Power and Paradox in Sophocles’ Antigone

  Davies, Malcolm. 2023. “Power and Paradox in Sophocles’ Antigone.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25. https://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:103900182.

Creon is obviously powerful at the start of Sophocles’ play and exercises this power over Antigone, [1] but by the end of the drama he has been reduced to a state of utter impotence. Antigone, by contrast, initially seems powerless against Creon, but her view of life and of the gods, triumphs in the end (only her view triumphs, but not she herself personally, since she has ended her own life). This recalls the paradoxical notion—and I warn that this study contains several paradoxes—that suicide can be an act of empowerment. I once heard the Chinese-American novelist Amy Tan talking in interview of her own grandmother’s suicide, after she had been forced into concubinage, as an act of empowerment. Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus [2] seems so to regard suicide.
What is the precise nature of Creon’s initial power over Antigone? Political, obviously, as newly installed ruler at Thebes. Familial also, perhaps. On quite different grounds from those I shall be exploring, it has already been suggested [3] that Creon is, in effect, a father-substitute for his niece Antigone. The opening of the play’s fourth stasimon is an obvious starting point for this proposition. In its first strophe, Danae is used as a paradigm for Antigone. Both heroines were or are to be imprisoned in a chamber by an older powerful male relative. In Danae’s case, this was her father Acrisius, who is not explicitly named. In Antigone’s case, it is her uncle Creon. The comparison at least suggests that Creon was a substitute father, and this relationship can be fitted into the wider context of the whole story and its logic. Oedipus is now dead, and Creon has replaced him as ruler of Thebes and father-guardian to Antigone. In one sense, he is a more appropriate and satisfactory father-figure than Antigone’s actual begetter, since Oedipus’ relationship to Antigone is both problematic and grotesque. Because of the unintentional acts of incest, Oedipus is simultaneously Antigone’s father and her brother. Also, Antigone is betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon, so that Creon is potentially Antigone’s actual father-in-law, if not father. Thus, when Creon forbids burial of Antigone’s brother Polyneices, and decrees death as punishment for his attempted burier, Creon is in effect asking Antigone to choose between her brother Polyneices and her husband-to-be Haemon.
This dilemma is reminiscent of a folktale which also involves the family circle of father, daughters, and a choice. It is “Lieb wie das Salz” (“Love is like salt” or “[I hold you] as dear as salt”) [4] and involves a father who is a powerful ruler and asks his three daughters to tell him how much they love him. It is one of the folktale sources of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the folktale, the two elder daughters spout predictable platitudes such as “I love you as much as gold, as much as silver, as much as jewels,” obvious symbols of worth. In Lear, although the sycophantic elder sisters do not resort to the language of metals like silver and gold, there is a relic of this original trope in what the second sister to speak says; “I am made of that self [= the same] metal as my sister… / Only she comes too short” (act I, scene I, 71–72); here metal means literally “quality” but also plays on the other meaning of the word. The youngest daughter’s initial reaction, given in an aside, is “what shall Cordelia speak? / Love, and be silent” (62–63). I shall return to this theme of silence later, in direct connection with Antigone. To concentrate for the moment on what Cordelia does finally say, it is the bitterly disappointing “Nothing” (88). [5] “Nothing will come of nothing” her father indignantly replies. The daughter’s paradoxical reply is derived from the folktale’s original “I love you as much as salt,” a seemingly low, humble, worthless mineral. I may add that, like most folktales, those in the group I have cited have a happy ending, when the powerful ruler attends his daughter’s wedding feast and is served unsalted food, which he cannot taste—hence the title for these tales “Lieb wie das Salz.” He thereby learns how indispensable salt is in cooking, and also the rather more important truth that affection cannot be measured in terms of crude flattery. Lear too, in Shakespeare’s play, finally learns this truth. But since this is a tragedy—the greatest tragedy ever written by the way—the learning comes too late, and both Lear and Cordelia die (so do the two wicked sisters, so there is some hope for humanity).
In case you think I have wandered too far from Sophocles and Antigone, let me return to them via a further remark about the folktale group “Love is like Salt.” The immediate sequel is that the powerful ruler, the father, gets angry—like Creon—and expels this youngest daughter from court. In some versions of the tale, his reaction is even more extreme, and—again like Creon—he delivers her up to be killed (though her death does not occur). Here, then, we are already in a narrative sequence quite close to Antigone’s punishment by Creon, not so much as embodied in Sophocles’ familiar version, but in the lost Antigone of Euripides, in which, as we can infer from later mythographers, [6] Creon handed Antigone over to Haemon for him to kill her, but he disobeyed and secretly kept her alive. Note too that we are dealing with a powerful ruler’s existential question, the supposedly “wrong” answer to which can lead to the death of the relevant character.
We have seen that in Shakespeare’s play two elder (and wicked, as in Cinderella, Cupid and Psyche) sisters spout platitudes—in one case implying gold, silver—while Cordelia, the youngest, gives a paradoxical and deeply disappointing answer which angers her father Lear, who banishes her from the kingdom, and she leaves with her husband-to-be (compare Euripides’ Haemon). In Shakespeare’s sources, Cordelia, though expelled, returns to the kingdom, defeats the two wicked elder sisters who have dethroned their father, restores him to power, and when he dies, succeeds him as queen. But her sisters’ sons grow up, rebel, and imprison her, and she commits suicide in prison: [7] see another of Shakespeare’s sources for Lear, Edmund Spenser, Fairy Queen 2 x 32:

“And overcommen, kept in prison long, / Till wearie of that wretched life, herself she hong.”
This suicide in prison is remarkably close to Antigone’s, as I am not the first to point out. [8]
Let me now return decisively to my main theme. I have been dealing with folktale in connection with Sophocles’ Antigone. But, of course, another portion of that play has been associated with folktale, the heroine’s famous and problematic rhesis at 904–912. [9] This immediately precedes the fourth stasimon, which opens, as we have seen, with an implicit suggestion via the Danae paradigm, that Creon is a father-substitute for Antigone. In the rhesis, Antigone is, as it were, giving a paradoxical answer to the question implicitly posed by Creon, who, let us not forget, is present on stage during her rhesis. That implicit question is “whom do you love most: your husband-to-be, or your brother?” Having heard the paradoxical reply, her “father” delivers her up to be killed, as in some versions (see above) of the folktale “Love is like Salt.” I suggest that this consideration is a further argument in favour of the relevant lines’ authenticity.
My stress on the paradoxical may seem to go against most recent defences of authenticity, which emphasise the ancient importance of the blood-family / marriage-family antithesis as a tragic theme and thus normalise (within the ancient context they recreate) Antigone’s preference. But paradox looms large in Herodotus’ analogous tale (3.119) of Intaphernes’ wife, who prefers her brother over her husband when posed the choice by the powerful ruler Darius. [10] Other parallel narratives have been cited. Iliad VI, where Hector successively and climactically encounters the three most important women in his life. [11] Also Euripides Alcestis, where the question is who loves Admetus the most, the answer his wife, who actually goes so far as to die in Admetus’ place. [12] In the general folktale scheme underlying Herodotus’ narrative, [13] three men have been sentenced to death by their powerful ruler for breaking the law. One woman, who is simultaneously the wife, mother, and sister variously of each of the three men is allowed to save the life of one, and she chooses her brother, because her parents are now dead, but she is still young enough to bear another child (scilicet to a new husband!). The powerful ruler is impressed by her reasoning, and various types of clemency are offered in different versions, but some of the men are still put to death. In Herodotus’ particular account, Darius gives Intaphernes’ wife a choice between her husband and brother. It is thus crucial to grasp the fact that an element of paradox is essential to the story-pattern.
Paradox features in a further passage in Sophocles’ tragedy, in fact, a single verse, line 572, another notorious crux. The MSS give this line, ὦ φίλταθ’ Aἷμον, ὥς σ’ ἀτιμάζει πατήρ (“Oh dearest Haemon, how your father dishonours you!”) to Ismene, a fact which means very little, given the ease with which assignations of speakers in our earliest texts of Greek drama could be misrepresented. But if, for the sake of argument, we initially suppose the MSS were correct, [14] and Creon is responding in v. 571 to Ismene’s reference in v. 569 to his killing the “bride” of his son, an interesting consequence follows. By remaining austerely and remorselessly silent about Haemon despite Creon’s jibe at v.571, “I detest the notion of an evil wife for my son,” Antigone silently and to Creon’s face, prefers brother over husband, thus anticipating her more explicitly expressed choice at 904–920. [15] And one thinks—I hope—of Cordelia’s silence near the start of King Lear. And if Ismene speaks line 572, she acts the part, idiomatic in folktale terms, of the sister(s) who by contrast express(es) the predictable and conventional answer [16] to the powerful ruler’s question.
That the gentle Ismene should be compared with folktale’s wicked sisters would definitely be one paradox too far. [17] My argument is rather that structurally she plays the role of the folktale’s two sisters who spout bourgeois and predictable platitudes. At any rate, I now return to Ismene’s sister and end not with an unacceptable paradox, but with a paradox that is only apparent. The passage in question are lines 925–928 of the play, the heroine’s final iambic utterance, and almost her final utterance of all before quitting the stage for the last time. And after all it is introduced by an undeniable paradox in v. 924: τὴν δυσσέβειαν εὐσεβοῦσ’ ἐκτησάμην (“by an act of piety I have incurred the charge of impiety”).
Here are the words in question:

ἀλλ’ εἰ μὲν οὖν τάδ’ ἐστὶν ἐν θεoῖς καλά,
παθόντες ἂν ξυγγνοῖμεν ἡμαρτηκότες.
εἰ δ’ οἵδ’ ἁμαρτάνουσι, μὴ πλείω κακὰ
πάθοιεν ἢ καὶ δρῶσιν ἐκδίκως ἐμέ.
But if these deeds [of Creon] turn out to be fine in the eyes of the gods, then I, in light of my suffering, shall become conscious [18] that I have done wrong. But if these men [19] do wrong, then may they suffer no greater woes than I unjustly do.

On the face of it, Antigone is generously omitting to name and blame Creon specifically by at last conceding that she may have done wrong, if Creon’s actions should be approved by the gods. And furthermore, on this reading, she goes so far as generously to concede that, even if Creon is wrong, he should not suffer any greater ill than she does at his hands. But obviously this paradox is only achieved by a perverse misreading. The failure to name Creon conveys bitterest scorn, and Antigone at the last does not doubt the rightness of her cause. [20] Vauvilliers’ emendation μείω for πλείω is obviously “lame,” as Jebb says, and produces a banal and predictable effect. But editors (e.g. Dawe in his Teubner edition and Lloyd-Jones and Wilson in their OCT) do well to cite it in their app. crit., because this is a case where textual criticism turns into literary criticism. μὴ πλείω is in fact the bitterest curse Antigone could hurl at Creon, and the technique of meiosis here achieves its acme. The chorus do not misunderstand the import of her words, as their immediate response to them makes clear (929–930): the same blasts of the same tempests of the soul still possess her. Her restrained language matches the Antigone of line 572, who keeps her lips sealed while her fiancé is insulted. Only once in the four lines at 925–928 do her true feelings blaze forth, in the single penultimate word ἐκδίκως. The rest is not silence but pent-up passion under the strictest control. If you have not read these four lines, you cannot have the slightest, you cannot have the remotest, understanding of the meaning of the term “classical”: intense emotion and pathos kept under the tightest rein. [21] These four lines represent the apogee of the classical spirit and style in literature.


Asheri, D., A. Lloyd, and A. Corcella 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV with a Contribution by M. Brosius. Ed. O. Murray and A. Moreno. Trans. B. Graziosi, M. Rossetti, C. Dus and V. Cazzato. Oxford.
Bayfield, M. A. ed. 1902. The Antigone of Sophokles. London.
Brown, R. M. 2001. The Art of Suicide. London.
Chambers, E. K. 1930. William Shakespeare a Study of Facts and Problems II. Oxford.
Cropp, M. 1997. “Antigone’s Final Speech (Sophocles, Antigone 891–928).” Greece & Rome 44:137–160.
Davies, M. 1986. “Who Speaks at Sophocles Antigone Line 572?” Prometheus 12:19–24.
———. 2015. “‘All’ and ‘Nothing’: Existential Riddles and Cosmic Pessimism in Ancient Greek Literature.” In Festschrift Gaia: Révue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce antique 18, ed. F. Létoublon, 455–469. Grenoble.
Eriksson, B. 1977. “Alkestis.” In Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Vol. 1, ed. K. Ranke, H. Bausinger, W. Brückner, M. Lüthi, L. Röhrich, and R. Schenda, 315–320. Berlin.
Griffith, M. ed. 1999. Sophocles Antigone. Cambridge.
Hester, D. A. 1971. “Sophocles the Unphilosophical. A Study in the Antigone.Mnemosyne 24:11–59
Hunter, G. K. ed. 1972. King Lear. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London.
Kakridis, J. Th. 1949. Homeric Researches. Lund.
Kannicht, R. ed. 2004. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Vol. 5.1, Euripides. Heidelberg.
Karakantza, E. D. 2022. Antigone. London.
Lloyd-Jones, H. 1994. Sophocles. Antigone. The Women of Trachis. Philoctetes. Oedipus at Colonus. Loeb Classical Library 21. Cambridge, MA.
Lox, H. 2007. “Schönstes im Garten.” In Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Vol. 12, ed. R. W. Brednich, H. Bausinger, W. Brückner, D. Drascek, H. Gerndt, I. Köhler-Zülch, L. Röhrich, and K. Roth, 166–167. Berlin.
Masing, U. 1979. “Bruder eher als Gatten oder Sohn gerettet.” In Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Vol. 2, ed. K. Ranke, H. Bausinger, W. Brückner, M. Lüthi, L. Röhrich, and R. Schenda, 861–864. Berlin.
Muir, K. ed. 1952. King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare. London.
Murnaghan, S. 2001. “Antigone 904–920 and the Institution of Marriage.” In Greek Literature in the Classical Period: The Poetics of Drama in Athens, ed. G. Nagy, 169–178. New York. (= Murnaghan, S. 1987. “Antigone 904–920 and the Institution of Marriage.” American Journal of Philology 107:192–207.)
Neuburg, M. 1990. “Just Like a Woman: Antigone’s ‘Inconsistency’?” Classical Quarterly 40:54–76.
Page, D. L. 1938. Euripides Medea. Oxford.
Ritsos, Y. 1977. The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos. Trans. R. Dalven. Boston.
Schmitt, C. 1996. “Lieb wie das Salz.” In Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Vol. 8, ed. R. W. Brednich, H. Bausinger, W. Brückner, H. Gerndt, L. Röhrich, and K. Roth, 1038–1040. Berlin.
Szlezák, T. A. 1981. “Bemerkungen zur Diskussion um Sophokles Antigone 904–920.” Rheinisches Museum 124:108–141.
Sommerstein, A. 1990–1993. “Soph. Ant. 572 (‘Dearest Haemon’).” Museum Criticum 35–38:71–76.
Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1987–1988. “Sophocles Antigone 904–20: A reading.” Annali dell’ Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli [= AION] 9/10:19–35.
———. 1988. “Le Mythe dans la Tragédie, La Tragédie à travers le Mythe: Sophocle Antigone vv. 944–987.” In Métamorphoses du Mythe en Grèce Antique, ed. C. Calame, 167–183. Geneva. (= Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1989. “The Fourth Stasimon of Sophocles’ Antigone,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 36:141–165.)
Wilson, E. 1961. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. London.


[ back ] 1. On the general story-pattern underlying this study—powerful ruler’s existential question, met by paradoxical, disappointing, often enraging, answer—see Davies 2015. For a very recent and very full treatment of the play and its “Reception,” see Karakantza 2022.
[ back ] 2. Compare Brown 2001:216 on the concept of suicide as a “celebration of self-determination.”
[ back ] 3. For Creon as ambivalent father figure, see especially Sourvinou-Inwood 1988.
[ back ] 4. On this, see Schmitt 1996; for its status as source for King Lear, see Davies 2015:457n6 (on metals see 462n21). Cf. Lox 2007.
[ back ] 5. Folktale has further instances of a divergence between two elder sisters’ affection for obviously and outwardly impressive jewelry and the like, and the youngest sister’s preference for the simple and modest: Cinderella, where the youngest daughter is associated with dust and ashes; Beauty and the Beast, where the youngest daughter asks her father for a rose. Shakespeare’s Cordelia is associated in Act IV Scene 4 with the recuperative powers of nature in contrast to the barren metallic values of her sisters (see e.g. Hunter 1972:278–279).
[ back ] 6. See Kannicht 2004:261–263.
[ back ] 7. See e.g. Muir 1952:xxxiv.
[ back ] 8. See e.g. Chambers 1940:21 on “the cruel feature which Geoffery [of Monmouth]’s story shares with the Greek tale of Antigone.”
[ back ] 9. For reviews of previous opinions see Hester 1971 and Szlezák 1981 (bibliography in pp. 141–142). Of studies since accruing, note especially Sourvinou-Inwood 1987–1988 (with further bibliography in p. 20n2), Cropp 1997, and Neuburg 1990. Most recently Karakantza 2022:76, 90–92 offers a subtle and new defence of the lines.
[ back ] 10. See Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella 2007:506–507 for some folktale analogues.
[ back ] 11. See Kakridis 1949:152–164.
[ back ] 12. See Eriksson 1977.
[ back ] 13. On this, see Masing 1979, in addition to Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella 2007 as cited in n. 10 above.
[ back ] 14. In the whole scene with Antigone, Ismene, and Creon on stage from line 531 onwards, Antigone thus utters no word to Creon; note particularly Davies 1986:19–20, where I should have observed that the kernel of my argument had been anticipated by the American critic Edmund Wilson (1961:261), when he wrote “Antigone forgets her fiancé and kills herself for her brother. Her timid sister…represents the normal feminine point of view.” Karakantza (2022:90) is particularly good on Antigone’s silence: she is “so absorbed in the third scene by her mission to bury her brother—a mission that requires abstinence from ‘the call of life’—that she cannot but erase all sentiments and desires save the burial and its defence.” Compare the (much more prolonged) controversy between the Iliad’s Achilles and Odysseus, where the former’s heroic intransigence encounters the latter’s pragmatic insistence on the basic human need to eat before resuming combat (XIX 145 onwards).
[ back ] 15. The “choice between the blood-tie and the marriage-tie [is] the very choice around which Antigone’s lines 904–920…revolve” (Neuburg 1990:73).
[ back ] 16. Yannis Ritsos’ dramatic monologue Ismene (published in 1972) has an aging Ismene say of her long dead sister “She never wore a piece of jewellery; she even stuck away her engagement ring in a chest.” This is a brilliant modern equivalent of and tribute to the Sophoclean Antigone’s silence, in contrast to her sister as “foil-figure.” Ismene automatically thinks of the features of normal, everyday life: marriage, kids etc., which her much more directly involved betrothed sister is paradoxically prepared to sacrifice. Perhaps I am too much of a cynic, but I cannot detect the “nobleness and dignity” which Karakantza (2022:50) finds in the utterance of Ismene, this very minor character. Sommerstein (1990–1993:76) brilliantly says of Ismene’s intervention “it is the climax, and almost the end of [Ismene’s] role in the play…. But she has had her moment, and she has served her function.” That is, as “foil figure” to the heroine. Note further that it is with Ismene’s utterance here and at v. 569 that “Haemon’s existence…is produced like a rabbit from a hat,” thus preparing us for the second half of the play (Neuburg 1990:73 with n54). It is this plot detail in Ismene’s verse which will have absorbed most of the audience’s attention. “The scene winds down with first Antigone at 560, then Ismene at 572 uttering a final significant line”: Neuburg 1990:55n7. And Ismene’s function exemplifies” typical Sophoclean economy” (cf. Neuburg 1990:74n55). In one single line she reveals her own character, that of Antigone, and Haemon’s impending role.
[ back ] 17. Though one should not overlook the paradoxical effect of Ismene’s attempt to share in Antigone’s responsibility at 531 onwards.
[ back ] 18. Not “I should forgive them [the gods] for what I have suffered, since I have done wrong” (Lloyd-Jones 1994:89, oddly). παθόντες is a euphemism (note the classical restraint again) “having died,” as recognised by, for instance, Griffith ad loc. (“i. e. after I die”) and Bayfield as in n20 below. Also an adunaton (the dead cannot “recognize” their errors), as Bayfield saw. The verb is picked up in v. 928 with a different meaning, applied to the suffering she wishes upon Creon.
[ back ] 19. “Antigone shows signs of feeling that her field of opponents has been enlarged from consisting of Creon merely” (Neuburg 1990:63n28), so the plural here may not be merely “for singular” but include others, e.g. the chorus, who at this moment still support Creon. Regardless, it wonderfully expresses Antigone’s utter isolation, even at the very end.
[ back ] 20. Neuburg 1990:62: “Antigone shows no signs of insecurity or being in doubt.” Bayfield’s unassuming school edition (1902:118 on lines 925–926) got to the heart of the matter when he rendered the passage thus (though “acknowledge,” twice, is preferable to “confess” in his rendering): “but though this (my death) is indeed the pleasure of the gods, I will die ere I confess that I have sinned. Lit. I will confess (only) after dying’ i. e. never.” And he later expands with the remark “Save for one brief exclamation and a few lines of farewell, as she moves away, these are the last words we shall hear Antigone utter. Will she, humbled and meek, murmur a feeble admission that perhaps she was wrong after all? Or, utterly unshaken in her convictions, will she lift up her voice and declare that, though even the gods she served desert her, she will die ere she confess that she was wrong—and that said, call for vengeance on her murderers?” But as Bayfield admits, these are not quite her last words. It is in the classical style not to end with even a restrained climax, and her remaining exclamations release the tension. That is not to deny their intensely moving quality: see Karakantza’s treatment (2022:77).
[ back ] 21. It is interesting to compare, and contrast this “classical” tone of Antigone’s rhesis with Medea’s famous monologue at v.1021 onwards, where, in D.L. Page’s words (1938:xviii), we find “in a short space, …love and hatred, firmness and hesitation, fierce joy and unfathomable sorrow.” This is undeniably impressive, but the effect lies totally on the surface. It is also interesting to find Murnaghan (2001:172), deeming the heroine’s “formulation” in the relevant rhesis “excessively cold”; some might say that of lines 925–928. Murnaghan’s sensitive defence of the disputed passage warns against importing more modern attitudes into our valuation of it, but the same fault might perhaps be detected in her estimate of the tone of Antigone’s “formulation.” For a defence of the disputed lines against such charges as “rationalistic” and inappropriately “ordered” see Neuburg 1990:58.