Character Sketch of Antigone
Antigone is the symbol of the noblest idea of womanhood. The first Protestant in recorded history, Antigone is a martyr to the cause of truth. She defied the frowns of a King and upheld the banner of justice and the majesty of the god. Symonds says:
“The most perfect female character in Greek Poetry is Antigone.”
In the Oedipus Rex we catch a glimpse of her; in the Oedipus at Colonus the picture is more detailed. But in the Antigone we have a full-length picture of the heroine, painted in unexpected colours. In the Oedipus Rex, the two sisters were permitted to come in the presence of Oedipus, when he embraced them affectionately. In the Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone played a more positively active role. Oedipus was an exile, clothed in rages, blind and helpless. Antigone was then literally the blindman’s prop. She led her father with utmost devotion to Athens. As Creon asked his guards to take away Antigone, she cried out in despair:
“Don’t let them take me away.”
There we find to be a weakling, who can love her infirm father but cannot record her protest. She was saved by Theseus, and was naturally full of warm gratitude. Then appeared on the scene Polynices, Antigone’s brother with faltering steps and protestations of sorrow. Oedipus was, however, not at all moved. Polynices, he thought, had sown the wind and dust, therefore, reap the whirlwind. Antigone was as much devoted to her doting and affectionate father as to the erring brother. That is why she said to Polynices:
“Say more, if you can, of the favour you came to ask,
As you talk, some tenderness may touch his heart;
Or even a word of anger or pity may draw
An answer out of silence,”
Polynices left to meet his sure death. Oedipus, after a while led by some mysterious agency, moved away, followed at a little distance by Theseus and the two daughters, and then disappeared for ever. Antigone exclaimed:
“I never knew how great the loss could be
Even of sadness; there was a sort of joy
In sorrow, when he was at my side.
Father, my love, in your shroud of earth
We two shall love you forever and ever.”
She was so grief-stricken that she also wanted to follow her father.
As Antigone was prevailed upon to avoid the suicidal step, she decided to go back to Thebes to prevent the internecine war between two of her brothers:
There it may be
“We can yet stem the tide of blood
That dooms our brothers.”
Antigone’s love for her father and brother alone could sustain her dreary existence. In The Antigone she is presented as a woman of sterner stuff. As loving and lovable as ever, she appears here not as a symbol of filial piety but sisterly love and charity, which strengthened her beyond imagination. Her brother Polynices was dead, and his body was left in the plains uncared for. Creon passed his edict that anybody burying him would be killed. In deference to the dictates of her conscience and the time honoured majesty of the King. She marched to her living tomb with a dauntless heart. The beloved of Haemon, Antigone had, no doubt, been dreaming of building a sweet home and having children. But the love for her brother got the upper hand, and she completely ignored all other considerations.
Antigone has been rightly called a “stainless soul” by Goethe. Strictly in conformity to the Greek practice. She looked upon a brother as far more important than a son or even a husband, with whom there was no consanguinity. He could not reconcile himself to be idea that Antigone defied Creon’s edict only because her brother, and no other relation, was exposed. A thoroughly human character, Antigone was also a lover, although the sentimental part of her character was subordinated to her devotion to her duty, conscience, and justice. In this respect she compares favourably with Electra, who also remained firm in her conviction and refused to budge an ince. There, however, the comparison ends. Antigone’s tender affection for her brother, is pronounced, although her heart is pining for love. She was not an ‘unsexed’ woman like Lady Macbeth. She sought to repress her womanhood for the time being, but it asserted itself in her Kommos.
“You see me, Countrymen, on my last journey,
Taking my last leave of the light of day;
Going to my rest, where death shall take me
Alive across the silent river.
No wedding-day, no marriage-music;
Death will be all my bridal dower.”
Her unshakable courage was failing her. And she appeared all the more human, convincing, and lovable.
In The Antigone the heroine was faced with a conflict between individual conscience and the royal edict. It is immaterial whether Polynices was a good man or a betrayer of his country. To the Greeks, reverence for the dead was a sacred duty, which none would dare violate. To this primitive faith was added the personal love and affection of Antigone. The conflict between Creon and Antigone is the conflict between law and justice. The decree of man-dressed in little, brief authority, is pitted against the unwritten laws of the gods, which are synonymous with dike or justice, administered not by man but by the god.
Antigone never thought that womanhood was the symbol of weakness. Ismene, no less devoted to her brother, confessed to her own weakness as a woman.
Modern commentators feel that Creon has political authority in his favour, and Antigone has done a grievous wrong by questioning that authority. Hegel has condemned neither Creon nor Antigone. “In the view of eternal justice both were wrong, because they were one-sided; but at the same time both were right.” It was, in fact, a conflict between a greater right and a lesser right. Antigone, it goes without saying represented the greater right. And yet Antigone, however, extravagantly praised by critics through ages, had her hamarita or fatal flaw. If pride, egoism, and aggressiveness are the besetting sins of Creon, Antigone may also be charged with a little pride and vanity, which, with all her nobility, she could not always overcome. She told Ismene that she would do her duty all alone.
Antigone’s pride, however, does not minimize the guilt of Creon. Even if he thought Antigone to be obstinate, and she was, the act of impiety of Creon has no extenuating circumstances. To his impiety was added hubris or pride and even tyrannical arrogance.
In fact, most people loved her and even admired her, but had not the courage to do so publicly. Antigone, however, was least concerned about the popular support, which did not add to her strength at all. She was seeking strength from within, which sustained her almost throughout the play. At times she did father, and we shall have occasion to refer to that at a subsequent stage.
The duty to the dead brother became her obsession, her idea fixe, and that goaded her on. It was as much a religious duty as a personal obligation. She thought so much of this duty that she had scant respect for the tender solicitude of Ismene. Their parents and brothers were dead. And it was natural, therefore, that Ismene should feel deeply concerned about Antigone, who was the only close relation of her family left. But Antigone, was demonstrably cold to her.
“Self-will” is synonymous with pride. But on close examination it will appear that Antigone’s uncompromising nature has often been misconstrued as her pride. She could not, in fact, did not, try to appreciate the other man’s point of view. Even her supporters, and she had many, at times felt that she lacked tact. She wanted her sister to give her disobedience the widest publicity.
Antigone loved her brother with almost demoniac frenzy. But we feel that her love for her brother made her cold to Ismene and Haemon, who loved her so dearly. She appeared to be a woman possessed. Otherwise, so loving to a brother, how could she afford to be so callous to the sisterly sentiments and fears of Ismene? Bowra does not agree that Antigone was cold to her sister. And there is much truth in his contention. The first line in the play confirms his view.
“O sister Ismene, dear, dear sister Ismene!”
Antigone was no more ironical circumstances occasionally made her appear a little cold in relation to others. But she was essentially loving and tender, and that is total impression about her.
In her relation to Ismene, Antigone relented. But she remained as firm as a rock in relation to Creon, who, for her, was the symbol of a heartless authority. To the ancient Greeks, the laws of a state were sacrosanct. The laws became as sacred as the oracle. Antigone certainly knew this. And yet she defied the laws of the King with no regret. Alone she was pitted against the mighty authority of the state. She proved that might is not right, but, on the contrary, it is just the other way round. Right and truth became her might, and even Creon had to yield in the long run.
Antigone did not care to count upon anybody’s help. She wanted to tread alone. The chorus reacted differently to her. In one Ode they said that they did not approve of the policy of Creon. Retaining their detachment as far as possible, they expressed their pleasure as they were told that the dead body of Polynices was given a light coating of dust by some unknown person. Law-abiding citizens that they were, they did not openly question the validity of the edict of Creon, but felt a little uneasy about it. As they came to know that Creon had refused to get Haemon married to Antigone, they were surprised. And as she was sentenced to death, they did feel for her. But once, atleast, they condemned her, because they felt, wrongly though, that she had misconstrued the will of the gods. Many centuries after, an innocent girl called Joan of Arc also was charged with having been under the illusion that the god and the angels had directed her along the right track
The reaction of the Chorus was of no moment to Antigone. She was pure and noble. Like Sir Galahad of Tennyson she could say:
“My strength is as the strength of ten
Because my heart is pure.”
If she has any defect, it is not pride as we have pointed out. It is, in fact, the excess of her virtues. She was, let us not forget, a ship of a girl, on the threshold of life with little experience about the crookedness and the dark alleys of life. She had obstinacy which is the characteristic of the adolescent. Whatever else she was, she was not easily malleable. If she is to be compared with any Shakespearian heroine, it is Cordelia, who remained firm before the irascible Lear, who was every inch a King.
So very strong right from the beginning, Antigone, for a time, lost her strength and courage. The love for Haemon, which she took infinite pains to repress, asserted itself. She was going to die for no crime or no sin either. She was holiest affection. The gods must have shed tears at her death. Not that she did not know these things. She undoubtedly did. But the prospect of dying so young, unwept, unhonoured, and led her with horror. It was not the physical pain that she was afraid of. She broke out into a passionate and heart she was afraid of. She broke out into a passionate and heart rending lament that she had to leave the bright, beautiful and colourful world in the prime of her life, with the fair promises of a happy marriage unfulfilled. Love and marriage are the consummation of womanhood, and Antigone was destined to die without those promises being realized. Antigone exclaimed:
“And must go the way that lies before me,
No funeral hymn; no marriage music,
No sun from this day forth, no light,
No friend to weep at my departing.”
The deep agonizing cry has an unmistakably human touch. Jesus Christ, with all his divine greatness is said to have cried out before crucifixion “Of God, thou too hast forsaken me.” And it is then that we feel akin to Christ, who had all the warmth of humanity despite his divinity.
Antigone sought comfort by recalling how others had suffered before her in much the same way. She recalled how some of them had become even immortal. But the actual horror of the present was too much, beside which the uncertain glory of the future appeared insignificant.
Antigone passed from the scene. But she lingers on in our memory. She will be remembered for her vehement protest against unjust political authority. She will be remembered for her uncompromising spirit, moral courage, her ability to vindicate truth and conscience, her supreme sense of piety, her intense love and affection for a brother, who has been despised by everybody, her unwavering sense of duty and her moral integrity.