An incel reading of Sophocles' Antigone

November 10, 2019 — Josh

Prerequisite knowledge:


Antigone is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, one of the three great Greek tragedians.

To provide a practical summary: Antigone's two brothers (Eteocles and Polynices) had fought against each other for the throne in Thebes' civil war, eventually killing one another. The play begins here. Directly after, Creon (Antigone's uncle, but also great uncle -- thanks Oedipus) is enstated as the king of Thebes. Creon rules that Eteocles will be honored, as he fought for the city, and Polynices will be denied a burial and allowed to rot (this being the harshest punishment at the time, as he would be unable to proceed to the underworld to reunite with the rest of his family). Antigone refuses to accept this, despite knowing that if she rebels she will be put to death.

Antigone continues to be stubborn and performs a burying ritual for Polynices, then gets caught in the act and sent to Creon who goes on to condemn her to death alone in a cave. We see Antigone choose her brother over herself when she embraces death, and seemingly over her husband-to-be, Haemon (Creon's son) as well. Haemon argues with his father and tells him that his stubborness is blinding him to the fact that his edict may possibly be misguided, or more accurately that both Creon and Antigone are justified in their resolves simultaneously. When Creon does not concede, Haemon says something to the effect of "this is the last time you'll be seeing me in your life, old man! and yes this is purposely ominous idiot get the hint", then runs away.

Just then, the blind prophet Tiresias appears and tells Creon that he's done something very wrong -- this is confirmed by Tiresias' unsuccessful attempts to set fire to his bird sacrifices. Creon, just like Oedipus before him, expresses his anger towards Tiresias and refuses to listen to his message. That is, until Tiresias has enough of Creon's tomfoolery and says "You’ll soon make me say what I’d rather not", and tells him "women will be wailing in your house" and that Hades (the god of the underworld) is setting traps for Creon because of the body he left to fester without a burial, against the gods' wishes. Predictably, at this point Creon changes his mind and decides to go bury Polynices and free Antigone from the cave she's been sent to die in.

In classic tragic fashion, this reversal comes to late, and by the time Creon gets to the cave he sees Antigone dead via hanging herself and Haemon lamenting over her. Haemon attempts to kill Creon with a sword but misses, at which point he impales himself, splattering his blood on Antigone's face, dying. Creon returns home from the terrible scene only to find that his wife Eurydice had stabbed herself upon hearing the news from a messenger. At this point, Creon wails -- oimoi, ōmoi moi, aiai aiai, pheu, pheu! and asks to be carried away, as he realizes he has ruined his life, his family, and the city to the point of no return. The end!


Incel is a portmanteau of "involuntarily celibate". Though originally this was an open category for "anybody of any gender who was lonely, had never had sex or who hadn't had a relationship in a long time", at this point in time the term refers to a specific community mostly consisting of heterosexual men that express their frustrations through misogyny. Anger due to lack of sex or female affection is often accompanied by a general hatred towards society, which manifests in many ways -- violence, excessive internet use, love of ironic memes, patrician music taste, radical political views, and/or looksmaxing.

An analysis of Antigone from the point of view of Haemon

This is meant to be an analysis of Antigone from the point of view of Haemon.

Of course, the heroes of this play are Creon and Antigone, with Haemon present as an auxillary character to aid the plot. From a Hegelian point of view, Antigone is tragic due to the insurmountable differences between Creon's and Antigone's resolves, both of which are justified in their own ways but unable to coexist. From an Aristotelian point of view, Antigone is probably not ideal as there is no cathartic ending (to Hegel, the fact that everybody dies fulfills this criterion, it is his form of resolution), though, the following is also part of Aristotle's criteria:

"Since the aim of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear through an alteration in the status of the central character, he must be a figure with whom the audience can identify and whose fate can trigger these emotions. Aristotle says that "pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves." He surveys various possible types of characters on the basis of these premises, then defines the ideal protagonist as ... a man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty; a personage like Oedipus."

Creon fits this definition quite well, as the average audience audience member (a male, dedicated to the polis) would identify with his dedication to serving the city, prioritizing its well being over anything other (this is worth noting, as to the modern reader Antigone is clearly more relateable).

Now, to Haemon. How does he fit in with all this? He isn't a protagonist nor a hero (traditionally). Instead, he is continuously dismissed by Antigone, as she is too fixated on the burial of her brother. “O king, I may acquire another husband, if fate wills, and other children, if I should lose these. But with my father and mother no longer alive, in no way can I get another brother.”, she says.

Here I argue that we can read the entire play from the perspective of a poor incel, Haemon, being trampled by femme fatale extraordinaire Antigone's Doc Martens. This would be acceptable if it was a significant part of the plot, as this would then at least somewhat be a tragedy about Haemon, but it seems that Haemon exists only as a foil subplot, just to exaggerate Antigone's devotion to her brother.

Creon and Antigone, though both admirable in their commitment and beliefs, have tragic flaws. This makes them the tragic heroes fit for a tragedy -- the well-meaning character that has a tragic flaw which ultimately leads to their demise. But what do we make of Haemon? His character in this play appears infrequently enough so that we don't have time to find something wrong with what he does. All of his actions are admirable, and none of them deplorable.

Haemon's Appearences in the play

The following is meant to be a collection of Haemon's appearences in the play (with some lines cut for brevity).

(1) Haemon is betrothed to Antigone

CREON: “Her”—don’t mention “her,” for she no longer is.
ISMENE: But will you kill your own son’s bride-to-be?
CREON: He’ll find other women, other fields to plow.
ISMENE: But not a marriage so well matched as theirs.
CREON: An evil wife for a son fills me with loathing.
ISMENE: Beloved Haemon, how your father wrongs you!
CREON: You and your talk of marriage make me sick.
ISMENE: So you’ll deprive him of her—your own son?
CREON: Hades will do it for me—stop this wedding.
ISMENE: The decision is made, then, that she’s to die.
CREON: You and I agree on that, at least!

CHORUS LEADER: Here now is Haemon... Has he come in anger at the fate of Antigone, feeling stung to be cheated of his marriage?
CREON: We’ll soon know... Son, have you come furious at me because the vote was cast against your bride? Or whatever I may do, will you still love me?
HAEMON: Father, I’m yours. It’s your good judgments that set me on the right path, and that I follow. No marriage will ever be a greater prize for me to win than your good guidance.
CREON: ...Never toss away your good sense, son, for pleasure, for a woman; you know her embrace will grow cold within your arms--an evil woman in your bed, your house. What wound is greater than an evil love? This girl, then—spit her out, I say, and let her marry someone in Hades!

HAEMON: Father, the gods give men intelligence, the best of all their possessions, and I could never say-—and may I never learn to say—-that you are wrong in speaking as you do. And yet it’s not for you to notice everything people say or do or can complain of; your glance alone makes ordinary men afraid to say what you don’t want to hear. But I can hear them, muttering in the shadows how the city is grieving that this girl must die in the worst way, of all women most undeservedly, for deeds most glorious; she refused to leave her own brother unburied after he’d fallen in blood, to be torn to shreds by some savage dog or bird: does she not deserve a golden honor? So run the rumors whispered in the dark. For me, Father, nothing’s to be valued more than your good fortune. For what greater honor is there for sons than their father’s good repute, or for a father than that of his sons? Don’t cleave, then, to a single frame of mind— that what you say, and nothing else, is right. For he who thinks that he alone has sense, or eloquence that others lack, or character, when opened up, shows an empty page. But for a man, even one who’s wise, to learn often, and be flexible, is no cause of shame.

CHORUS LEADER: (to Creon) King, you should learn from him, when he speaks to the point...
CREON: Am I, at my age, now about to be taught how to think by a man his age?
HAEMON: This whole city of Thebes says she [is not wrong].
CREON: So now the city will give me my orders?
HAEMON: You see now who’s talking like a child?
CREON: I’m to rule this land for others, not myself?
HAEMON: No city belongs to just one man.
CREON: (to the Chorus) This fellow, it seems, is on the woman’s side.
HAEMON: If you’re a woman: it’s you I care for.
CREON: This whole argument of yours is all for her.
HAEMON: Yes—and for you and me and the nether gods.
CREON: You can’t marry her, ever—not while she’s alive.
HAEMON: She’ll die, then, and, in dying, destroy another.
CREON: Insolent now, even to the point of threats?
HAEMON: Is it a threat, to tell you what I think?
CREON: You’ll regret these thoughts; there’s nothing in them.
HAEMON: If you weren’t my father, I’d say you’ve lost your mind.
CREON: A woman’s slave! Don’t waste your wiles on me!
HAEMON: Do you want to talk and talk and never listen?
CREON: That’s what you think? By Olympus, be sure you won’t get away with abusing me like this! (to his attendants) Bring out the loathsome thing. Let her die right now, before his eyes, at her bridegroom’s side!
HAEMON: No, she won’t die at my side—never imagine that! Nor will you ever see my face again. Go on raving, then, among your friends, if any still care to listen!

MESSENGER: Haemon has fallen, bloodied by no stranger’s hand.
CHORUS LEADER: Whose hand? His father’s, or his own?
MESSENGER: His own, driven by the death his father caused.
(Enter Eurydice, Creon's wife, from the palace.)
EURYDICE: Whatever you were saying, say it again. I’ll listen. Sorrow is no stranger to me.
MESSENGER: We ... started ... to the girl’s bridal room, Death’s nook padded with stone, and made our way in. Someone, hearing a shrill sound, a wail from deep inside that unhallowed chamber, ran to tell our master Creon, who hurried in now, closer and closer, a babble of sad shouts pelting him about. He cried aloud, a groan terrible to hear: “O no, no! Am I a prophet, then? Am I on the most ill-fortuned journey I have ever made? That voice I hear is my son’s! Hurry, men! Go in by the breech torn in the stone, go deeper in, to the very mouth, to see if it’s the voice of Haemon that I hear, or if the gods deceive me.” So charged by our despairing lord, we looked inside; in the deepest part of the tomb we saw her hanging by the neck, fastened in a noose of woven silk, and him, his arms about her waist, pressing her close, bewailing his bride lost to death, and his father’s deeds, and his unhappy love. And when Creon saw it, with a dark groan he kept on toward him, calling him, crying: “What have you done? What came over you? When, when were your senses stolen from you? Come out, my child, I beg you, I implore you!” But his son, glancing at him with wild eyes, spat in his face and, not answering a word, drew his two-edged sword, but missed his father who dodged the blow; and then, turning his rage against himself, without a pause, he leaned down hard and drove the blade into his side halfway to the hilt. Still conscious, he took the girl in a failing clasp and, gasping out his life, sprinkled her white cheeks with drops of blood. He lies, a corpse embracing a corpse, his sad marriage ended—in Hades’ halls, at least— an example to mankind, that the worst evil a man can own is lack of sense.
CREON: The misery my plans have come to! My son, young, with a young death—aiai, aiai!— you died, you’ve lost your life for my mistakes, not your own.

This marks the end of Haemon's presence in Antigone (both the play and the woman). If you've made it this far, congratulations, you are an excellent chess player.

Further analysis

What can we gather from the above? Haemon teeters between two justice systems with an enviable grace and genuineness -- he does not want to betray or disrespect his father, but he clearly sees his faults and advises him like an honorable friend (one who tells the truth, rather than blindly supporting). We do not see Haemon have a lapse in judgement; even in anger, Haemon maintains his respect and sanity -- "CREON: (to the Chorus) This fellow, it seems, is on the woman’s side. / HAEMON: If you’re a woman: it’s you I care for."

What does Haemon do that merits his horrible fate? At the very least, Antigone and Creon were able to stubbornly steer themselves to their demise -- Haemon, meanwhile, was not given such an honor (rather, his demise steered itself into him). It is terribly tragic to me that Haemon does not seem to have any agency in regard to what happens to him. What could he have done any differently, any better? Ultimately Haemon must reclaim the last bit of agency he has by impaling himself.

Though the classic tragic hero is one with a flaw that leads to their downfall, what should we say about a hero who has no flaws yet still yields to a horrible outcome? I say that such a hero should not exist, as such a play would be infuriating and failing in achieving any real purpose. This is why Haemon is not a hero -- he is not a protagonist; he only appears in a few key scenes in the play. No, Haemon is a character abused by Sophocles in order to manipulate the plot of Antigone, abused by Ismene to manipulate the decisions of Creon -- simply a disposible shell of a human being that (when summed) coincidentally ends up too pure to dismiss.

Thank you for reading. Yes, the title was clickbait, though Haemon is definitely an incel in the most righteous sense of the word. Enjoy life.