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  • Heroism in Sophocles’s Antigone
  • Willow Verkerk


Speaking to the many changing interpretations of the Antigone, George Steiner writes, “As it comes to us from Sophocles’ Antigone, ‘meaning’ is bent out of its original shape just as starlight is bent when it reaches us across time and via successive gravitational fields.”1 Hegel’s fundamental notion—that the Antigone is about the conflict between the two opposing but equal rights of the family and the state—remains important to Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler, but emphasis is given to fascination for her unbending and self-certain character. The uncanny quality of Antigone’s self-certainty captivates Lacan as a kind of unbearable splendor (éclat insupportable) that radiates from her; for Butler this quality allows Antigone to become a pliable figure for activism. Antigone’s defiance of Creon and the civil law as a guardian of the family and her own moral/religious beliefs poses her as a figure of resistance whose claim to burial challenges the regular functioning of the polis (πόλιϛ). In Antigone’s Claim, Butler asks how the tragic figure of Antigone can enrich the dialogue on those today whose locations, like hers, do not fit into the proper functioning of the ruling hegemony.

Jacques Lacan, one of Butler’s chosen interlocutors on the Antigone, is also interested in the play as a vehicle for ethical reflection. Although Lacan’s study of the play within the context of psychoanalysis has very different aims than those of Butler’s, his observations on Antigone’s splendor nevertheless make for an interesting challenge to more contemporary views (like Butler’s) that shape Antigone as activist hero. In book 7 of his Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan suggests that we should be [End Page 282] wary of the wondrous sheen that emanates from Antigone and consider more carefully what it is about this “self-willed victim” (cette victime si terriblement volontaire) that makes her admirable.2 Antigone faces a forced or impossible choice imposed upon her by Creon, defies Creon and the state, but not in the name of some social “good”: instead, Lacan states, her resistance is motivated by her familial love for her brother whom she considers irreplaceable.

We, as modern readers, find it exciting to conceptualize Antigone’s defiance as an expression of humanist values that undermine the patriarchal order of things, but as Hegel asserted, and many others since have reinforced, Antigone’s “defiance” of Creon reveals her commitment (or obedience) to her other role as sister/daughter and inheritor of her family Atè (translated as misfortune, atrocity). Lacan adds to this the observation that Antigone’s dedication to Polyneices reaches beyond what the demands of the chthonic laws would normally require and pushes her further toward her Atè, even εκτòς άτας, or “beyond the limit of Atè” (EP, p. 277).

Following Lacan, it seems pertinent to inquire further into the nature of Antigone’s heroism and her status of criminality in relation to the polis. Very simply, it may be asked of her: for what reason and at what cost? Is her predicament as a woman who refuses to follow the demands of the state (in terms of Creon, but also in terms of not providing an heir) sufficient to align her with those today who face isolation because of their sexual orientation and/or family relationships, as Butler suggests? If the kind of desire Antigone represents destroys not only herself but also harms those living around her, how can such a desire represent something “good,” like a new category of sexuality in which the formerly silenced people (gay, lesbian, etc.) now have a place to live and be heard? To pose the question to Butler and other contemporary voices: what is ethically salient about Antigone that allows her to become heroic for contemporary visions of political activism?

Perhaps Antigone’s tragic predicament compels us contemporaries to retroactively project a morally redeemable future onto her. Her predicament is so unbearable in its splendor, to use Lacan’s terms, that we impose our own anamorphic image of beauty on her, one that sadly takes a drastic departure from the therapeutic value of tragedy itself. For, as Friedrich Nietzsche would ask...