Protagonist Essay

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A literal “age old” argument that has sparked intelligent conversation since the BC era is still as potent as ever in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, Antigone. Since the play’s origin, there has always been a toss-up as to who the true tragic hero, or protagonist, is. A popular misconception is that the character Antigone must be the protagonist due to her direct name being the title. Sophocles intends the play to highlight Antigone and her soon to be fatal clash with her newly crowned uncle, Creon.  Hence, the basic title, Antigone. Analytically speaking, however, Creon does seem to more categorically fit the title of “Tragic Hero.” There is no doubt as to the nature of the work, that being tragedy. Along with this genre comes certain established prerequisites and Creon is the only character that satisfactorily fits them all.

There are certain qualities that a character must possess in order to qualify as a tragic hero. Ideally, the subject is to be a person of high rank, so that they may have much to lose. (Most frequently a monarch or patriarch is used.) Granted, Antigone is a member of the royal bloodline. But we must not forget that she is the daughter of incest, hardly a glamorous position to start with. In Oedipus Rex, Antigone was indirectly disgraced, while Creon was socially elevated by inheriting kingship from Oedipus. Also, Creon’s being king comparatively trumps Antigone’s lesser status of orphaned princess. While this in itself objectively proves nothing, it does at a minimum make Creon the more likely choice of protagonist.

Another essential component of a tragic hero is that of the tragic flaw, the one attribute that causes the inevitable downfall of the character. A case could be made for Antigone’s hamartia being stubbornness. She is called stubbornly wild in the play by both Creon: “This girl was an old hand at insolence” (1280) and by the chorus leader:  “She hasn’t learned to bend before adversity.” (1279). Yet the judgment of critics shouldn’t be taken for absolute truth. Looking at her actions and personality impartially tells a bit of a different story. A trademark of the stubborn personality type is not merely to argue in the face of antagonism, but to maintain legitimacy even after being proven incorrect. There is no evidence to support that Antigone would act in such a manner, were she proven wrong. In fact, everyone except the king reinforces her righteousness. Haemon, the chorus, Ismene, the gods, and Tiresias all agree that Antigone has justice on her side, and deserves no punishment. Thus, she is cleared of having any real character deficiency. She does the right thing, and for the right reasons. Creon, on the other hand, possesses that much-loved classic flaw: hubris, as Sophocles says. Creon’s pride clouds his judgment and blocks out the good sense of Haemon and Tiresias, two sources that even the king should know have no ulterior angles. Arrogance is often an offshoot of personal insecurity. Being a new king, Creon felt he had to prove himself as an authoritarian, and decided to make an example out of Antigone’s insurrection. He has made a hasty, erroneous decision, and, even though he’s coming to see that it was a mistake, he refuses time after time to back down, so that when he finally does, it’s too late. As a result, he winds up losing his only remaining son, his wife, and probably the respect of the people he rules. This poor judgment, dictated by ego, was destined to ruin Creon from the outset.

Tragedies always end with an ironic reversal of fortunes, leaving the unfortunate exalted and the respected belittled. Since the tragic hero starts out with everything, he or she must end up with nothing. By the end of Antigone, Creon has lost his family, his kingdom, and his will to live, but is doomed to live on with the knowledge that he is the sole cause of all his pain. Antigone does in fact lose her life, but she does so with honor. From the beginning, Antigone was clearly seeking execution: “Even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory” (1269). Antigone has gained the good graces of the people and the gods. The audience does not pity her because she has accomplished the burial of her brother, and she can now rest beside him.

The final element of the tragic hero of a Greek drama is the realization of faults and bad choices. Antigone had no such epiphany, simply because she did no wrong. Antigone needs no redemption because she has committed no great misdeed. Creon, however, comes to see his grave mistakes after he has fallen from grace. Creon repents, and is even brought to the verge of suicide. Like all tragic heroes, he can only realize his vice once everything has been taken away from him.

So who was meant to be the lead character of Antigone? Antigone. So who is the lead character of Antigone? Creon. Somewhere along the line, Sophocles found a more complex story in the insecure king than in the defiant noblewoman. Using Aristotle’s outline of Greek tragedy (which ironically was primarily based on Sophocles), Creon is the only character who meets the criteria. Creon started from the highest position, suffered the greatest net losses, and possessed the only inarguable flaw. Titles aside, the literary content speaks for itself.

Works Cited

Adams, S. M. Sophocles the Playwright. Toronto: Toronto U P, 1957.

Buxton, R. G. A. Sophocles. London: Oxford UP, 1984. Print.

Goheen, Robert F. The Imagery of Sophocles’ Antigone: A Study of Poetic Language and

Structure. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1951. Print.

Kluth, Frederick J. “Antigone and Her Impact on Greek Art and Culture.” America Online.

Internet. 24 July 2000: 2, 9-10. Web.

Knox, Bernard M. W. “Ancient Greece and the Formation of the Western Mind.” The Norton

Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1995: 585-

89. Print.

Sophocles. “Antigone.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Knox and Mack.

New York: Norton, 1995: 632-67. Print.

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. 2nd edition. London: Methuen, 1969. Print.

Whitman, Cedric H. Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1951.


Protagonist Definition

A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative, nove,l or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes called a “hero” by the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language, and in Greek drama it refers to the person who led the chorus. Later on, the word started being used as a term for the first actor in order of performance.

Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello could be identified as the protagonist of the novel because he played a central role in all the controversies of the play. The question here would be that, even though he was a central character, was he really the lead character too? This type of indistinctness generally results in completely different interpretations of whether the said character is a protagonist or not.

Examples of Protagonist from Literature

Example #1: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)

Protagonist examples in many stories are not shown to be flawless. They generally undergo some change that causes a turn of events, which makes a story interesting and helps deliver a message. Sometimes, a moral weakness is highlighted that causes the fall of the protagonist. For example, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the protagonist experiences terrible events because of his indecisiveness, which troubles him while murdering his evil uncle. So, Hamlet’s struggle in dealing with the antagonist is what precedes the story.

Example #2: Vanity Fair (By William Makepeace Thackeray)

A protagonist can sometimes be very controversial because of some evil traits. One of the good examples of protagonist who is controversial would be Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who is occasionally be very manipulative in order to achieve her own interests.

Example #3: As I Lay Dying (By William Faulkner)

There are ensemble stories that do not particularly highlight either one of the characters more than the rest. For instance, Addie Bundren’s demise in the novel As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, results in her family traveling a long way to bury her, and they all tell the story from their own perspectives, which makes them all equally important to the story. Thus, it leaves us with more than one protagonist in the same story.

Protagonist Examples from Cinema

Example #4: Star Wars (By George Lucas)

In the movie Star Wars the character of Luke Skywalker was developed by George Lucas. He plays an outwardly naïve farm boy. Luke desperately wants a life different from his monotonous existence. After his uncle’s and aunt’s demise, he has no other choice but to join forces with Obi-wan Kenobe. Luke later matures to understand the customs of The Force. His antagonist in the movie is Darth Vader, who turns out to be Luke’s father. They both get into a major conflict but eventually Luke succeeds.

Function of Protagonist

A protagonist is a very important tool used in developing a story. There are different terms used for a protagonist, such as hero, focal character, central character, and main character. Regardless of what title you give a protagonist, he or she remains the key ingredient in the development of the story, which is why the story revolves around him or her. More often than not the protagonist is fair and virtuous, and is always found supporting the moral good. Further in the plot the protagonist may undergo some change, which will probably be the climax of the story.

Being the central element puts grave responsibilities on the shoulders of a protagonist. Since, the story revolves around the protagonist, he is the one who has to work as an emotional heart of the story, helping the audience connect with it on a basic level. A well-constructed protagonist attracts the audience emotionally, and lets them relate to the joys, fears, and hopes of the character in the story.

The events occurring in a story are always viewed from the perspective of the protagonist. The audience decides whether or not a particular event is favorable in a story. A wedding is an important and positive event in The Sound of Music because it is a positive event for the protagonist, Maria. However, the same kind of event in the movie While You Were Sleeping would be unfortunate because in that case the protagonist Lucy was marrying the wrong person.

Some stories weave many characters into an ensemble story, but even in such stories there is often one character that is more important to the story than the rest. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy there are many characters that have great significance to the story, but Frodo Baggins is the one who stands out, because everyone else’s destiny rests in his hands.


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