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To Be Radical Is To Rapidly Affect

To be radical is to rapidly affect extreme social or political change; a radical is someone who advocates for drastic reform under a political party or affiliation. Radicalism is motivated by a desire to influence a change in fundamental value systems held by a society. To be actively radical is to inspire revolution, and to be passively radical is to influence social actions out in defiance of normalized practices. Antigone, the ill-fated protagonist of Antigone by Sophocles, although she defies Creon’s orders and goes against the state, is not radical in any sense of the word. Antigone’s actions do not show evidence of radicalism, because she is selfishly motivated and not driven by a greater authority or cause.

Creon declares that anyone who buries the body of Polyneices, the traitor, will be put to death. Antigone feels that this order is outrageous and unjust. Ismene, her logical and rational, sister pleads with Antigone to change her mind, but Antigone can’t bear the thought of leaving her brother to be unmourned and unburied. She decides that the only ethical way to resolve her emotions on the matter is to bury Polyneices with proper funeral rites, even though it it a death sentence. When she does this Creon, under his own authority, condemns her to death. Antigone’s actions were unlawful, dramatic, and rash; her intentions were not revolutionary but merely driven by passion and shortsightedness.

The distinction that must be made to determine Antigone’s radicalness comes when analyzing the law of the state, or political authority, and the laws of morality. Antigone’s actions are motivated by a deep need to remain ethical after her brother’s passing, not to change anything politically or unseat Creon. Though her actions undermine his authority, they don’t inspire a change of his authority. Depriving Polyneices of his funeral rites is undoubtably a crushing blow to Antigone; but being that Creon was head of state and a legitimate ruler of Thebes, he was entirely just and within his realm of power to issue that edict. The citizens of Thebes may empathize with her and wish Creon would change his mind, but they never act on these feelings. Even Ismene, her own blood, tells Antigone that it is foolish to act out. Antigone’s conduct is supported by no one but Haemon. The chorus states:

This girl here was already very insolent

in contravening laws we had proclaimed.

Here she again displays her proud contempt—

having done the act, she now boasts of it. [483]

A person doesn’t necessarily have to be supported to be radical, but the words “insolent” and “contravening” lead the reader to believe that the citizens, in this instance, accept and obey the authority of Creon. This means there is no basis for Antigone to be called radical when she is acting with only her personal interests in mind. Antigone’s actions are at best suicidal; she offers nothing to rectify the situation, no defense of her brother, or positive progressive action against Creon.

Antigone doesn’t even have clear reason as to why she feels so strongly about burying the dead. She herself states:

I’d never have done it for children of my own,

not as their mother, nor for a dead husband lying in decay—

no, not in defiance of the citizens.

What law do I appeal to, claiming this? [907]

Antigone is saying here that she would not commit the same act defying Creon and the state if it were anyone other than her brother Polyneices. She attempts to explain this reasoning in the following lines:

If my husband died, there’d be another one,

and if I were to lose a child of mine

I’d have another with some other man.

But since my father and my mother, too,

are hidden away in Hades’ house,

I’ll never have another living brother.

That was the law I used to honour you. [914]

What this tells the reader is that Antigone would not do this unconditionally; it is not because she unswervingly believes in the laws of the gods. She doesn’t want to transform Thebes to be more fearful and obedient of the laws of the underworld. It is not even Creon to whom she is directly attacking. All Antigone wants to accomplish in this story is to bury her brother – this is not a radical socio-political agenda.

Antigone and Creon are very similar characters in this play, both are stubborn and unwilling to change their point of view on the circumstance. Creon, who despite being just in his initial punishments, let’s passion control his judgement. Creon attacks Antigone’s dignity, hatefully condemns her to be buried alive, and demeans her. For example, when Ismene confronts Creon over the fact that he is going to kill his son’s betrothed, Creon says:

CREON: Don’t speak of her being here. Her life is over.

ISMENE :You’re going to kill your own son’s bride?

CREON: Why not? There are other fields for him to plough.


CREON: I have no desire my son should have an evil wife. [651]

Creon’s actions show that he is dramatic and hard-headed, as well as blatantly misogynistic. The first two are traits that Antigone shares with her Uncle Creon. These traits ultimately cause their downfall, both too stubborn and strong-willed to see reason that would save them. The chorus highlights this when trying to console the grief-stricken Antigone:

To be piously devout shows reverence,

but powerful men, who in their persons

incorporate authority, cannot bear

anyone to break their rules. Hence, you die

because of your own selfish will. [981]

This shows Antigone’s is acting through her own resolve, not out of the interests of anyone but herself. She is not challenging authority to make a change, she is just being difficult. Antigone has no counter-hegemonic goal; she’s not accomplishing anything other than expelling herself from society