Sophocles’s play, Antigone, had a great influence on Virginia Woolf, and she extols Antigone as a feminist heroine who was killed because she insisted upon a woman’s right to have her own opinions and to speak out. This is just one version of the common Romantic view of the play, a view which is, I am afraid, very far from the mark.
The protagonist of Antigone is really Creon, and this brings us to the first of many questions: if Creon is the protagonist, why is the play named Antigone? But then, why is Agamemnon named Agamemnon? His wife, Clytemnestra is clearly the protagonist there. Agamemnon arrives from Troy when the action of the play is already well-established, makes a brief, stuffy speech and goes into the palace to be murdered. Period! Again, why is Philoctetes called Philoctetes? That play clearly belongs to Neoptolemus, who has been sent to bring Philoctetes to Troy. He has the moral dilemma. He is present throughout. Philoctetes is unchanging until the deus ex machina forces him to change his mind. And why is Alcestis called Alcestis? That play is about Hercules. Alcestis is there merely to die and to be returned from the grave. Hercules makes a fool of himself by insensitively wining and dining in the widower’s palace, and then must redeem himself by fighting Death to bring Alcestis back. It is clear that the titles of the Greek plays merely identify the fragments of mythology from which the stories are drawn; they don’t tell us what is going to be done with them.
Then how do we know that Creon is the protagonist? First of all, he enters with the chorus at the beginning of the play proper, and he immediately says:
I claim and hold the throne and sovereignty.
Yet ‘tis no easy matter to discern
The temper of a man, his mind and will,
Till he be proved by exercise of power [174-177]
This play will be the test of Creon and his notions of kingship—that is what it is about. He goes on to order that the body of his nephew Polyneices be left unburied. The chorus, which is often taken to represent sensible Greek opinion, has no trouble with this at all:
Thy word is law; thou can’st dispose of us
The living, as thou will’st, as of the dead. [213-214]
Creon remains on stage for most of the rest of the play! What about Antigone? She has already appeared, but it is in a prolog which merely sets the stage. She has only two more, brief scenes, and the position she takes in the prolog is never altered. Her role is to precipitate the action.
Let’s play playwright. Take someone of Creon’s temperament, sex, age, and beliefs: how do we show that his view of power is wrong? He is obstinate, arrogant, and intemperate. Let’s oppose him with someone who is his mirror-image in these regards, for this will make his responses to opposition a sort of unintended self-criticism. To further inflame his temper let’s choose a young woman. In fifth century Greek society, women and the young were expected to defer to elderly men. Antigone is a perfect choice, and only an anachronistic Romantic desire to see her as an isolated rebel spirit standing up to authority (youth against age, female against male) can carry us past the narrow legalism of her position and the abrasiveness of her character. She is no more to be admired than Creon is—and that is exactly the point!
In the prolog we heard her talking with her sister, Ismene. As we know, Creon has given orders that the body of their brother, Polyneices, must remain unburied because he brought an army against Thebes to claim his turn at the throne–and Antigone tells us that Creon will soon announce this publicly.
Such is the edict (if report speak true)
Of Creon, our most noble Creon, aimed
At thee and me, aye me too . . . . [31-33]
Read this carefully. Is not “our most noble Creon,” as she has couched it, a sneer, and does not “aimed at thee and me, aye me too” carry a strong whiff of egotism? It would be very different if she had just said: “Such is the edict (if report speak true) of our most noble Creon . . . .”
She goes on to ask Ismene to help her bury Polyneices. Ismene is not afraid to die, as we will find out later in the play, but she does not believe in breaking the law. That Creon was wrong, we learn as the play progresses, but this does not justify Antigone’s course. The Greeks were great believers in the rule of law, always ready to sniff out contempt for due process or any threat of tyranny (which was for the Greeks the usurpation of power, not necessarily oppression). When Ismene refuses to help, Antigone taunts her with cowardice and petulantly snaps:
I urge no more; nay, wert thou willing still,
I would not welcome such a fellowship.
Go thine own way; myself will bury him. [69-71]
This is the behavior of the spoiled child: “you didn’t want to at first, so now you don’t get to.”
Ismene protectively asks her to keep quiet about her intentions, and we hear the authentic voice of Antigone once more:
O tell it, sister; I shall hate thee more
If thou proclaim it not to all the town. [86-87]
Why does she speak of hating Ismene, and why should it be necessary to publish who is doing what? Isn’t the goal supposed to be to give the symbolic last rites to her brother? Why is it important that her deeds become public?
Creon has no sooner finished his speech on kingship than one of the guards left outside the gates to watch over Polyneices’ body hurries in. He is a wonderful character, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s louts. He carries news that the first sentry of the morning watch reported that the body had been covered by dust, as if in a ceremonial burial, and yet there was no sign of any human presence. The chorus is at once perturbed:
I had misgivings from the first, my liege,
Of something more than natural at work. [278-279]
Creon dismisses their concerns, arguing that the gods would not care for a man who had come to invade his own homeland, and the guard is sent back to watch over the body with the threat of punishment if he doesn’t catch the guilty party.
Now, the question is: who or what buried Polyneices? The discovery was made at first light, so the burial must have been accomplished before Antigone tried to persuade Ismene to help her! After all, in her second speech in the prolog, Antigone says that they are beyond the gates, but the gates would be closed at night (especially in time of war). She establishes the time by saying that Creon will come soon to pronounce his edict. All of this tells us that some other agency has performed the burial, which has been made with no sign of human intervention. And as we know, the chorus immediately suspects that the gods have had a hand in it.
Some time later, the guard reenters bringing Antigone with him, caught in the act of burying the body. According to his report, the guards were watching from high on a ridge to the windward when they saw her. Seeing the naked body of her brother, she cursed those who had done the deed and covered him with handfuls of dust. Taxed with both burials, she denied nothing.
These two burials pose an important problem. We might assume that the Gods have buried the body the first time, since it would have been impossible for Antigone to have done so, and the chorus has suggested it is likely. From her point of view, there would be no great need to bury it a second time since that ceremonial act would have permitted the soul to go to the underworld. There are only two possible explanations, and neither improves her position. Either she knows that the Gods have buried it and buries it again because she wants to be seen to be standing up to Creon. Or, she buries it ignorantly, not knowing the gods’ will at all. As we will see when Tiresias appears, the Gods have their own motive for burying Polyneices, and it isn’t the same as Antigone’s.
Creon questions Antigone, clearly trying to elicit from her some suggestion that she didn’t know about his edict (he is obviously trying to spare her). At this point, she defiantly brings up her justification for breaking the law:
Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And She who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven. [451-456]
This is not just an appeal to some general good; it is a reference to a specific concept. To tell how much weight to give her argument, we need to know what the “unwritten laws” were and what status they had among the Greeks. They appear to be those laws that come before human law, those which are necessary to permit human society to exist at all by protecting the social group and its relationship with the gods. Thus, they were laws against killing one’s parents, against incest, against breaking the guest-host relationship, and against breaking oaths to the gods. Antigone seems to be inventing the notion that they cover burial of the dead. If Greek opinion was on her side, wouldn’t we have heard the chorus responding to Creon’s edict with a warning: “O King, would not that course, infringe upon the immutable laws of Heaven?” A Greek audience would surely expect this.
The chorus sums up her character, referring back to her father, Oedipus:
A stubborn daughter of a stubborn sire,
This ill-starred maiden kicks against the pricks.
And Creon replies in prophetic and ironic words:
Well, let her know the stubbornest of wills
Are soonest bended, as the hardest iron,
O’er-heated in the fire to brittleness,
Flies soonest into fragments, shivered through.
A snaffle curbs the fieriest steed, and he
Who in subjection lives must needs be meek. [474-479]
This is wonderful writing (and I’m not talking about the translation, which is old, but scholarly). Remember that the two opponents are mirror-images in obstinacy and arrogance, and as a consequence, they are both doomed by this.
Ismene is brought in. Offering to share the blame, she says that she doesn’t want to live without her sister. Antigone responds harshly to her, and some of her speeches make it clear that she isn’t merely trying to save Ismene’s life: she wants all the “credit” for the burial:
That were unjust. Thou would’st not act with me
At first, and I refused your partnership. [538-539]
Who did the deed the under-world knows well:
A friend in word is never friend of mine. [542-543]
In an effort to defend her sister, Ismene raises the fact that Antigone is betrothed to Haemon, Creon’s son. This leads to a tense interchange of lines, a device of the Greek tragedies called stichomythia:
ISMENE: What, wilt thou slay thy own son’s plighted bride?
CREON: Aye, let him raise him seed from other fields.
ISMENE: No new espousal can be like the old.
CREON: A plague on trulls who court and woo our sons.
ANTIGONE: O Haemon, how thy sire dishonours thee! [567-572]
There are no stage directions in the ancient texts, no means of telling who is speaking. Most modern editions give this last line to Antigone, as shown above, to make her seem more sympathetic, but some scholars argue that the pattern of exchanged speeches really assigns it to Ismene. I would agree, but primarily for dramatic reasons. Ismene is sweet and loving. Antigone is hard and abrasive. This speech fits in well with everything that Ismene says, but it sounds very strange coming from Antigone.
The two women are led away, and after a time Haemon enters. This is the heart of the play because this is where Creon’s notion of kingship is discussed at length. Haemon is a reasonable young man, the voice of democratic wisdom, and he makes every effort to be politic. To see why he fails to persuade his father, we need to look at Creon’s misogyny. He has already said that if Antigone gets away with flouting authority, “I am the woman, she the man” [483-484]; and later “no woman shall be master while I live“; and again “let them learn to live as women use, not roam at large” [578-579]. As the discussion proceeds, Creon allows himself to be more and more dominated by his misogynistic outrage—it is a woman who is opposing him, and a young woman at that! His first speech to Haemon picks up this theme:
Therefore we must maintain authority
And yield no tittle to a women’s will.
Better, if needs be, men should cast us out
Than hear it said, a woman proved his match. [675-679]
Haemon responds in words that mirror those that Creon used in his interview with Antigone (474-479), but the images of human control over human matters (appropriate to Creon’s power over Antigone) are replaced by images of humans against natural forces (appropriate to the Gods’ power over Creon). Once again, this is wonderful writing.
The wisest man will let himself be swayed
By others’ wisdom and relax in time.
See how the trees beside a stream in flood
Save, if they yield to force, each spray unharmed, “save” means unless (obs.)
But by resisting perish root and branch.
The mariner who keeps his mainsheet taut,
And will not slacken in the gale, is like
To sail with thwarts reversed, keel uppermost.
Creon immediately rejects his counsel because he is young, calling him a “boy,” The interchange that follows goes straight to the heart of the matter:
CREON: Is not this maid an arrant law-breaker?
HAEMON: The Theban commons with one voice say, No.
CREON: What, shall the mob dictate my policy?
HAEMON: ‘Tis thou, methinks, who speakest like a boy.
CREON: Am I to rule for others, or myself?
HAEMON: A State for one man is no State at all.
CREON: The State is his who rules it, so ‘tis held.
HAEMON: As monarch of a desert thou would’st shine. [732-739]
As the discussion continues, tempers flare, and Creon insults Haemon for championing a woman: “O heart corrupt, a woman’s minion thou!” , and “Play not the spaniel, thou a woman’s slave” . Haemon rushes out, and Creon, in another splendid bit of writing, is made to echo Haemon’s words quoted above  when he announces that Antigone will be taken to a desert place, where she will be walled up in a cave with only a little food, and left to die.
Antigone is brought in, and in her song she makes an interesting revelation:
“Nay, but the piteous tale I’ve heard men tell
Of Tantalus’ doomed child,
Chained upon Sipylus’ high rocky fell,
That clung like ivy wild,
Drenched by the pelting rain and whirling snow,
Left there to pine,
While on her frozen breast the tears aye flow—
Her fate is mine. [825-830]
She is comparing herself with Niobe, a mother whose love for her children prompted her into an act of hubris, defiance of the gods. Why should a Romantic rebel justified by the god’s “unwritten laws” compare herself to someone who has defied them? The chorus calls her “over-rash”  and refers to her “ungovernable will” .
There is one more important scene. Teiresias, the blind seer comes in to give Creon his last chance to set things right. He says that the bird omens are bad and the fires will not light upon the altars because they are defiled by the flesh of Polyneices, which has been consumed by carrion birds and dogs. The remedy is to perform the burial. But Creon, like Antigone, claims to know the will of the gods:
Not e’en in awe of prodigy so dire
Would I permit his burial, for I know
No human soilure can assail the gods . . . . [1042-1045]
After arguing in vain, Tereisias makes a grim prediction:
Know then for sure, the coursers of the sun
Not many times shall run their race, before
Thou shalt have given the fruit of thine own loins
In quittance of thy murder, life for life;
For that thou hast entombed a living soul,
And sent below a denizen of earth,
And wronged the nether gods by leaving here
A corpse unlaved, unwept, unsepulchred. [1064-1071]
The two things Creon is asked to do contradict his notion of kingly power. Desperately troubled by Tereisias’ prediction, he now does what he has said he need never do. He turns to the chorus and asks them for advice:
What should I do. Advise me. I will heed. 
Go free the maiden from her rocky cell;
And for the unburied outlaw build a tomb. [1100-1101]
And with this, all should be well, but Creon remains to fixated upon the forms of things and not their substance. He follows the advice, but in the wrong sequence: leaving living human concerns until the last, he hurries off to bury the body.
The die is cast, and we are very near the end. After spending most of the day burying Polyneices, Creon hurries to Antigone’s cell, only to hear his son sobbing. Antigone has committed suicide. When he sees his father, Haemon lunges at him with his sword, and missing, turns it upon himself. Teiresias’s prediction has come true. A messenger takes word of this to Creon’s wife, who rushes silently into the palace. When Creon returns home, he is greeted by another messenger. His wife, in grief, has taken her own life.
How certain can we be that the interpretation given here is the best one? There are several points to consider. First, the Greek audience did not believe in civil disobedience, a fact well-attested by history. The Romantic view of the play forces us to ignore that. Second, if Creon is the protagonist, which seems clear, his decisions and the concept of kingship which pushes him into making them are at the center of the play. Antigone is only there to initiate the action, just as Agamemnon, Philoctetes, and Alcestis are in their plays. Third, there is Antigone’s argument that she is supported by the “unwritten laws,” a very weak argument at best. Fourth, we have the two burials. If you play playwright you can see why the first one is needed. We are opposing Creon with his female double, who will argue that she is following the “unwritten laws’ of the gods. To make it quite clear that she is not justified in this, and to keep the focus on Creon, we will show her to be ignorant of the god’s will in her very act of defiance, itself. Fifth, Tereisias, in bringing us true knowledge of the Gods, does not tell us that the unwritten laws are being broken, but that the altars are being polluted by the carrion fowl and dogs, who have gorged themselves on Polyneices’ flesh because he has left the body unburied. Sixth, the chorus, even while sympathetic, never supports her principal claims, but comments on her rashness throughout.
Finally, the Romantic view of the play requires that we see Antigone as an appealing character who is acting out of principle, which is dubious. Ismene, whose function in the play is to serve as a foil to Antigone is very much like Haemon, who is a foil to Creon. Both are warm, appealing characters who care for others and the law, but Antigone and Creon are paired up in opposition to them. She is not an attractive character, and it is far from clear that her behavior is principled. It is, in fact, aberrant, especially in her unhealthy fixation upon her brother, a point to which Greek audiences would be very sensitive (and because of the unwritten laws, at that!). She seems not to be interested in Haemon or his fate, and she has hardly anything to say about her second brother, Eteocles, but in talking to Ismene she sounds as if she wants to join Polyneices in death:
How sweet to die in such employ, to rest—
Sister and brother linked in love’s embrace . . . . [72-73]
And to Creon:
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful . . . . [464-466]
And again to Ismene:
. . . thou chosed’st life, and I to die. 
She goes further, telling Ismene:
. . . I died long ago, 
And we might even guess what she means by this and by her references to her misery when we hear her responding to the chorus. (She is speaking in the context of her parent’s incest!)
And now I pass, accursed and unwed,
To meet them as an alien there below;
And thee, O brother, in marriage ill-bestead,
‘Twas thy dead hand that dealt me this death blow. [868-871]
Elizabeth Wyckoff translates the same passage this way:
I go to stay with them. My curse is to die unwed.
My brother, you found your fate when you found your bride,
found it for me as well. Dead, you destroy my life.
Her fate was fixed when her brother married. It may be argued that this suggests that the marriage alliance provided him with the army he needed to attack Thebes, though I believe the answer is more direct. When Polyneices married, Antigone lost the will to live. But even if we ignore the quality of her attachment to her brother, the fact remains that she isn’t unwillingly put to death—she has sought death.
Note This essay is based on a paper I gave at the Classical Association of the Pacific Northwest in 1989. I haven't published it, but I have given copies of it to several of my colleagues. All of the quotations from Antigone except the last come from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Sophocles (Vol. 1) translated by F. Storr, first printed in 1912. It is a dated translation, but one that is available in any comprehensive library. The last quotation comes from Elizabeth Wyckoff’s Sophocles I, which was edited by David Green and Richmond Lattimore. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1954)