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Psychoanalytic Study Of Antigone English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4413 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This study investigates the psychoanalytic functioning of Sophocles’s ” Antigone” as against the Modern Antigone by German dramatis Anouilh.It will help us in understanding the reasons and impulses under which she challenges the rigid authoritarian rule and fulfilled the religious and filial duty of giving a proper decent burial to her deceased brother Polynices.She disobeys Creon and consequently sacrifices her life for this act of bravery.

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Many writers have been interested in the theme of loyalty and betrayal, from ancient Sophocles and his master piece “Antigone”, to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” , to Carmen Taffola’s “Marked” and finally Josephina Niggli’s “The Ring of General Macias”. Each one of the mentioned works relates to different aspects of the stated theme. Yet, the most critical question comes when loyalty and betrayal are accompanied with issues of life and death. At this point, the real question is dropped: “Is pride or love a deadly sin to cause the downfall of a king and the loss of the beloved ones?

Background Information about the Author and Myth:

Sophocles, the son of Sophillus was born in Attica in 490 BC. Some historians say that his date of birth was a couple of years before the great Battle of Marathon. The truth to be told that his date of birth is rather unclear, yet most studies imply that he was born in 496/497.

Sophocles wrote more than a hundred and twenty plays throughout his life. This is an implausible achievement. Unfortunately, only seven of his plays including his Theban plays have survived time. The Theban plays include Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.

Throughout the Greek history of drama, Sophocles was one of the most prominent playwrights ever excluding Aeschylus and Euripides, who came rather later. His career as a playwright came to life after he won his first prize in the Dionysian theatre competition over Aeschylus. Right after his amazing victory, he became one of the important figures in ancient Athens as well as in theatre. Throughout fifty outstanding years, Sophocles entered 30 competitions winning twenty four out of them and never taking less than second. There is no doubt that he is given credit for adding a third character on stage, which will shape in the near future the history of theatre. In addition to that, Sophocles had a great sense of creativity when it came to developing his characters and this will be discussed later on.


Historical and Religious Importance of Burial in Ancient Greece


In Sophocles’ play Antigone, the main reason behind the rising conflict is the right to bury Polyneices who had betrayed his country, escaped from exile and brought fire and death to his own people. Sophocles has articulated the importance of the burial, thus, giving us a glimpse into their beliefs back then.

The ancient Greeks used to believe that if a soul was left unburied for a long time it wouldn’t be able to cross over and find peace. Erwin Rohde the author of Psyche states that in wartime, “The duty that the survivors owe their dead is to bury the bodies in customary manner. Religious requirements, however, go beyond the law.” This is exactly what is depicted in Antigone. Creon is punished by the gods because he left Polyneices’ body unburied. Antigone for example says that, “There is no guilt in reverence to the dead (scene two- 106) Nevertheless, there are honors due all the dead. (Scene two 113)

Sophocles introduces his play with no further hesitation. The opening scene depicts Antigone and Ismene at Thebe’s city gates, right in the middle of the battlefield. Antigone was confiding with Ismene. She decided to bury her brother regardless to the death penalty. All the events take place in Thebes, a prominent city in ancient Greece. Sophocles creates a dense vague mood since Antigone and her sister have lost two brothers and their parents due to the curse on Oedipus. This scent of death makes the reader wonder if the play will end with death as well. And as mentioned before, the time frame makes loyalty and betrayal a key issue. Antigone was waiting to see if Ismene would be loyal to her family, the law of the Gods or would rather abide by Creon’s law.



Antigone, the oldest daughter of Oedipus has decided to bury her brother Polyneices regardless to Creon’s decree and the death penalty. She heads to the field, performs the burial rituals, and sprinkles dust on his body. Later on, she is captured and faces Creon who is ready to spill her blood to preserve his honor. She is then taken to a stone grave to rest there until her death. Haimon, the king’s son enters and tries to plead Antigone’s case. His father is determined not to listen and threatens to kill her in front of him. Teiresas, the blind prophet enters and tells Creon that the Gods are furious. He and Creon head to the field and bury Polyneices. Unfortunately, when it was time to free Antigone, the latter has hung herself using her bed sheets. Devastated Haimon kills himself and joins Antigone in death. Eurydice, the queen hears the distressing news, kills herself and damns Creon. The king is left alone crammed with feelings of regret and remorse. The chorus states that the gods vigorously punish the proud, yet punishment brings wisdom.



She is the eldest daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. Her name in Greek means “the one who goes against”. And it is true that her name really fits her, for she has never learned to yield, just like her father. She is determined to bury Polyneices regardless to whether he is considered a traitor or not. “There is no guilt in reverence to the dead (scene two- 106).”Antigone believes that if she had left her brother like that she would have suffered for eternity. She is as motherly and sisterly as any person could be, “This death of mine is no importance, but if I had left my brother lying in death unburied I should have suffered now I don’t. (scene 1 70-73) Yet, when Ismene reacts with disapproval to her request, she is cold, bitter and distant. Also, her determination is remarkable, “Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way.” Her words show great courage, tenacity, and foolishness at the same time since she knows that getting caught will get her killed. She speaks to Creon in a way no one would dares to, as an equal. And above all, she was ready to plead her case fearlessly regardless to her previously determined fate. And so, her bravery flows into the readers pushing them to keep on going, to follow up every twist and turn. Every scene foreshadows her death. Again when she is lead to her grave, she argues, pleading her case. She is not scared of facing death, yet she is shaken by the choragus’ bitter words.

Psychoanalytic study of Antigone

In formulating his theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud first noticed a parallel between a theme in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the attitudes children commonly hold toward their parents-intense love for the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of and hostility toward the parent of the same sex. Freud thus interpreted Oedipus’ unwitting perpetration of patricide and mother-incest as the fulfillment of the unconscious wish among all boys to replace their fathers as the love-objects of their mothers.[1] One of Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone, also inspired a Sophoclean play which bears her name, seemingly a tale of a young woman’s defiance of civil law in favor of a higher moral law. As we will see, however, the events of Antigone’s life, including her purportedly moral burial of her brother, Polyneices, represent normal stages of the evolution of the female psyche.

The play opens with conversation between Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of Oedipus, regarding the dishonorable mortuary treatment of their recently deceased brother, Polyneices. Antigone decides to perform for Polyneices proper burial rites and in so doing violate a prohibition of Creon, the king of Thebes. Around this premise the plot unfolds, resulting ultimately in the suicides of Antigone and Creon’s wife and son. Though Antigone is superficially a moralizing play, as it implicitly advises its audience to adhere to internal rather than imposed morals, its true psychological significance emerges only in the context of the entire Oedipus legend. Only upon analyzing the events of Antigone’s life which preceded the action of Antigone will her moral obstinacy become comprehensible.

Early in her life Antigone suffered the loss of her mother and the utter debilitation of her father. As the only willing candidate, she tended to her blind father for the many years before his death. Her sexual inexperience, to which the dialogue of Antigone often refers, seemed unavoidable, as she was occupied constantly by the needs of her father. Antigone’s careful treatment of her father, however, admits of a symbolic interpretation which sheds light upon the subsequent events of her life.

According to Freud, as the mother is the first love-object of the little boy, the father is the first love-object of the little girl.[2] The little girl is envious of the affection which the mother displays toward the father and wishes that instead she were the one to whom the father looked for care. Perhaps then, Oedipus, the ostensible obstacle to Antigone’s love life, in reality composed the whole of Antigone’s love life; Antigone had in fact succeeded in replacing her mother as the caretaker of her father, thereby fulfilling the primary sexual wish of the female unconscious.

One may here object that Antigone was forced to assume the role of Oedipus’ caretaker by external circumstance-that Antigone’s situation was a product of the inadvertent misdeeds of Oedipus, his subsequent self-blinding, and the suicide of Jocasta, in all of which Antigone played no part. This apparent predetermination of the course of Antigone’s life, however, provides no contradiction to our assertion that her tending to Oedipus reflects the little girl’s wish to replace the mother. Oedipus’ crimes were similarly fated, yet Freud devised an ingenious explanation for the seeming predetermination: Oedipus’ ignorance of his misdeeds represents the unconscious nature of the little boy’s desires; the little boy has an inherent, perhaps fated tendency, as did Oedipus, to desire the position of the father. And as the course of Antigone’s life, like that of Oedipus, represents the realization of unconscious wishes, it is unreasonable that the fulfillment of those wishes could be attained through conscious action.

At the outset of Antigone, her father now dead, Antigone devotes herself to the proscribed burial of her recently deceased brother, Polyneices. Though a manifestly moral endeavor, her wish to bury her brother also was rooted in primitive unconscious drives.

Freud observed that the little girl’s primary love for the father, invariably fruitless, is often deflected upon a brother: “A little girl finds in her older brother a substitute for her father, who no longer acts towards her with the same affection as in former years.”[3] Thus the irrational zeal with which Antigone pursued the burial of Polyneices represents not familial but sexual love, and Creon’s edict prohibiting the burial of Polyneices truly symbolized the societal proscription of sibling-incest. Though this seems a valid psychoanalytic inference, one may question the connection between burial and sexual love, which to this point remains obscure.

In Greek mythology-and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is but a dramatization of the Oedipus myth-Earth was an animate being, Gaia. Hence when Ouranos stuffed his newborn children into the Earth, he was literally returning them to the womb of their mother, Gaia; he was essentially undoing their births. Antigone’s wish to bury Polyneices in the Earth may accordingly be considered a symbolic wish to envelop him in a womb, the sexual nature of which is made clear by the psychology of Otto Rank.

After being seized by a sentry at the site of Polyneices’ burial, Antigone is forced to discuss with Creon the nature of her crime. Though he affords her ample opportunities to express remorse or even confusion regarding the illegality of her deed, she obdurately asserts her guilt and, unfearing, even embraces the imminent punishment; she proclaims even that her “husband is to be the Lord of Death.” Creon then sentences Antigone to be immured in a cave but is soon persuaded by Teiresias to liberate her, though not before she hangs herself. The somewhat mysterious suicides of Haemon, Antigone’s prospective husband, and Eurydice, Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife, follow soon thereafter, leaving only Creon to regret his tragic decision.

As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Antigone does not fear but anxiously awaits death. But what compels her to seek death? A closer analysis of her suicide elucidates the unconscious forces at play.

Throughout mythology and dreams, the cave frequently symbolizes the womb. Therefore hanging in a cave, as Antigone does, symbolizes inhabiting a womb, in which one hangs by the umbilical cord. So perhaps Antigone’s evident wish for death was in fact a wish for a pre-birth state, a desire encompassed in Thanatos, Freud’s death instinct.

Freud supposed that human life was motivated by two fundamental drives: Eros, the life instinct, and Thanatos, the death instinct. While Eros seeks proliferation and activity, Thanatos seeks homeostasis and inactivity; the Death instinct strives toward nonexistence, the state preceding birth. But why was Antigone so anxious to meet death, or rather return to pre-birth? Why was her life governed by Thanatos? Could returning to her mother’s womb satisfy either her primary love for her father or her secondary love for Polyneices, her father-substitute?

Gestation, the period of primal pleasure, is the predecessor to coitus. Hence by returning to the symbolic womb of her mother in which she, Polyneices, and Oedipus were conceived, she at last achieves the intimate union with Oedipus and Polyneices which she had so long desired. Antigone unconsciously experiences a pleasure with her father and brother beyond that of sexual intercourse, for gestation is the primary experience from which sex derives its secondary pleasurable character.

The discovery of Antigone’s dead body is followed immediately by the suicides of Haemon and Eurydice. Though these subsequent deaths contribute to the play’s tragic effect, they seem utterly impulsive, perhaps even gratuitous. Are these deaths affective simply because of their shocking nature or do they symbolically enhance the scene of Antigone’s suicide?

In answer, first we are tempted to pursue the obvious parallels between Haemon and Polyneices; they were both sons of kings, and Haemon loved Antigone as she loved Polyneices. Thus the death of Haemon, a practical Polyneices-surrogate, beside Antigone incarnates her unconscious reunification with her brother, the Oedipus-surrogate. Similarly, Eurydice and Jocasta are analogous characters; both women were the wives of kings, and Eurydice birthed Haemon, the Polyneices-substitute. Consequently Eurydice’s suicide beside Haemon and Antigone emphasizes the cave’s symbolic significance as Jocasta’s womb.

Although we have outlined already how the pleasures of pre-birth and coitus are associated with burial and death, there remains a deeper, more abstract meaning of the play’s series of deaths. Among the men in Antigone’s life, Oedipus is the first to expire, her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles second, and Haemon the last. This sequence is not arbitrary; each successive death represents a phase of female sexuality. A girl’s love is directed first toward her father, then displaced upon familial father-surrogates, such as brothers, and finally deflected upon a seemingly unrelated love-object, such as Haemon. The three male deaths in Antigonethen signify the extinction of various stages of female sexuality, the love-object of each a substitute for that of the preceding stage. Antigone, however, hangs herself before displacing her sexual love onto an unrelated object, such as Haemon; any gratification arising from such a relationship, she understands unconsciously, would be merely substitutive and she opts instead for the primal pleasure of the symbolic womb.

One may now object that the correspondence here posited between the events of Antigone’s life and the phases of female sexuality is perhaps applicable only to neurotics if not specious altogether. To this we can respond only that Freud took the same liberty-that of generalizing phenomena among neurotics to healthy individuals-in his interpretation of the Oedipus myth. Furthermore, this essay proposes no amendments of or supplements to psychoanalytic sexual theory; it constitutes only a mythological confirmation of the psychoanalytic theory of female sexuality Freud first established through empirical observation.

“Antigone” literally means “against birth,” or “contrary birth,” which most have interpreted to indicate Antigone’s status as the product of incest, a perverse or “contrary” union.. However, a literal interpretation of “against birth” is perhaps more significant. Antigone unconsciously wished to return to the womb, to pre-birth; she truly wished to undo her birth throughout the action ofAntigone. Antigone embodies the human predicament: the forced renunciation of primary and secondary love-objects, the subsequent substitute-gratifications, the perpetual conflict between social demands and instinctual aims, and the clash between the two irresolvable fundamental drives-one seeking life and pleasure, the other wishing to undo life altogether.

Modern Antigone By Jean Anouilh:

German Perspective/Background:

In 1943, six members of the White Rose movement at the Munich University were executed after spreading anti-Nazi leaflets during the height of the Third Reich regime.

Visitors to the Munich University might be surprised at what appears to be torn pieces of paper scattered on the forecourt pavers. On closer examination, this ‘litter’ is revealed to be ceramic tiles, scrap-shaped and printed with slogans.

This ‘litter’ is a moving tribute to the students who were executed for taking part in the White Rose movement, a short-lived student protest against Hitler and the Third Reich in 1942. Inside the university, a bas-relief of the group members is usually decorated daily with fresh flowers. A small museum at the university tells their story. The following details are taken from information supplied by the museum.

The Origin of the White Rose Movement

Two childhood friends, Christoph Probst and Alexander Schmorell chose to study medicine at Munich University. There, they became friends with Willi Graf and brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl.

Like many other students, they were critical of Hitler’s regime and the war, and decided to call for passive resistance. In doing so, they acted contrary to their middle class upbringing. They found an ally in one of their lecturers, Professor Kurt Huber. With Huber, they later began to surreptitiously compose and distribute anti-government leaflets.

If this today sounds rather minimal, it must be remembered that the Munich University Dean wore a Nazi uniform and the Hitler Youth Movement was strong within the student body. Students and staff at this university eagerly participated in the burning of books that the Nazis determined to be inappropriate. The university ideal of freedom and learning was subverted to such an extent that the university library displayed a sign forbidding the entry of Jews.

Consequently, the group’s activities constituted treason and were punishable by death. Hans Scholl and Willi Graf had already been taken into Gestapo custody once in 1938 for membership of a prohibited youth group.

Activities of the White Rose Group

As medical students, members of the group who were sent to the front and were horrified at the carnage. They also heard from friends about mass murders in Poland and Russia. With the limited means at their disposal, they decided to take action. In June 1942, they wrote, duplicated and distributed 4 “Leaflets of the White Rose.” This was followed by “Leaflets of the Resistance Movement in Germany” and several similar compositions.

Thousands of leaflets were duplicated and posted to random names taken from the telephone directory. To maintain secrecy, they purchased envelopes, duplicator ink and paper in small quantities at many shops, and travelled to scattered cities to post the letters, so that the movement seemed more widespread and to shield the Munich University.

The Arrest of the White Rose Conspirators

When the German people were shaken by their first defeat and major loss of life at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the White Rose group saw this as the opportune time to step up their activities. Schmorrell, Scholl and Graf began to scrawl “Down with Hitler” slogans in coal tar on various buildings in Munich during the night.

The group steadily became less cautious. Early in the morning on February 18, Hans and Sophie left bundles of leaflets outside lecture room doors, and Sophie tossed a bundle over the balcony to flutter down to the atrium below. It is this act which is commemorated in the scattered ceramic ‘leaflets’ mounted among the flagstones.

Sophie and Hans were spotted by the janitor Jakob Schmid , and they were hauled before the dean, Dr Haeffner. Arrest quickly followed and the brother and sister were interrogated for 4 days at Gestapo headquarters. Hans and Sophie tried to take all blame, as Christoph Probst was married with children.

The Trial of the Conspirators

Probst did not escape. Three days after their arrest, the three conspirators were tried by a ranting, screaming judge Roland Freisler. After just 3 ½ hours, they were sentenced to death and were guillotined. In April, a 14 hour trial saw Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell and Professor Huber sentenced to death. Ten other defendants were imprisoned, some for merely failing to report the activities.

The Legacy of the White Rose Resistance

While the students’ actions seemed to have ended in vain, there was a surprising outcome. A supporter, Helmuth von Moltke managed to get a copy of the final leaflet to Scandinavia and then to Britain. Soon thereafter, the RAF dropped 1.5 million demoralising leaflets all over Germany.

Anigone in 1944:

Antigone, a play by Jean Anouilh, was edited and republished in 1946 by “Editions de la Table Ronde.” It was originally written in Paris in February of 1944 when the capital was occupied by the German army.

At the time it was a best-seller and a play of multiple interpretations: political, philosophical, psychological, etc.

It is a fine example of a rewritten ancient Greek myth from the fifth century BC by the playwright Sophocle.

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus; a daughter from an incestuous relationship. Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Together they reigned over the city of Thèbes. Antigone had to carry the weight of this terrible inheritance as she grew up to become a young adult.

Anouilh’s plot is the same as Sophocle’s: Antigone’s brothers led a civil war against each other under the walls of Thèbes. Both died in combat. King Créon, uncle of Antigone, gave a burial to one of his nephews and let the body of the one who betrayed him rot on the battlefield. Antigone believed it was her duty to lay earth on her brothers corpse as a symbolic gesture. In her eyes, the laws of family prevailed over the decisions of the King. Despite the arguments, the forbidding, the threats of death, the young girl overcame all these obstacles to do what she thought was her duty.

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Ironically Anouilh’s character embodies a rebellious spirit but he himself was hardly involved in the resistance movement against German Occupation. His play is of course a tragedy just like Sophocle’s which means Antigone dies due to resisting the law of power. But it is King Créon who is the most defeated in this story because he loses his son, his authority and his reason for living.

“All those that had to die, died. Those who believed one thing and then those who believed the opposite – even those who believed nothing and those who were caught in the middle without understand anything. Dead all the same, all of them, stiff, not useful, rotten. And those that live on will slowly start to forget the dead and confuse their names.”

Anouilh was obviously left feeling hopeless after the absurdity of all the deaths from the war.

As for the Antigone of Sophocle, she opposed divine law and human laws. I wonder if this dilemma is more relevant than the one we propose Anouilh.


This in depth study of Psycho analysis shows the staunch determination of Antigone and it highlights her courage,commitment and valour.No doubt,she acts under psychological impulses, yet she seems to be a real hero showing all of her grandeur and glory.Her character becomes an exemplary character who proves to be a symbol of resistance,change and break up of status quo.Her sacrifice for the great cause of democracy and human rights will be remembered in the times to come.


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