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It is not often in Greek myth or tragedy that a woman is found portrayed as a tragic hero. However, Sophocles makes the hero of his Antigone, the third and last play in the theme of Oedipus’ life, a woman. And though this is out of context for a Greek play, it is still considered one of the greatest Greek tragedies ever to have been written. The tragic hero of this drama is Antigone, the character from which the play derives its title. This is shown by the fact that not only is she the protagonist of the play, but she also holds certain qualities of a tragic hero. What seems to be least important in determining the tragic hero of this play, in fact, is whether or not the hero is male or female, which is surprising due to the misogynistic tendencies of most Greek stories. What are most important are the three major characteristics concerning the make up of a tragic hero. First, it is important that the hero must be of noble descent. Second, the hero must be judged by the audience (whose opinion generally rests on the opinion of the Chorus) to be a good and just person. And third, the hero must have a tragic flaw; without it there would be no dramatic complications or tragic consequences. Antigone does, in fact, have all three of these qualities, and thus is one of very few tragic heroines.
The first quality of a tragic hero, the noble birth, is satisfied by the fact that Antigone is one of the four children of Oedipus: Polyneices, Eteocles, Ismene, and Antigone. Oedipus, whose life and family as a whole are the main focal point of Sophocles’ Antigone and its two preceding plays, is the King of Thebes for most of his adult life. In Oedipus, the second play of Aeschylus’ lost Theban trilogy, is where we learn the greatest details that are prior knowledge to the play. Certain points, such as: “that it was predicted that Oedipus would kill his father and sleep with his mother; that unwittingly he did both;” are told in Aeschylus’ play, and are assumed as general knowledge in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. (Grene, 108) And in the same way is the knowledge of Oedipus coming to the throne by solving the riddle of the great and terrible Sphinx taken for granted. This makes her the princess of Thebes up until the point where Oedipus concedes the throne to Creon, his brother-in-law and uncle. Furthermore, the reader learns in Oedipus the King that Oedipus was also the adopted son of Polybus, the King of Corinth. Therefore, if he had not left Corinth, his line still would have been considered of noble birth.
Thereby, being of noble birth, she also must prove to be a good person, and by the standards of the Chorus, she does seem to do so. Her life, through Oedipus at Colonus, the second of Sophocles’ plays of Oedipus, consists of taking care of her recently blinded and banished father with the help of her sister Ismene. Thus, by being devoted to her father she reveals one aspect of her kindness and devotion. In this play Oedipus says to his eldest son, ³had these daughters not been born to me to be my comfort, in truth I would be dead.² (Jebb, Oedipus at Colonus, line 1366) She also shows her unending devotion to her family in Antigone when she refuses to let her brother Polyneices be dishonored by leaving his body unburied. Her brothers died fighting each other, and Eteocles, who fought on the side of Creon, was to be buried with honors while Polyneices is left “unwept, unburied, a dainty treasure for the birds that see him, for their feast’s delight.” (Grene, 182) This act of devotion is also filled with much courage since Creon has ordered that the funeral, go on in this way, and if anyone is found trying to bury the bodies, they will be put to “death by public stoning.” (Grene, 182) Sophocles puts this courage in contrast with a character such as Ismene who seems to be devoted to her family until the idea of being killed gets thrown in. Quickly, she becomes no longer willing to help her poor dead brother. Plus, Antigone’s courage seems to be intensified since she is a woman going against the will of powerful men, as Ismene points out when she says, “You ought to realize we are only women, not meant in nature to fight against men, and that we are ruled by those who are stronger.” (Grene, 183) After this conversation with her sister, Antigone rebukes her sister for letting others come between her and her devotion o her family, though not too quickly. For another one of Antigone’s attributes is her ability to listen. Small things like the ability to listen and be open-minded are important in the conception of the audience as to whether a character is just or not. For instance, Antigone stands in perfect contrast to Creon in the play, whose pride always gets the better of him and seems to prevent him from making good judgments. For example, when a sentry comes to tell Creon that someone has tried to bury Polyneices, he immediately accuses the sentry of doing these actions himself, for money, without even considering why a man would report on himself for a crime that carries the punishment of death. In the same way, he accuses the seer Tiresias of taking money to prophesy against Creon’s actions when he says, “the whole breed of prophets certainly loves money.” (Grene, 221) This virtue of discernment, which Creon lacks, as well as her devotion, courage, and views of justice are what make her a good person in the eyes of the audience.
The one characteristic left to prove Antigone as a tragic hero is her tragic flaw, just as all tragic heroes have had a flaw. Antigone¹s flaw lies within the same scope as her father¹s. Antigone is a brutally honest person who sees no honor in backing down from what she knows is right, and this will serve as her undoing. At no point does Antigone hold back her feelings. She tells Ismene that she is a coward for not doing what is right, and she reminds Creon of his sins while she faces death at his hands. And as she is led off to her prison, she refuses to cry for the love of Haemon, which she will not have, for it would make her seem weak. However, this only proves to lock her tighter into the punishment that Creon has ordered for her, thus proving to be her undoing, and all the while outlining more and more the courage that she exhibits.
The cry that she releases at the very end of her life, when her job has been done, and when she no longer needs to be the ultimate in strength of spirit, reveals the idea that she is still a woman. This is the beauty of Antigone as a tragic hero. She has all the strength that the ancient Greeks would attribute to a man, but she still carries the softness of a woman. In a society whose culture is based on misogynistic mythology, Sophocles has created a woman spirit that can be rivaled by no other Greek tragedy. ³Nowhere else has the poetry of the ancient world embodied so lofty or so beautiful an ideal of woman’s love and devotion.² (Jebb, Commentary, intro 14) Thus, Sophocles makes it possible for the women of antiquity to be viewed as more than just seductresses and witches who cannot be trusted within Greek plays.
Antigone has all the characteristics of a tragic hero, and can be considered to be the first great heroine. Her courage, sense of justice, and undying devotion to her family are what gain her this status. In a sense, the sheer strength of her convictions gives her an essence of martyrdom. However, the same strong-headedness that tightened the noose so tightly around her father¹s neck, has brought the same fate upon her. Without this flaw, though, she could never have become a hero in the sense that she has; namely a tragic one. All of these attributes combined are what give her the ability not only to be viewed by the Greeks as the equal of the men of the play, but also, through the avenging of her death by the gods, she has taken them head on and won. Creon¹s entire family is destroyed, each by their own hand. Yet, this is the only fate that may come of the death of a hero. And though it is crucial to the story that she dies, her death may not be left unpaid for. Thus is the fate of a tragic hero.
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