One of the reasons why there is indeed the spirit of tragism to the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, is that the masterwork’s main character (Antigone) fits rather well the pattern of a ‘tragic hero’. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while emphasizing the qualitative aspects of Antigone’s posture, as such a hero, and expounding on their discursive significance.
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How does Antigone Fit the Pattern of the Tragic Hero
Probably the main requirement for a particular character in ancient Greek tragedies to be considered ‘tragic’, in the full sense of this word, is his or her existential nobleness. That is, while being idealistically minded, this character is expected to be capable of prioritizing the considerations of some ‘higher good’ over whatever happened to be his or her personal agenda in life (Lawall et al. 25). Antigone fits this description perfectly well – she is shown as an individual, who is willing to sacrifice its own life for the sake of the people of Thebes. After all, had the body of her brother Polynices been left unburied, it would have caused the Gods to be willing to take a revenge on this Greek city. The reason for this is apparent – the earlier mentioned scenario would violate the ‘divine laws’ – hence, constituting one of the worst sins ever, because there is no way for a mortal person to be able to challenge the authority of the Gods and to get away with it:
The unwritten laws of God… not change.
They are not of to-day nor yesterday,
But live for ever, nor can man assign (Sophocles 499-501).
While being perfectly aware of this, Antigone decided to disobey Creon and to bury the body of Polynices – despite the fact that she never ceased being thoroughly acknowledged that the ultimate punishment for such her deed would be death. This, of course, represents Antigone as an idealist, endowed with a strong self-sacrificial instinct. Therefore, upon being exposed to Antigone’s ultimate demise, spectators cannot help experiencing the acute sensation of pity, which in turn contributes to the masterwork’s tragic sounding rather considerably.
Another classical trait of a ‘tragic hero’ is the concerned character’s tendency to adjust its behavior to what happened to be his or her perceptual insights into the essence of the surrounding reality. Even though that, as a ‘thing in itself’, such a tendency can be well deemed admirable, there are certain circumstances, under which the behavioral idealism of a ‘tragic hero’ is able to seal the concerned character’s fate – just as it happened with Antigone. In regards to this character, we can well suggest that what otherwise would have proven as the strength of her resolution to live in accordance with the ‘divine laws’, ended up being deemed as the indication of her stubbornness:
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Chor. The maiden’s stubborn will, of stubborn sire
The offspring shows itself. She knows not yet
To yield to evils (Sophocles 518-520).
Hence, the pure tragism of the character of Antigone – she stands out to exemplify that the external circumstances are quite capable of turning a particular person’s virtuousness into a vice. In its turn, this implies that people are simply in no position to exercise a full control over their lives. This idea, of course, can hardly be considered emotionally comforting.
There is another indication of Antigone being a ‘tragic hero’, in the full sense of this word – the fact that the character’s rebellious attitudes resulted in her growing increasingly alienated from the rest of the citizens of Thebes:
A spouse in Hades. Taken in the act
I (Creon) found her, her alone of all the state,
Rebellious (Sophocles 748-749).
This, of course, implies the character’s loneliness. Yet, this specific quality of one’s existential stance has traditionally been considered implicative of the fact that the person in question may indeed be considered a ‘tragic hero’. Having been utterly committed to pursuing the lifestyle of a religiously devoted woman, Antigone proved herself ‘masculine’ enough to face the impossible odds in the thoroughly courageous and dignified manner. By doing this, she naturally fell out of favor with Creon and consequently – with the rest of the Thebans. At the same time, however, this contributed to the sheer intensity of the aura of ‘nobleness’, emanated by Antigone
The validity of the suggestion that Antigone is indeed a ‘tragic hero’ can also be illustrated, in regards to the fact that this character’s death conveyed the message of unnaturalness. After all, the thought of death is the last thing that a young and fertile woman (such as Antigone) should preoccupy herself with:
Life’s last long journey, gazing on the sun,
His last rays watching, now and nevermore…
With neither part nor lot in marriage rites,
No marriage hymn resounding in my ears,
But Acheron shall claim me as his bride (Sophocles 936-940).
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Therefore, while coming to terms with their realization that Antigone will not be able to avoid execution, spectators begin to experience the sensation of a cognitive dissonance, which in turn intensifies the atmosphere of tragism around the concerned character. One of the reasons for this, it is that it is not only Antigone’s death, which appears very tragic – the tragism is has to do with the very idea that there can be a rationale-based logic in sentencing a young woman to death, as such that contradicts the fundamental laws of the universe.
The definition of a ‘tragic hero’, as seen in the works of Sophocles, includes the assumption that, while facing a particular life-challenge, the concerned character will inevitably experience the abrupt change of fortune – from being happy and cheerful to becoming sad and miserable. In this respect, the higher is this character happened to be located on the hierarchical ladder within the society, the better. The reason for this is that it is specifically those people who indeed have much to lose, which can understand what the notion of ‘loss’ really stands for.
Even a brief analysis of the character of Antigone reveals that she does in fact fit the provided description perfectly well. After all, it did not take this character too long to come to terms with the fact that, within the matter of one day her social status has undergone a dramatic transformation – from having been considered the representative of the Theban royalty; she was reduced into being proclaimed a common criminal.
This particular development set in motion the chain of events that provide us with the additional insight into the significance of the character of Antigone, as an unmistakably ‘tragic hero’. The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent – it is not only that the demise of Antigone triggered the suicidal deaths of Haemon and Eurydice, but it also resulted in the city of Thebes having fallen out of favor with the Gods. What it means is that Antigone can be well considered the character of a truly universal magnitude, whose unfortunate fate affected the very course of history. This observation fully correlates with Sophocles’ conceptualization of a ‘tragic hero’, as an individual who symbolizes that the actual reason why there is much of injustice in the world, is that there are imperfections in the universe’s actual fabric. In other words, even though Antigone’s death may appear incidental to an extent, it has been well predetermined by the way in which the world turns. It is understood, of course, that this makes it much easier for spectators to recognize the tragic subtleties of the concerned character.
Finally, we can well mention the fact that, along with having caused the deaths of many others in Thebes, the Antigone’s departure nevertheless did prove beneficial to the city’s overall well-being, as it taught the citizens a moral lesson – hence, making them less susceptible to the wrath of the Gods. In its turn, this implies that Antigone can be well referred to in terms of a ‘sacrificial lamb’ – she consciously decided to accept death, so that others could live. What it means is that under no circumstances can Antigone be thought of as the passive victim of circumstances. Instead, she should be considered a true ‘tragic hero’, who continued to challenge the odds, despite the undertaking’s sheer futility.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the suggestion that the character of Antigone can indeed be considered a ‘tragic hero’, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. After all, this particular character does adhere to what used to be the dramaturgic provisions of what it means being such a hero.
Lawall, Sarah, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Heather James, Lee Patterson and
William Thalmann. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. (8th Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.
Sophocles. Antigone. PDF file. 02 Apr. 2014.