too well I’m going to die – how could I not? – it makes no difference what you decree.”
It’s empowering to see Antigone stand up for what she thinks is right, not only as a mere citizen of Thebes but as a woman. She challenges the notion of women being weak by being fearless when clashing heads against the king of Thebes. Antigone asserts without a doubt that if the citizens of Thebes weren’t so afraid of Creon they would agree to her rebellion, “All those here would confirm this pleases the if their lips weren’t sealed by fear.” The trait of courage is the most important for Antigone’s character development because, without it, her efforts would amount to nothing, letting distress and anxiety get the best of her.
All things considered, the character of Antigone would not be significant without the traits of independence, loyalty, and courage. Those traits, along with others, are what make Antigone such an inspiring and tragic character. To this day, she is recognized for the role of being an empowered female character in a male-dominant culture.
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