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The character of Antigone is a separate question from
Character of Antigone.
the merit of the cause in which she is engaged. She might be doing right, and yet the poet might have represented her as doing it in such a manner as to render her heroism unattractive. We may now turn to this question, and consider what manner of woman she is.

Two qualities are at the basis of her character. One is an enthusiasm, at once steadfast and passionate, for the right, as she sees it,—for the performance of her duty. The other is intense tenderness, purity, and depth of domestic affection; manifested here in the love of sister for brother, a love which death has not weakened, but only consecrated; as in the Oedipus Coloneus—where the portraiture of her is entirely in unison with that given here—it is manifested in the tender anxiety to reconcile her living brothers, and in the fearless, completely selfless devotion—through painful wanderings, through all misery and all reproach—to the old age of her blind and homeless father. In the opening scene of the play, we find her possessed by a burning indignation at the outrage done to her dead brother; the deep love which she feels for him is braced by a clear sense of the religious duty which this edict lays upon her, and by an unfaltering resolve to do it; it never occurs to her for an instant that, as a true sister, she could act otherwise; rather it seems wonderful to her that the author of the edict should even have expected it to prove deterrent—for her (ver. 32).

With her whole heart and soul

Her relation to Ismene.
dominated by these feelings, she turns to her sister Ismene, and asks for her aid; not as if the response could be doubtful—she cannot imagine its being doubtful; it does not enter her mind that one whom she has just addressed by so dear a name, and with whom her tie of sisterhood is made closer still by the destiny which has placed them apart, can be anything but joyful and proud to risk life in the discharge of a duty so plain, so tender, and so sacred. And how does Ismene meet her? Ismene reminds her that other members of their house have perished miserably, and that, if Antigone acts thus, Antigone and she will die more miserably still: they are women, and must not strive with men; they are subjects, and must not strive with rulers: Ismene will ask the dead to excuse her, since she is constrained, and will obey the living: ‘for it is witless to be over-busy’ (“περισσὰ πράσσειν”, v. 68). Ismene is amiable enough; she cannot be called exceptionally weak or timid; she is merely the average woman; her answer here is such as would have been made by most women—and perhaps by a still larger proportion of men, as the Chorus afterwards forcibly reminds us. But, given the character and the present mood of Antigone, what must be the effect of such a reply to such an appeal? It is the tenderness, quite as much as the strength, of Antigone's spirit that speaks in her answer:—‘I will not urge thee,—no, nor, if thou yet shouldst have the mind, wouldst thou be welcome as a worker with me.’ And the calmest reason thoroughly approves that answer; for the very terms in which Ismene had repulsed her sister proved a nature which could never rise to the height of such a task, and which would be more dangerous as an ally than as a neutral.

When the sisters next meet, it is in Creon's presence, and the situation is this:—Antigone has done the deed, unaided; and Creon has said that both sisters shall die—for he suspects Ismene of complicity. Ismene's real affection is now quickened by a fevcrish remorse, and by an impulse towards self-immolation,— an impulse of a sentimental and almost hysterical kind: she will say that she helped Antigone; she will die with her; she will yet make amends to the dead. Was Antigone to indulge Ismene's impulse, and to allow Ismene's words to confirm Creon's suspicions? Surely Antigone was bound to do what she does,—namely, to speak out the truth: ‘Nay, Justice will not suffer thee to do that; thou didst not consent to the deed, neither did I give thee part in it.’ But it will be said that her tone towards Ismene is too stern and hard. The sternness is only that of truth; the hardness is only that of reality: for, among the tragic circumstances which surround Antigone, this is precisely one of the most tragic, that Ismene's earlier conduct, at the testing-point of action, has made a spiritual division which no emotional after-impulse can cancel. One more point may be raised: when Ismene says, ‘What life is dear to me, bereft of thee?’—Antigone replies, ‘Ask Creon—all thy care is for him’ (v. 549): is not this, it may be asked, a needless taunt? The answer is found in Antigone's wish to save Ismene's life. Thus far in the dialogue, Ismene has persisted—even after Antigone's denial—in claiming a share in the deed (vv. 536-547). Creon might well think that, after all, the fact was as he suspected. It was necessary for Antigone to make him see—by some trenchant utterance—that she regarded Ismene as distinctly ranged on his side. And she succeeded. Later in the play, where Creon acknowledges Ismene's innocence, he describes it in the very phrase which Antigone had impressed upon his memory; he speaks of Ismene as one ‘who has not touched’ the deed (v. 771: cp. v. 546). It is with pain (v. 551), it is not with scorn or with bitterness, that Antigone remains firm. Her attitude is prescribed equally by regard for truth and right, and by duty towards her sister.

Antigone is betrothed to Haemon;

Her relation to Haemon.
the closeness of the affection between them is significantly marked by the words of Ismene (v. 570); it is expressed in the words, the deeds, and the death, of Haemon. If verse 572 is rightly assigned to Antigone (as, in my opinion, it is), that brief utterance tells much: but let us suppose that it belongs to Ismene, and that Antigone never once refers directly to Haemon: we say, ‘directly,’ because more than once she alludes to sweet hopes which life had still to offer her. It is evident that, if Sophocles had given greater prominence to Antigone's love for Haemon, he could have had only one aim, consistently with the plan of this play,—viz., to strengthen our sense of the ties which bound her to life, and, therefore, of her heroism in resigning it. But it is also evident that he could have done this, with any effect, only at the cost of depicting a mind divided between the desire of earthly happiness and the resolve to perform a sacred duty. Sophocles has preferred to portray Antigone as raised above every selfish thought, even the dearest, by the absorbing and inspiring sense of her duty to the dead, and to the gods; silent, not through apathy, concerning a love which could never be hers, and turning for comfort to the faith that, beyond the grave, the purest form of human affection would reunite her to those whom she had lost. It is no blame to later dramatists that they found it necessary to make more of the love-motive; but, if our standard is to be the noblest tragic art, it is a confession of their inferiority to Sophocles. There is a beautiful verse in the play which might suggest how little he can have feared that his heroine would ever be charged with a cold insensibility. Creon has urged that the honour which she has shown to Polyneices will be resented by the spirit of Eteocles. Antigone answers, ‘It is not my nature to join in hating, but in loving.’ As she had sought to reconcile them while they lived, so now she will have no part in their feud—if feud there be where they have gone,—but will love each, as he loves her.

So long as her task lies before Antigone,

The reaction in Antigone's mind.
she is sustained by the necessity for action. Nor does she falter for a moment, even after the deed has been done, so long as she is in the presence of Creon. For though she has no longer the stimulus of action, there is still another challenge to her fortitude; she, who is loyal to the divine law, cannot tremble before the man who is its embodied negation. It is otherwise when Creon is gone, and when there are only the Theban elders to see and hear her, as she is led to death. The strain on her mind is relaxed; the end is near; she now feels the longing for some word of pity as she passes to the grave,—for some token of human kindness. But, while she craves such sympathy, the Theban nobles merely console her with the thought of posthumous fame. She compares her doom to Niobe's; and they reply that it is a glory for her to be as Niobe, a daughter of the Tantalidae,—

the seed of gods,
Men near to Zeus; for whom on Ida burns,
High in clear air, the altar of their Sire,
Nor hath their race yet lost the blood divine1.
Few things in tragedy are more pathetic than this yearning of hers, on the brink of death, for some human kindness of farewell, thus ‘mocked’2, as she feels it to be, by a cold assurance of renown. She turns from men to invoke ‘the fount of Dircè and the holy ground of Thebes’; these, at least, will be her witnesses. In her last words, she is thinking of the dead, and of the gods; she feels sure of love in the world of the dead; but she cannot lift her face to the gods, and feel sure that they are with her. If they are so, why have they allowed her to perish for obeying them? Yet, again, they may be with her; she will know beyond the grave. If she has sinned, she will learn it there; but if she is innocent, the gods will vindicate when she is gone. How infinitely touching is this supreme trouble which clouds her soul at the last,—this doubt and perplexity concerning the gods! For it is not a misgiving as to the paramount obligation of the ‘unwritten laws’ which she has obeyed: it is only an anguish of wonder and uncertainty as to the mysterious ways of the powers which have laid this obligation on mortals,—a surmise that, as gods and men seem alike without pity for her, there has perhaps been something wrong in her way of doing the duty which was so clear and so binding.

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hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (9):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 32
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 536
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 546
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 549
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 551
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 570
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 572
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 68
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 771
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 839
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