It’s tough being a woman in classical Greek mythology and literature. Most female characters fall into two categories. They can be scary-strong, like Clytemnestra. This charming woman, along with her lover Aegisthus, murders her husband Agamemnon as soon as he returns home from the Trojan War. She not only kills him, but is positively gleeful about it. Here she is bragging about killing her husband in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon:
I struck him twice. In two great cries of agony / he buckled at the knees and fell. When he was down / I struck hi the third blow, in thanks and reverence / to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground. / Thus he went down, and the lie struggled out of him; / and as he died he spattered me with the dark red / and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood / to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers / of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.” (1385-1391)
Not all women are this bad of course. Some of them, like Helen of Troy, merely run away from their husband and country with another man and, in so doing, start a ten-year war.
Some female characters are good, of course—impossibly good. Odysseus’s wife Penelope waits faithfully for twenty years for her husband to come home from war, not knowing if he is even alive. The war had ended after ten years, after all, and all the other surviving warriors had returned home.
Human females have the worst of it, but even the female goddesses have it rough. Hera, who is married to Zeus, has to put up with his constant philandering. And poor Calypso, who lives alone on an island, is gorgeous but lonely. She finally finds some satisfaction with her sex hostage Odysseus. But then she is ordered to send her boy toy back home to Penelope by the council of gods. Now, what’s a goddess to do for fun?
This is why it is especially refreshing to come across a badass chick like Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s tragedy of 442 B.C. Antigone is far from being a long-suffering goody-goody like Penelope, but she is no murderous she-monster, either. Rather, she is a young woman who follows her conscience and does what she thinks is right, even though she knows doing so will bring her the death penalty.
Antigone is part of a dysfunctional family, to put it mildly. It turns out that Antigone’s mother, Jocasta, is also her grandmother because Jocasta had unknowingly married her own son Oedipus, who is Antigone’s brother and father. As the play Antigone begins Antigone is now an orphan. Jocasta killed herself when she learned that she’d been doing it with her son, and Oedipus, after poking out his own eyes, sent himself into exile. Got it?
That left Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices to co-rule their kingdom, Thebes. The brothers did not like to share their toys, however, and they fought over who would be ruler. Polyneices came back one day from exile and tried to start the whole city on fire. That led to a fight between the warring armies of Polyneices and Eteocles, brother against brother. Eventually, the Thebans won, but at the cost of both brothers’ lives.
All of this is back-story to the actual play. When Antigone opens, her uncle Creon is now in charge. Creon wants to show everybody who is boss. One of the ways he does this is to declare that nobody may bury the corpse of Polyneices, the brother who attacked Thebes. He argues that it would be unjust for Polyneices to be given proper burial rites after trying to destroy all of them. He tells Thebans, “you shall leave him without burial; you shall watch him chewed up by birds and dogs and violated” (188). Creon makes it very clear that anyone who buries this traitor shall be sentenced to death.
So Creon is feeling all smug and enjoying his newfound power. But then Antigone comes along and buries her brother anyway. She believes she has to do this because a) Polyneices is family and b) it is what the gods decree. She knows that she is going against the will of Creon and she knows what the punishment is, but she buries her brother anyway and does not try to hide it. She claims,
“I shall be / a criminal—but a religious one. / The time in which I must please those that are dead/is longer than I must please those of this world. / For there I shall lie forever.” (lines 85-88).
Good point, Antigone. We’re all going to be dead for much longer than we’ll be alive, so we should make the people with whom we are going to spend eternity happy.
At its most basic level this is a conflict between the laws of the state and the dictates of one’s conscience or religion. Creon states that there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority. Antigone believes there is nothing worse than disobeying one’s conscience. For this reason, she practices what Thoreau called Civil Disobedience and what great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced hundreds of years later. Because people still have consciences and governments still make laws we consider unjust, Antigone still resonates with readers today.
There is another layer to the conflict between Antigone and Creon, though: that of gender. Creon is already foaming at the mouth to find out that somebody defied his law. But when he found out it was a woman, and a young one at that, he went ballistic. The reader can almost see his face turn red as he spits out these words: “I swear I am no man and she the man if she can win this and not pay for it” (527-528). He is not going to let a mere woman usurp his authority and get away with it. She. Must. Die.
Antigone accepts her death penalty without trying to weasel out of it. However, she does tell Creon what she thinks of him and his laws in her brash and brazen way that is so rare for ancient Greek maidens. I think my favorite of her retorts to Creon is this one:
“Now, if you think me a fool to act like this,
perhaps it is a fool that judges.” (513-514)
What a great, badass, retort from my favorite Greek heroine.