The Tragic Hero
By Xi Zheng
O tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock,
Soon I shall be with my own again
Where Persephone welcomes the thin ghosts underground:
And I shall see my father again, and you, mother,
And dearest Polyneices— 5
To me, since it was my hand
That washed him clean and poured the ritual wine:
And my reward is death before my time!
And yet, as men’s hearts know, I have done no wrong, 10
I have not sinned before God. Or if I have,
I shall know the truth in death. But if the guilt
Lies upon Creon who judged me, then, I pray,
May his punishment equal my own.
In the play Antigone by Sophocles, the question of who the tragic hero actually is has been the subject of a debate. Different people have different thoughts about this question. However, according to Aristotle, the tragic hero must be noble and have high status. There should be a tragic flaw that eventually leads to the character’s downfall. Antigone is a tragic hero because this is true of her.
Tragic heroes are always from royal families. Antigone fits this profile because she is Oedipus’s daughter, and Creon’s niece. Her main tragic flaw is her loyalty to the gods and, conversely, her disloyalty to King Creon. At the beginning of the play, Creon puts out an order that Antigone’s brother, Polynices, cannot be buried because he was a traitor. This is unacceptable to Antigone, and she is determined to honor the gods and give her brother a rightful burial. Even if it means being executed for disobeying Creon’s orders. Antigone’s determination to honor the gods and her brother is one of her tragic flaws.
Another flaw she has is a sense of stubbornness. Antigone does not once change her mind about her decisions. Consequently, Creon has more reasons to force Antigone to her death. Antigone knows for a fact that her various actions and attitudes will lead to her demise. Hence, she is prepared to die and she stays stubborn throughout the play. Her excessive pride and stubbornness may also show audiences signs of her devotion and courage.
The lines at the beginning of this essay are the final statements that Antigone make before she is carried away to her doom. Antigone shows willpower when she calmly accepts her death sentence. She says “O tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock, / soon I shall be with my own again” (1-2). Antigone did not fight her fate, though she did not wish it either; she submitted herself to death. Sophocles discusses the tomb as a prison, and this imagery gives the audience the impression that she is happier to die and see her family. She hopes “I shall see my father again, and you, mother, / And dearest Polyneices” (4-5). To bury her dearest brother is such an honor for her, as she is already prepared to die. Those lines also imply that Antigone is to become the bride of death.
Antigone is going to a place “Where Persephone welcomes the thin ghosts underground” (3). Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld, at Hades’ side. She is stuck and trapped in the Underworld and cannot leave. In this quote, Antigone is talking about her death, and Persephone’s dwelling in the world of the dead serves as a metaphor. It also connects Antigone’s fate and hopelessness to Persephone, where she is condemned to spend eternity in the underworld. Both are trapped.
Antigone and Persephone have the same fate: Because of their actions, they are caught and put in jail. They also think that they did not do wrong. “To me, since it was my hand / That washed him clean and poured the ritual wine: / And my reward is death before my time” (7-9). Antigone is talking about how she has assisted her brother in going to the underworld. She is burying her brother because no one else will. By washing him clean and pouring the ritual wine, Antigone helps her brother to have a rightful burial. Although she honors the gods and her brother, her only reward is death. She is still proud of herself because she has done right.
Antigone is so noble that she has the entire city standing behind her. She accepts her punishment with bravery. She knows in her heart that what she has done is not wrong. By saying, “And yet, as men’s hearts know, I have done no wrong, / I have not sinned before God” (10-11). Up to this point, Antigone seems a stubborn person. Antigone has not thought twice about burying her brother. Now, she is saying that people should not think she has done anything wrong in their hearts. She also realizes that there is always the possibility that she has sinned. She thinks “Or if I have, / I shall know the truth in death” (11-12). She will know the truth of the matter after she dies by whether or not she goes to Heaven.
“But if the guilt / Lies upon Creon who judged me, then, I pray, / May his punishment equal my own” (12-14). Antigone wants Creon to feel guilty for what he plans to do, either change the punishment, or release her completely. She believes that his sins are bigger than her own. Creon is so preoccupied with his power that he doesn’t think twice before he acts. Therefore, he makes a very bad decision leading to killing his own niece, Polyneices. He commands that the “body must lie in the fields, a sweet treasure / For carrion birds to find as they search for food” (461) Thus, he should be punished in the same way as Antigone is. She is praying to the gods that they will allow her revenge, after she is gone.
Ultimately, what makes Antigone a tragic hero are the traits she possesses, which lead to her downfall. It is not necessarily her actions, but her convictions and values which cause her to be such a tragic figure. Antigone is flawed, but still admired. Like Patricia M. Lines points out in her article, “Antigone’s flaw has a subtle quality. She has indeed discovered a great truth. We must agree with her. We must admire her. We identify with her” (Lines). She is the true tragic hero of this very sad story. She dies too young after suffering a life filled with tragedy and heartache. Her death is her own doing. She stands strong, and never backs down from what she feels most strongly about, which is her love for the dead.
© 2015 by Xi Zheng. All rights reserved.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Web Atomic and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 13 Sept. 2007. Web. 2 Aug. 2015. <http://classics.mit.edu/>.
Lines, Patricia M. “Antigone’s Flaw.” HUMANITAS 12.1 (1999). Web. 1 Aug. 2015.
Sophocles. “Antigone.” Literature for composition. Ed. Sylvan, William Burto, and William E. Cain. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 460-86. Print.
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