Set in the ancient Greek city of Thebes, Sophocles’ play tells the story of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, who defies the law of the king of Thebes, Creon, to bury her brother Polyneices, who was killed in battle against his own city.
The tragedy, written by Sophocles in the 5th century BCE, explores the tension between personal morality and the laws of the state, the nature of justice, the role of fate in human life, and the danger of excessive pride. This exploration produces a thought-provoking play that has been deliberated throughout the centuries. The central figure is Antigone, who displays an unwavering commitment to her familial duty and to the gods, even in the face of opposition from the state. Her character challenges the audience to consider the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs, even in the face of resistance from authority. Creon, on the other hand, blinded to the higher rulings of the gods, exhibits a resolute adherence to the law, maintaining order and stability for the peace of his state. The complicated relationship between personal conscience and law, tackled within the play, has enshrined Antigone as one of the most famous Greek tragedies.
Sophocles’ Antigone: The Beginning
The events depicted in Antigone directly follow the aftermath of Oedipus’ tragic downfall in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In the famous play, King Oedipus inadvertently fulfils the prophecy of his patricide and incestuous relationship with his mother. Upon learning the truth, Oedipus blinds himself and subsequently endures exile from Thebes.
Antigone opens with the protagonist, Antigone, informing her sister, Ismene, of her plan to bury their brother, despite Creon’s decree that he is to remain unburied. Both of their brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, died in battle, but Creon had issued a decree that only Eteocles would receive a proper burial while Polyneices would be left unburied as a traitor to Thebes. Ismene refuses to help, citing the punishment they would face if caught. However, Antigone remains resolute in her determination to carry out her duty. She views it as her sacred obligation to the gods to bury her brother and is willing to bear the repercussions of her actions. Antigone declares to Ismene that she cannot allow the law of a mere mortal to prevent her from fulfilling her duty to honor her brother and placate the gods.
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Her actions represent a commitment to her religious and moral code, and her willingness to defy Creon’s edict highlights the power and importance of individual conscience. The play raises questions about the nature of law and whether it should be obeyed blindly, or if there are higher moral principles that should guide one’s actions. Antigone’s resistance to authority and willingness to face death in defense of her beliefs has made her a symbol of civil disobedience.
“A proclamation has forbidden the city
to dignify him with burial, mourn him at all.
No, he must be left unburied, his corpse
for the birds and dogs to tear,
an obscenity for the citizens to behold!
These are my principles. Never at my hands
will the traitor be honored above the patriot.
But whoever proves his loyalty to the state:
I’ll prize that man in death as well as life.”
The State vs the Divine
Creon then enters the scene, addressing the elders and insisting that his decree must be obeyed, regardless of the perpetrator’s identity. He claims that obedience to his laws is essential for maintaining the stability of the state and that severe punishment awaits anyone who violates his decree. Shortly after, a sentry arrives informing Creon that someone has buried Polyneices and identifies Antigone as the culprit. Antigone confesses to the crime justifying her actions in an impassioned speech about her obligation. Creon is outraged and accuses Antigone of defying his authority and betraying her city.
Antigone has often been praised for its depiction of a strong female protagonist who defies patriarchal authority. The play’s themes of autonomy and self-determination have made it a key text in feminist analysis, as Antigone is seen as a symbol of female empowerment and resistance against oppressive systems.
Sophocles writes of Antigone’s sacred obligation:
“I’ll bury him myself.
And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory.
I’ll lie with the one I love and loved by him an outrage sacred to the gods!
I have longer to please the dead than please the living here:
in the kingdom down below I’ll live forever.
Do as you like, dishonor the laws
the gods hold in honor.”
Divine Law vs. Natural Law: The Key Theme of the Play
At the heart of the conflict between Antigone and Creon is a fundamental clash of values. Antigone sees herself as following a higher law than Creon’s decree, namely the divine law that requires the proper burial of the dead. The theme of divine law versus natural law is a central aspect of the conflict between the characters; divine law refers to the laws of the gods and the moral code that they have set for humanity, while natural law is the moral law that governs the natural world and the human conscience.
Antigone’s actions in burying her brother Polyneices represent a commitment to divine law and familial duty, even at the cost of her own life. She believes that the gods require all dead bodies to be buried and that her obligation to her brother and her family supersedes any human law. In contrast, Creon’s edict prohibiting the burial of Polyneices represents the authority of the state and the need to enforce laws and maintain social order. Both characters are steadfast in their stubbornness and refuse to relent which, ultimately, leads to their tragic downfall.
A Family Dispute
Creon orders that Antigone should be imprisoned and sentenced to death, warning the elders not to interfere or they too will be punished. The scene ends with Antigone being led away to her cell, defiant and unrepentant. She declares that she would rather die than abandon her duty to her brother, and she warns that Creon will suffer the consequences of his pride. Antigone’s actions reflect a disregard for the interests of the polis and a failure to recognize the importance of compromise and negotiation. As Antigone is led away, her sister Ismene enters and declares that she too is willing to share in her sister’s punishment. However, Antigone insists that Ismene had no part in her disobedience and should be allowed to live.
The conversation becomes more heated as Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, enters the scene and pleads with his father to reconsider his harsh punishment. Haemon reasons that the people of the city are sympathetic to Antigone’s cause and that executing her would only lead to further unrest. Creon, however, is unmoved by Haemon’s pleas and instead accuses him of being weak and lacking loyalty to the state. Haemon then turns on his father and declares that he would rather die than live without Antigone.
The Blind Seer Tiresias
Tiresias, the blind prophet, arrives warning Creon that his refusal to bury Polyneices and his treatment of Antigone will anger the gods and bring disaster upon him and his family. Tiresias is an important figure in the play, representing a direct voice to the divine laws often in tension with human laws and values. His warning to Creon suggests that there are higher forces at work than mere human authority and that the gods will not tolerate injustice and hubris. He tells Creon that he has received signs from the gods, including the ominous sign of his sacrificial offerings being rejected and corrupted.
End of the Play: Antigone’s Death, Creon’s Downfall
Creon angrily dismisses Tiresias labelling him as a liar and power-hungry. However, he becomes increasingly fearful as more signs of the gods’ displeasure are revealed. He finally relents and orders that Antigone be released, but it is too late. Antigone has already hanged herself in her cell, and Haemon, after discovering her body, has killed himself in despair. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, is unable to bear the pain of losing her son, and also commits suicide.
The final scene of Sophocles’ play sees Creon alone in his grief and remorse, with the Chorus lamenting the tragic events that have taken place. Creon’s downfall is seen as a result of his pride and stubbornness in upholding the laws of the state over the moral code of the gods. Creon’s refusal to listen to the opinions of others and his insistence on enforcing his own will leads to the death of his own family members and the downfall of his rule. His tragic ending serves as a warning against the dangers of hubris and the importance of heeding the advice of others.