Anti-Heroine or Heroine?
An-tig-o-nee: She is the protagonist, the main character of the classic play of her name, written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles as part of the Trilogy of The Three Theban Plays.
This daughter and sister of Oedipus (yes, already the plot has become very thick) sets out on the noble mission of securing the sacred burial of her brother Polynices. Her other brother, Eteocles, has also died. These two brothers are dead because they killed each other in the blood-soaked duel over the throne of their father, Theban King Oedipus.
The king of Thebes is now their uncle, Creon, who has decreed the body of Eteocles receive a sacred burial because of his loyalty to Thebes. Polynices, however, who fought against his native city, is deemed the enemy dead. By the royal edict of Creon, this brother of Antigone will not receive burial at all. The body of Polynices will be left to rot, as a warning to any traitors to the city of Thebes.
Antigone believes that she must act to grant Polynices a proper burial. She choses the divine law of the Gods over the human law of a king. Creon summons this trouble-maker to confront her, but she willfully confronts him. Creon is outraged and cruel, perhaps even vindictive, in his judgement. Antigone is unrelenting in her courage and her protective passion toward her brother.
She knows that she will be put to death if she violates the civil law of Creon. She then determines that she will break the law of Creon by mourning her brother Polynices through the burial of his body.
Antigone performs her “civil disobedience” to uphold divine law, but The Gods do not intervene to help her. Civil law must be upheld or anarchy will ensue. Furthermore, were it not for Antigone and her appalling act of defiance of King Creon, a few less people would then have died through prophetic fulfillment. And the tragedy of her family would have been diminished.
Antigone takes the bold step, or steps, to perform the protective ritual of burial. She knowingly accepts her fate.
To some people, Antigone is a heroine, casting her fate to the Gods who will not spare her, while she defies the rules in order to see her dead brother buried in hallowed ground. To others, she is the careless, even reckless, and unrepentant rebel force of 1 who defies the Gods, defies even Fate which, according to the ancient Greeks, was not exactly in your own hands. Antigone thereby dooms herself.
Fate was the will of the Gods, although to become a truly tragic hero a person had to struggle against her Fate, or at least show some wriggle against it, before entering the protagonist pantheon of heroism. The question thus is whether or not Antigone sufficiently writhes before she seals her fate.
I see Antigone as writhing, majestically, in the face of her destiny. She is not a perversely willful woman who wouldn’t listen to reason. Hers, however, is the reason of the heart, not the mind. It is the justice of the heart that compellingly rules her, not the legal dictates of a ruling body of authorities. The body that she holds sacred is the dead one of her brother.
Antigone is immortal because her loving soul was immortal. She knows the price to be paid for the demands of her heart, and she boldly, even somewhat calmly, with grace and dignity, surrenders her self to the fate in store for her, because she has loved so fully and so fearlessly.
Antigone did not have a Theme Song, but if she did, it would not be one of Victimhood. “What I Did For Love” would not be Sharpie-emblazoned on a protest sign. This woman immortalized herself through an act of pure love for a wronged beloved. She spoke, and then she silently left this earth.
She certainly was not the Modern Woman, the harridans and hell cats of today, in search of ways to immortalize themselves through Project Provocative Politics, in search of a 24/7 news camera and twitter feed, in search of any digitized narcissistic supply to satiate, however insufficiently, the Attention Whore with her ribbon, button, black dress and a Cause.
Antigone possessed nobility without perhaps having even known it. She would not have had the time to put her mug in front of a camera. She was too busy being heroic. Her outrage was one of morality, the personal kind that seeks to square ethos, Ethos, or ἦθος, with her heart and her mind. She was moral, not immoral or even amoral. She sought justice, of the heart, against the cruel Gods of Fate.
I have read this play, in its lofty English translation by Robert Fagles; and I experienced quite movingly, with tears, her sacrifice of her own life in the name of honor, of sisterly love, of devotion that defied the Gods. It’s merely an opinion, and an emotional one at that, but I hold Antigone in extremely high regard. She speaks her piece, and her peace, toward the end of this play, but by no means does she have the final say.
The final say is spoken by The Chorus — the Greek Chorus; the Almighty Voice that, in itself, forms a character, all its own: the Plural Singular. The Chorus, in any classic Greek drama, is both spectator and commentator. And in this play, Antigone, The Chorus has the final say.
On the stage, in that reality, The Chorus functioned as a conscience for the audience, granting to the flawed character much-needed insights that had been woefully absent, to the extent where the character was in quite a fix. The Chorus also explained to the audience the violence that occurred off-stage. Such bloody carnage nowadays would be seen, on-stage, in 3-D or, hah, even in actuality!
The ancient Greek tragedians deemed death and violent action to be improper spectacles on the stage. Violent action always took place off-stage; it was later reported and described. Compare, if you will, this restrained approach to the imploding, exploding, bloody, digitized, in-your-face spectacles of violence in modern film!
The modern Hollywood rip-off act would grant Poor Antigone at least one sequel! She could come back to life as a Ghost, a Revenant, to avenge the wicked Gods. Antigone II would rule the Hades-Death-Wish Warrior-Women. Computer-mation could impose all new meaning upon the word, other-worldly! Costume design would re-design the definitions of grotesque and vulgar. The obscenity-obsessed director would have a field day with camera angles displaying the more realistic aspects of her rather complicated mythological genealogy.
In the classic Greek drama, however, The Chorus took control of the camera angles. The Chorus was the camera angle, the Ideal Eye, unifying all aspects of the plot for the audience, and stating what the characters dare not speak: fears, passions, secret sins.
Sophocles does permit Antigone to do her best to dare to best The Chorus with her outspoken, impassioned speech. She nonetheless would not be moved, not one little bit, by warnings about the dire consequences of her actions. She does carry on about her unjust fate to come, and those words go a bit too far in defiance of the mighty Gods.
And so Sophocles, through Creon, the Ruler of Thebes, orders the Guards to take Antigone away!
"Take her away, quickly! Wall her up in the tomb, you have my orders!"
Antigone has her orders too, from her own Higher Power, from her conscience. And so she has her say, her final say, with eternal thumos, θυμός; and with moving eloquence before she is moved, quite literally, off the stage, toward the ultimate price that she will pay for her hubris against the rules of Greek society and the laws of the Gods.
Antigone views the rights of her brother, her dead brother, this Individual, as superior to the rights of the group, the authorities of Greece. In the name of duty and of devotion to her brother, Antigone defied the power of the Gods.
She was basically tossing her life at them, knowing she’d die. She therefore uses her words judiciously but poetically to utter the utterly profound emotions that are typically better left to The Chorus to express. She dips her tongue into the ink of dry wit, and she then uses compressed satire to tongue-lash the mighty Gods. The sword of love and the dagger of the heart, of justice, are wielded powerfully by this woman.
Antigone tosses the dice, and they’re big fateful dice, at the gods, conjecturing that they just might be wrong in their savagely unjust decision. And if they are . . .
Sophocles knew he was breaking the mold with Antigone. This ancient poet knew, through art, the truisms that thinkers in future eras would postulate in ever-more complicated terms and treatises:
the responsibility of the Individual to accept the choices of her free will, even in the face of the tragic fate that she has brought about.
Antigone nobly accepts the tragic fate that she has brought about. In that sense, in my book, she’s a heroine of the highest order. Her love for her brother can be viewed by some critics as self-destructive since it was the prime mover in her self-sacrifice. In my opinion, that love affirms her epic self. Hers was a love purely and gallantly dedicated to a higher purpose: the honor of her brother.
In that sense, in all senses, Antigone is a heroine for the ages. She is a heroic woman for all time. She is a heroine without a placard. Antigone is the mythical being who lives forever as an archetype, the classic paragon of selfless love.
O tomb, my bridal-bed—-my house, my prison
cut in the hollow rock, my everlasting watch!
I’ll soon be there, soon embrace my own,
the great growing family of our dead
Persephone has received among her ghosts.
the last of them all, the most reviled by far,
go down before my destined time’s run out.
But still I go, cherishing one good hope:
my arrival may be dear to father,
dear to you, my mother,
dear to you, my loving brother, Eteocles—-
When you died I washed you with my hands,
I dressed you all, I poured the sacred cups
across your tombs. But now, Polynices,
because I had your body out as well,
this, this is my reward. Nevertheless
I honored you—-the decent will admit it—-
well and wisely too.
Never I tell you,
if I had been the mother of children,
or if my husband died, exposed and rotting—-
I’d never have taken this ordeal upon myself
never defied our people’s will. What law,
you ask, do I satisfy with what I say?
A husband dead there might have been another.
A child by another too, if I had lost the first.
But mother and father both lost in the halls of Death,
no brother could ever spring to light again.
For this law alone I held you first in honor,
For this, Creon, the king, judges me a criminal
guilty of dreadful outrage, my dear brother!
And now he leads me off, a captive in his hands,
with no part in the bridal-song, the bridal-bed,
denied all joy of marriage, raising children—-
deserted so by loved ones, struck by fate,
I descend alive to the caverns of the dead.
What law of the mighty gods have I transgressed?
Why look to the heavens any more, tormented as I am?
Whom to call, what comrades now? Just think,
my reverence only brands me for irreverence!
Very well; if this is the pleasure of the gods,
once I suffer I will know that I was wrong,
But if these men are wrong, let them suffer
nothing worse than they mete out to me—-
these masters of injustice!