Politics and Political Agency in Antigone
Sophocles’ Antigone, a play written in 442 BC, revealed the weak position of a woman in politics in a patriarchal society. In this play, the society was ruled by a king called Creon, ruler of Thebes, who was also the uncle of Antigone, the heroine. He was authoritarian because he killed anyone, even his niece Antigone, who defied his rule in order not to appear false to his word, which is his state’s law. Sophocles portrayed women as able to challenge the traditional roles of women that were set by men. Between the play’s two main female characters Antigone and her sister Ismene, a political alliance can be seen. One way of looking at the play is to argue it has no political element since ancient Greece barred women from political participation. I believe otherwise. Ismene and Antigone’s conversation when Creon was sentencing Antigone to death proves the existence of their political agency when Ismene told her, “but amidst your troubles I am not ashamed to sail beside you through your suffering” (Antigone 137). Ismene stood in solidarity with her sister and insisted on sharing her sister’s fate. Regardless of the argument that Antigone is not political, we can see that through the development of his characters, Sophocles subtly confronts the audience’s perspective on politics and political agency.
The argument that the play is not political can be rooted back to Ismene and Antigone’s first conversation about burying their brother. Antigone revealed her reason for defying Kreon’s law by telling Ismene, “[for] I must please those down below for a longer time than those up here, since there I’ll lie forever” (Antigone 126). This implies no political agenda for Antigone’s actions. It only shows how important her personal moral code is to her. She believed her gods gave honor to burying fallen family members and by doing that, she would please her family. Therefore, Antigone’s actions were not a matter of politics, but a matter of acting on her morals.
However, there is another way of reading Antigone’s justification for her actions. Her constant evocation of “the gods” suggests a possible political aspect to her rebellion. In the modern world, we see politicians quoting verses from their religious books and talking about their god and how people should be faithful to that god to live a good life. It is a very powerful strategy that can be used to convince someone to adopt a law if it means pleasing a certain god and reaping the benefits of doing so. Whether Antigone was aware this was a strategy or not, using “god talk” to justify her actions, made her admirable among the people of Thebes. Haimon, who was betrothed to Antigone and was Creon’s son, confronted his father Creon and said, “but I hear what’s in the shadows –how the city mourns for this girl, and how she of all women least deserves the worst of deaths for the most glorious of deeds” (Antigone 140). Antigone was executed for burying her brother because it was prohibited to do so only because Creon said so. However, the people of Thebes saw her death was unjust because she acted in accordance with the gods’ wishes.
When he was sentencing Antigone to death, it is notable that Creon felt threatened by her actions and implied that she and Ismene had a political agenda since he accused them of plotting to depose him when he said, “I did not know I raised a double ruin to bring down the throne!” (Antigone 137). He expressed his surprise at what he thought was happening without his knowledge. His words showed his fear of losing his powerful position to his nieces who were of royal blood. This makes the reader wonder if there really is no political aspect of Antigone’s actions, then why would Creon feel so threatened?
In her book entitled “Feminist Antifascism”, Ewa Majewska, a feminist philosopher and activist, mentioned the work of Carole Pateman, a political scientist, who analyzed Creon’s accusation of Antigone’s political motivation. Pateman linked Creon’s accusation to his deeply embedded fear about the confusion, transgression, and effect that a woman would bring into public spheres. Since women were barred from participation in political and public spheres, Creon was afraid a woman, especially one of royal blood, would rise against him and dismantle his misogynistic absolutism. Creon was justified to fear the effects Antigone would have on his people. He knew that he needed to eliminate this valid threat as soon as possible because even before catching Antigone, the chorus leader told him, “My lord, my own thoughts have advised me anxiously for a while that this was all directed by the gods” (Antigone 131). This can be interpreted as the root of Creon’s fear of losing his rule over the people of Thebes, since his people were considering the gods have had a hand in this act. Creon was justified to fear those words from the chorus leader since the gods impose a powerful threat to his rule.
In her “Feminist Antifascism” lecture, Majewska stated that gestures of caring and acting upon it in public spheres become the politics that a society needs to change. Majewska challenged what I understood to be political. Before her lecture, I believed “politics” applied only when there are two or more parties, which can be identified as “political agencies”, debating over which party should have the power to rule a country or a city. Nevertheless, Majewska’s words, “sometimes caring for others is exactly the same that becomes political action”, made me include the gestures of caring for others in my definition of “politics”. To explain her point, she mentioned an example of a nurses’ strike that happened in 2007 in Poland. After two weeks of the nurses launching this strike, they lost the attention of the media and Majewska cared enough for their cause that she brought back the media’s attention to them by taking action. She led the nurses to paint a huge black stripe on a white rectangular space in the center of the Polish-Belarusian border. This caused the people at the border to stand in solidarity with the nurses and the media called this action a political movement. Majweska cared for the nurses’ cause and took action in the public sphere. The community saw that as a political gesture. Hence, caring for someone and acting upon it in the public sphere is by itself a political act.
Listening to Majeweka’s example, made me conclude that the term “political agency” does not require constant agreement between people, since Majewska was not in on their strike from the beginning but stood in solidarity with them when it mattered. It requires caring for someone and taking an action in public spheres even if there were consequences. In Antigone, we see two characters doing that. The first character is Antigone who cared enough for her brother to honor him by burying him while she was well aware of the consequences of her actions. The second character is Ismene. Regardless of Antigone’s rejection of her sister’s solidarity with her, Ismene cared enough for Antigone even though she did not agree with her actions in the beginning. Still, she stood in solidarity with Antigone when she was being sentenced to death.
Majweska’s lecture helped me see “political agency” from a new angle while I was rereading Antigone. To identify a political agency in a text, the reader must look for two elements to affirm the existence of a political agency. The first element is the existence of an individual who is authoritarian in a powerful position and oppresses people for any of their characteristics like their race, gender, class, and religion. The second element occurs when at least one individual cares about someone else, and takes action in the public sphere to stand in solidarity with that person when they are being oppressed by a powerful figure.
In Antigone, we see that both elements exist. The first element exists in two places. The first place is when Ismene told Antigone, “[we] are ruled by those whose strengths is greater, and we must yield to this” (Antigone 126). Ismene indicated they lacked personal freedom when she stated that they do not have an option other than submitting to authorities. The second place is when Creon vowed to kill Antigone so he does not seem false to his word when he said, “I won’t be seen false to my own word, by all the city, I’ll kill her” (Antigone 139). He is authoritarian because he killed his niece just because she defied his rule. His words were the rules that he set without consultation with the citizens of his city. He killed her because he believed no one defies his word and lives.
The second element can be confirmed to exist when Ismene claimed she took part in the crime her sister Antigone committed when she said, “I did this deed, and if she will allow me that, and I too take the blame for my part in it” (Antigone 137). Even though she was innocent and had nothing to do with her sister’s crime, she insisted on sharing her sister’s fate. Ismene cared about Antigone and she did not want to leave her stand alone when she was being confronted by Creon. What better sign of Ismene’s solidarity with Antigone than her willingness to die alongside Antigone?
The political agency between Antigone and Ismene defies the reader’s normal definition of “political agency”. One can see Ismene’s solidarity with her sister when Antigone needed her the most. Ismene insisted on her part in the crime and insisted on sharing her sister’s fate. However, Antigone convinces Creon that she was innocent. Antigone did not accept her sister’s willingness to stand with her, but Antigone’s rejection of her sister’s solidarity with her, does not eliminate the existence of the political agency that one can see through Ismene’s solidarity.
Reading Antigone, one can see how the citizens changed from being submissive to Creon’s rule, to becoming free from his rule. There were many events that caused the people of Thebes to change their perspective on Creon’s politics. First, they had a conversation with Antigone who insisted she did nothing wrong and was wrongly led to her grave for committing a deed that was honored by the gods. Second, they lamented how Antigone’s noble blood was being defiled by this cruel and unjust death. Third, a prophet warned Creon that the gods were not pleased that he did not give Antigone’s father a proper burial. He told him his punishment would be losing his son Haimon. Creon was stubborn and mocked the prophet. Fourth, the chorus sang that the gods are powerful enough to ruin anyone who does not heed their warnings. Finally, the prophecy came true, Creon’s son Haimon killed himself after Antigone was executed by his father, which led Creon’s wife to commit suicide due to her heartbreak over losing her son Haimon. The men of Thebes could see how wrong Creon was in not submitting to the gods when they said, “we must not act disrespectfully towards the gods” (Antigone 156). They believed in the gods’ authority and power more than they believed in Creon’s power. All those events ruined Creon’s spirit and his authority over his people.
In this paper, I explored how Sophocles’ Antigone changes the reader’s definition of “politics” and “political agency”. Antigone and Ismene taught us that caring enough for someone and not being afraid to act in the public sphere, becomes the political action needed to change authoritarian rules. Creon was right to feel threatened by Antigone and Ismene. Their political agency brought down his throne after all.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Reginald Gibbons, and Charles Segal. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Majewska, Ewa. Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common. EPub ed., CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Verso. 2021.