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Antigone Speech Commentary

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The Oedipus Myth (GRC30080)

Commentary: Lines 450-70 (Antigone’s speech)

The Antigone is the third play from a trilogy written by Sophocles, including Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. It depicts the events which occur following the death of both of Oedipus’ sons and Antigone’s return to Thebes. In a battle for the kingship of Thebes, Eteocles and Polyneices are slain by one another, since Polyneices fought against the Theban soldiers he is refused the honour of burial by the state. The given passage is of Antigone’s speech in which she appeals to the divine laws as reasoning for defying Creon’s order that her brother Polyneices body not be buried. The passionate speech deals with the conflict between the divine and man-made laws as well as the conflict of Antigone’s true reasoning for defying the state.

The beginning of Antigone’s speech addresses the conflict between the divine laws and the man-made laws. The non-burial of the deceased is a transgression which leaves the dead in a state of liminality so that they may never rest peacefully in the underworld, it is a divine law to bury the dead so that they may be honoured and integrate into the underworld. Antigone claims in the given passage that this law is the “unwritten, unshakable”[1] word of the gods. She argues this against Creon’s belief in the man-made or state law which allows those who were considered to have been a threat to be left to rot without funeral rites or proper burial. It is worth noting that Athenian law in the 5th c. BC allowed the refusal of burial in Attic soil if the deceased was guilty of a crime recognised by the state[2].

Antigone uses her religious belief as an excuse for why she defies a state law, she states that no edict of man “could override the gods”[3], and claims she feared the wrath of the gods more than punishment from the state. Devotion to the gods and their divine laws is a rational excuse for her actions, the divine laws take precedence over man’s edicts[4]. However, this reason is not satisfactory since the divine laws would certainly include taboos against such things as incest, if Antigone were to claim that her devotion to the divine influenced her actions then surely she would realise that she herself was born out of immorality (being a product of incest) and thus would be shunned by the gods either way. It appears as though she is aware of this as she announces that she must die and has “known it all my life[5]”, she understands that the gods will never be in her favour because of her birth right.

The underlying motive for defying Creon’s orders in Antigone’s speech is her devotion to her family, not necessarily to the divine. She mentions “the gods beneath the earth[6]”, referring to Hades and Zeus, or she could be alluding to her deceased family members of whom most now reside in the underworld and that it is for them she is willing to sacrifice her life. Antigone states herself that if she did not bury her mother’s son there would be great agony. She has a morbid fascination with death and is almost welcoming death, if her family resides in the world of the dead then the underworld could be considered her home more so than the world of the living. She considers death “a gain”, as though to die would be an achievement for her. Her devotion to Polyneices is proof that she is committed to the dead, not the living and later in the play she is seen to join the dead while she still lives as she is buried alive. The second portion of her speech refers to death multiple times to which she concludes her own death would be nothing compared to the pain of life.

Furthermore, Antigone’s speech on the divine laws portrays her character as a challenge to gender etiquette, she may not have gone against the divine law but she is transgressive as a woman. Antigone blatantly interferes in matters which are of men’s concern and defies the laws of the city[7], she tells Creon with pride that “of course” she defied the state law, as though such a law was beneath her. She takes an elevated stance here and appears to be in a higher position than Creon as she belittles him with her words, calling him a “mere mortal” and claiming his actions were a response to “some man’s wounded pride”. Gould[8] comments that the Athenian  woman of the 5th century was to have no personality and merely live as an extension of her kurios, a male authority figure to which a woman was to live her life by. Antigone’s attitude in the speech proves that she is by far an unconventional woman of this time, although it is interesting that she is acting out in such a way because of another male authority figure, Polyneices. Perhaps she acts so rashly in order to fulfil a death wish, she wants to be caught in her act so that she may have glory and join her deceased family members.

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