Central Issues in the Play Antigone Essay
Although the ancient Greeks worshipped a large pantheon of gods, they still had many deep religious convictions and values that are reflected in the values we still hold today. These include ideas such as honor and loyalty to family and loved ones as well as ideas regarding fidelity to religion over politics. These issues are sometimes discovered in the great plays that were written during ancient times. One shining example of this exploration into social values can be found in Sophocles’ play Antigone. This play tells the story of one of Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone. It opens just after her two brothers have killed each other in a battle to see who would be king of Thebes, one having held the throne and the other marching on the city to enforce an earlier agreement. While one brother is given a lavish and honorable burial, the other is ordered to be left rotting in the sun under the punishment of the law. Even though both brothers had reasonable claims, King Creon only acknowledges the letter of the law in the case, foreshadowing the trouble to come. Antigone is equally unable to see more than just her side of the case, in which she feels both brothers were wrong and both should be given the god-ordered rites of burial. Completely disregarding the law as set forth by Creon, Antigone chooses to act instead of keeping with her deep-seated and widely accepted religious beliefs that dictate all bodies should be buried. In trying to determine which side is correct, Sophocles presents a very fair-minded approach but ultimately seems to side with Antigone in placing divine law over man’s law.
The trouble with trying to determine which character, Creon or Antigone, is right is made difficult by the very real and present flaws found within Antigone herself. She enters the first scene already raging regarding Creon’s decree. This scene serves to introduce the central conflict of the play immediately at the same time that it illustrates Antigone’s imperfections as an individual. She is seen as bold, brash, and passionately incapable of tempering her behavior. “She may be right, but there are moments when we qualify our approval of her, when she seems proud and forbidding in her determination to do her duty and to do it alone” (Bowra 1457). Her natural pride in her noble family makes it impossible for her to work through the issue on a calmer level while her determination to follow divine law makes it impossible for her to waste time with politics. She makes this felt outrage clear as she rails at her sister: “And now what is the proclamation that they tell of made lately by the commander, publicly, / to all the people? Do you know it? Have you heard about it? / Don’t you notice when the evils due to enemies / are headed towards those we love?” (Antigone 8-12). Not only can she not accept that someone would make orders against the commonly held religious ideals, but she is outraged that her sister is taking the news so calmly. When Ismene tries to calm her down and remind her she needs to obey the laws of the king, Antigone practically disowns her, “I would not urge you now; nor if you wanted / to act would I be glad to have you with me” (Antigone 79-80). Although she’s standing up for the beliefs of the community, this portrayal makes Antigone seem more like a spoiled brat.
Antigone’s trial later in the play is conducted before the king himself, giving Creon a chance to state his case. Having just recently acquired his post upon the death of the two brothers, Creon is in the position of having to make legal decisions as well as assert his authority to rule over Thebes as a means of avoiding general chaos. Antigone’s blatant disregard for his laws is therefore a threat to the nation. To Creon, the primary duty of a citizen is to continually demonstrate loyalty to the state that has provided him with the lifestyle he now enjoys. It was upon this belief that he made the original order regarding the brothers’ burials since Polyneices marched upon the city with an army at his back, thus signaling every intention of invasion, taking rule by force. To Creon, it simply didn’t matter that Polyneices was working to enforce an earlier agreement made with Eteocles upon the desertion of Oedipus. According to Creon, “anyone thinking / another man more a friend than his own country, / I rate him nowhere” (Antigone 200-202). In other words, had Polyneices attempted to reason with the city (which Eteocles wouldn’t allow) rather than showing up at her gates with men from other cities armed and ready to back him up, Creon insists he would have listened, but now Polyneices isn’t worth the dirt to cover him. As Jebb puts it, “Sophocles has allowed Creon to present his case ably” (1455), but it remains true that Creon’s law is less powerful than divine law in the final measure.
This is made clear as Antigone insists that her community should conform first to the dictates of its deities, regardless of who is wearing the crown. When she is caught performing burial rites for Polyneices, she defiantly tells the king, “I did not believe / your proclamation had such power to enable / one who will someday die to override / God’s ordinances, unwritten and secure. / They are not of today and yesterday; / they live forever, none knows when first they were” (Antigone 496-501). This sentiment is hard to argue against, particularly since Antigone’s beliefs were also reinforced so strongly in her viewing audience. “The particular thing which she believes that she ought to do was, in itself, a thing which every Greek of that age recognized as a most sacred duty – viz, to render burial rites to kinsfolk” (Jebb 1454). When Creon orders her entombed alive, he does so still acting under his understanding of the rules of state and an attempt to establish order; however, he has second thoughts as he begins to understand the greater nuances of divine justice. His attempt to save her in recognition of divine law is thwarted by her own passionate nature as she has already hanged herself within the tomb.
While Sophocles manages to portray both sides of the debate with a great deal of skill and sensitivity, in the end, it seems unavoidable that one must side with Antigone by a matter of degrees. Antigone, as is shown through her passionate and willful behavior, is not a perfect woman or even a perfect citizen and therefore her words are almost immediately met with a sense of resistance and dismissal. However, even with all his logical sense and head for law, Creon is also not perfect, has become blinded by men’s laws above those of the divine laws of the community. By giving Antigone a death sentence, Sophocles demonstrates that the balance of state and divine law was very close, but the change of heart experienced by Creon when he rushes to save Antigone, in the end, illustrates that the law of the gods was more important, if only marginally. Her death, followed immediately by the death of Creon’s own son, further underscores this sense of priority, as loyalty to the state has cost Creon his greatest treasure, the family that was to succeed him.
Bowra, Maurice. “From Sophoclean Tragedy.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th Ed. Alison Booth & Kelly Mays (Eds.). New York: W, W. Norton, 2010: 1455-1457.
Jebb, Richard C. “From the Antigone of Sophocles.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th Ed. Alison Booth & Kelly Mays (Eds.). New York: W, W. Norton, 2010: 1454-1455.
Sophocles. Antigone. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th Ed. Alison Booth & Kelly Mays (Eds.). New York: W, W. Norton, 2010: 1423-1454.