Antigone is another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing the Polis (public life) with the Oikos (private life). While religion was mandated by the government in ancient Greece, things like funerals were still seen as things to be handled within the sphere of the individual household. As stated in the play, ancient Greeks viewed the body of the deceased to still be important to that person in the next world. If they were not buried, their soul would be forced to live on earth, unable to get any peace by passing on to the underworld. It was seen as the worst possible punishment to leave someone out to rot when they had died, and by standards of Greek politics, it would have been viewed as unreasonably harsh even to make an out-and-out traitor to the state suffer such a fate, let alone simply a Greek noble who had simply taken the losing side in a civil war.
Shakespeare borrows many of these principles from Antigone in his work, Hamlet. Once again, the problem of how to treat the dead, and what sort of afterlife to sentence them to, becomes a matter of political intrigue. Polynices died politically unpopular, and therefore he was damned by his survivors. Because the victors write the history books, he was deemed to be unworthy of an afterlife, which was the cause of much religious outrage. The ancient Greeks would have seen Creon’s punishment as just for having flown in the face of the gods, using his government powers to violate religious law. This third sphere, the sphere of the divine, is one that was supposed to take precedent over both the Polis and the Oikos. The drowning of Ophelia turns the scenario on its side. In this case, because she is of noble and respected heritage, Ophelia is given a proper burial even though it is against religious law to do so because she is a suicide, and suicides are to be punished with damnation. But once again, the realm of divine law is infringed upon by political interests in controlling who goes where for the afterlife.
Another important theme in Antigone is the question of whether to make any sacrifices, including of all the nobility and pride that makes one themselves, in order to stay alive, or whether to die with one’s humanity intact (to be or not to be?). Antigone represents the epitome of the side that says one should be willing to stand by their principles even in the face of death, for those around her made the decision to retreat and live as easy as humanly possible. She could easily have had a comfortable life had she backed down. Haemon also represents this stance. He challenged his father to hold himself to a higher standard than to simply do what was necessary to hold on to his power and spare bloodshed. Bear in mind, ancient Greece was a civilization based on religion and military, two strong institutions that demand putting aside the interests of one’s own life.
Creon represents what the normative standards of the day would have regarded as cowardice. He is content to stay alive and stay comfortable, and has no regard for principles. He even goes so far as to let himself be swallowed up in fatalism if it meant allowing himself to let his family die so he could comfortably maintain his rule. Ismene is another example of this philosophy earlier on. She at least has some compassion and understanding for Polynices’ predicament, but she will not go so far as to risk her own life. Later, however, she has more resolve, but it is too late for anything to be done for her brother.
Fatalism and the role of fate comprises another major theme in Antigone. Several characters alternately embrace it and then reject it as it fits the plot and moves it forward. Even this, the fact that the plot must unfold in a certain direction regardless of inconsistency, can be viewed as a form of maintaining a fatalist course. The chorus in the beginning says that the entire story is laid out and cannot be changed due to the nature of tragedy. Later, they argue against Creon, as if there is hope (a concept they earlier despised). Creon, of course, is the other great convenient fatalist. He starts out as hopeful, thinking that he can reason Antigone out of going through with her plan. But as soon as he realizes she will not be moved, he decides that he cannot be moved either when Haemon tries to talk him out of killing Antigone. Only Antigone herself remains a consistent fatalist- from the beginning to end of the play she is constant in her acceptance of death.
Source for this analysis and plot summary of Antigone by Sophocles:
Sophocles. Antigone. Plays: One. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen, 1987. 77-139.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Antigone by Sophocles that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in Antigone and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Antigone by Sophocles in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Antigone at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Agency Versus Inaction in Antigone
Ismene and Antigone vary greatly in their respective attributes, Ismene is breathtakingly beautiful, while Antigone is plain; Antigone is brave while Ismene is frightened. The core difference between the two of them lies in Antigone’s willingness to create change and Ismene’s hope that she can make it through life without creating waves. This difference manifests itself most brilliantly in the burial of Polynices. Antigone is willing to risk anything to have her brother buried with honor, while Ismene worries solely for the safety of her sister. This behavior continues throughout the novel, with Ismene acceding to Creon’s demands, and Antigone taking brave but stupid risks. In the end of the play, Antigone even takes her life in her own terms. What can be said about the desire to make life happen, the ability to not sit idly by? Does Sophocles seem to advocate this position, despite the death of Antigone?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Function of the Chorus in Antigone
For most plays, the role of the Chorus involves a small number of people, usually between 7-12, who make commentary on the unfolding events and serve as foreshadowers to the action to come. They are usually apart from the action, yet also apart from the audience; they function best as an uninvolved narrator. However, in Antigone, the chorus breaks most literary conventions. Instead of being portrayed as a group of people, the chorus is merely one person, who aligns himself with the audience. He quite frequently refers to the audience and himself as the collective “we" and by doing so, makes the audience a part of his chorus. Why is this important? What feelings towards the play are created when the audience takes on the role of the chorus?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Antigone and Sisterhood
The rivalry between Ismene and Antigone is strong, because both girls are similar in age with very contrasting personalities. Antigone is decisive, moody, brave and impulsive, while Ismene is beautiful, timid and beautiful. The two are set up as classic “good girl" and “bad girl" stereotypes, with Antigone eventually tying Ismene to a tree, and stealing her sister’s makeup and other items to make herself more attractive to Haemon. However, despite this fierce rivalry between the two sisters, when Creon is threatening Ismene with death and imprisonment if she does not stop her attempts to bury her brother, Ismene is quick to jump to her defense, stating that if Creon locks Antigone up, Ismene will simply take over and die alongside her for their treason. What can be said about the juxtaposition of their past relationship and Ismene’s sudden willingness to die for Antigone? Is their rivalry perhaps less fierce than expected because of their bond of sisterhood?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Individual Versus the State in Antigone
The role of the individual in Antigone is very important. Obviously, Antigone herself is a strong individual character, who is not willing to allow her brother to be dishonored, no matter what the cost is to her own body. Creon is also a strong character, and while he knows the law and is convinced that he must follow it, he has sympathetic feelings for Antigone and tries to get her out of trouble. In which ways are Creon and Antigone both destroyed by the power of the law? How do they try to get around the laws that have been set down by Creon, and in which ways do they fail at that attempt? What is the meaning behind their failures?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: Tragedy in Antigone
As the reader progresses through Antigone, it becomes obvious by the plot twists that the play is a tragedy at heart. However, to make the nature of the play even more clear, the Chorus appears halfway through the production to tell the audience that the tragedy has begun. This statement proves the inevitability of the coming tragic events, and takes the pressure off of the characters to attempt to stop such things from occurring.
This list of important quotations from Antigone by Sophocles will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Antigone listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for Antigone above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Sophocles they are referring to.
“I didn't say yes. I can say no to anything I say vile, and I don't have to count the cost. But because you said yes, all that you can do, for all your crown and your trappings, and your guards—all that your can do is to have me killed." (18)
“My nails are broken, my fingers are bleeding, my arms are covered with the welts left by the paws of your guards—but I am a queen!" (19)
“If Haemon reaches the point where he stops growing pale with fear when I grow pale, stops thinking that I must have been killed in an accident when I am five minutes late, stops feeling that he is alone on earth when I laugh and he doesn't know why—if he too has to learn to say yes to everything—why, no, then, no! I do not love Haemon!" (14)
“As for those three red-faced card players—they are the guards. One smells of garlic, another of beer; but they're not a bad lot. They have wives they are afraid of, kids who are afraid of them; they're bothered by the little day-to- day worries that beset us all. At the same time—they are policemen: eternally innocent, no matter what crimes are committed; eternally indifferent, for nothing that happens can matter to them. They are quite prepared to arrest anybody at all, including Creon himself, should the order be given by a new leader." (17)
“Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's ax goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner—so that you think of a film without a sound track, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamor that is not more than picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in the desert of your silence. That is tragedy." (9)
“I'm simply powerless to act against this city's law.” (11)
“I intend to give my brother burial. I'll be glad to die in the attempt,– if it's a crime, then it's a crime that God commands.” (7)
“Isn't a man's right to burial decreed by divine justice? I don't consider your pronouncements so important that they can just.overrule the unwritten laws of heaven.”(12)
“These signs portend evil for Thebes; and the trouble stems from your policy. Why? Because our altars are polluted by flesh brought be dogs and birds, picking from Polynices' corpse. Small wonder that the gods won't accept our sacrifices.” (18)
Source: Sophocles, Antigone. New York: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.