Antigone vs. Creon
Sophocles play Antigone dramatises the conflict between claims of state and the duty felt towards family, by pitting the play’s central characters Antigone and Creon against one another with tragic consequences. Through these opposing characters he explores the depths of morality and duty based on consequence, as well as the pragmatism of the ego and the passions of the unconscious. Though I will argue that both Antigone and Creon’s decisions can be justified, Sophocles positions Antigone as the protagonist of the story and thus encourages the audience to view her and her moral justifications as being more noble than Creon’s.
The story of Antigone examines the nature of humanity by pitting two characters, each with a different set of loyalties and values, against one another in the public sphere. Antigone is positioned as the heroin of the play and represents the family sphere. Richard Braun notes that Antigone’s public heroism is domestically motivated: “never does she give a political explanation of her deed; on the contrary, from the start she assumes it is her hereditary duty to bury Polynices, and it is from inherited courage that she expects to gain the strength required for the task” (Braun, 1973). It is her strong sense of duty to family that drives her to willingly disobey orders laid down by Creon and challenges his authority to dictate her role in society. She also believes her ultimate fate is determined solely by the gods, and that final judgement will take place in the afterlife, not on earth. “I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory…I have longer to please the dead than please the living here” (Sophocles, 1984, p.63) she tells her sister before she sets off to bury Polynices. It is this adamant belief that propels Antigone to be true to her values and to serve her brother by performing the burial rights Creon has denied him. She is certain that she will be rewarded in the afterlife for her sound judgement and loyalty.
Creon is equally as determined to stick to his convictions, but unlike Antigone, he believes mortals have power to dictate societal codes of ethics and that moral dilemmas and matters of the state should be handled by the state. He aims to uphold the laws of men rather than fear divine intervention from the gods. By punishing Antigone, he exhibits a disconnection with kin and it is suggested that he is out of touch with the fundamental aspects of humanity and community. H.D.F Kitto acknowledges Creon’s lack of comprehension as ‘shocking’ stating, “[Antigone’s] appeal is to what we should call the overriding demand of natural love and common humanity; to him, this is nothing but disobedience lawlessness and folly” (Kitto, 1964, p.158). This determination to establish binding laws is evident in Antigone when Creon declares, “you cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgement, not till he’s shown his colours, ruling people, making laws. Experience, there’s the test” (Sophocles, 1984, p.67). Indeed it is Creon’s laws that demonstrate his flaws and cold disposition against family relations. He also acts out of his own self-interest, which is not considered to be noble or wise for a king. When Creon’s son Haemon challenges him, suggesting that by serving himself and instituting a totalitarian rule of state he is neglecting to positively serve the people of Thebes, Creon displays his egocentrism by responding, “The city is the king’s – that’s the law!” (Sophocles, 1984, p.97) This arrogant statement and blatant disregard for equality predetermines the conflict that is destined to befall Creon when he collides with the equally righteous Antigone.
There is somewhat of a paradox between Antigone and Creon’s respective loyalties to family and state, in that while they oppose one another, they occupy both of these social spheres. Antigone may fight to preserve family values by breaking state laws, but she remains an active member of the society, and similarly, Creon remains a husband and father despite his willingness to uphold state laws at the cost of family bonds. This duality between them can be taken as a sign that they are both justified in their actions as they struggle to represent the social values imposed upon them. George Hegel suggests that what Antigone and Creon display is a collision of opposites both of which are equally just. “They are firm figures who simply are what they are, without any inner conflict, without any hesitating recognition of someone else’s ‘pathos’, and therefore lofty, absolutely determinate individuals,” he says (Hegel, 1975). This is evident in Antigone as Creon is driven by his responsibility to serve the state and his own egocentrism, as is Antigone headstrong and unfaltering in her decision to uphold family rights. It could be argued that neither one is ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ nor even wrong in their convictions, they are simply opposed. Remaining true to their moral obligations, they are driven to make shocking decisions that ultimately lead to their mutual destruction. It is this mutual destruction that Hegel believes demonstrates their equal standing and the moral justifications of both.
Hegel’s theory that Antigone and Creon are products of opposing state values and both justified in their actions is a problematic theory in that the end fate of these characters are distinctly different in their portrayal. Antigone’s fate is to die by her own hand, on her own terms and to make a powerful political statement in the process. By taking her own life rather than die slowly at the will of Creon, she claims agency that women in her position ought not to have. She becomes a martyr, standing up for what she believes in, that is, flexibility within state rule to allow for family values to be more highly regarded. In contrast, Creon is left shattered and ironically without family, having lost command of events after being so determined to remain in control. As Laszlo Versenyi points out, there may well be justifications for the conduct of both Creon and Antigone, but Sophocles’ admiration for Antigone’s personal heroism is highly evident within the play and cannot be converted into a simpleminded advocacy of her cause (Versenyi, 1974). This would suggest that Sophocles intended Antigone to be taken not only as an advocate of the domestic sphere but also as a rich and complex character full of nobility and a strong representative of powerful women. She does indeed possess many of the qualities of traditional Greek heroes such as moral virtue, courage and determination.
The tragic chain of events that leave Creon devastated by the loss of his wife and son, and guilt ridden by his decision to have Antigone executed, represent a problem with the strict societal values that divide family and state. Richard Buxton claims, “the dilemma experienced by Sophocles’ Antigone shows in extreme form some of the conflicts generated in ordinary life by that other framework for social life, the polis” (Buxton, 1998). By pitting state and family against one another Sophocles comments on the segregation between men and women in society and the devastating lack of equality that threatens harmony. Classically women represent the family sphere while men dominate state rule. What Antigone implies is that this lack of balance between the two breeds resentment in the subordinate sect and anticipates conflict. It is only when Antigone’s rights are violated by Creon’s decree that she is provoked to rebel. In this way she becomes a figure of moral agency standing up for the marginalised and questioning the moral justification of Creon’s laws. Surely Creon believes women aught to be passive and subservient to men, as he implies with his comment, “we must defend the men who live by law, never let women triumph over us. Better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man – never be rated inferior to a woman” (Sophocles, 1984, p.94). With this comment it would seem that Sophocles is questioning the gender dynamics within society, and through his heroic portrayal of Antigone, parallelled against the ego driven Creon, he encourages the audience to consider the devastating effect of an unbalanced society.
Creon and Antigone not only highlight the problems with society, they reveal truths about human nature. Sophocles appeals to the basic human emotions of his audience regularly throughout the play, as many Greek tragedies do in order to shed light on aspects of human nature. Kitto notes, “Sophocles relies on and presents again and again the sheer physical horror, the sense of indecent outrage, that we all feel, modern English as well as ancient Greek, at the idea that a human body, the body of someone we have known and maybe loved, should be treated like this” (Kitto, 1964, p.149). Indeed Creon’s decision and the devastating consequences of his actions are a fine example of hamartia deployed by Sophocles. Creon’s flaws reflect the flaws of society. Antigone herself is not without flaw. Like Creon, she demonstrates an extremist nature and acts rashly in taking her own life. Though she knows it will distress her sister to admit her disobedience and face death, she remains staunch in her convictions. This passionate defiance of state dominance over domestic values leads Antigone down the path of glorified destruction. She is proud, as is Creon, though as I have previously discussed, her reasons are portrayed as being more noble than Creon’s because of his obvious self-interest and willingness to carry out his brutal deed. Her fate can be seen as a tragic mistake made in the name of upholding family values, whereas Creon is given every opportunity to avoid his fate. Haemon, Tiresias and the chorus all warn him to be more flexible and consider the impact of what he is doing, indicating that his convictions may not be as just as he believes them to be. Therefore the audience is encouraged to feel less sympathetic with Creon than they are with Antigone, who displays the basic human instinct to protect ones kin.
The dramatic events of Antigone that are played out by Antigone and Creon, demonstrate the tragic collision of family and state in a society that determines hierarchies between the two and marginalizes the domestic sphere. Questions of morality and duty are challenged by examining the fates of each character and indicate that Sophocles was more inclined to admire Antigone and her cause over the cold dictatorship of Creon. Perhaps the tragedy that befalls them indicates that a harmony between state and family is the ideal solution rather than a breakdown of both and a bloody schism within society.
Sophocles. 1984, ‘Antigone’, in Robert Fagels (trans.) Sophocles: the three Theban Plays – Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Penguin Books, London, UK, pp. 59 – 128.
Braun, Richard. E. 1973, Sophocles’ Antigone, Oxford University Press, New York, p.8.
Buxton, R. 1998, ‘Greek tragedy’, in M Kelly (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, vol. 4, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 396.
Hegel, George. W. F. 1975, ‘Ethical Positions in Greek Tragedy’, in T.M Knox (trans.), Hegel’s Aesthetics: lectures on fine art, vol. 2, Oxford University Press, London, UK, p. 1209.
Kitto, H.D.F. 1964, Form & Meaning in Drama: a study of six Greek plays and of Hamlet, Methuen & Co, London, UK, pp. 149 – 158.
Versenyi, Laszlo. 1974, Man’s Measure: a study of the Greek image of man from Homer to Sophocles, State University of New York Press, New York, US, p. 209.
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