Commentary on Sophocles Antigone

Through the tragic play Antigone, ancient Sophocles presents the modern reader with a glimpse into the nature and milieu of political life as understood by ancient Athenians. Furthermore, the play also comments about modern political interactions and offers a scathing rebuke of many modern bureaucratic trends within our representative democracy. Sophocles does this through the usage of symbolic characters, namely Antigone, Creon and the Chorus leader. Sophocles also relies on the use of interpersonal interactions. The culmination of these relationships, which occur in a sequence of well timed actions and reactions, are the seemingly-destined deaths of the royal Household that Creon accepts blame for. Through these relationships, Sophocles is able to make relevant commentary on both ancient Athenian life and modern political life as well.

The scathing rebuke of Modern bureaucracy shall be the starting point of this essay. Sophocles’ play highlights one key fact in Creon’s decision making process as the chief executive and absolute ruler of Thebes- making a ‘right’ decision at the ‘wrong’ time is pure folly. Unlike some rulers who refuse to admit their folly, Creon does in fact give in to the will of his people and the desire of his gods, choose to bury the fallen Polyneices. This does come after the fact that he states “ Even if Zeus’ eagles should choose to seize his festering body and take it up, right to the throne Zeus, not even then would I, in trembling fear of some defilement, permit that corpse a burial” (1150) and Some might argue that the ensuing tragic deaths are a sole result of such hubris and irreverence for the gods, but it can be more rightly argued that the ensuing deaths are also including to illustrate the aforementioned timing principle which remains highly applicable in modern life. A strong aspect of the milieu of modern political life is timing. Note that it was as Creon was burying the Body of Polynecies that Antigone hanged herself. It was as he came upon her hanging, lifeless form that Haemon discovered the death of his betrothed Antigone, and thus attempted first to vainly injure his father Creon, only then to take his own after the failed attempt. Had Creon moved to act in this same way, a way deemed right by all those around him only 5 minutes sooner, then Antigone would not have died and Haemon would not have killed himself in a fit of rage. Neither would the suicide of Eurydice have occurred as a final consequence of this chain of events. Sophocles intentionally hinges all of these consequences upon a decision which, had it, the same decision, been made only minutes before, would have been EQUALLY correct, but also properly timed. This minute change would have caused the tale to end not in tragedy, but in a pleasant and prosperous rule by Creon and his royal household.

Many modern political agendas, such as the Bush administration’s pursuit of a war in Iraq, though it had been planned for many years by multiple administrations previous to Bush, could only be advanced when the American public was sufficiently supportive due to the terrorist activities of 2001. Timing was key in the pursuit of this political activity. Timing is key also in the very nature of modern political life because administrations have fixed terms and can only support certain policies due to limited time. They must ever be mindful of that shadow which is the enforced limited tenure of a modern administration and therefore pursue only those policies which they deem most prudent and most just. Any administration which does not operate while keeping this principle of timing fully in thought is doomed to ineffectiveness, just as Creon was doomed.

A second principle that comments accurately and resounding upon the milieu and nature of modern western political life is that of inherent instability and therefore danger of a ruling elite, both in the handling of their personal affairs and in handling those of the State. All Characters that die by suicide during the course of this play are members of the royal family and therefore an extension off the Theban ruling elite. The manner of their deaths speaks volumes about the inherent mental fortitude of a ruling class. When life presents unexpected stresses, rather than enduring the pressure, those who are few and isolated because of their social status break and end their lives. There is no call for courage, no sense of duty to a people or a principle larger than ones self, no desire for perseverance. Rather, all that persists within those who rule as an elite are reactions of despair, despondency, and surrender. Moreover, for Creon, the sole survivor of this familial debacle, the only recourse is to claim sole responsibility as the ruler and thus remove the responsibility from each individual who made up his Royal family. He is thus drawn into a deeper despondency and his last words -“ Let that day come, oh let it come, the fairest of all destinies for me, the one which brings on my last day” (1466) allude to future suicide attempt. As individual people, despite their station in life, the ruling elite, and the ruler himself, Creon, all prove to be both unstable and unreliable under pressure, and this speak naught of the actual policies of Creon which lead to the previously elaborated situation.

Creon was an absolute ruler, and to many, a tyrant. Although a self styled patriot, his policies in regards to the previous administration found no favor with the people, his family, and also violated certain moral principles of His community. Beholden only to himself, Creon was able to pursue said policies unchecked and un-opposable save by direct and illegal violation of his decrees. Such a violation did occur, by someone who might be deemed both unlikely and yet the only one with the purest of motives, Antigone (for whom the play is named). Creon’s absolute rule and power allowed him to remain closed to the ideas of even those closest to Him and kept him separate from the true concerns of his people. Because he was the epitome of a ruling elite, he was by very nature separate and thus lacked understanding of the true desires and goals of his State. He instead becomes warped to value one overriding principle, that of loyalty to his own patriotic vision of the state, and looses sight of all other values.

In parallel, modern political life is controlled primarily by a ruling elite who experience many of the same issues that plagued Creon’s rule. Specifically, the current Bush administration, through the patriot act as well as overseas military engagement, and detention of non-citizens at Guantanamo Bay Cuba has taken the principle of national security, and even loyalty to the protection of the state to levels not seen since the “Red scare” of the Cold war era. Although not the only issue with which it is concerned, national security has taken a paramount role in the Bush administrations pursuit of policy. In this it can be seen that the play only comments on the nature of modern political life and does not totally symbolize it in that modern political life is never so uncomplicated as to be concerned by one single issue. However, the play does help illustrate what might happen when one single issue take precedence and trumps ALL other issues in political life. Coupled with the notion of the importance of timing, the play does provide good commentary on the backdrop and the nature of modern political activity.

This leads directly into the discussion of the nature and background of Athenian political activity and thought as depicted through Antigone. The supremacy for democracy and the removal of an established ruling elite were paramount virtues to ancient Athenian sentiments. Rule by all equally as citizens was the goal and in Athenian minds boasted a greater wisdom than any ruling elite class, or absolute ruler could muster. The nature of political life dealt with compromise, something that did not happen between either Creon and Antigone, or Creon or any of the other primary Characters. This lack of compromise extended even to the Gods, when the characters could no longer have their own way on earth, they resorted to suicide and thus remained uncompromised. compromise and plurality were central to the ancient Athenian society. This play, to an Athenian mind, was an exercise in what “not” to do politically and thus illustrates, albeit indirectly, the nature of political life for the ancient world as well.

The play Antigone illustrates aspects of the nature and milieu of political life and that apply to both the ancient and modern reader. Although the different principles would be drawn by each audience Sophocles is able through this, one of his seminal work, to make commentary on human interaction at its core, which is what “politics” truly is based upon. The importance of making right decisions at the right time and of compromise between masses, rather than conflict between individuals are all principles clearly illustrated in Antigone and can be applied to modern interaction. The need for compromise and a removal of an elite altogether, while slightly different from modern liberal western understandings also is shown through this work and would have been noted by the original audience.


Antigone, Translated by Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada


QR Code
QR Code commentary_on_sophocles_antigone (generated for current page)