Literature has the ability to reflect the society in which the piece was created and the cultural beliefs of that community. This cultural perspective also has to do with the religion of the community in which the piece of literature was written. The discrepancy between religious belief and the demands and order of the governmental system is a particularly common theme in literature. Perhaps one of the best examples of a piece of literature representing this dichotomy is Antigone which is the second play in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy. Although the story of Antigone may be less well-known than that of her father Oedipus, it is no less compelling and tragic. Antigone desires to bury her brother properly, according the religious beliefs of Ancient Greece but is thwarted because he is regarded by the people of Thebes as a traitor. Polynices, her brother, has engaged in warfare with his brother over who should have been the rightful king of Thebes. Now that the war is over and the two brothers have both perished because of the violence, only one is awarded the benefits of a proper burial according to the religious tenets of their community.
Antigone throws away her future, her potential marriage, and indeed her very life in order to do right by her sibling according to the religious practices of Greece and of the family in particular. In Jean Anouih's version of Sophocles' play, Antigone makes prophetic comments to her nanny that she may not be around much longer (xiii). It is unlikely that there will be a marriage and even more unlikely that she should live to bear children. She knows what her potential punishment will be, but makes the choice to have a proper burial for Polynices anyway. Of paramount importance to Antigone is the religion of her family and not the word of her new king who has vowed that Polynices be left unburied and his body feasted on by dogs. In this, she shows herself to be better than her siblings, who spend their lives squabbling over who will rule and who will not. Her loyalty is not to country, but to blood and to the religion of her family and her community.
Antigone questions whether her choice was right, but in the end she commits the act she believed was right based on her society's ideas of that term. Creon, the king, is uninterested in the Grecian religion and instead acts against what his society dictates is right by creating laws which turn morality and the demands of religious belief into illegal actions which demand the perpetrator be put to death. During the war between the two sons of Oedipus, religion was not of any real import. The only thing they cared about what in obtaining or retaining power against an enemy. Now that the war is over, the two characters at the center of the play, Antigone and Creon, place value on religion and law respectively. When their contrasting viewpoints put them at odds, there is more bloodshed.
The ensuing moral battle between Creon and his niece is foreshadowed by brothers Polynices and Eteocles, both sons of Oedipus, who vowed to share the throne of Thebes, each taking a turn ruling for a year at a time (Anouih 8). When it was time for Eteocles to yield the throne, he refused which led Polynices to ally himself with another kingdom and plan to take the throne by force. Each believed he held the moral ground. Eteocles believed he was the better king and therefore it would behoove the kingdom for him to rule. Polynices believed his brother had betrayed morality by refusing to keep his word. The tragic conclusion is that both brothers died in the ensuing battle and Creon, their uncle declared that Eteocles would be buried with all honor but that Polynices would "be left unburied, for dogs and birds to rend" (Rolfe 7). To Antigone, sister of both dead men, Creon's dictum is immoral and therefore the fear of punishment of death is nothing compared to this outrage. Antigone says to Ismene about Creon's edict, "No edict can be stronger than our blood" (line 37). Here she blatantly states what is right according to the religion of Greece is in direct opposition to what the king wants and the laws he has created.
In the stories of Sophocles, "the past suffocates the present" (Soderback 34). Everything in Antigone reflects back to Oedipus Rex and the violations against religion that were perpetrated in that story. Therefore, the same morality that is imbued in the first play echoes in the last of the trilogy. When reading about Antigone, we have to remember that what her father did "collapse all boundaries -- spatial, temporal, and finally moral -- because his crimes are committed as much against the polis as the House" (34). His betrayal of family and state is in the blood of both his sons and both of his daughters. Oedipus's actions were both illegal and immoral which makes them doubly wrong. In Antigone, illegality and immorality are on opposite sides of the spectrum which makes the tragedy all the more so. Antigone says to her sister Ismene, "I will commit a crime / Against the laws of men but you defy / The gods" (lines 68-70). Those that feel they are acting legally are immoral and those who are acting morally are illegal. No one can be right in both senses of the word and so everyone is wrong. This is always a problem when a society's religion and its law differ on any subject. The more virulently opposed a legal system is to the religious beliefs of its people, the more likely it is for there to be serious conflict.
As William Robert writes in Trials: of Antigone and Jesus, "Abiding by this political edict would force Antigone to abandon her ethical and religious duties of filial piety that, according to the divine law of Hades, god of the underworld, require a sister to bury her dead brother" (7). Antigone's concern is that her brother will not have a proper burial, which for the Greeks was the ultimate form of dishonor. Ancient Greece was a highly religious place wherein all matters were attributed to the will of the Gods. Life was either fortunate or miserable passed upon the decisions that the deities made. Religion was not the same as it is today, for most people a secondary set of rules to accompany law. Instead, it was the major driving force behind most action. Indeed, no ship ever dared leave on a journey without sacrificing an animal to the chosen deity and no woman who vowed her virginity to a chosen goddess would be violated, lest the punishment be severe.
When questioned by Creon about her actions, Antigone replies that, "The gods / That rule among the dead have issued no / Such proclamation. A man cannot erase / The laws unwritten" (lines 378-82). The sense of loyalty towards her brother transcends politics and the king's commands. According to Anouilh, "All of this might occur in any country where a dictator sets himself both religion and the people" (9). This is what makes Antigone's story all the more heroic and all the more tragic. Creon's dictum is against the religion of the people and thus unpalatable. Any such action by a tyrannical ruler would elicit the same resentment from his people and quite likely the same rebellion, although on a much larger scale and resulting in far more devastation.
At the moment of her death, Antigone is forced to question her actions as the end dawns upon her. Since her fate is sealed, just as she is sealed within the tomb, she cannot help but wonder if what she did was morally correct or not. This is the similar case of any moral activist who is forced into true sacrifice to right a perceived wrong. "The awful tragedy of that last moment when, deserted by her friends, reproved of men, unheard by the gods, Antigone goes forth alone to die, lies in this, that faith itself fails her. At the last she knows no more if her act has indeed the approval of the gods; only of that inward monitor whom none may silence or overawe can she be sure" (Fogerty x). The gods have abandoned her and she has no choice but to face the end alone.
Antigone's tragedy is one of choice and moral decision. Her death is brought about because of the choices she makes, which are in turn based on her sense of what is right and what is wrong. "She embodies and performs the tragic movement of going too far, of crossing uncrossable borders -- including the 'ultimate border' demarcating life and death" (Robert 6). By the time she comes to ponder whether or not to regret her actions, it is too late. The tragic irony of course is that Creon relents when he sees…