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‘But I will bury him; and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy’ Once described as a play depicting the complexities of ‘state versus personal’, Antigone’s sheer determination to transgress against the politics of the king, to follow her personal beliefs, presents her as a highly strong-willed protagonist. The idea of a female figure with such bravery and obstinacy was extremely controversial to the standards of the classical period in which the tragedy was first written, leading to the question, Should Antigone be Considered a Feminist Play?

Antigone was the third play of the Oedipus trilogy and one of Athens’s most highly regarded classical playwrights, Sophocles’, most eminent works. Each of his tragedies was written for and first performed at the Great Dionysia festival held in Athens; an extravagant 5-day celebration honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, theatre, and transgression, in which Antigone won first prize around 442 BCE. The story follows the strong and assertive, female protagonist, daughter of Oedipus, as she rebels against the king of Thebes, Creon, in an attempt to abide with religious morals and family loyalty, both imperative values of the Greeks. Antigone has been adapted copious times throughout history by various dramatists, playwrights, directors, writers, and companies. This project will not only draw upon the values of the ancient world and why Antigone stood out as such a transgressive play for its time, but it will also be evaluating more contemporary dramatic interpretations.

Feminism is often referred to as ‘the belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes’. To determine whether Antigone is indeed a feminist play, it is imperative to understand the context in which it was set, which will be in-depth within the following Research Review. The idyllic woman of ancient Greece would have been under extremely strict male discipline and would have barely, if any, a sense of freedom. The expectations of women varied in each polis, however in Athenian culture (the city in which this play was initially performed), women were perceived as objects of visual aesthetic whose primary job was to maintain the oikos (the Greek dialect for household; both the physical property itself, as well as its inhabitants, the chores, and activities necessary to keep it functioning).

Antigone, previously described as a ‘pivot of consciousness ‘ is a play so prevalent to modern-day society, in its depictions of family and state, old and new, sentiment and reason, conviction and obedience, and most relevant to this discussion, women and men and gender identity (The latter referring to the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys that are socially constructed. )

This essay aims to explore if and how, through theme, character, plot, and purpose, Antigone is a feminist play. Furthermore, it will analyze the extent to which subsequent adaptations of this piece portray a contemporary feminist message. It will aim to evaluate Sophlecles’ motivations for writing Antigone and whether any of them could indeed be considered feminist. Finally, this essay will not solely focus on the female characters alone but will also aim to include an analysis of the portrayal of the male figures, in particular, Creon, in an attempt to acquire a larger picture of the role of every gender in society. All of these observations, on both past and present depictions of this classic, hope to conclude whether Sophlecle’s Antigone should be considered a feminist play.

Research Review

This section of the project aims to provide an exploration of the social and political setting of the time Antigone was first written and performed to aid the understanding of both ancient and modern adaptations and interpretations of the play.

The Myth

In classical Greece, the plot and characters of a tragedy were not invented by the tragedian himself but inspired by myth. These stories were malleable, meaning writers had the freedom to revise and adapt characters or structures to achieve their dramatic goals. Although the stories were set in the distant bronze age, the characters inhabiting them indeed embodied morals and principles with which the Athenians sitting in the theatre would have been familiar. The mythic genre helped the writer to retain critical distance, which would enable his readers to judge current political or ideological issues objectively.

Antigone itself, despite being the third of the trilogy, became the inspiration for two of Sophocles’ other tragedies, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. All of these plays form the Theban saga of Laius and his children, derived from the legend of the house of Lanius, some of the most popular in Greek iconographies and literature.

To understand whether Antigone was a feminist play, it is imperative to know the story in depth. Laius, king of Thebes, and his wife, Jocasta receive a prophecy from the Delphic oracle, stating that their son, Oedipus, would grow up to become his father’s murderer and his mother’s husband. Full of fear, they attempt death by indirection, commanding their servant to leave the child to perish in the wild. However, soft-hearted and sympathetic, this servant takes pity on Oedipus, and instead sends him over the border of Thebes to the hands of a shepherd. It is then revealed that said Shepheard works for the King of Corinth who indeed is unable to have a child of his own. Thus, Oedipus is brought up as Corinthian, his heritage and true identity, to him remaining unknown.

Years pass, and news arrives that further north, the Goddess Hera has inflicted the most terrible of plagues upon the city of Thebes. The legend states that the Goddess employed a sphinx, who guarded the city walls, setting a riddle for anybody who attempted to eradicate the plague. Oedipus hears of this and believes he can help. Indeed, the son of Laius and Jocasta solves said riddle and is rewarded with marriage to the widow of the former Theban king, with whom he had four children (Polynices, Eteocles, Antigone, and Ismene). Great anagnorisis occurs, as the audience then finds out how Oedipus, himself was responsible for the king’s death, a man slaughtered in road rage on his journey to Thebes. He had unknowingly committed patricidal murder, and, therefore, the prophecy was true, which also meant Jocasta was his mother. In despair, she commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself, before heading for exile. In a fit of rage, he curses his sons, pronouncing how they will be responsible for one another’s death in years to come.

Oedipus’ sons, Polynices and Eteocles take over Thebes, agreeing on dual kingship. However, after just one year of rule, Eteocles abandons said promise, and Polynices avenges, igniting a civil war between the two brothers. Both men die in battle, by their father’s prophecy, and Creon, brother of Laius, takes over as king of Thebes, thus marking the beginning of Sophlecles’ Antigone.

Creon holds the strong belief that Polynices should not be buried, due to the betrayal of his polis (city-state), and states that anyone who disobeys this would be killed. Antigone, enraged by her uncle, believes that it is her moral duty to her family to ensure, that both of her brothers receive the correct funeral rites, irrespective of their transgression or beliefs.

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When the protagonist attempts to perform the rituals herself, she is caught by her uncle to whom she openly confesses, making him indeed sentence her to death. Antigone’s sister, Ismene, attempts to interfere, arguing that she was involved too, however, Antigone refutes this and is sent alone to the cave in which she will die. Haemon, both Creon’s son and Antigone’s fianc©, argues with his father about the protagonist’s punishment and his father’s morals. Unsuccessful, he leaves the palace.

Meanwhile, Tiresias the blind prophet, appears for the first time on stage, led by a young boy, to warn Creon of the prophetic signs he’s witnessed. He explains how these portents highlight the god’s anger towards the king’s treatment of Polinices. Creon, initially responds ignorantly, however when Tiresias prophecies disaster and the chorus reveals deep worries about his future, the king experiences his moral anagnorisis. This ignites his actions to both bury Polinices, and to free Antigone.

The audience hears, through a messenger delivering the news to Creon’s wife, Eurydice, of Antigone’s death. They also learn how Haemon went to the cave and found her dead as he entered; she had hung herself. Unable to bear the death of the woman he loved, Haemon too, committed suicide, just as Creon entered the cave.

Grief-stricken, Creon returns to the palace where he endures yet another death, this time of Eurydice, who was unable to deal with the loss of their son. The play closes with the image of the anguished king, and a final comment from the chorus, about how people eventually become wiser through suffering.

The fundamental importance of Burial rights in Antiquity.

To understand the moral dilemma, the protagonist faces regarding the funeral rites of her bother; it is crucial to understand the vital role and therefore significance of burial in the ancient world. The Ancient Greeks believed that as soon as death occurred, the spirit of the deceased leaves the body, which must then, by rituals, be prepared for burial. Homeric literary sources emphasize such necessity, such as the Iliad, in which Homer expresses how Patroclus appears to his comrade Achilles in a dream, begging him to hold his funeral, so that he can ‘pass within the gates of Hades’. This reinforces the idea that the omission of burial is a neglect of respect, as it ultimately demolishes the prospect of an afterlife for the dead. Again, this is echoed in the Odyssey where the ghost of Elpenor, a former member of Odysseus’s crew, begs his ex-commander to give him a proper burial. Interestingly, however, the focus is different. Elpenor pleads ‘in case [he] brings down a gods curse on [Odysseus]’, demonstrating that burial wasn’t solely for the benefit of the deceased, yet indeed there was a great risk imposed upon those who didn’t follow the orders of Greek theology too. Those who neglected this ‘theologically divine imperative’, would risk being smitten by Zeus’ (the chief Greek deity’s) thunderbolt. Moreover, as Professor Richard Seaford states, ‘there must be a limit to hostility’ when it comes to burial in the archaic world, and this is what is demonstrated again, in early Greek epics such as the Iliad. Towards the end of the poem, Achilles slaughters his enemy Hector, but still gives his body to Priam, Hector’s father, for burial, with the poem finishing on the death ritual for Hector. These famous stories would have been at the forefront of the ancient Greek audience’s minds watching Sophlecle’s Antigone and would’ve emphasized the protagonist’s righteousness.

Role of women in ancient Greece.

Antigone’s transgression against the state is arguably more shocking as a result of her gender. Women in antiquity were often seen as subservient, domestic peoples whose primary goal was to maintain a husband , have children, and look after the oikos (the household unit). This did vary from each polis (city-state), for instance in Sparta where women have been said to have enjoyed a degree of freedom and equality that was ‘unparalleled’ to anywhere else. However, this was a sizeable exception, and Athens, like most places in antiquity, considered women as ‘second-class citizens’.

Poets such as Hesiod, Simonides, and Homer, highlight the negative stereotypes associated with women in the ancient world, predominantly, how women were perceived to have a sense of uncontrollable lust and desire, ultimately having a negative outcome on the man. In Siomede’s 7 (The different types of women), the poet likens some women to ‘the weasel, a wretched, miserable sort she is mad for bed and lovemaking’. This is, in part, echoed in the role of women in the Odyssey, and encapsulates the MadonnaWhore dichotomy, a concept signifying two polarized perceptions of women as either virtuous and chaste or as vulgar and promiscuous, with no freedom between.

Another negative association with women comes from Greeks held the social belief that most women suffered from madness and lunacy until they were married, had regular sex, and had given birth. They called this Hysteria (hystericus). This Hippocratic theory stresses that unmarried girls’ wombs would have wondered around their bodies, attacking the organs that helped in decision-making or steered them morally right

Thebes (setting).

Setting, too contributes to the atmosphere of the play. Polluted by plague, civil war, murder, and just over a day’s journey from Athens, lies Thebes, the city in which Antigone, like many ancient tragedies, is set. Perhaps the reason for this was to provide a sense of antithesis between itself and Athens. Thebes, for the democratic Athenians, symbolized the epitome of a city of tyrants, where polis members didn’t feely elect generals, and where families would hold on to power and kings were regarded with far more authority, leading to a love of excess, which was thought to ignite corruption.

Arguably, the most important aspect to take into consideration, is that Thebes, situated in the center of Boeotia, was not a port city. Not only did this make it humid and claustrophobic, but it also created, as Edith Hall describes, a ‘creepily inward-looking’ atmosphere. Indeed, in turn, this affected the relationships of its inhabitants, promoting affairs such as incest, (the most prominent prosaic representation being the story of Oedipus, Antigone’s father). Its geography intertwines with its social rule, creating an intense setting that heightens dramatic tension from the outset.


The nature of Antigone is a tragedy, due to the key emotions that plague the audience throughout, pity and fear. Aristotle describes tragedy as ‘an imitation [mimAsis] of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions .’ He states that tragedy must occur through the actions of one ‘not pre-eminently virtuous or just, but whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.’

Tragedy, (tragAida) originated in Athens at the end of the 6th century (BC), which many scholars believe was born out of the worship of Dionysus, the Hellenic god of wine, theatre, and transgression. The plot of a tragedy was almost always inspired by episodes from Greek mythology.

Although originating in 6th century Athens, the themes brought up in tragedy indeed date back several hundred years prior. Achilles, for instance in the Iliad, when singing the melancholy song of former heroes to his Lyra, highlights the reciting of poetry about the significant deeds of great men in archaic epics. This was later to be channeled dramatically through the tragic genre. Athenians, inspired primarily by Thespis, began to develop a form of choral dramatic verse. Adopted notably through the works of Sophocles, Aesculus, and Euripides, this became the birth of tragedy, a means of storytelling, which scholar Paul Cartledge explains to be less for entertainment, but more of ‘an instruction’. This alludes to Aesculus’ theory of Pathei Mathos, ‘learning through suffering’, which is further emphasized in the cathartic element of Aristotle’s rules of tragedy.

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