Does Antigone Act Alone?
By Marina Angelopoulos*
For thousands of years, scholars have pondered, prodded, and attempted to unravel the grand work that is Sophocles’ Antigone. Provocative, political, transcendent, Antigone has been categorized, classicized, and reimaged through countless lenses. Whether Antigone is viewed as a division between family and state, sister and mother, melodrama and tragedy, the play changes with each new frame, and another layer becomes exposed at every turn. Through the chaos of trying to unpack Antigone, one commonly accepted interpretation has emerged, Antigone acts alone. Her actions are solitary, unique, and individual. Antigone’s choice to abide to her own moral law and mourn her brother, despite Kreon’s edict, is unaided. Through this lense, we see Antigone’s tale as one of martyrdom, the finite ending of death. But what are Antigone’s choices? And what motivated her to act to such a destructive end?
To understand Antigone’s seemingly solitary actions we must first understand what it means to act alone. Googling “to act alone” will bring up news headlines questioning the independence of the Las Vegas gunman, reports of the U.S. planning to act alone against North Korea, and Israel acting alone against Syria. To be alone is to be, unaccompanied, isolated, and solitary. The main difference between being alone, and acting alone, is the issue of help.
Individuals who act alone, work unaccompanied, and either reject help or were never initially offered assistance. They are autonomous. Governments that act alone may disregard international sanctions and agreements, gunmen shoot alone inflicting violence and creating tragedy. Whether an entity acts independently or in collusion changes our view of that event.
Russia working alone to infiltrate the U.S. election versus working in collusion with American political campaigns, changes the facts, changes our views, changes our politics. Sophocles’ Antigone is a tale of family and mourning, but also one of deep political strife. Antigone’s disobedience challenges Kreon’s order and the stability of the political state. Tracing Antigone’s solitary actions and questioning her independence brings a new perspective to an ancient text and may help us determine how resistance happens and what is more politically productive.
Sophocles’ Antigone has two main instances of seemingly solitary action. Antigone buries Polyneices, and Antigone hangs herself. The idea is that Antigone goes alone and unsupported, driven by internal law to bury Polyneices. The opening conversation between Ismene and Antigone seems to support this fact. Antigone pleads with her sister, “The body. Give me your hand. Help me.” and Ismene refuses, and desperately pleads back, asking her sister to be sensible, and not cause more harm. Antigone asserts her independence saying, “I will bury him myself” and “I am different” almost wanting to be alone just to make a point to show that Ismene is weak, rule abiding, quiet, and unwilling to stand up against authority (Sophocles 22,24). The scene ends and Ismene and Antigone part in different directions, the distance growing ever between them, their twoness shattering. Antigone’s second solitary action is her own death. Antigone makes the decision to end her own life instead of waiting out Kreon’s punishment, and two subsequent deaths follow. This approach to Antigone reflects Homeric-Heroic interpretations, a single hero, flawed and finite. Like ancient Greek mythology, this interpretation of Antigone as a lone hero ends in warning. It suppresses rather than activates an audience. Reading Antigone as one would read Oedipus may lead to an excess of lament and a lack of motivation, not political activism.
Bonnie Honig challenges classical and contemporary theorists in her book Antigone, Interrupted and claims that Antigone is not a solitary actor, but rather a conspiring sister, and seeing her this way is more productive to modern society. According to Honig, Antigone and Ismene are not at odds, but rather use covert language to work “beneath the radar” of Kreon.
The classical interpretation of Ismene is that she, “is an anti-political character who lacks the courage and imagination to act when called upon to do so.” (Honig 151). Honig challenges that claim by politicizing Ismene and making her an equal participant in action. Honig claims that the, “two sisters act in concert in ways that complement rather than compete, or complement and compete.” (Honig 154). For Honig, the opening conversation depicts two sisters scheming and conspiring through surreptitious language. Proof of this conspiracy is the primary burying of Polyneices. The initial burial happens in the dark, quickly and quietly, characteristics of Ismene’s persona of compliance. Rather than divine intervention, Honig proposes the first burial was actually executed by Ismene. Honig writes, “if Ismene did it, we no longer need to puzzle out why Antigone might have buried Polyneices twice,” it makes sense, “ two sisters, two burials.” (Honig 161). This interpretation also explains Ismene’s confession to Kreon. Ismene states “I did it… I share the blame with her.” (Sophocles 42). Honig asks “why has no one for hundreds of years or more taken her at her word? She confessed.” (Honig 164). Ismene originally perpetrating the crime makes her a political actor and also allows us to understand why she mourns Antigone’s sentence so vehemently, this was a fate she had already tried to prevent.
Ismene had acted with, and for her sister.
Antigone refuses Ismene’s pleas to die alongside her, even though Ismene begs and confesses to the crime. Antigone says “save yourself. I want you to escape,” and implores her sister to “be happy” she is alive. (Sophocles 43). Honig sees this interaction as a pivotal moment in the play. This action is critical because it shows that Antigone is not a lone hero fixed on death, but that she is also committed to life and preserving her sister. This is important for political and feminist theory because it shows that Antigone is not a lone player, but “a partisan sororal actor in concert who sacrifices herself… for a living equal: her sister.” (Honig 155).
Antigone’s ending is not definite, by acting alongside Ismene, she is able to live on and possibly create political change. It is worth considering however, if Honig has fallen into her own trap, caught in her own version of the “Antigone Effect.” Is Honig grasping for straws and projecting politics and fellowship on the characters in the play because that is what she wishes to see? If Sophocles had intended the audience to be aware of the sisters’ collusion, why would he include lines like “Unmourned, friendless, I am led away,” or “I go alone and desolate.” (Sophocles 56).
Could there have been a scene added to explain or expose the sister’s conspiracy? The most important question may be, does it even matter what Sophocles intended? Analyzing modern interpretations and adaptations of Antigone may help answer that question, and possibly what implications Antigone’s potential solitude has on political and literary thought.
Kamila Shamsie, in her novel Homefire also rejects the interpretation of a solitary Antigone and instead gives her the help of family and community. In Homefire, the modern setting helps to create intricate relationships between the characters and more opportunities for influence and collusion than the original text. Shamsie complicates the narrative of Antigone by making the Ismene character, Isma, act as a mother figure, raising her two younger siblings from the day of their parent’s deaths. Shamsie further emphasizes togetherness by having Aneeka and Parvaiz as twins, born from one egg, deeply connected from birth. In addition to a new layer of familial connections, all of Antigone’s classical solitary acts are aided by others. Aneeka Pasha emulates Sophocles’ Antigone’s strong familial ties and unbudging mind. Upon hearing that Parvaiz’ body would be sent to Pakistan, Aneeka mirrors Sophocles’ Antigone’s immediate drive to bring proper justice to their dead. Aneeka decides she must travel to Pakistan to bring her twin home. Aneeka’s defiant act is to fly to Pakistan, but even with that simple action, she enlists help. Abdul, a friend and secret admirer of Parvaiz, acts as “chief protector, ally, jumping garden walls to enter her house unseen by press outside” (Shamsie 219). Abdul orders her plane ticket, picks up her passport, and organizes her transportation. Upon her arrival in Karachi, a cousin greets her at the airport with her next set of instructions and accomodation, a hotel, a car and a funeral plot. All of these are rejected by Aneeka, but the point stands that she was supported on her journey to reach the body.
Aneeka is not alone in traveling to Karachi. Eamonn, driven by remorse and love, travels to be with Aneeka and join in her dissent. He even releases a public statement defending Aneeka and Yzma and shaming the British government for abandoning them “at a moment of profound personal loss” (Shamsie 248). Isma also wants to join her sister and pleads to Karamat to assist her travels, claiming “she’s my sister. Almost my child,” and “I want to be with her, that’s all” (Shamsie 249). Aneeka receives support from not only her close family and friends but also the Pakistani government and Muslim community. The Pakistani High Commissioner says in conversation with Karmat, “the people… have decided to embrace a woman who has stood up to a powerful government,” and that it would be foolish for his government to interrupt Aneeka, indirectly supporting her protest (Shamsie 241). The city’s community unites as cities often do in times of disaster relief. The owner of the city’s ice factory supplies ice for the body free of charge,and a driver delivers it as his ‘religious duty.’ Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in the novel is when, “everyone who had gathered in the park took turns unloading the ice belt and passing them along a conveyor belt of human hands” (Shamsie 241). Shamsie unites the Muslim community and shows that there is strength in numbers. By supporting Aneeka and having her act in conjunction with others, Shamsie suggests that political power and action are most effective when backed by a community. Antigone’s final independent act is also depicted as an act of togetherness and love in Homefire. Aneeka decides to act with Eamonn in their shared death. Her death is an act of love rather than independent defiance. She does is not alone in her final moments.
The film Girl Interrupted (1999) is another adaptation of Antigone that emphasizes solidarity. The female protagonist Susanna, originally sees herself as an outcast, distant, removed, and abstracted from society. She is essentially exiled from her family who cannot understand her complexities and is sent alone to a mental institution. The movie is set in the 1960s mirroring the intense time of political uncertainty seen in both Homefire, with the modern tensions of Islamist terror and immigration policy, and Antigone in which Kreon attempts to establish a new democratic order. The uncertainty and tension of the time mimic Susanna’s troubled state and her struggle to find herself. Although she is cast aside by her family, Susanna is able to cultivate meaningful relationships with the other women in the psychiatric ward. She relies on the experiences and friendships gained during her stay. This is epitomized in the scene where Susanna denies her draft-dodging boyfriend’s request to run away together. In the end, it is the death of Daisy and Susanna’s commitment to life that end up aiding her recovery.
Susanna’s relationship with her psychological staff and her friends is another example of the power of female companionship and an interpretation of Antigone that suggests that Antigone does not act alone.
Homefire and Girl Interrupted are reimaginations of Sophocles’ Antigone that use community and solidarity to support the notion of a Antigone who does not act alone. Honig’s description of a conspiring Antigone in Antigone Interrupted challenges classical theorists and offers a new way of viewing Antigone through the lense of political and feminist theory.
Whether Sophocles’ intended for his audience to see Antigone as a solitary hero, or a conspiring actor, we will never know. Therefore, reading and analyzing Antigone becomes less about original intent and more about implications. What matters is why we still reexamine Antigone and what her story can offer us today. Reading Antigone as an ancient heroine, a martyr for a singular cause and a solitary actor leaves us with a warning and an end. But by seeing Antigone as a conspirator, living and working with those around her, we can see her political strength.
Antigone does not just end in death, Ismene lives on, the community lives on, the audience is politically motivated and activated instead of suppressed. We see solidarity as power in modern life. The Women’s March was such an impactful movement because it empowered thousands of women to act together and stand up to oppression. Antigone can never truly act alone when the audience is motivated to act alongside her to disrupt order.
– Honig, Bonnie. Antigone Interrupted. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.
– Shamsie, Kamila. Homefire. Riverhead Books, 2017. Print.
– Sophocles, Richard Emil Braun. Antigone. Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
* Marina Angelopoulos is studying Political Science and Fine Arts at The Union College, in Schenectady, NY