Antigone: Character Profiles
Antigone is the protagonist, the heroine who defies authority for the sake of principle. That is the role given to her in the play, for she is also the actress playing the part from which she cannot deviate. The script, like fate, is set from the beginning. At the beginning, she knows she is playing a part, but as the play goes on, she forgets and becomes the tragic heroine. She is thin, pretty, and child-like, yet stubborn. She exhibits childlike behavior, such as her rivalry with her sister Ismene, and her use of a toy shovel to bury her brother. She continues to repeat that she is too young to die, and her youth and undeveloped womanhood are emphasized throughout the play. She represents the idealism of childhood that cannot survive in the cruel world. To live in the world means to bend, to compromise with its demands, and she cannot; therefore, she is doomed from the beginning. She is compared to her father Oedipus in her stubborn pursuit of truth, even though it will lead to her death. The audience admires her, however, as a woman of integrity who will sacrifice herself for others (her brother Polynices, Haemon, her fiancé, her sister Ismene, and the honor of Thebes). Her actions are futile, in the end, for she does not save anyone else through her sacrifice. Nothing changes because of her death. Haemon chooses death with her, and her brother was not worth the trouble. The world goes on it its old ways. She is so rigid in her righteousness that she will not let Ismene help her, since Ismene believes in Creon’s laws.
When Creon paints a picture for her of the life she should choose—marriage and children, the conventional woman’s life—she snaps and chooses death, seeing no hope. She does not want to play out that script and thus, like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up. She does not accept Creon’s argument that compromise is a necessary evil in life, one that holds the state or family together. To compromise is to lose one’s self and integrity. She is the individualist who says “No,” and that seals her death. In the end, she is not the traditional heroine who makes a meaningful sacrifice for others, or even for principle, since her belief system is stripped from her by Creon. The sacrifice is meaningful only to her; it is her protest against an impure world.
The Chorus, who gives the Prologue and comments during the play, introduces the actors and story to the audience, telling everything that will happen ahead of time. In this way, the illusion of this being a slice of life is lost, for the audience is reminded they are watching a play. The Chorus could be seen as the playwright intervening and commenting at various times to audience and characters, such as when Creon is being cruel to Antigone. The Chorus interrupts and corrects Creon’s mistaken thoughts about Antigone, reminding him that she is still a child. This was the role of the traditional Chorus in Greek tragedy, to represent the elders of the place, in this case, Thebes. The Chorus also has an important speech in the middle of the play explaining the nature of tragedy as tranquil because the ending is known from the start. The Chorus has the last word after the action is over, as well. The Chorus in both the Greek play of Sophocles, from which this Antigone is derived, and in Anouilh’s play serves the dual function of advisor to the characters and commentator to the audience. The Chorus is a witness to the action, generally not directly involved.
Creon the King is a tyrant, but he thinks of himself as a pragmatist. Under stress because of the civil war Thebes has just undergone, Creon is anxious to restore order and to gain acceptance as the new king. The law he proclaims against burying the rebel brother, Polynices, is to discourage further rebellion or sympathy for the rebels that could undermine the peace and Creon’s authority. He believes in absolute obedience on the part of the citizens as their duty to Thebes. He maintains that this obedience to him and his laws is the only way for life to go on, and does not believe in a moral order above what is practical necessity, the way Antigone, the idealist, does. Duty to the needs of the world comes before religious or moral duty for him. The argument with Antigone over the right way to act in the world is the key to the drama. Creon wins the debate in one way by destroying Antigone’s faith in her brother and religion. He loses in another way, because despite disillusionment and despair, Antigone says “no” to his vision of the way things are. She reminds him of his own innocence before he became corrupted by the world. She will not compromise or endorse his view, and she takes his son, Haemon, with her to death, as well as Creon’s wife. So, in this way, she wins over Creon to his great cost. At the end of the play, Creon can no longer pretend he is acting for the good of Thebes. He just continues to act without illusion or hope.
Eurydice the Queen is Creon’s wife. He calls her a good woman. She is the ideal Greek wife, who obeys and stays in the background. She does not help Creon in his rule. She does knit jerseys for the poor, gardens, and preserves fruit. When her son Haemon dies, she quietly cuts her throat and lies on the bed as a protest.
The Guard, Jonas, with his two companions, keeps watch over the dead body of Polynices to prevent its burial. Somehow, Antigone slips through and sprinkles dust on the body. When the Guard reports to Creon, Creon threatens him with death if this should occur again. He wants the perpetrator caught and brought to him. The Guard catches Antigone and brings her to the king, thinking of his own neck rather than the fate of the poor girl. The Guard is presented as a normal family man with two children. He is thirty-nine years old and has to think of his family who depend on him. He will be up for promotion soon and does not want to ruin his seventeen-year record as a soldier. These details are important because they illustrate why Antigone refuses a “normal life” of domesticity. The Guard cannot afford to have any moral vision or personal integrity. He is caught up in the status quo, with a vested interest in it. She has to bribe him with a ring to get him to write a final letter from her to her fiancé, Haemon. Although she tries to befriend him, he remains distant. The guards play cards at the end, oblivious to Antigone’s death, for theirs is a small world.
Although he had flirted with Ismene at one time, Haemon, the son of Creon, is in love with his cousin, Antigone and wants to marry her. He follows her loyally to her grave in the cave when he cannot make his father cancel her sentence. When she hangs herself, he falls on his sword. Antigone tried to write him a letter to explain he should go on with his life, but it did not reach him. Haemon is shocked by his father’s cruelty, and it is this shock and disappointment that makes him follow Antigone. He remembered his father as kind and protective. He grieves at losing his father as well as his fiancée. Creon tries to tell him that he will become a man only by giving up his woman for the justice of the state. Haemon does not want to become inhuman like his father.
Ismene is Antigone’s beautiful and desirable sister. Haemon was initially infatuated with her, having danced with her for an evening before he discovered his true love for Antigone. Ismene is not daring or imaginative. She plays it safe and believes in the rules. If Creon has passed a law they may not bury their brother, then she abides by it. She tells Antigone it’s a man’s world, and they need to stay out of the way. Antigone is shocked by her cowardly behavior, and when Ismene changes her mind and begs to join Antigone’s crime against the state, Antigone rejects her.
The Messenger has one purpose, to go into the palace and tell Queen Eurydice of her son, Haemon’s death. He is seen during the prologue moping around the palace because he knows he will have to perform this distasteful duty that will lead to the Queen’s death. Before going to her, he is the one who tells the audience and the Chorus the details of Antigone’s death, how she and Haemon killed themselves.
This character does not occur in Sophocles’s version of the play. The Nurse consoles and loves Antigone as a mother figure. She merely tries to feed her and take care of her daily needs. She is the comic relief in the play. Being a simple woman, she does not understand Antigone’s heroic thinking and sacrifice. She is loyal to the memory of Jocasta, Antigone’s mother, and tries to take her place. Antigone loves her and feels protected by her. She gives the Nurse responsibility for her dog, Puff, after her death.
The page is the young boy who waits on Creon and follows him around. He speaks few lines, only to remind Creon of his cabinet meeting. The king seems fond of him, and Creon tells him at the end of the play he should not be in a hurry to grow up.