Antigone, the Tragic Hero
One of the main questions of this prominent ancient tragedy written by Sophocles is who is the main, the true tragic hero in it: Creon the King or Antigone? Lots of studies claim that Antigone, being a woman in ancient Greek play, can’t be the tragic hero character, because female characters usually lack depth and exist to contrast or emphasis the feelings of the main, male cast. Moreover, Creon holds all the political power in his hands, so he has more responsibility and can be freer in his actions. Still, in this essay, I’ll try to prove that Antigone is the true tragic hero of the story.
Let’s talk about the main traits that define a tragic hero: high social status and high responsibility for one’s actions, moral ambiguity without black and white portrayal, determination, compassion from the audience and a trait that causes all the tragedy of their story.
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The social status of Antigone is almost one of a princess. Though she doesn’t hold any political power, Creon the King still treats her as one. She has a lot to lose, her honor, principles, wealth, reputation. Technically Creon is the superior one, but de facto Antigone is a very important person in Thebes, no matter if she has the official title or not. Antigone was married to Haemon, Creon’s son and a prince, but she is a noble and righteous person on her own.
The second criterion is passed by both Antigone and Creon. They can’t be called overly good characters or villains. Creon is cruel sometimes. His refusal to bury Polyneices meant much more for the ancient Greeks who considered a proper funeral a must, even for the enemies. He can be also very harsh to his own sentry, still being a good king. In the meantime, he behaves very noble and courteous towards Antigone, clearly showing her his respect and affection.
Ismene also sees his soft side with Creon being soft-spoken and calm with her. Antigone is by no means a saint, because she was clearly involved in the incestuous relationship with her brother, but from the other side she is the one who is faithful to the traditions and has mercy over anyone. She insists that human judgement can only take the body of a person, but their soul should have peace in the afterlife, so she demands the burial for Polyneices.
One of the most important traits for a tragic hero is a fatal flaw that destroys their life. Antigone has a very prominent one: her stubbornness and lack of diplomacy. She is a woman who acts before thinking (this portrayal is also typical for Greek literature). Hearing the refusal of Creon to bury Polyneices, she doesn’t resort to convincing and doesn’t remind him of traditions and mercy. Instead she just disobeys her King, questioning his authority and showing that she can go against his will without any repercussions.
Of course, she was blinded by the loss of her true love, but her burying of Polyneices by herself is also an act of rebellion that shakes the political power of King Creon. Her stubbornness also caused her death in the indirect way. If Antigone yielded to her King, she would be pardoned. But she fiercely decided to take her own life, just not to give him the pleasure, not knowing that King Creon changed his mind and was riding to spare her life and bury Polyneices instead.
Creon doesn’t have the single fatal flaw that the true tragic hero must fall a victim of. Though he looks like a hostage of his position – he can’t let Antigone go with what she has done, because it questions his political power and his position as a King. But he can play the clever drama, condemning her as a just King and then pardoning her as a merciful King, listening to the opinion of his people, who demand to release Antigone.
Still, this isn’t a flaw of his personality, it is the complications connected with ruling a country and preserving his throne, so Creon doesn’t qualify as a tragic hero here. At the beginning of the play we can suggest that his stubbornness also would be his fatal flaw, but later we see that his anger and inability to seek compromise can be controlled pretty well. When King Creon regains his composure and listens to the rumors that are spread among the townsfolk, he changes his mind and decides to spare Antigone. So, his flaw turns into his benefit – he is a wise ruler, able to put aside his emotions.
The amount of compassion to Creon and Antigone also differs drastically. In the play Antigone is seen by the common folks as a woman of exceptional kindness and bravery who risks her own life to fulfill her family duty and just a duty of a human – releasing the soul of her brother for the afterlife.
Not allowing to bury the dead body was, in ancient Greek culture, the crime much more brutal than the murder itself: instead of ending the mortal life of a person the offender banished them from afterlife for all the eternity. Story-wise, Antigone deserves all the compassion the locals give to her.
Even her bravery bordering with recklessness and her desire to die on her own terms are portrayed as something worth respect. Creon, on the contrary, isn’t sympathized at all. Maybe, the townspeople don’t see the need of it: he looks like an authority free to do whatever he pleases. The common people don’t see the responsibility that burdens him and don’t know that there is no pleasure for him in killing the wife of his son.
From the modern point of view Creon can be pitied. His initial mistake – giving up to his rage and forbidding to bury Polyneices – turns into a much more serious issue that he can’t resolve without losing his reputation in one or another way. He can’t spare Antigone on the spot, because she openly disobeyed him. Pretending that nothing happened would have shattered his authority. But he can’t kill her either, because she is considered a martyr by his people. Moreover, he doesn’t want to kill her after rethinking the situation.
Still Antigone has more compassion even from the modern audience. At first, she has to marry the man she doesn’t love, because her true love is her brother – they are completely star-crossed to be together. Then she has to face the decision of King Creon to leave her brother unburied, condemning him to the horrible un-afterlife.
She risks her life and reputation to save her beloved from this fate and all the people support her, seeing the higher mercy in her actions. Her bravery and the feeling of honor are her best traits – but she earns our ultimate compassion when we see that precisely these traits cause her death: she is too proud to let herself die from Creon’s hand, so he takes control over her life and death in her own hands, for the last time in her life.
The epiphany of the tragedy also favors Antigone as tragic hero. While Creon receives a message from the oracle, condemning his actions, he surely regrets them. But first and foremost the message comes from the outside: King Creon doesn’t have that moment of realization and he still can live with the consequences. The Gods have decided that he is guilty, but it is the external judgement. When we see Antigone in her very last moments, we see her in complete despair.
Not only she is afraid to die – she doesn’t see the meaning of living further. Her brother, her love is dead, the life has no sense for her after she did the last thing she could for him. She realizes that her life is ruined, that she will be executed and, maybe, will meet the same fate as her brother. Her last action, to hang herself, is the ultimate act of rebellion against Creon and also it is the ultimate act of despair. Antigone realizes that her life is ruined and sees no sense in waiting for King Creon to come and end it.
As we can see from the analysis above, Antigone meets more criteria of the true tragic hero than Creon the King. She is a princess, has a lot to lose, isn’t good or evil entirely. Antigone is devoted to her actions, worthy of compassion and has her fatal flaw that brings her to her fate. Creon lacks the devotion, changing his mind and allowing to bury Antigone’s brother and spare her life.
Also, he isn’t pitied until the very end of the play: he is a man of authority, he makes a decision and meets the consequences with dignity (though the modern approach can add some more compassion to his image). He also has no single and fatal flaw, being more well-rounded character, despite his hair-trigger temper. Creon comes closer to the definition of the tragic hero, but still, the true tragic hero of the Sophocles’ play is Antigone.