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  • Destabilizing Haemon: Radically Reading Gender and Authority in Sophocles’ Antigone1
  • Peter Miller (bio)

As Mark Griffith (1999, 51) has remarked, “Gender lies at the root of the problems of Antigone,” but much of that attention to gender has focused on analyzing Antigone (e.g., Griffith 2001, Žižek 2004), or the relationship of marriage and consummation in Haemon’s violent suicide (Seaford 1987, 120–1; Griffith 1999, 339; Ormand 1999, 79–98). While Haemon’s suicide has been understood as a sexual act, scholars have overlooked the inherent ambiguities in this performative action. By connecting Haemon’s suicide to Antigone’s broader interest in alternative constructions of gender, I read here his multifarious and performative death as an indicator of gender’s fluidity and instability; Haemon problematizes the construction of subjectivity, since it is intrinsically linked to gendered identity. Although the play ends conservatively (Griffith 1999, 56–7), readers and audiences are not obliged to accept this conclusion. Rather, Haemon’s actions in the play destabilize, at least, the binary and categorical construction of gender and sexuality and the hierarchical and repressive understanding of subjectivity, which remains, even at the tragedy’s conclusion, institutionalized. Through an interpretation that emphasizes the multiplicity of performativities and identities that cohere in Haemon, and the reception of his radical identity in the course of the tragedy, an alternative emerges that stresses ambiguity and anti-authoritarianism, instead of descriptivism and tyranny.2

Although there is a rich history of criticism that locates a confrontation between oikos and polis in Antigone (e.g., Hegel 1977; cf. Sourvinou-Inwood 1989, 137), or a confirmation of or challenge to kinship models (e.g., Butler 2000, Lacan 2000), my focus is on social identity and the relationship of gender, subjectivity, and authority. By defining Haemon’s suicide as a fundamentally ambiguous performative action, I underscore its malleability in the plot of the tragedy, and the ability of audiences both internal (e.g., the Theban dêmos) and external (e.g., the Athenian dêmos, and audiences and readers today) to find, in Haemon’s death, a potential escape from the strictures of authority. I begin with an analysis of the agôn between Creon and Haemon (631–780), in which Creon’s [End Page 163] challenge to Haemon’s social and gendered identity begins. Having interpreted this interaction in light of Creon’s increasingly totalitarian control over the polis, I move to the Messenger’s speech, Creon’s actions prior to entering the cave (1192–1218), and finally, the interaction between Haemon and Creon in the cave with the suicide itself (1226–43). By situating the confrontation in the cave as a continuation of the prior agôn, I stress how Creon’s tyranny has undermined the ability of Haemon to claim a social and gendered identity outside the bounds of his regime. In the conclusion, however, I reread the suicide scene, taking into account the political unrest in Thebes, as well as Judith Butler’s critique of Althusser, and the potential radicalism of the subject who refuses ideologically contingent subjectivity (especially Butler 1993, 121–40).

The suicide scene is the culmination of the interaction between Haemon and Creon in Antigone; this interaction, however, begins prior to the Haemon’s appearance on the tragic stage. Just before Haemon’s entrance, Creon foresees a possible dispute with his son in what, as we shall see, is significant language:


We’ll soon know, better than the seers. My child, having heard the final decree concerning your future bride, Surely you aren’t coming here now, raving mad with your father? Or, in everything I do, am I dear to you?3

After Creon’s initial explanation of what makes an ideal child (639–80: constructed, perhaps tellingly, through masculine clichés), Haemon enacts an ultimately futile defense of Antigone. First, he reports the opinions of the Theban population, gathered by eavesdropping from the shadows (, 692). While such reports likely represent unrest within the city, the gendered quality of gossip may be relevant (McClure 1999, 56–62), especially given Creon’s imminent turn to gender-based insults.4 Such insults may hinge on (700) as a dangerous corruption of...


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