Sophocles tells the story about families who have been through generations and years of personal tragedy in his Theban plays. Sophocles plays have a much more intimate approach to tragedy than epics such as The Iliad’s depictions of war, death, or destruction. The importance of interpersonal relationships is highlighted. This reveals the ideals ancient Greeks believed in when it comes to their family life. Antigone, the final play of the saga, is a focus on family interactions and the consequences. Antigone’s events reveal how much importance was attached to respecting family members as well as elders in the community. Relationships like those between Ismene with her deceased brothers, Creon to Haemon, Creon to Teiresias are all examples of how the Greeks valued family respect.
Antigone’s rich history with Oedipus is key to understanding the play’s character dynamics. Even characters who don’t appear onstage often provide evidence of close family relationships. Antigone made the tragic decision at play’s opening to remember her brothers Polyneices as well as Eteocles. Antigone refuses Creon’s orders because she cannot believe her brother Polyneices should be buried unburied. She is a loving and respectful brother to both her brothers (162, line 23). Antigone feels confident in her actions, even though she is not sure what the consequences will be of her decision. She claims, “I’ll be a criminal-but I will be religious.” (164. Lines 71-74; 89). This sentiment is a testimony to the influence of the cultural idea of respecting and honoring one’s relatives, especially since the gods value this ideal.
You can also see the influence of Antigone’s family history and that of Polyneices. Due to the incestuous union Oedipus/Jocasta has made it socially unacceptable for her family to be insecure about their honor. Antigone most likely sees her family with an “us-versus-them” mentality. Thus, the notion that she defends her tribe, sect or team, is given more credibility. Antigone also feels that Polyneices should not be blamed for his capture of Thebes. After all, Eteocles was Polyneices’ elder son. Sophocles admired and implicitly accepted Antigone’s burial in Polyneices.
Although it raises questions about what familial respect looks like, the relationship of Antigone and Ismene highlights the importance family bonds. Antigone strongly feels that she has a duty to Polyneices and to show him respect. Antigone’s venomous response to Ismene’s opposition is harsh. Antigone’s feeling of responsibility for her brother outweighs any respect she may have for Ismene in this instance. Antigone, even when she is arrested, refuses Ismene’s offer of self sacrifice because Ismene didn’t want to take the risk. This shows that Ismene and Antigone aren’t deserving the respect they deserve.
Antigone dismisses Ismene’s attitude as cowardly but she sees it as a beautiful example of love and devotion for her sister. Ismene claims she is not trying to honor her brothers, but her nature makes it impossible for her to defy the law. Antigone is her concern, and she must end her protests. Her feelings are valued and emulated by Sophocles’s depiction of Ismene, who is described as a kind and sympathetically shy character. She is deeply in love with her sister, and she pleads for Antigone to execute her alongside her in memory of Polyneices. (182, line 48). Although her devotion to her family is quite different from Antigone’s bold actions in the past, it undoubtedly supports the importance of family in ancient Greece.
Creon and his relationship with Haemon make up the other family dynamics of Antigone. Haemon’s opening lines indicate that he abides to society’s code for respecting elders and family. Haemon is even willing to leave his bride in an act that demonstrates total submission. The dialogue between Creon and Haemon shows that Creon’s son isn’t as submissive after all. Haemon raises concerns about Creon’s sentencing Antigone. However, he is able to keep his objections in line with the accepted level familial respect. Instead of expressing his disapproval in private terms, Haemon frames it as the opinion of Thebes’ common man. Because Creon’s success is dependent on Creon’s contentedness, Haemon says, “Nothing that I own, father, I value more than your success” (188 lines 700-701). Haemon clearly feels a primal urge to be respectful of his father, in spite of the differences between father and son.
It is important to recall that Haemon was going to marry Antigone, and that they had forged a close familial bond. When justice and other personal issues are taken into consideration, parental respect is only possible. Haemon feels that to accept his father’s decision and to not respect Antigone’s sacrifices would be to disrespect Antigone. Creon’s treatment of his son is very stoic. Sophocles uses Creon’s disinterestedness for his family as a didactic tool. Creon will suffer the most from Sophocles’s mistreatment. These are the consequences of disrespecting your family.
Elders are considered family-like in the sense that they deserve respect. This is why the elders play an integral part in Antigone. The chorus is made up of elders from Theban who have constant discussions with the main characters about their problems. The ruler is proud of the views of this chorus made up of ordinary citizens. Creon asks the chorus whether they will accept his orders (thus showing some deference). The chorus responds that there is “no one so foolish to love their own death” (196, line 220). Creon asks the chorus what it should do in light of Teiresias’s prophecy. The chorus responds by showing even more respect. Creon’s actions are too late in this instance. The wise chorus clearly gives the right advice. In several cases, Creon or Antigone may ignore moral judgements or disregard the advice of the chorus. Creon’s plan to die is pursued unabated by the chorus in 184 line 574, as he warns Creon. These situations are a reminder of the importance to obey elders’ wisdom.
Antigone’s final elder, Teiresias the blind seeker, must be respected. Teiresias serves as both an elder and prophet to Thebes. Creon, an egotistical head, respects his talents and says so (189 line 993). Teiresias makes a shockingly accurate prediction about what Creon’s decision was to do with Polyneices. Creon may argue briefly with the Seer, but eventually yields his wisdom. Tragically though, those few minutes of disagreement may be all that is needed to save Antigone (and thus Haemon). Creon’s disrespect of elders is another grave problem.
Sophocles is clear in his endorsement of respect in Greek society through Antigone. The fate-determining factor is respect for family and elders. Antigone and Haemon might die, but Creon is the one who suffers the most. Antigone is therefore a tragedy that exhorts people to live lives of honor and respect.