Antigone , a tragedy, was written by Sophocles around 442 BC. The two main characters of the play are Antigone and Creon. Both have strong and different ideas about what is wrong and what is right leading to much conflict between them throughout the play.
The conflict between the two first arises when two brothers of Antigone, Eteocles and Polynices turn rivals and are killed in a fight for supremacy. King Creon while allowing Eteocles to be buried immediately forbids any funeral rites or burial for Polynices who he considers to be a traitor. Here he says, “ But for his brother, Polyneices,-who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers and the shrines of his fathers gods,-sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery;-touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulture or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame” (Sophocles), but Antigone defies the order. King Creon is infuriated and sentences her to be buried alive, even though she is to marry his son, Haemon. In the mean time the blind prophet Tiresias proclaims and proves that the gods are on the side of Antigone. At this, Creon changes his mind, but it is too late. When he goes to bury Polynices, Antigone has already hanged herself. Later when he goes to the tomb, Haemon attacks him and then kills himself. When the news reaches Creon’s wife Eurydice, she kills herself and Creon is left all alone.
As mentioned above Antigone and Creon have different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Antigone believed that her actions were right because she did them for the right reason and because they followed law of the Gods. Creon on the other hand believed that his actions were the right ones, because he believed that Polynices was a traitor and hence anyone who wanted to give him a proper burial should be sentenced to death. Antigone goes against Creon’s law fully aware of the fact that she will have to sacrifice her own life. She goes ahead because she feels she is morally and ethically right. Antigone believed that divine law was more important than human law.
Antigone’s decision to defy Creon’s law may be justified if we consider the fact that an individual has the right to reject societys curbing his or her freedom to perform a personal duty, in this case giving a proper burial to one who has died. Antigone refused to let Creon dictate what she she should do. Antigones decision to bury Polynices also arose from a desire to bring honor to her family, not just to the gods. Antigone’s strong belief in standing up for family and her religious beliefs are the two factors that influenced her decision to break Creon’s law and bury her brother. When her sister tells her that she should not break the law, Antigone says, “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide for ever According to her all the dead should be treated in the same way To Antigone, the law of God is much more important than the laws of man. She repeatedly says that she wants to please “those that are dead” ,because they are more important than any ruler.
Creon on the other hand believed that citizenship meant complete obedience to the will of the state, and hence sentenced Antigone to death when he thought that she had gone against her citizenship by disobeying him. Creons decision not to allow the burial of Polynices is based on the laws of citizenship that was prevalent in Greece then. The Greeks buried their citizens after a battle and considered burial a sign of recognition of citizenship. Here it is important to note that Creons ordered not to bury Polynices because he felt Polynices had distanced himself from the people and committed treason andhence he should not be treated as a fellow-citizen and buried as was the custom for citizens. Viewed from another angle Creons reasons for punishing Antigone seems to be extremely personal. It was not only the law of the state but also his pride as a king and more so a man that was at stake. At one point you find him stating that he cannot admit defeat to a woman.
There has been much debate about whether Antigone and Creon took the right decisions. According to Waldock in his essay, Romantic Tragedy: The Antigone, he has stated that there is no question that Antigones action is the right one and that Creon’s is the wrong one. He feels that Creon has gone against human decency has violated a recognized fitness. Sophocles too, one feels, concluded that what Antigone did was right and what Creon did was wrong if the unwritten law of the Gods is taken into consideration. Creon has honored the laws of the land but has not acknowledged the laws of the Gods. Antigone on the other hand was more right than wrong. Antigone, even though she was violating the human law made by Creon was only following what she thought was right by giving her brother Polynices a proper burial.
Some have argued that Creon’s decision to punish Antigone is a right decision. He did what any good leader would do in that situation. He believed that all those who disobeyed the law must be punished and he stood by it. Few others believe that Creon’s decision was right because had he not punished Antigone there would be anarchy.
Both Creon and Antigone justify their actions by attributing their actions to the necessity of performing one’s duty. Creon believes in obedience to man-made laws. Here he says, “But disobedience is the worst of evils. This it is that ruins cities; this makes homes desolate; by this, the ranks of allies are broken into head-long rout; but, of the lives whose course is fair, the greater part owes safety to obedience”Sophocles). Antigone believes in her duty to the gods and ones family. She considers these to be higher than man made laws. She believes in the supremacy of the Natural Law, and Creon himself realizes this when he he loses his family. He comes to believe that after all the law of the state was above the law of the gods. In conclusion it can be said that the play is about divine law vs human law. It is necessary to weigh with an open mind both the divine law and human law before arriving at a decision. Accordingly Antigone was more right than wrong.
1. Sophocles, Antigone, Translated by R. C. Jeb, Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html on 15/4/09