Sophocles’ Antigone is the story of two protagonists’ Antigone and King Creon, who, in their pursuit to define their destiny, fade into oblivion. The two form the nucleus of the play around which Sophocles develops his tragedy. On close observation of the reading of this play, it is hard to eliminate the explication of the Greek rhetoric that, all humans are mortals. The phrase, “We die for ever” (58), was told by Antigone to her sister Ismene, when Ismene tells her that they would have to face the wrath of Creon, should he come to know of their act. The play revolves around Antigone, the protagonist, whose valor and determination cannot be matched by any other character in the play.
The play pits the authoritative Creon against the rebellious Antigone, the expelled daughter of the king Oedipus. Creon, the King of Thebes, rules by his laws, and upholds the ancient tradition; ‘the rule of the land is the rule of the man.’ As a man and King of the land, there can be no one, to challenge his rules. However, Antigone believes that all humans are mortal and that whatever they said or did, could not supersede the laws of god. Therefore, Creon could not be allowed to act the way he does. In the characterization of Creon, Sophocles includes the ancient practice of the Roman Empire. Such strategies are not uncommon to ancient playwrights. The Romans followed a patriarchal form of system where men were considered the masters of their homes, and women were born to care and bear their children. This view is substantiated by Ismene, Antigone’s sister, when she tells Antigone:
“But Oh, Antigone, Think how much more terrible than these, Our own death would be if we should go against Creon, And do what he has forbidden, We are only women” (42-45).
The theory, that only men, who were more powerful than women, could rue the land, forms the basis on which Sophocles’ Antigone is built. Antigone, the true heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone, is a rebel in her own right; she stands for justice, equality, and morality. It is because of these virtues of hers, that she challenges the authority of Creon. In her own words, she declares to Ismene, who is frightened to act against the orders of Creon, “Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way” (35).
The play begins with Antigone and Ismene seen in an argument. Antigone tries to reason with Ismene that she should come and bury the body of Ployneices, who died in a combat with Eteocles. Antigone tries to reason with Ismene that, while Creon gave Eteocles full military honor, and buried his body, he did not give Polyneices the same honor. She tells Ismene that Creon’s act and rule was against the laws of god and that, Creon’s act defied the simple principles of morality. In her view, Creon was no god to make such judgments that they could go unchallenged. When Creon proclaims that Eteocles and Polyneices were the only remaining heirs to Oedipus’ throne, and since they were also dead, there was only one person who could become the king, and that was him. He talks about his principle that while Eteocles died a hero and would be given full military honors; Polyneices broke his exile and revolted against his own city and the shrines of his fathers’ gods, and so, should be left to the birds and dogs to do as they pleased. With this, he says, “This is my command, and you can see the wisdom behind it” (Scene 1, 38).
There is a fair use of the elements of rhetoric in this play. Situations such as those witnessed between Antigone and Creon shows the clash of freewill and fate, and the laws of gods being challenged by the laws of men, to name a few. Right at the start of the play when Antigone, having lost her resolve to make Ismene understand the complexity of the position they were in, in terms of their stance on burying Polyneices, lashes out at her, and says, “We die for everYou may do as you like, Since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you” (58-60). While challenging the laws of Creon; the laws of men, Antigone reinstate her resolve to stand for morality and the laws of god. When Antigone is brought before Creon by the sentry, she tells Creon that she dared to come before him, and that:
“It was not God’s proclamation.” She further reiterates that “That final Justice That rules the world below makes no such laws” (Scene II, 57-59).
In the confrontation between Antigone and Creon, one gets the feeling that the play, even though it is a tragedy, throws a different dimension altogether. In more than one way, it is a play that pitches the authority of the state against the virtues of morality. The conflict between Antigone and Creon can be construed to be one between the political authority of King Creon, and the moral conscience of Antigone. There is a conflict between differing conceptions of laws, fate, and freewill. When Antigone says that:
“I knew I must die, even without your decree; I am only mortal, And if I am to die Now, before it is my time to die, Surely this is no hardship” (64-66)
Here, one sees the use of a truncated syllogism. Antigone wasn’t afraid to die, and if such a situation did arise, she wouldn’t worry about it at all, because she was a mortal, and mortals would have to die one day. This view is substantiated by her indifference at the time of capture, when she didn’t offer any resistance. The guard, who captured her, tells Creon:
“We ran and took her at once. She was not afraid, Not even when we charged her with what she had done. She denied nothing” (41-43)
She was willing to be convicted and didn’t fear the law created by Creon. She had come on her free will and wasn’t afraid to confront Creon. In ancient times, Greek women were considered to be men’s subordinates. Sophocles presented this characteristic in Creon. It was because of this that one sees Creon advocating the policy that men ruled the lands. In Scene III for example, when Creon talks to Choragos after Antigone had been captured, he says:
“This girl is guilty of double insolence, Breaking the given laws and boasting of it. Who is the man here, She or I?” (81-84).
The gender disparity continues right through the play. When Antigone is apprehended, Creon calls the guards to bring Ismene to him as she too was seen as a part of this treachery and deserved to be punished with Antigone. When a distraught and reborn Ismene is brought before Creon, she breaks down before Antigone and confesses that she failed to apprehend Antigone’s morality earlier, for which she wanted to repent. When Creon tells the guards to take Antigone and Ismene to the cell, he ridicules the women by telling the guards:
“You, there, take them away and guard them well; for they are but women, and even brave men run When they see Death coming” (62-64).
Again, in Scene III, when Creon speaks to Haimon, he tells him:
“Not to lose your head over this woman (Antigone). Your pleasure with her would soon grow cold, Haimon, And then you’d have a hellcat in bed and elsewhere. Let her find her husband in Hell!” (20-23).
Then, in lines 45-47 of Scene III, Creon tells Haimon:
“We keep the laws then, and the lawmakers, And no woman shall seduce us. If we must lose, Let’s lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we?”
Fate is an attribute that has special significance in the play. Be it in Antigone’s forlorn crusade to counter authoritarian through morality, or by her self-proclamation that she was destined to die some day and that it didn’t matter to her when, where and how she died, we see the term ‘fate’ reappearing through the words of Teiresias, when he addresses Creon about a dream he had:
“Do not fight with a corpse-What glory is it to kill a man who is dead? Think, I beg you: It is for your own good that I speak as I do You should be able to yield for your own good” (Scene V, 36-40).
The role of fate is again emphatically brought out by Teiresias in lines 71-78 in Scene V, when he says:
“The time is not far off when you shall pay back Corpse for Corpse, flesh of your own flesh. You have thrust the child of this world into living night, You have kept from the gods below the child that is theirs; The one in a grave before her death, the other, Dead, denied the grave. This is your crime: And the Furies and the dark gods of Hell, Are swift with terrible punishment for you”
Teiresias goes on to tell Creon that, for his acts, by fate, he would get engulfed in his house,
“with men and weeping, And curses will be hurled at you from far Cities grieving for sons unburied, left to rot Before the walls of Thebes” (80-83).
While Antigone stood for morality and justice, Creon can be looked at as a tragic hero. He represented the time, when the rule of the land was the rule of the man, because of which he acted in the way he did. When an exiled Polyneices revolted against him, he had no choice but to defend his kingdom. Since Eteocles, Polyneices’ brother, had fought beside him in war, Creon loyalty would obviously have been with Eteocles. Thus, when the two brothers died in battle, Creon ordered a noble burial for him. Polyneices was a traitor; a man who came back from exile to dethrone him, and so, it was appropriate to leave his dead body on the battle ground to rot and be eaten by birds and dogs. He did want to pardon Antigone, but because she chose to defy him and challenge his authority, he could not escape from submitting to a woman and gave orders to have her die in confinement. The sequences of suicides left Creon a disconsolate man, who ultimately died at the hands of a woman.
Barnet, S, Cain, W. E, and Burto, W, (2010), Literature for Composition: Essays, Stories, Poems, and Plays, 9th Edition, Longman, ISBN-10: 0205743595, p.460-484