Antigone’s Law: a Critique of Patriarchal Power Structures
Antigone’s Law: A Critique of Patriarchal Power Structures The heroine Antigone sacrifices her life to defy the patriarchal society in which she is imprisoned. By confronting and resisting Creon’s authoritarian rule, Antigone empowers the oppressed people of Thebes. On the surface, her motives seem clear; she defies civil law in favor of a higher moral law. Antigone declares she acts out of a sense of honor and obedience to the gods, however her words and actions reveal additional motives. Antigone follows her own unique law, which is a mixture of her commitment to divine law and her desire for glory, love, death, and liberation.
Her willingness to challenge authority makes her a heroic figure as she has the courage to challenge women’s traditional role and critique the power structure of her time. First, let us examine Antigone’s commitment to the divine law, which she believes outweighs human law. She tells Creon: “Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere-mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 82). Antigone indicates that Creon’s civil human law has no power to override the laws of the gods.
Considering the story takes place in a very religious city-state, Creon fails to exhibit great leadership skills when he creates a civil law that overrides the laws of the gods. Antigone believes only the gods determine her ultimate fate. By burying Polynices, Antigone will be able to reunite with him in the afterlife. Braunstein notes that Antigone believes her time in death will be much longer than her time on Earth (2012). With this in mind it makes sense that Antigone would risk death and deem her afterlife more valuable than her mortal life. Antigone also has a desire for glory. I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 63). This statement illuminates her motives for burying Polynices, and the fact that she tells Ismene to “shout if from the rooftops… tell the world” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 64), indicates a sense of pride. In burying Polynices, she effectively defies the king and performs a glorious action. Acting on her own terms allows her to make a powerful political statement in the process. She clearly believes the citizens of Thebes will support her and not the king, as evidenced by her statement: “Give me Glory!
What greater glory could I win than to give my own brother decent burial? These citizens would all agree, they would praise me too if their lips weren’t locked in fear” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 84). Glory is important to Antigone, because through glory she obtains a form of immortality only gods enjoy (Braunstein, 2012), such that she believes she will be remembered for her glorious actions long after she has passed. Her willingness to sacrifice herself highlights the importance of glory in Greek culture. Love is another important desire for Antigone. Her love for Polynices is unparalleled.
She states that she would never have taken the ordeal upon herself had it been for one of her children or her husband, because they could potentially be replaced (Sophocles, 1984). However, Antigone reasons that her brother is irreplaceable: “mother and father both lost in the halls of Death, no brother could ever spring to light” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 105), and therefore worthy of her great sacrifice. Antigone’s unique law includes her desire for death. She has a recurrent death wish that culminates in her suicide by hanging. Lacan notes that Antigone, in her decision to defy Creon, consciously seeks death (1960).
Closer analysis of her suicide suggests that there are unconscious forces at play. Her choice takes her beyond the pleasure and reality principles, beyond any reason to encounter pure desire. Freud notes that certain pleasures can be destructive: “the life instincts have so much more contact with our internal perception-emerging as breakers of the peace and constantly producing tensions whose release is felt as pleasure- while the death instincts seem to do their work unobtrusively. The pleasure principle seems to serve as the death instinct” (Freud, 1920, p. 77).
Antigone experiences Freud’s “beyond the pleasure principle”, or the passions of the unconscious. The death drive is a notion wherein the subject constantly aims towards destruction and annihilation of the self. As her pleasures are directed towards her dead brother, Antigone manifests the death instinct (Braunstein, 2012). Antigone first demonstrates feminist logic when she decides to challenge a powerful male establishment: the societal order within which women are subservient to men. Antigone defies the classic hero prototype in many ways. Braunstein notes that in
Ancient Greece, there were very few moments where women acted the part of the male hero. A woman’s role was to mourn the hero after he was killed, not to exhibit masculine characteristics such as defiance, strength, and courage (Braunstein, 2012). Antigone is active, strong, heroic, and determined, whereas her sister Ismene is portrayed as passive, weak, cowardly, and unable to make decisions. Ismene believes she holds an inferior position in relation to the power of the king and the power of men; “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men.
Then too, we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands, so we must submit in this, and things still worse” (Sophocles, 1984, p. 62). Antigone’s actions are heroic as she boldly challenges the traditional role of women, and offers hope of liberation for the oppressed citizens of Thebes. If every citizen were as passive and excessively timid as Ismene, only white men would be in power today. In fact, submission destabilizes society as it prevents us from engaging in constructive debate that culminates in societal evolution.
In contrast, Antigone’s mission does not destabilize society as her civil disobedience does not cause personal injury or harm. Instead, her actions ought to be considered heroic as she has the courage to challenge injustice within society. Creon’s law, on the other hand, could be considered unjust as it clashes with divine law. The penalty for breaking his law is death, an unnecessarily harsh punishment. One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, and selective disobedience may make a state more just.
While Antigone might upset the order of society, her behavior is not truly damaging for the people. In fact, submitting to power is more destabilizing to society in the long run than it is to challenge those in power. References Braunstein, P. (2012, September). Antigone. Lecture conducted from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA. Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle (J. Strachey, Tran. ) New York, NY: Liveright. Lacan, J. (1960). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. New York: Norton. Sophocles, Fagles, R. &Knox, B. (1984). The three Theban plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.