Final essay question: Imagine that Antigone and Creon meet in the Underworld. Write a dialogue in which they argue over which one of them is the hero of Sophocles’ tragedy.
[transcribed with permission of the author, Garrett Ryan]
Antigone: Well, well well. Look what the Furies dragged in.
Creon: Ah, Antigone! Long time, no see. What brings you to Hades? Oh, wait…right…
A: Yeah, thanks a lot. Though (not to rub it in) I am honored in the Underworld for my actions.
C: Must be nice. I saw Minos looking me up and down, and I think I’m Tartarus bait. Oh, did you know that an Athenian, Sophocles, has written a play abouot us?
A: Really? I assume that I’m the heroine—my tragic resolve, uncompromising principles, and the empathy my character is sure to evoke would surely make me the dominant figure in the play.
C: Actually, I’m fairly sure that I’m the hero.
A: What? Despite all my angst and tragic end?
C: Even so. Though your character has a more vivid impact and leaves, I’m sure, a rather more lasting and positive impression on the audience, I am, thanks to my flaws, the true hero. You, my dear, are simply the instrument of my ruin.
A: How so?
C: In Sophocles’ other plays, the hero is defined, regardless of his positive or negative personal qualities, by the untimeliness of his actions. He is, in other words, the right man for the wrong time. His actions, in his current circumstances, are inappropriate. In the end, he realizes he has erred, but the realization comes too late—he is doomed, and all his actions to save himself are too little, to late.
A: So your admission that those Theban elders were right, and that your edict was harmful to the city, was your tragic realization.
C: Exactly, and my efforts to set everything right went tragically awry because my error was irrevocable, and I was trapped in the consequences of my actions.
A: Your failure to save me and your son (whom I’ve married in the Underworld, by the way) was inevitable once you made your decision?
C: Only after I refused to change my mind. When I confronted Tiresias, he told me that disaster could still be averted, but in my hubristic rage I remained stubborn, and so the inevitable chain of consequences was loosed.
A: So the essence of tragic heroism is the conflict between will and fate?
C: Not necessarily. It’s more the struggle of man against circumstance—the failure of a hero to impose his view of the world upon reality.
A: So the fact that I remained steadfast in my ideals (which were, despite your edict, suitable for the occasion) and contested human authority rather than divine will—this disqualifies me as the tragic hero?
C: Your actions were right for the situation. Thus, though your view of the world was tragically at odds with my will, you are no tragic hero. My actions, so skewed from the divine will, and my stubbornness n the face of divine authority make me, incontestably, the hero.
A: But my character is so memorable and, as you said, I do struggle against present circumstances.
C: But your fall was not fated or made inevitable. You chose your end in conscious obedience to divine law. My fate—made inevitable by my tragic flaw, hubris, which set me at odds with divine will—was the unwitting consequence of my folly.
A: Is there a scene where you finally realize that your flaw has caused your ruin?
C: Yes. I mentioned before the interview with the Chorus after I speak with Tiresias. I addition to that scene, there is another, after I realize that I’ve destroyed my family with my pride. I howl in agony, holding dead Haemon in my arms, and admit my fault in all these actions. My pride shattered, I am led away a broken man, and cry that divine will drove me to my ruin.
A: How visceral! Your admission of guilt and comprehension of the nature of your ruin is the denouement of your tragic progression?
C: Indeed. As I am led out, the play ends.
A: What, just out of curiosity, is the title of this play?
A: So the playwright admits that my actions drive the plot, and yet I am not the tragic hero?
C: No, but you are the most memorable character in the tragedy, held up in opposition to my character as a paragon of devotion, even after you have died. It is, however, my struggle, caused by your ruin, that provides, in the sense we’ve discussed, the truly tragic element of the play. Your actions were selfless and pure—you were a martyr for your beliefs, a witness to divine power. I attained the role of hero in my hopeless opposition to the same power you upheld.
A: All right then! You’ve convinced me. As long as I remain the more appealing character, I’ll concede my tragic hero-hood. Ah, here’s Tityus now! Enjoy Tartarus!
C: Catch you on the flip side.