Characterization of Antigone

Sophocles’ tragic drama, Antigone, presents to the reader a full range of characters: static and dynamic, flat and round; they are portrayed mostly through the showing technique. 

In “Sophocles’ Praise of Man and the Conflicts of the Antigone,” Charles Paul Segal takes the stand that there are two protagonists in the drama (which conflicts with this reader’s interpretation): 

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This is not to say that there are not conceptual issues involved in the characters of Creon and Antigone. But the issues are too complex to be satisfactorily reduced to a single antithetical formulation. We must avoid seeing the protagonists as one-dimensional representatives of simple oppositions: right and wrong, reason and emotion, state and individual, or the like (62). 

Werner Jaeger in “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development” pays the dramatist the very highest compliment with regard to character development: 

The ineffaceable impression which Sophocles makes on us today and his imperishable position in the literature of the world are both due to his character-drawing. If we ask which of the men and women of Greek tragedy have an independent life in the imagination apart from the stage and from the actual plot in which they appear, we must answer, ‘those created by Sophocles, above all others’ (36). 

The dialogue, action and motivation revolve about the characters in the story (Abrams 32-33). Surely  it can be said of Sophocles’ main characters that they grow beyond the two dimensional aspect into really rounded physical presences. This is done through mostly the showing technique, though the chorus at times is involved in the telling technique, telling the audience various pieces of information. The drama begins with Antigone inviting Ismene outside the palace doors to tell her privately: “What, hath not Creon destined our brothers, the one to honoured burial, the other to unburied shame?” Antigone’s offer to Ismene (“Wilt thou aid this hand to lift the dead?) is quickly rejected, so that Antigone must bury Polynices by herself. The protagonist, Antigone, is quickly developing into a rounded character, while Ismene interacts with her as a foil, demurring in the face of Creon’s threat of stoning to death as punishment for violators of his decree regarding Polynices. 

Antigone develops into a very religious person who is not afraid of death, and who respects the laws of the gods more than those of men: 

Nay, be what thou wilt; but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing that. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide for ever. But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have established in honour. 

Ismene remains static for the present, unbudged by the reasoning and sentiments of her sister: “I do them no dishonour; but to defy the State,-I have no strength for that.” Ismene, in parting, accuses Antigone of rashness in her bold plans: “Go, then, if thou must; and of this be sure,-that though thine errand is foolish, to thy dear ones thou art truly dear.” Surprisingly, Ismene later shows dynamism in her character; after the guard apprehends Antigone in the act of burying Polynices, and brings her before Creon for sentencing, Ismene changes dramatically into a courageous sister who is willing to face death with Antigone even though Ismene is totally innocent. Thus it can be said that Ismene does not retain her static quality for the duration of the drama. 

Creon is introduced into the drama; he replaces Eteocles as ruler in Thebes: “I now possess the throne and all its powers, by nearness of kinship to the dead.” Creon explains to the elderly Thebans of the chorus the rationale behind the new edict regarding Polynices, which stipulates: “it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.” No sooner has the edict been promulgated than a guard, a flat character, reports to the king that the edict has been violated: “The corpse-some one hath just given it burial, and gone away,-after sprinkling thirsty dust on the flesh, with such other rites as piety enjoins.” The character of the king immediately acquires another dimension – a suspicious aspect which thinks erroneously that money is involved in the violation: “'Tis by them, well I know, that these have been beguiled and bribed to do this deed. Nothing so evil as money ever grew to be current among men.”

The guard exits with the intention of saving his own skin by never reappearing before Creon. But shortly thereafter he again approaches Creon with the startling news that the guilty party has been apprehended in the act of burying Polynices’ corpse: “I have come, though 'tis in breach of my sworn oath, bringing this maid; who was taken showing grace to the dead.” The guard’s recounting of the actions of Antigone develop her character into all of its fullness as a most sentimental and religious person: 

And when, after a long while, this storm had passed, the maid was seen; and she cried aloud with the sharp cry of a bird in its bitterness,-even as when, within the empty nest, it sees the bed stripped of its nestlings. So she also, when she saw the corpse bare, lifted up a voice of wailing, and called down curses on the doers of that deed. And straightway she brought thirsty dust in her hands; and from a shapely ewer of bronze, held high, with thrice-poured drink-offering she crowned the dead. 

Creon, though angry, considers the possiblity of Antigone’s innocence through ignorance: “Now, tell me thou-not in many words, but briefly-knewest thou that an edict had forbidden this?” But in total honesty and selflessness the protagonist responds: “I knew it: could I help it? It was public.” And her rationale for her action is based on the immortal law of the gods: “nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.” Thus the reader sees a face-off in the drama between the king and the gods. Does Creon relent? No, he proceeds to condemn Antigone’s pride when, ironically, it is his own pride which motivates his words: 

Yet I would have thee know that o'er-stubborn spirits are most often humbled; 'tis the stiffest iron, baked to hardness in the fire, that thou shalt oftenest see snapped and shivered; and I have known horses that show temper brought to order by a little curb; there is no room for pride when thou art thy neighbour's slave.-This girl was already versed in insolence when she transgressed the laws that had been set forth; and, that done, lo, a second insult,-to vaunt of this, and exult in her deed. 

Creon shortly thereafter mistakenly charges Ismene with participating in the crime, though he has not a shred of evidence for this accusation: “for indeed I charge that other with a like share in the plotting of this burial.” His pride is beginning to take over his life. As a character he develops into a strong antagonist standing opposite his sister’s daughters; his roundness is every bit as great as that of the protagonist. Antigone’s defense, “Hades desires these rites,” is overruled by the angry Creon, who is equally contemptuous of her gender: “Pass, then, to the world of the dead, and, if thou must needs love, love them. While I live, no woman shall rule me.” 

When Ismene responds to Creon’s summons, the dynamism of her personality catches the reader by surprise: “I have done the deed,-if she allows my claim,-and share the burden of the charge.” Where has this young lady found such courage all of a sudden. Is there anything to support this radical transformation in her character? The answer seems to lie in familial loyalty towards her sister: “But, now that ills beset thee, I am not ashamed to sail the sea of trouble at thy side.” In his precipitous, angry action, Creon does not have the presence of mind to fully comprehend the underlying meaning of Ismene’s simple question: “But wilt thou slay the betrothed of thine own son?” Ismene shows herself to be quite as unselfish as her sister, and even to be extremely considerate of others, when one considers that she is solicitous of Haemon’s welfare even though she stands at the threshold of execution herself. 

When Haemon makes his appearance before his father, after pledging his loyalty to him he divulges the true sentiments of the townsfolk regarding Creon’s death sentence for Antigone: “For the dread of thy frown forbids the citizen to speak such words as would offend thine ear; but can hear these murmurs in the dark, these moanings of the city for this maiden; 'no woman,' they say, 'ever merited her doom less,-none ever was to die so shamefully for deeds so glorious as hers. . . .” Haemon, like Ismene, utters words of wisdom for the king: “For if any man thinks that he alone is wise,-that in speech, or in mind, he hath no peer,-such a soul, when laid open, is ever found empty.” But Creon in his pride rejects his own son’s advice: “Men of my age are we indeed to be schooled, then, by men of his?” The continued evolution of Creon’s character into a self-centered, prideful individual exhibits a true dynamism. 

Creon reaches the heights of pride and displays his utter disregard of others’ opinions vis-à-vis his own with his words: “Shall Thebes prescribe to me how I must rule?” In his stubbornness Creon overlooks the important prediction of his son: “Then she must die, and in death destroy another.” The character of Haemon remains faithful, loyal and wants good and happiness to reign: “Wert thou not my father, I would have called thee unwise.” But Creon’s unrelenting rage against Antigone pushes Haemon too far, and he reacts: “No, not at my side-never think it-shall she perish; nor shalt thou ever set eyes more upon my face:-rave, then, with such friends as can endure thee.” 

The leader of the Theban elders, the chorus, actually participates is the drama by convincing Creon not to execute Ismene. Antigone’s fate remains, however: “I will take her where the path is loneliest, and hide her, living, in rocky vault, with so much food set forth as piety prescribes, that the city may avoid a public stain.” With complete resignation Antigone accepts her impending death: “But 'tis great renown for a woman who hath perished that she should have shared the doom of the godlike, in her life, and afterward in death”; and: 

But I cherish good hope that my coming will be welcome to my father, and pleasant to thee, my mother, and welcome, brother, to thee; for, when ye died, with mine own hands I washed and dressed you, and poured drink-offerings at your graves; and now, Polynices, 'tis for tending thy corpse that I win such recompense as this. 

No sooner is Antigone walled up in a desolate vault with limited food, than Teiresias appears at the palace with a message from the gods for the king: “Mark that now, once more, thou standest on fate's fine edge,” and “therefore the gods no more accept prayer and sacrifice at our hands.” The holy man requests burial for Polynices and release of Antigone. Despite the king’s quickness to implement these directives, which are repeated by the Theban elders (“Go thou, and free the maiden from her rocky chamber, and make a tomb for the unburied dead.”), it is too late. Antigone has already hanged herself. Haemon, upon seeing Creon “the boy glared at him with fierce eyes, spat in his face, and, without a word of answer, drew his cross-hilted sword. . . .” and lunged at his father, then killed himself: “he straightway leaned with all his weight against his sword, and drove it, half its length, into his side; and, while sense lingered, he clasped the maiden to his faint embrace. . . .” Haemon’s less dynamic character of earlier, now develops through a complete change; he despairs of life and, like his father, acts out of desperation and perhaps stubbornness, since his betrothed is dead. Creon comes to a full realization of the disastrous effects of his edict: “Woe is me, for the wretched blindness of my counsels!” While the king is grieving, a messenger brings further sorrowful news, that Eurydice has stabbed herself to death (“She drove home to the heart with her own hand, once she learned that her son was dead”). 

At the end of the tragedy Creon can only beg: “Take me away, I beg you, out of sight. A rash, indiscriminate fool!” Martin Heidegger in “The Ode on Man in Sophocles’ Antigone” explains, in a rather involved theory,  the destruction of Creon’s character: 

The conflict between the overwhelming presence of the essent as a whole and man’s violent being-there creates the possibility of downfall into the issueless and placeless: disaster. But disaster and the possibility of disaster do not occur only at the end, when a single act of power fails, when the violent one makes a false move; no, this disaster is fundamental, it governs and waits in the conflict between violence and the overpowering. Violence against the preponderant power of being must shatter against being, if being rules in its essence, as physics, as emerging power(98). 

In summary, Sophocles’ main characters in Antigone are rounded, and the peripheral characters flat and static. The protagonist, Antigone, is static in her unchanging attitude toward death, burial of the dead, and respecting the laws of the gods rather than of men. The antagonist, Creon, is static for most of the drama, remaining adamantly standing behind enforcement of his edict; he changes after Teiresias’ visit and warning. Ismene and Haemon become dynamic later in the tragedy. Rarely does the dramatist use the chorus to convey information; most of this comes from exchanges of dialogue, which would be the showing technique. 


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 

Antigone by Sophocles. Translated by R. C. Jebb. no pag. 

Heidegger, Martin. “The Ode on Man in Sophocles’ Antigone.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966. 

Jaeger, Werner. “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development.” In Readings on Sophocles, edited by Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1997. 

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