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Family tragedy in Sophocles’ Antigone July 29, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.

Takeaways >

  • Ismene’s self-preservation shifts alliances from the family to the individual.
  • Haemon’s love for Antigone also furthers the destruction of the family, ending with his suicide.
  • Creon’s lust for power and refusal to repair family bonds send the entire tragedy into motion. In the Greek tragedy, Antigone, the Royal House of Thebes has already suffered a tremendous breakdown. King Oedipus, after discovering that he had murdered his father and married his own mother, gouged out his eyes, then died while in exile, accompanied only by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. His two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, killed each other in a battle over Thebes. These tragic events occur before the start of Antigone, but they have an enormous influence on the outcome of the play’s actions. The shifting lines of loyalty and obligations in the play occur because the family unit, which has been weakened and destroyed by the earlier events, no longer provides the stability and bond in which the characters can direct those loyalties. Therefore, individual desires toward self-preservation, eros, and power further the destruction of the family unit to its inevitable and tragic end.

The play begins with Antigone and Ismene. This is the first indication of the familial or soror bonds that still exist within the Royal House of Thebes. The two sisters are the only surviving children of Oedipus and Jocasta. Antigone asks for her sister’s help in burying their brother Polynices. The burial becomes a cleansing ritual of sorts for the family after having suffered so much death and destruction. This is indicative in how Antigone views her own actions. While, throughout the play, Antigone states that she is honoring the burial rites in accordance to the moral laws of the gods, her real reasons for defying Creon’s edict goes much deeper.

Familial love and duty to family prove to be a far stronger argument for her motivation than honor toward the gods. Antigone states as such in a number of instances throughout the play. For instance, in the first scene, she states after Ismene has turned down her request in helping her bury their brother:

“And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory. I will lie with the one I love and loved by him-” (Sophocles 86-87).

Here, Antigone’s motivation is shaped more by her love for her brother rather than honor toward the gods. A far more telling instance occurs later in the play when Antigone is carrying on a dialogue with the Chorus:

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 (995-1005).

Antigone’s argument then becomes specious. Creon’s laws are not what is at question here, for Antigone would have obeyed them if they were directed towards a husband or child. Antigone is responding as any sister would: she wishes to mourn her brother’s death in the rites accorded to their customs. The ignominy of her brother’s death only serves to further the psychic wounds the family suffers. The ritual burial becomes a means for her to heal those wounds and unite herself with her lost family.

Seen in this interpretation, Antigone’s request to her sister takes on a much more meaningful act than a simple request for assistance. Antigone is clearly reaching out to Ismene for family unity. Since they are the two surviving sisters, they are the face of the former Royal House of Thebes. For both sisters to unite in this ritual burial act not only sends a message to the people of Thebes, but also strengthens their bond over the loss and destruction their family has suffered.

As Antigone states: “Yes! He is my brother and-deny it as you will-your brother too” (54-55).

Regardless of the actions from the past-Oedipus’s sins, the brothers’ fratricide-nothing can nor should deny the bonds of those family ties.

And yet, Ismene does deny those ties. Though she professes loyalty and love for her family, Ismene chooses to obey Creon’s edict and rejects her sister’s call for unity. Ismene’s action is the first and most significant of these shifting loyalties because her rejection destroys completely the familial bonds that are left between the Royal house.

It is important to understand why Ismene rejects her sister’s call for family unity and chooses to obey Creon because it forms the argument for the choices the other characters make in the play. Ismene reveals her reasons succinctly in one passage early on when she explains:

“think what a death we’ll die, the worst of all/if we violate the laws and override/the fixed decree of the throne, its power-we must be sensible” (71-74).

The “death” Ismene fears is tied directly to the ignominy her parents and brothers faced in their own deaths. She lays this out earlier in this speech, when she enumerates the various calamities that had befallen their family. Ismene fears following her family into an ignominious death-

“think how our own father died, hated,/his reputation in ruins,” (61-61)

-which is what will happen when she joins her sister’s call. “The worst of all” death she can imagine is to embrace the shame that has caused the destruction of the family unit-Oedipus’s incestuous sins. By distancing herself from the family, Ismene chooses self-preservation. This is terribly significant because Ismene’s choice is equally destructive for the value it places on her own preservation over that of the family.

And yet, later on in the play, Ismene changes her mind and chooses death beside her sister. This change of heart further illuminates Ismenes’s state-of-mind. She does not fear death, per se, but the ignominy that would have come with siding with her family. Ismene reveals this in an ironic note when she states:

“But now you face such dangers…I’m not ashamed/to sail through trouble with you,/make your troubles mine” (608-610).

The shame Ismene feels toward her family as a whole is still present, even as she proffers her death for a crime Antigone alone committed. Thus, Antigone’s rejection is understandable since Ismene is not choosing to cleave herself to the family honor and unity in death, but rather to Antigone, who, at this point in the play, has earned the admiration and pity of the people (773-778). This is revealed throughout the whole text of the conversation between the sisters. Ismene pleads with her sister not to

“reject me, please,”(613) and allow her to die with her because she does not care “for life, cut off from you[?]”(618).

Dying with her sister would not be quite as shameful. To be fair, Ismene is also motivated from a fear of loneliness-Antigone is the only remaining member she has left of her family; after Antigone’s death she will be “left so alone”(70). But whether Ismene is motivated out of loneliness or the fear of shame, her reasons are still predicated on her own sense of honor and preservation and not on the family. What Antigone wants is to be unified with her family in death, shame or no. Therefore, she cannot accept her sister’s sudden shift in alliance because it does not rise from the same desires as Antigone’s.

It should be noted that during the play Antigone does have glimmers of doubt over what she is sacrificing by choosing her family over her own individual desires. When Creon seals her fate, she bemoans over the fact that she will be reunited with her parents

“cursed, unwed, to share their home-” and that her brother’s marriage to death “murders mine,/your dying drags me down to death alive!”(954-958).

Her resentment toward her family is odd here considering she chose freely to sacrifice her own happiness in her desire for familial unity. What this passage suggests is the supreme sacrifice Antigone is willing to make for her family. Her tragedy becomes sealed because Antigone is giving up so much to ensure that she is united in her family’s honor. It also serves to illuminate the differences between Antigone’s self-sacrifice and Ismene’s self-preservation.

Creon and Haemon go through a similar shift in alliances. Haemon chooses Antigone over his father. Haemon’s decision would seem to suggest that his siding with Antigone would mean he agrees with her desire to heal and unite the family unit. Yet, Haemon’s betrayal of his father only ensures the further destruction of the family. His suicide will lead to the suicide of his mother, Eurydice, and leave the weakened city of Thebes vulnerable to further attack.

In this sense, Haemon chose eros, his love for Antigone, over that of his own family’s survival. The image of Haemon clinging to Antigone’s corpse after he has driven his sword in his own body(1355-1371) is a striking one, but further illuminates the prevailing theme in the play. Time and time again, reunification of the family unit is thwarted by individual desires. Yet, it should be noted, that Haemon, like all the other characters in the play, is driven to this course of action by his own father, who stubbornly refuses to listen to reason and heal the family rifts.

Creon is an important figure, not only because his actions predicate the choices the other characters make, but because he is for all purposes the “father figure” in the play. Brother to Jocasta, Creon is uncle to Ismene and Antigone, as well as father to Haemon. As king, he also plays a patriarchal role over the people of Thebes. As patriarch, Creon is in the perfect position to heal the wounds of the broken family bonds by embracing his late nephew in death. Yet Creon’s definition of the patriarch is not one who heals, but one who dominates. He illuminates this sharply during his dialogue with Haemon. After Haemon seemingly offers his obeisance to his father, Creon states:

“That’s how you ought to feel within your heart,/subordinate to your father’s will in every way”(714-715).

A good patriarchal king must have sons or subjects subordinate to him. To show leniency toward Antigone after she has defied him would let loose anarchy on the state. But, more than anything, it would mean the usurpation of Creon’s power as king. Like Ismene, Creon is motivated not by preserving the family unit or the state even but by preserving his own power. His desire for power alone is revealed during this passage with his son:

CREON: Am I to rule this land for others-or myself?
HAEMON: It’s no city at all, owned by one man alone.
CREON: What? The city is the king’s-that’s the law!(823-825)

Clearly, Creon is not ruling “for others,” but rather for his own pleasure. His individual desires for power dwarf the needs of the family and the state, hindering the family’s health and survival. Polynices threatened his power and therefore needed to be punished in death. Antigone threatened that power, as well, and therefore deserved to die. Thus, Creon’s actions not only prevents any chance to heal from the family’s destruction, but exacerbates them, as witnessed by the deaths of his son Haemon and wife Jocasta.

Haemon’s statement to his father during their final confrontation-“What a splendid king you’d make of a desert island-you and you alone”(826-827) brings a finality to the play’s themes of family needs over individual desires. Without the stability of an in tact family under which to unite, each member is forced or freed to make choices that satisfies individual desires for eros, self-preservation, and power, thus leading to the further destruction of the family unit.

More resources > Works Cited
Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. Ed. Bernard Knox. Penguin Books. New York: 1982.

EDITOR’S NOTE > Article by Cynthia C. Scott 2006 © Associated Content. All rights reserved.

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