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Tips for When You’re the Protagonist of an Ancient Greek Tragedy

Why does Antigone die?

I’ve read and seen many versions of Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Antigone. The basic facts are the same: Antigone, daughter and half-sister of Oedipus, is born of tragedy and abomination. She has a sickness in her blood, a stain she can never cleanse. 

The same sickness drives her brothers to turn against each other in pursuit of power. One kills the other. The king Creon exalts the victorious brother and orders that the dead brother’s body be left to rot on the battlefield. This is a punishment – a public shaming of the dishonored Polyneices. 

Of course, there’s another reason dead bodies are sometimes left in public view: as a threat. A dead body is a reminder. It’s a show of force.

Antigone defies the government, and the king Creon (who is also her uncle and soon to be her father-in-law), to give her disgraced brother an honorable burial. In this act of civil disobedience, or of loyalty to her family, she forces Creon to condemn her to death. 

Creon is Antigone’s mother Jocasta’s brother – one of the branches of Antigone’s family not yet touched by horror and tragedy. This is the day that changes.

Creon arrests Antigone, and this is when the play really gets going. The two fight it out, rhetorically. It’s a weird dynamic: In addition to being king, Creon is both Antigone’s uncle and great uncle, and Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon. But it’s even more than that: Creon is, honestly, The Man, and Antigone has fucking had it.

I once saw a production of The Gospel at Colonus, a gospel adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus (which precedes Antigone as the middle entry in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy). Creon moved across that stage with all the swagger of a 1930s mob boss, hulking torso clad in a tailored pinstripe suit. I can’t think about Creon now without thinking of that depiction. 

But mostly, I see Creon as every myopic, egocentric, even slightly powerful white man I’ve known. Every middle manager who abuses buzzwords; every condescending pastor; every man decades older than me who assumes I want his opinion. 

If I’m being honest, this is why I keep showing up to theaters to see Antigone. It almost doesn’t matter that by the end of the play, Antigone is always dead. It almost doesn’t matter that Creon is more powerful than Antigone in every way. Because first, she makes sure that Creon doesn’t win, either. 

Antigone is fated for tragedy before her birth, just as her father was before her. But Creon chooses his tragedy. Whereas Oedipus spends all of Oedipus the King trying to outwit fate and somehow undo what’s already happened, Antigone shows us exactly how Creon’s decisions lead to his own misery. 

When Creon and Antigone face off, he tries to get Antigone to explain why she would choose to commit this fatal crime. Antigone, unrepentant, cites her duty to her family and her desire to appease the gods. Creon’s son Haemon also asks Creon to spare Antigone’s life. He tells Creon that the people of the city secretly sympathize with Antigone. Creon rules in favor of upholding the order he’s established as king. He orders Antigone sealed up in a cave to die. 

After a warning from the prophet Tiresias, Creon changes his mind, but it’s too late. Antigone is dead. Creon’s son Haemon – Antigone’s fiancé – first attacks Creon and then kills himself. Creon’s wife Eurydice soon follows suit, also committing suicide. 

And just like that, Creon the king is left alone with no family. All he has left is the political regime he upheld.

That’s the plot of Antigone. These are the facts of the case. You’ll notice it doesn’t answer the question: Why does Antigone die?

The conventional answer: Because she’s in a classical tragedy. It’s her destiny.

The diegetic answer: Because her existence as a product of incest is cursed.

The character-driven answer: Because she chooses her obligation to her gods and her natal family over her obligation to her government or her would-be marital family.

French playwright Jean Anouilh penned a riveting adaptation of Antigone that premiered in 1944. It focuses mostly on the debate between Antigone and Creon. Creon is the entrenched establishment, trying to work out a deal with Antigone so he doesn’t have to execute his son’s fiancée. Antigone is the dissatisfied youth, the independent woman bristling at the yoke of marriage, the grieving sister and orphan, the rebel laying down her life in protest. 

It’s a thorny discussion, with enough nuance to make a case for either side. But if you ask me, here is why Jean Anouilh believes Antigone dies: Because she would rather die on her own terms, and choose her own fate, than submit to the suppressed freedom of marriage and subjugation to the state. Because she’d rather die than live in a society where enacting her grief for her brother is a crime. 

The phrase “suicide by police” comes to mind. But is it still suicide when the life you’re asked to lead is unsurvivable, too?

In 2018, I saw Antigone in Ferguson, a reframing of the source material that placed it in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is more intuitive than you might expect. Since its inception, Antigone has been intertwined with its cultural context. When the Oedipus trilogy of plays first premiered, they did so in an Athens recently blighted by plague. Similarly, Thebes – the city-state in the plays ruled by Oedipus and then Creon – is also recovering from a plague. In Oedipus the King, the first play, this literal sickness is a side effect of the sickness at the heart of the state: the incestuous marriage of the king and his mother. 

Those ancient Athenian audiences must have longed for an equally tidy explanation for their troubles. But of course, there’s more than one way that a government can fall prey to sickness.

So why does Antigone die in Antigone in Ferguson? Because the state protects itself before it protects people. Because justice doesn’t always win the day. Because when you lay down your life for a cause, you don’t always get to keep it.

The mercy of Antigone is that while the deaths happen offstage, they’re mourned onstage, with hard-won grief. The mercy of Antigone is that even Antigone, the inbred accident of tragedy, gets to have her say before her exit. 

The power of Antigone is that she shows up a reigning monarch with one simple act of decency and defiance. The power of Antigone is that we’re still talking about her rebellion, 2,400 years later. The power of Antigone is that I have watched her choose death over marriage, choose family over law, choose defiance over submission. There are so many ways to tell just one story. You can map so many narratives over the same constellation of events.

Still, in every narrative that goes by her name, Antigone is fated to die. You can’t write around it. The most she can do – the most any of us can do, as limited authors of our own fates – is find a way to do something important, something valuable, something even beautiful, before she runs out of time.

Featured image: Antigone au chevet de Polynice, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023