Forms of Conflict in Sophocles’ Antigone

Elton Barker

All in the game, yo… All in the game.
David Simon and Ed Burns, The Wire

Culture Wars

For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral,
which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.
Elon Musk, 27 April 2022

Civic discourse has never seemed so polarised. Whether in “Brexit Britain” or the ”Trumperiness” of US society, political debate appears inescapably doomed to endlessly replaying social divisions. The “them and us” discourse has been particularly stratified, and stratifying, on social media platforms where black-box algorithms function to drive strong emotions (as they track individuals’ preferences for advertisers). Their very form – demanding likes, funnelling responses – underpins, replays and drives conflict.

My interest here is not in how information is weaponised: on this, Cathryn Dewald’s classic 1987 article tracing Herodotus’ inquiring path through competing accounts (logoi) would repay consideration.[1] Rather, like the recent study by Caroline Levine, I am interested in form as both an aesthetic and political means of structuring power.[2]

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

In the fallout from 9/11, I argued that Athenian tragedy could be regarded as the realisation of an especially politically charged kind of form, the formal contest of words, or agon, which takes centre stage in the post-Troy story tragedies of Ajax and Hecuba.[3] Like Helen Morales, I wonder now whether Sophocles’ Antigone (c.441 BC) is a good play to think with for our present-day culture wars.[4] For the Athenians, the popularity of the myth of the Seven against Thebes was such that, on the eve of the Battle of Plataea (479 BC), they could claim, according to Herodotus (9.27.3), pride of place in battle by invoking their role in burying the dead. In Antigone, however, Sophocles homes in on Polyneices’ burial, and his alone. The change, not unlike that we see in the opening take on the Troy story in Homer’s Iliad, transforms the story from an external threat to the threat within. This play’s timeless quality was the subject of an important study by George Steiner:

Whenever, wherever, in the western legacy, we have found ourselves engaged in the confrontation of justice and of law…, whenever, wherever, the hungry dreams of the young have collided with the ‘realism’ of the ageing, we have found ourselves turning to words, images, sinews of argument… out of the grammar of Antigone and of Creon.[5]

For Aristotle though, it was another Theban play that encapsulated the tragedy of human existence (Poetics 1453b3-7):

A plot should be so constituted that even without seeing a performance the person who hears the events that take place shivers and feels pity at what happens – as anyone would who heard the story of Oedipus.

By placing emphasis on the moral agent’s battle against a “necessary and probable” sequence of events, Aristotle recuperates tragedy’s ethical dimension after its banishment from Plato’s Republic. For the Antigone as an example we must instead turn to Hegel whose Philosophy of Religion uses it to argue for the importance of conflict in tragedy: 

Blind destiny is something unsatisfying. In these Tragedies justice is grasped by thought. The collision between the two highest moral powers is set forth in a plastic fashion in that supreme and absolute example of tragedy, Antigone. In this case, family love, what is holy, what belongs to the inner life and to inner feeling, and which because of this is also called the law of the nether gods, comes into collision with the law of the State. Creon is not a tyrant, but really a moral power; Creon is not in the wrong; he maintains that the law of the State, the authority of government, is to be held in respect, and that punishment follows the infraction of the law… Both are recognised as having a value of their own in the untroubled course of morality. Here they both have their own validity, but a validity which is equalised. It is only the one-sidedness in their claims which justice comes forward to oppose.

This passage raises three key ideas I want to explore here. First, conflict. As we’ll see, conflict dominates the Antigone; Hegel was not wrong about that. Indeed, his nuanced understanding of it — that collision comes about because of “the one-sidedness in their claims” — is frequently overlooked in subsequent criticism. Nevertheless, and this is my second point, his argument is framed by claims of necessity: “and which because of this”; “Creon is not a tyrant, but really a moral power”. This framing marks an attempt, no less than Aristotle’s, to control tragedy (“justice is grasped by thought”); his introductory phrase may even recall Aristotle’s Oedipodal fixation (“Blind destiny is something unsatisfying”). Third, the way Hegel engages with the play reveals his own brand of philosophy, where thesis meets antithesis, leading to synthesis (“a validity which is equalised”). As again we’ll see, the play frequently exposes the grounds (the prejudices) on which we form our opinions.

In what follows I’ll attempt to pick away at how this tragedy uses the language of myth to anatomize political conflict. My argument will be that the play, through its very form, represents and reproduces this internal conflict; it demands, continually, that we take sides. At the same time, its agonistic form implicates us in making judgement.

Alexandria King (Antigone) and Ava McCoy (Ismene) in Antigone (Classical Theater of Harlem, New York, 2018).

Us vs Them

Because Greece is the country of Sophocles, who taught us with his Antigone
that there are moments in which the supreme law is justice.
Alexis Tsipras, 9 July 2015[6]

Direct confrontation between Antigone and Creon occurs near the centre of the play:

Creon: An enemy is never a friend (φίλος), even after death.
Antigone: My nature is to join in not enmity (συνέχθειν) but loving (συμφιλεῖν). (522-3)

Not only does the opposition seem clear enough – Antigone answers Creon’s definition of friendship as based on conduct towards the city by (re)asserting natural ties of philiā; these two lines appear to encapsulate their respective positions. For Ruby Blondell, for example, this stichomythic debate “brings into focus the clash between two opposing views of philia“.[7] To seek “a fuller development of these views” she turns to the characters’ opening scenes, “where they are presented in sequence”. Let us in turn do the same to consider the radically different forms those introductory statements take.

As soon as he walks on stage, Creon lays down the law:

There is no way of learning about a man’s
spirit, mind and judgement, until
he has been worn in by the offices and laws (νόμοι).
Yes, to me anyone who while guiding the whole city
fails to set his hand to the best counsels,
but out of fear holds his tongue,
seems now and has always seemed (νῦν τε καὶ πάλαι) the worst of men.
And he who values a dear one (φίλος)
over his country, I say he is nothing.
For myself, let Zeus who sees everything be witness,
I would not keep silent if I saw ruin
advance on the citizens instead of security,
nor would I ever count as a friend (φίλος)
an enemy to my country, knowing that
this is the ship on which we sail and only while
it sails straight can we make our friends. (175–90)

As an opening gambit, this speech, in which Creon parades his commitment to the polis to the Chorus of (male) Theban elders, is impeachable. Friendship is not so much made subordinate to the well-being of the city as able to exist only because of it. To ram home his point, Creon draws on the metaphor of the state as a ship, which he is guiding to port after the crisis of civil war. If this strikes us as standard political rhetoric – a now and always (νῦν τε καὶ πάλαι) – we would not be wrong: these very lines are quoted chapter and verse by Demosthenes (On the False Embassy 19.246–8), who deploys them to accuse his rival, Aeschines, of putting philiā with Philip of Macedon above duty to Athens. You’re either with us – Demosthenes, Creon (/Sophocles), Athens – or against us.

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

Our introduction to Antigone is quite different, and, as with Creon, the staging is noteworthy. Along with her sister, Ismene, she opens the play and sets the scene. For her, philiā matters more than anything: “Dear to him I’ll lie with him who is dear” (φίλη φίλου, 72). Her dialogue with her sister represents a performance of philiā.

Less clear is how to read her commitment. On the one hand, we could read her devotion to her brother and her intention to bury him positively. Take the first words of the play:

My very own sister in common, dear Ismene,
do you know that Zeus – ah, which of the evils from Oedipus
is he not fulfilling while we still live?

ὦ κοινὸν αὐτάδελφον ᾿Ισμήνης κάρα,
ἆρ᾿ οἶσθ᾿ ὅ τι Ζεὺς τῶν ἀπ᾿ Οἰδίπου κακῶν
ὁποῖον οὐχὶ νῷν ἔτι ζώσαιν τελεῖ; (1–3)

“The sentence begins as if it were to be, ἆρ᾿ οἶσθ᾿ ὅ τι Ζεὺς οὐ τελεῖ,” comments Richard Jebb.[8] The break in syntax has the effect of stressing that the family’s troubles derive from Oedipus rather than Jocasta, the latter being the target of both Homer’s Odyssey and Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Where our play foregrounds male agency in the incest narrative, its burial plot will star a woman. As Tyrrell and Bennett argue, by standing up to the Theban denial of burial, Antigone takes on the role of an Athenian culture hero.[9]

Yet Antigone’s opening words repay closer attention. I’ve already noted the difficult syntax; a literal translation reads like a Housman parody: “O my very own sister’s shared, common head of Ismene…” There’s a lot of redundancy here – κοινόν, αὐτά, κάρα – and that redundancy is meaningful. Mention of κοινόν immediately raises the question of common cause, but, as Steiner notes,[10] κοινόν can never be innocent in the context of this family: their common birth is all con-fused, they are both sisters and children of Oedipus. This duality is played out in Antigone’s appeal to her sister, which uses the dual form: νῷν ἔτι ζώσαιν (“we two still alive”). Her very grammar represents and performs her conception of the relationship. As one. For now.

Particularly interesting is the word αὐτάδελφος. The aut– prefix marks Antigone’s relationship to her sister as intense, turned in on itself, not merely adelphos but autadelphos. It is also a rare word, one that directly calls back to Aeschylus’ version of the fratricide. In that play the Chorus use it of… Eteocles! “Do you want to harvest your own brother’s blood (αὐτάδελφον αἷμα)?,” they ask, at the very moment when Eteocles exits to kill and be killed by his brother (718). Hearing this word right at the start of Sophocles’ play, when we are most likely to have Aeschylus’ version in mind, should make us pause. Throughout our play, Antigone focuses exclusively on one brother, Polyneices. But her very first words recall Eteocles, the hero and defender of his polis in Aeschylus. What about him? What does she think of her other brother?

Antigone by the body of Polyneices, Benjamin Constant, 1868 (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France).

There’s a politics to Antigone’s investment in Polyneices. Like an ideal soldier-citizen, she won’t betray (προδοῦσ, 46) him, as she in turn seeks a beautiful death (καλὸν θανεῖν, 72; καλῶς θανεῖν, 97). By dissenting, Ismene draws attention to this political dimension and makes a question of it: “You think to bury him, when it is ἀπόρρητον πόλει?” (44). How should we translate this dative? Is it forbidden by the city (the strong, Creon version), or does the emphasis fall on the agent, with the city tagged on as an indirect object – as in “it’s forbidden for (or in/to) the city” – marking a separation between the two? However we do, Ismene’s hesitation drives Antigone away, who now considers her sister an enemy (93–4). It’s Ismene who uses the dual now (“the pair of us left”, νὼ λελειμμένα, 58), Antigone never again. Thus, “while embracing an action that expresses loyalty to kin,” Michella Zerba writes, “Antigone simultaneously creates a rift between herself and the only other surviving member of her family… Consequently, the denigration of kin, which many attribute to the civic-minded Creon, is already played out in Antigone’s initial confrontation with her sister.”[11]

That is not all. As Antigone attempts to restrict the argument to one brother, her words and arguments resonate with a wider significance of a shared tradition that raises troubling questions for the audience. At one level, we should ask: to what extent should we be recalling the Seven against Thebes as we watch Antigone? Or how much, like Antigone, should we be ignoring Eteocles? At another, the very idea of intertextuality is suggestive of the complex ties intricately binding this family. Lurking behind the positions the characters adopt, in the very language they use to describe (and justify) themselves, lies the myth of Oedipus’ incestuous union. Finally, there’s an important formal aspect to this. As a dialogue, this introductory scene poses and frames a series of questions: What kind of interaction is going on? Are relations friendly or antagonistic? Which character do we side with? Do these impressions last or evolve or radically shift? The ground for conflict is established from the outset.

What then of Creon’s opening pitch? Immediately after his fine-sounding doctrine for governance comes the rub:

With such laws (νόμοι) I’ll make this city great.
And now as brothers (ἀδελφά) of these I’ve made a proclamation (κηρύξας)
to the citizens about the sons of Oedipus. (191–3)

With this, Creon introduces his decree: Polyneices is to be denied burial. But we have already heard about the decree in the play’s opening scene; we see its impact before we learn of the reasoning for it. Moreover, there’s a critical distinction between his decree (a specific application of the laws) and the general principles he had praised. For sure, Creon tries to establish a seamless connection between them by claiming his proclamation as “brothers” to the laws. Yet, in the very act of doing so, familial bonds bleed into the language he uses, exposing his own position – he’s the brother of Oedipus, the uncle of that man’s sons. There’s no escaping one’s personal stake, even (especially) as one insists on adhering to the public good. 

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

When Antigone formally responds to Creon’s proclamation, she introduces a further term, nomima, that is somehow related to, but critically differentiated from, nomos and especially Creon’s kērugma:

It wasn’t Zeus who made this proclamation (κηρύξας),
nor was it Justice who lives with the gods below
who established such laws (νόμοι) among men.
Nor did I think that your proclamations (κηρύγματα) were so
strong that you, a mortal, could outrun the
unwritten and unfailing ordinances (νόμιμα) of the gods. (450–5)

Trying to make sense of these different terms and their relation to each other is a struggle, not least because, as Martin Ostwald, notes, “unlike νόμος with its frequent appearances, νόμιμα occurs only once in the play”.[12] To make Antigone’s argument meaningful, then, not only requires that we argue but risks exposing the underlying premises of our argumentation. Witness the language of necessity that characterises Ostwald’s dense reasoning at this point:  “Evidently, her Zeus is not the Zeus of the city but, presumably, the Zeus of the family”; “It rather seems that the issue between Creon and Antigone is meant to be seen as a conflict between the obligation to the state as embodied in its nomos… and the obligation incumbent upon families (nomima) to fulfil certain religious duties toward their members”; “as the constitutional representative of the state Creon has no choice but to enforce the nomos prohibiting the burial of a traitor in Theban soil; as a sister Antigone has no choice but to bury her brother” – all replaying a Hegelian division “in which two equally strong and valid obligations are set on a collision course”.[13]

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

In large part the work scholars do to police the conflict derives from the form of the play, where structural opposition is strikingly absent. Three hundred lines separate Creon’s proclamation and Antigone’s response. Instead critics talk about their expositions as being “structurally analogous“.[14] We have to get involved in the conflict to realise it.

Even when we finally get to the formal debate scene (agōn) between the two, Sophocles has Creon address the Chorus (“Why, you know that minds too stubborn are those most apt to fall”), not Antigone (473–85). Creon won’t even deign to speak to “this girl”, lest she becomes the man and takes power (kratos). Only in its vicious line-by-line fallout do Creon and Antigone finally come together. And even (especially) here, they talk at cross-purposes:

C: Wasn’t he your blood who died against him?
A: The same blood from one mother, the same father.
C: Then why offer honour that is impious to him?
A: The dead corpse will not bear witness to that.
C: Yes, if you honour him equally to one impious.
A: He was no slave, but my brother who died.
C: Razing this land; the other stood against him for it.
A: Nevertheless, Hades demands these laws.
C: But the good man is not equal to the bad in his lot.
A: Who knows if this is proper to those below? (512–21)

“This celebrated dialogue,” Steiner writes, “is, in fact, a dialogue des sourds. No meaningful communication takes place.”[15]  Rather there’s a gap between each response — a gap which each audience member must negotiate for themselves. Mind the gap.

This is the context for that couplet with which we started:

Creon: An enemy is never a friend (φίλος), even after death.
Antigone: My nature is to join in not enmity (συνέχθειν) but loving (συμφιλεῖν). (522-3)

Here Creon and Antigone seem to articulate (and encapsulate) a binary opposition between the polis and philiā. Yet even its precise formulation should make us question that assertion: for both verbs that Antigone deploys – συνέχθειν / συμφιλεῖν – are unique. What to make of them? Is this an attack on Creon’s polarising vocabulary? Or a marker of her own excessive attachment to philiā?

These rhetorical claims are left unstated, because of the play’s form and its play in form, which critically defers and disrupts the conflict. This brief exchange between Antigone and Creon is as direct a head-to-head between the two (and all they stand for) that we get in the tragedy. For, as the Chorus herald (526), Ismene is coming…

Elton Barker is Professor of Greek Literature and Culture at The Open University. He has written widely on epic, historiography and tragedy, including on cross-genre representations of the contest of words (Entering the Agon, Oxford UP, 2009). With Joel Christensen he has published A Beginner’s Guide to Homer (OneWorld, London, 2013) and a monograph on Homer’s Thebes (Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard UP, Cambridge MA, 2020). Since 2008 he has been developing digital methods and annotation tools for the study of historical geography: in 2019 he co-founded the Pelagios Network Association for linking online resources about places.

The second part of this article can be read here.


1 C. Dewald, “Narrative surface and authorial voice in Herodotus’ Histories,” Arethusa 20 (1987) 147–80, which can be read here; in 2020, Dewald revisited her ideas in this video for the Herodotus Helpline.
2 C. Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton UP, 2019), of which a review can be read here.
3 See my Entering the Agon: Dissent and Authoritty in Homer, Historiography and Tragedy (Oxford UP, 2009), which can be partially explored here.
4 See H. Morales, Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths (Bold Type Books, New York, 2020), reviewed here.
5 G. Steiner, Antigones: The Antigone Myth in Western Literature, Art, and Thought (Oxford UP, 1984) 138.
6 Quoted by Johanna Hanink in her essay “Ode on a Grecian Crisis“, published in July 2015 on the Classics blog Eidolon.
7 M.W. Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (Cambridge UP, 1989) 107, partially readable here.
8 1888 ad loc., which can be read here.
9 W.B. Tyrrell and L.J. Bennett, Recapturing Sophocles Antigone (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 1998) 1, readable here.
10 As n.5, 208
11 M. Zerba, Tragedy and Theory: The Problem of Conflict Since Aristotle  (Princeton UP, 1998) 52.
12 M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1986) 154.
13 Ibid., 153; 157; 160; 160.
14 See, for instance, T.C.W. Oudemans and A.P.M.H. Lardinois, Tragic Ambiguity: Anthropology, Philosophy and Sophocles’ Antigone (Brill, Leiden, 1987) 165 and 175.
15 As n.5, 247.