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Oct 19, 2010

Notes on Antigone

Antigone is a tragedy of clashing personalities. Creon, the dictatorial leader of Thebes, is intoxicated with his own authority. His word is law, and the state is embodied in his person. Athenian audiences would have understood Creon as an illegitimate, unwise, impious ruler; the antithesis of the Athenian democratic ideal. In the wake of the attack of the Seven Against Thebes, the Thebans have won the day, but at great cost to Oedipus's sons. Eteiocles, ally of Creon, has died in battle in the arms of his inimical brother Polyneices. Because Polyneices was allied with the enemy, Creon has decreed that he shall not be buried, left to rot outside the city gates, while his brother will be given a state funeral with the highest honors. Creon has his political reasons for issuing this edict. He is trying mightily to right the ship of state, to reinstate law and order in Thebes. He needs to consolidate power around him, even if it requires the institution of martial law. Thebes has been cursed for too long. It requires a strong man like Creon to get it set right again. The refusal to bury Polyneices would have been regarded as a rash, extreme act on his part, but in Creon's mind, extreme times demand extreme measures. Anyone attempting to bury the body will be executed.

Creon's main rival in the play is Antigone, Oedipus's daughter and fiancee of Creon's son Haemon. Antigone is a force to be reckoned with. She has promised her brother Polyneices that she will give him a proper burial, and she has no intentions of quitting now. Nothing can stop her, not even the bullying Creon. Sophocles uses the character of Ismene in this play as a foil to Antigone. Ismene is reluctant to defy the law, much to Antigone's chagrin. Later in the play, when Creon suspects Ismene has also played a role in the crime, she lies to him, admitting she did help. She wants to be at Antigone's side, to share her culpability, but Antigone steps in to take all credit for herself. In part, this might be driven by a sisterly love to spare Ismene, but there's also the sense that Antigone is proud of her solo act, and wants to be martyred for this cause. No one is going to steal the show from her.
Fundamentally, the play dramatizes the thematic clash between one's duty to the state and loyalty to the family. Sophocles wants us to think about how far a citizen will bend following orders, even if it means denying the close kinship bonds of sisters, brothers, fathers, and sons. Antigone is willing to be martyred for her cause, for her close blood ties to her brother. We also witness an inverted loyalty of Creon to his state, for his family is sacrificed in the process. Antigone honors her broken family; Creon's family is broken by his honor to the state.

The play's plot moves swiftly, economically. When the play opens, Antigone is plotting to violate Creon's unfair decree. In her conversation with Ismene, we discover her fortitude, her singleminded purpose: death with honor. The chorus of Theban senators sings of the recent victory in battle and of the wish for peace. Creon marches onto the scene declaring his political philosophy: he will not rest in the face of brewing mischief. His role as leader is to restore order, even if it means ruling with an iron fist. A sentinel reports that someone has thrown dirt on the body of Polyneices. Creon assumes a man has performed the deed, and threatens death to the guards if they don't capture the perpetrator. After the first stasimon, the sentinel returns with the captured Antigone, who has been caught in the act. The second episode centers on the dialogue of Antigone in Creon. He asks her why she did it. She is defiant. Creon feels his manhood has been called into question, and he shows himself to be quite the male chauvenist. How dare a woman defy his man power. He will not show mercy. He will not back down. He will make an example of this girl. After the second stasimon, we have the third episode, which contains the intense dialogue between Creon and Haemon, his son. Haemon approaches his father with respect, but he wants to persuade him to change his mind. His plea is eminently sensible, rational, and with the best interests of his father at heart, and yet Creon turns a deaf ear to the appeal. In fact, he goes ballistic. The converation devolves into a shouting match, bitter with generational conflict. After this scene, Antigone comes on stage to deliver her farewell address to the chorus. She wears her punishment like a badge of honor. We have one final exchange before she leaves to be buried alive in a cave. In this play the time is out of joint. The dead go unburied and the living are buried alive. It is not until Tiresias takes the stage that Creon will be swayed to change his mind. And it does not happen instantly. Basically, the blind prophet tells him that the altars have been defiled by the birds and dogs who have feasted on Polyneices' rotting corpse. The gods are frowning again upon Thebes. Creon resists this advice, until Tireias hurls the prophecy at him that his child will pay the price for this unjust death sentence. Creon finally relents, but it is too late. Antigone has hung herself, Haemon discovers the body, spits in his father's face, draws a sword and attacks his father, who runs away, whereupon Haemon kills himself. ON hearing the news, Creon's wife Eurydice silently goes to her room and kills herself.

One question suggested by the play is this: in what cases is civil disobedience acceptable? Are there instances when it is fitting to defy authority? To break the rules? To disobey?

Lest we think Antigone to be the pure, righteous, and courageous heroine of this drama, lets remind ourselves that she too is a tragic figure. If Creon's hamartia was excessive authority, Antigone has her hamartia too. It can be found in the chorus's observation that her self sufficiency has been her undoing. Her error has been self-righteousness, so sure that she is right that she cuts herself off from human contact, from her sister, her fiancee, leaving her alone and leaning away from the living, towards the dead. She is a law unto herself. By the play's end, Creon has proved to be open to reason; he does change his mind (too late, alas). But Antigone is never open to deliberation. She knows she's right. Is she over confident? Although we probably take her side in the argument, she fails to recognize that there are other options. Perhaps by allying herself with Ismene, Haemon, and Tiresias, that they collectively can move Creon to relent, thus saving her life, her marriage, and continuing her lifeline. By being so certain of her mission, she guarantees a tragic outcome. She never really doubts herself, and because of this, she never hesitates and loses the opportunity of being rescued. There is a little bit of the suicide bomber in Antigone, isn't there? It's a dangerous thing to be so sure you're right.

As for Creon, there's a bit of George W. Bush in him. He's the decider, the man whose certainty in authority has disastrous consequences. At least with Creon, we can say that he admits the error of his ways.

What makes this play a tragedy? I think it has something to do with the characters of Antigone and Creon. The two strictly hold their views; both are inflexible, unshakeable, stubborn, and immoderate. There is no middle ground for them to come to terms. Each is an extreme – opposite poles repelling the other. Antigone represents the commitment to blood ties, the call of family and personal conscience. She cares little for the edicts of the state and appeals to a higher power (the gods), divine law, which says that the dead must be given proper burial. On the other side, Creon is the man of politics, the representative of state power. He has political reasons for refusing to bury Polyneices. He wants to send a stern message to the people of Thebes: you better not think about fomenting any more civil wars or this could happen to you. This is a thoroughly political strategy. To the Greeks, who were a political people, they also would have recognized this policy as being unwise— it shows an unhealthy disrespect for the gods. Man usurps the power over the dead; moreover, Creon has taken lawmaking into his own hands. He is a budding tyrant. His word becomes law. This is also a problem. He overreaches and pays the price. 

So when we have these two strong forces opposing each other, neither of them budging an inch, we have a tragedy in the making. The tragic plot will unfold inevitably, springing straight out of the characters in the play. There is no turning back in this sort of tragedy. Creon refuses to listen to his son Haemon's reasonable and emotional appeals, even if his adherence to the letter of the law means the destruction of his own family (and ultimately destabilizing the state, for the state afterall is composed of so many families); Antigone's self righteousness and stubborn will leads her to sacrifice her life for her family, even if it means ostracizing herself from the very family she has left (Ismene and Haemon). These opposing forces are locked in a death grip. When Creon finally relents, it is too late. 

There are some other conflicts worth discussing too:  the battle of the sexes – male vs. female (Creon is quite misogynistic); old vs. young (experience vs. na├»ve idealism); life vs. death.  


Creon Antigone
old  / young
realist idealist
male / female
political religious / domestic


Questions raised by this tragedy:
To whom do you owe more allegiance, the state or your family, or the civil authority or your personal authority (conscience)?

Are you as an individual willing to do things that the state tells you to do, even if you don't believe they're right? What kind of society will that sort of acquiescence lead to?

Should religious tradition and strongly held personal beliefs be able to supersede the civil law? Won't this lead to anarchy, civil disturbance, social unrest, factionalism, even civil war? 

Is law and order more important than moral righteousness?  

Are some causes worth dying for? 

What modern analogues are there for these characters? 
Transpose Creon and Antigone to the Iraq war. Creon as Saddam or Bush. Creon "supports the troops," opposes protestors, calls them anti-patriotic, wants them put in jail. Antigone is the anti-war activist – opposing the war on moral grounds. She would be a human shield. She would suffer the consequences for proclaiming her personal morality as more just than the political situation. 

What makes these characters tragic heroes?
Creon's tragic flaw is his inflexible and austere approach to power, represented by his extremist edict. He is a strong leader, but not a good one. He's blind to the "beyond the pale" nature of his rule. His punishment fits the crime. By denying the rights due to family, he loses his own family. The tragedy with him is that he recognizes his weakness too late. We witness his tragic pain. His strength is a sign of weakness. 

Antigone's tragic flaw is her self-righteous extremism. Although her cause is just (one can argue the justness of her cause at least), her pride and commitment to the cause makes her feel superior to her sister and fiancee. She has a martyr complex. When she's walled in the cave, she hangs herself because she has a death wish, an ironclad will to "make her point." It will not do to have the edict repealed. She must die the martyr, even though this means depriving herself of her fiancee and remaining family. There is an irony here – by championing the cause of her family, she alienates herself from that family forever. She dies with dignity, but it is a death that ultimately was unnecessary. But she can't see that Creon would ever change his mind, just as she would never give an inch herself. That's a bit of blindness in action. 

Haemon is tragic because he is caught in the middle between father and fiancee. His father won't listen to reason, won't pity him either. His fiancee doesn't love him enough to dissuade her from her death wish. He kills himself because he can't go on living without Antigone, and he can't go on living with such a father. 

The play is a political parable, isn't it? What is it telling us about the right way to lead a state? The laws should be followed, but not when they're unjust? 

Why is Antigone willing to give up her life for her cause? Would you do the same? Is her sacrifice worth it?



See Patricia Line's "Antigone's Flaw" for a perceptive analysis of Antigone's hamartia.
See also Richard Jebb's commentary at Perseus.