Theological Analysis of Antigony
One of the most popular and enduring dramas of all time, Sophocles’ Antigone has intrigued and provoked audiences for nearly 2500 years through its heartbreaking story of a tragedy that could have been avoided if it were not for the inalterable wills of its two main characters. Even in light of its absorbing tale, however, it might be said that what keeps us coming back to this great work is that its central theme is one of mankind’s oldest and greatest struggles—the conflict between man’s law and divine law.
The characterization of this struggle is very evident in the play, with Creon acting on behalf of civic law and Antigone on behalf of divine law. Creon can be seen early on defending his decree against Polynices as a patriotic duty. In his first speech, after giving the order, he closes by explaining:
Such is my purpose, and never by any deed of mine shall the base be held in higher honor than the just. But he who is a friend to this city shall be honored by me as such in death as in life (206-210).
Antigone also shows her viewpoint early in the play when admonishing her sister Ismene for not sharing in her conviction about burying their brother Polynices, saying:
Be what you please; I shall bury him. It will be fine for me to die in doing that. I shall lie with him, a loved one with a loved one, guilty of a righteous crime… But if you think it right, be guilty of dishonoring the things that the gods honor (70-78).
So we see from the very beginning that this play is about the struggle between god and man, and about whose law comes first. But this play also can wash over us too quickly if we do not stop to see whether or not the characters truly act in accordance with what they say. In reading this play, it is too easy to consider Antigone as being a devoutly religious woman who was martyred for standing up to a cruel king who had issued a decree that went directly against the laws of the gods. But was Antigone truly championing the will of the gods, or did she believe in the moral uprightness of her actions to the extent that in her mind she turned those actions into the will of the gods?
First of all we should consider the attempts by Ismene to restrain Antigone from embarking upon her mission. She asks that Antigone consider the damage already done to their family, as well as the legal ramifications of this “unlawful” act. When accused by Antigone of dishonoring the gods she replies, “I do not dishonor them, but I have no means of acting in defiance of the citizens (79).” So early on we see Ismene questioning the motives of Antigone. She refines this argument in the following discourse with Antigone:
A: I know that I am pleasing those whom I am chiefly bound to please.
I: If you will even have the power. But you desire what is impossible.
A: Then, when I have no strength I shall leave off.
I: A quest for the impossible should not even be begun.
A: If you say this, you will...