In the Greek play Antigone, there exist great conflicts between religious/moral laws vs. state/human law. The rebel (stubborn Antigone) and Creon the king, fully represent the conflicts that lie within the laws. Antigone believes that the god’s decrees accompanied by his family chores in taking care of his two brothers had a great importance than any other written laws and decrees by man. She dares to ignore all the written laws including the ones passed by the mighty Ruler of Thebes. She ignores the fact that the powerful King is her uncle and leaves no chance to bow to the already established legislation. In this paper, I shall discuss about, “it is better to obey the existing unwritten laws than unjust written laws.”
The arguments of Antigone are centred on unwritten laws, the love for family and conscience. At the beginning of the context, she talks to Ismene asking, "Have you heard how our dearests are being treated like enemies?" (126). Antigone is enraged with Creon for denying Polynices the suitable burial rights. She has a strong love for her family and opts rather appreciate the dead than the existing beings as she says, "All eternity to love the dead." (128). Antigone argues that a religion has a very influential power into a person’s lifestyle. Her conscience does not allow her instincts to defy God and nature. This is why she stands strong with the will to bury her brothers in a respectable manner. She greatly opposes the written laws of Thebes and stick to what she believes is right.
Episode one of the Greek play brings about the scenario concerning the burial of the two brothers of Antigone. Antigone together with her sister, Ismene argues about the procedure to dispose of the dead bodies of their two brothers. Since Eteocles were perceived as a hero, the written Creon laws stated that he was to be buried in great honour. He is perceived a great hero since he fought for and won battles in Thebes. On the other hand, Polyneices had betrayed the city of Thebes and many called him a traitor, thus, in line with the Creon’ law, his dead body was to be left to rot on bare land for birds to feed on. The problem arises as the written laws ignore what Antigone believes in. Her actions are considered unlawful and she is punished but in real sense, all individuals are equal in the eyes of the Supreme Being.
The decrees as stipulated in the Thebes constitution punish anyone who violates the written laws. Despite the fact, Antigone swears never to abandon her religious and family duties and goes ahead to bury her brother without considering the wrath of the law she might face if she is caught. It was wrong for her to perform the burial rites to Polyneices, who had betrayed the city. The punishment that can be subjected to Antigone is that, she may be stoned to death by the masses, but she never worries of her boldness.
At some point in the play, the guards find her and she is apprehended. The guard takes a role of giving the traitor the expected burial as stated in the Thebes’ laws. Her sister, Ismene, had vowed always to stick to the written laws and never to go contrary to avoid any punishments that could befall her. It is clear that Antigone could have been the happiest being if she could have buried her brothers as she had planned. She wished never to be punished by her own uncle, avoid defying the laws of the state, and remain a law-abiding citizen but her options to bury her brothers with respect and honour could not be sacrificed for the sake of the written laws.
Sometimes it is better to obey the unwritten laws so long as they do not infringe the credence of the majority or personal perceptions. The unwritten laws should be for the benefit of the public rather than a few individuals in the society. Creon seeks the council of Teiresias, a blind priest. The priest informed him that leaving the bodies of the dead to rot accelerates the doom of the city through plagues order by the angry gods. Creon ignores the advice. Later on, his son commits suicide and animosity of his people thickened. After being hit by the calamity, Creon decides to change his rationale but it was already too late. Calamities had struck him. He regrets having ignored the unwritten laws thus costing his subjects heavily. As a form of regret, he desires that the god should kill him by a crushing weight. He replaces his well-meant principles with the unwritten laws for the benefit of his city and the fear of the gods (lines 995-1004).
Unwritten laws are open to various interpretations. Various persons can come up with their own laws and understanding of justice. On the other hand, written state laws are uniform in a particular state thus making it easy to deliver justice in any situation. The written laws belong to the state and society. They create public powers and authorities. Creon symbolizes the ‘written laws’ of a society. The written laws should, therefore, be respected by all persons.
Written laws are intended to enforce equality of all persons within the country. In line 131, Creon says, "Our country is our life," implying that the laws of the land had to be followed for a purposeful life. Though they might be unjust, they are meant to create a well-ordered and harmonious society. Creon assumes that every resident plus Antigone should submit to him out of responsibility and respect. Antigone sees Creon as a leader who steps beyond his powers. She says, “I know where true duty lies" (line 129). His orders did not come from God hence Antigone decided to challenge his leadership. Finally, Antigone does not end up well. She is arrested for disobeying state laws. She later died in unclear circumstances. Additionally, Polynices died while fighting against the state and no wonder he is not accorded a decent burial. Therefore, for purposes of living a peaceful life, with fewer disagreements, it is better to obey the written just laws. Noncompliance in many cases leads to imprisonment or extermination of the violators.
Antigone lived in an era where male chauvinism was high in the Greek society. The conflict of man against women features in the story as men wanted to dominate unique positions in the society at the expense of their women counterparts. These positions were bestowed to them by the unwritten laws which are apparently discriminative and punitive to women. Creon says, “Better to fall from power By a man’s hand, than be called weaker than a woman." The passiveness of Ismene’s actions displays the ideal role of women in such a society. When Creon argues with his son, he displays his intention of chastising Antigone as he considers her a tyrant. Antigone challenges these laws since she considered them to be unjust. She was doing the right thing. She possesses marvellous pride to disapprove the unjust unwritten laws. This finally brought an improvement of women’s position in the society. They became recognized and appreciated through Antigone’s voice.
Sophocles has brought about the issues of conflicts such as divine law versus human law, law versus conscience and state versus individual. These conflicts provide an insight on the understanding of the fundamental issue of the play, and reveal how the unwritten laws are more influential than the written laws. Antigone and her values match with the state versus personal conflict while Creon with his value reveals the use of the law and conscience conflict. Antigone remains influential in the play as she challenges the unjust laws of Creon. Using the unwritten laws Antigone is able to represent resistance against Nazis during the Second World War. Hence the unwritten laws can be used to inspire the generation to come especially dissidents and rebels.
According to the play, the unwritten laws were more persuasive in Greek, and still in the current times. Sophocles has used Antigone to reveal how status quo was threatened in both the ancient days and modern days. Antigone goes against the divine law to defend herself, and also believes her personal conscience is superior. For example, he strongly believed that Creon had no power to the burial issues, and she should consider other people’s conscience. She objected “he has no right to keep me from my own” (48). Similar to Antigone, people in the modern times are devoted to unwritten laws, which they feel they are superior to the written laws such as state laws. However, not in all circumstances that the unwritten laws, such as individual conscience, bring about the success. In the play, Creon arrested Antigone and established a powerful authority to defeat Antigone who was extremely personal. In this case, Antigone was unsuccessful because she believed in obeying unwritten laws rather than unjust state laws.
Creon argued that the state law is superior to the individual laws, and his self-control was superior as he was the king of Thebes. As he explained to the city counsellor, “it is the city that protects us all,/ she bears us through the storm; only when she/rides safe and sound can we make loyal friends”(188-190). He meant that the state laws should be preferred to the divine laws in order to make a better city. It becomes hard to obey the unjust written laws because they are enhances impunity. The sovereign leaders who develop them do not follow them and they tend to break them to favour them. Although the king of Thebes is sovereign, he uses his authority to make superior wills that do not consider the social benefit or social rights.
In the play, some people dismiss the will of Antigone by blindly obeying the unjust written laws. For example, the elders agree with Creon against the Polyneices’ burial. They said to the king, “you being sovereign make what laws you will/ Both for the dead and those of us who live” (213-214). Creon turns out to be selfish by exercising impunity, and feeling that he was above the law. He feels to be more than the state order and believes that the sense of being a king should be respected.
As elucidated above, the play anticipates audience to understand the importance of the individual principles among other unwritten laws. Although the written laws are commonly used in various states, the unwritten laws should also be considered when making decisions that favour the society. Crain in the end agrees “I fear it may be wisest to observe/ throughout one’s life the laws that are established” (1113-1114). He finally admits that the unwritten laws are also important. On the other hand, as indicated in the play, the leaders should not misuse their position by feeling they are sovereign. They should respect and give the citizens opportunity to express their opinions.
Sophocles, Reginald Gibbons, and Charles Segal. Antigone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Internet resource.
Sophocles, and Mark Griffith. Antigone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print