Comparing And Contrasting Themes In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex And Antigone
Sophocles used his plays to encourage Athenians to take responsibility for their own actions. In the fifth century B.C., Greece was experiencing an era of military exploration, political turmoil and social revolution, including women’s empowerment. Sophocles included all of these elements in plays, especially in Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Despite his upper class upbringing, Sophocles became a kind of “man of the people” who was very concerned with social matters. For this reason, Sophocles created heroes unlike those of earlier mythology and used their flaws to emphasize the importance of personal accountability.
Oedipus’ pride is the first example of the flawed hero. He refuses to recognize the signs of the prophecy that foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother; at the same time, he is eager to uncover the truth. As more and more evidence is presented to him in favor of the prophecy, he tries to find a way around it and calls another witness. Referring to a slave that he wants to question, he tells Jocasta: “There may be things, my wife, that I have said best left unsaid, which makes me want him here” (Sophocles 43).
Through this dialogue, one can tell that Oedipus is suppressing the knowledge that the prophecy is slowly unraveling and proving itself true. His flaw of pride not only suppresses his acceptance of the truth, but also leads him to fulfill the prophecy. He unknowingly kills Laius, his father, for insulting him as he made his passage into Thebes. None but a prideful man would kill over a simple insult. Eventually he begins to realize that the man he killed may have been his father: “‘Laius was killed – I thought I caught the words – where three highways meet?’ ‘So they said. That is how the story goes.’ ‘The place? Where did the mishap fall?’”(Sophocles 41). When he eventually learns the truth, he knows he must face the grim consequences.
The chorus is used extensively as both a voice of reason and to convey emotions to the audience. In the third choral ode, the chorus doubts Oedipus and notes his pride. “But what if a brazen man parade in word or deed, impiety and brash disdain of principalities and canons? Then dog him and pay him pride wages for his haughty greed, his sacrilege and folly. What shield is there for such a man against all heaven’s arrows? Could I celebrate such wantonness and celebrate the dance?” (Sophocles 48). This antistrophe illustrates the chorus’ distrust in Oedipus towards the end of the story and foreshadows his eventual downfall.
The climax and falling action probably are the best examples of Oedipus taking responsibility for his own actions. Once Oedipus has learned that his wife has hung herself, he realizes what must be done. Oedipus then performs the perfect act of symbolic retribution. Blinding himself with her brooch pins, he cries: “‘Wicked, wicked eyes, you shall not see me nor my crime, not see my present shame. Go dark for all time blind to what you never should have seen, and blind to the love this heart has cried to see” (Sophocles 70). He thereby takes the ultimate responsibility for his actions and fulfills Teiresias’ prophecy that he would enter the city seeing and leave it blind (Sophocles 16).
The play Antigone addresses many of the same themes, but there is an exceptional difference between this play and Oedipus Rex. Antigone, whom we already know is ill fated due to her father’s sin, is virtuous and does not have her father’s prideful nature or any other major flaws to speak of. Her story is about doing what she knows is right, standing up to oppression, and taking responsibility for her own actions.
In this story, no time is wasted in arriving at the conflict. Antigone’s character is shown at the very beginning of the story when she speaks to her sister, Ismene, of the need to bury her beloved brother, Polyneices. “He is my brother still, and yours; though you would have it otherwise, but I shall not abandon him” (Sophocles 201). She continues trying to persuade Ismene, but it is no use and she does the deed alone and unflinching.
When Antigone is brought to trial, there is a great debate over the power of state. However, Creon was interested in anything but the interests of the state and is a despot rather than a voice of the people. In the end, the side of both the Gods and the people lie with Antigone, who knew she was right. Creon, the tyrant, sides with the State and shows his desire for power over the greater good. Antigone could have argued her case to Creon that she was not guilty of the crime; instead, she takes total responsibility for her actions and admits all her law-breaking actions. Her admirable – if damning – morality is precisely the quality that Sophocles tries to promote. He wants to show Athenians that to be a morally good person, she must take responsibility for her actions.
At first the chorus in Antigone sides with Creon, as they do not believe in divine justice over state justice; as the story concludes, however, they are swayed to side with Antigone, whose devotion and compassion has changed their minds. In the fourth choral ode the chorus attempts to comfort Antigone by recalling similar fateful situations, showing they have begun to side with her. Because the chorus represents the collective people of Greece, its change of heart shows that Antigone is intended to represent the people
One common theme between the two plays is the concept of women taking control of their own fates. Jocasta hangs herself in shame and Antigone takes her own life before she can be executed. This was very unusual in Sophocles’ time and culture. Suicide was a private fate that was more often done by men than women of the time. In this way, Sophocles challenges the barrier of gender expectations. By taking control of their own deaths, Jocasta and Antigone had accepted responsibility for their own actions. In the case of Antigone, she was ready to receive whatever her consequence might be in the afterlife, whether good or bad. She had nothing to fear because she knew that she had done the right thing. The main characters in Oedipus Rex and Antigone are flawed in different ways, but they share a common and admirable trait – they take total responsibility for all of their actions.
The Hero Archetype: Antigone and Lysistrata
Through the many tales of heroic deeds that have been told over the centuries, a picture has been painted as to the appearance and interpretation of the archetypical character of the hero. This character has been portrayed as a masculine figure who conquers all monsters and challenges in his path through strength, will, and determination, usually having to call upon a super-human ability, be it physical or intellectual, to defeat an oppressor. However, this typical view of the hero does not suit all characters who still can be classified under this archetype. In fact, through many ancient Greek plays, women have taken on the roles of the hero, having a much different quality and approach to their problem-solving than their male counterparts. Two such women who show great heroic qualities through their respective plays are Antigone and Lysistrata, who serve as the heroines of their tales. Through an analysis and comparison of the actions of the characters of Antigone and Lysistrata in the plays Antigone by Sophocles and Lysistrata by Aristophanes, respectively, clear conclusions can be drawn as to the stature of these female protagonists as heroic female characters.
Antigone follows the Oedipus trilogy, wherein Oedipus has already found out the seeds of his sins, and has put out his eyes and renounced his rule of Thebes. Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife, is dead, and her brother Creon claims the throne as his own. After the bloody mess that Oedipus left in his wake, his daughter Antigone is left to weigh the horrific aftermath, including preparing for the burial of her brother Polynices. However, in light of the conflict that emerges even after the death of Oedipus, Antigone by law is not allowed to bury her family member, thus starting her heroic quest for a proper humane burial for her brother: “I will As for me, I’ will bury him; and if I die for that, I am content. I shall rest like; a loved one with him whom I have loved, innocent in my guilt” (Sophocles 160-162). This statement by Antigone is truly what gives the heroic nature to her quest, for she wishes only to complete that which is right by humanitarian law, not by rule of the king, even if doing so means self-sacrifice.
Lysistrata has a much more straightforward battle to fight than Antigone did. Rather than having to battle against injustice emanating from her own family, Lysistrata is faced with injustice against her entire gender, wherein the women of Athens have become nothing more than meat-sacks for their men as they return from battle and leave and leave again as they please. Lysistrata sees this for what it is, the abuse of women through the patriarchal society in which she lives, and she addresses this with the other woman in Athens. Lysistrata is convinced that should she and the other women band together in a strike against sex, then they can gain control over the males in society, in an essential reversal of power. To accomplish her heroic goal, of improving the lives of women across Athens, she has them take Oath to her purpose, “I have nothing to do with husband or lover; Even when he approaches me upright and ready” (Aristophanes). Through this mantra, Lysistrata is able to rally the women of Athens to her cause as she pursues a better societal status for her gender.
Although the burial of a family member, or the beginning of a civil movement, may not seem like a heroic deed, the characters of Antigone and Lysistrata further their status through their inherent devotion to their cause. The mark of a truly devoted person, or a hero, is a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort to accomplish greater goals. This quality is shared by both of these female characters, and indeed perhaps is their most heroic quality. In Antigone this is seen in in two simple lines, after being lectured by the King as to the illegality of her actions, “I am ready; for there is no better way I could prepare for death than by giving burial to my brother” (Sophocles 402-403). These lines and indeed the entire speech from Antigone truly show her devotion to her brother, and thereby solidify her position as a hero; she is doing no wrong, but instead seeking to accomplish a moral and just act, to which ends she is willing to die to complete. Similarly Lysistrata is forced to take this same aggressive stance in front of the rule of Athens: “LYSISTRATA You would kill me here in Athens—birthplace of discourse and reason? MAGISTRATE Athens is a city of laws. LYSISTRATA –The laws of a barbarian. MAGISTRATE Submit to me now or I use this. LYSISTRATA kneels” (Aristophanes). In the same way that Antigone is willing to sacrifice her life to be allowed to bury her brother, Lysistrata is willing to sacrifice her status to show that women should no longer be used as objects of sex. Although death for a cause such as Antigone’s classifies as textbook martyrdom, in these cases the possibility is much more.
To be a martyr is to die willingly for your cause; however, the cause which is being fought over becomes the defining principle. Martyrs can be of any faith, religion, or purpose; however, a hero will always fight for and advocate that which is just, moral, and right. In this way, a hero is more noble than a martyr, as a hero is both a leader and an example of how others should act, and how others should aspire to respond to social and civil injustices. Although Antigone was not successful in completing her goal, and Lysistrata more so was, their results do not change their classification or level of heroics; it is not the result that matters, but the purposes and means through which goals are accomplished that create and classify heroes.
Antigone and Ariel as Tragic Heroes
Antigone and Ariel as Tragic Heroes
A tragic hero includes someone who is of noble birth, has great qualities and flaws, has a fatal flaw, has a tragic downfall, gets physically or spiritually wounded, is more self aware in cause, and is felt pity from the audience. Antigone, by Sophocles, is about a character named Antigone, who has to make the ultimatum to go against the king’s wishes, which is to bury her brother, who has been named a traitor, or listen to the kingdom’s rules, and obey. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is about a character named Ariel, who dreams about going to the real world, as a opposed to living under the sea, and when given an opportunity to do so, has to make a decision that will change her life path. Antigone from Antigone and Ariel from The Little Mermaid are similar because they both deflect the opinions of others, they both face a man versus man conflict, and they both sacrifice themselves.
Primarily, Antigone and Ariel both deflect the opinions of others. Antigone does not listen to her uncle, King Creon, when he forbids her brother from being buried properly, because he betrayed the state in war. This is a similar case for Ariel, when she does not not follow her father, Triton’s, wishes to stop exploring the outside world, because he believes it is very dangerous. Both of them do not listen to what they have been told, and go with what they believe in.
In addition, Antigone and Ariel both face a man versus man conflict. Antigone is conflicting with Creon, over the burial of her brother, and Ariel, over her wanting to live in the outside world. Both of them oppose the opinions of powerful figures, and are both stubborn enough to fight it out.
Finally, Antigone and Ariel both sacrifice themselves. Antigone sacrifices her life and her future in order to give her brother a proper burial. And for Ariel, although much less heroic and selfless, Ariel sacrifices her voice for feet so she can live her life on the surface, instead of under the sea.
In sum, Antigone and Ariel are similar through both having a man versus man conflict, both deflecting the opinions of others, and both sacrificing themselves.
A Comparison of the Plays Macbeth and Antigone
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t the only novelist who uses tragedy, in specific, tragic heroes, in his storylines to promote the disastrous happenings caused by fate. Both Shakespeare and Sophocles incorporate tragic heroes in their plays Macbeth and Antigone. A tragic hero, by definition, is often someone who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at the same moment, reveals strength, courage, and independence no matter what fate has set out for him. Although Creon and Macbeth both share common aspects in tragedy; ultimately, Macbeth is more of a tragic hero than Creon because Macbeth was portrayed as a more respectable person than Creon was, however, unlike Creon, Macbeth never learned from his mistakes.
Although both Macbeth and Creon start out as good characters, Macbeth is portrayed more heroically because his actions speak louder than Creon’s bleak words, and he is influenced by his wife, Lady Macbeth, while Creon chose his own path. By possessing a supreme pride, having a capacity for suffering, and setting a belief in their own freedom, both Creon and Macbeth are defined as tragic heroes. Although Creon was depicted as a very wealthy and feared king, he is still a flawed human nonetheless. In Greek religion, kings had no power to question the law of the gods, however, that is exactly where Creon was testing the waters. In his monologue, Creon delivers his command in that “Polynices…is to have no burial: no man is to touch him or say the least pray for him; he shall lie on the plain, unburied.” (Line 29) However, Antigone still gives a proper burial to her brother, thus deliberately disobeying Creon. Creon states explicitly, “Oh but I hate it even more when a traitor, caught red-handed tries to glorify his crimes,” (Lines 552-554). By commanding no burial, Creon defies the “great unwritten, unshakable traditions” (Lines 502-503), known as the ancient law of the gods, since it is commanded that which in upon death, requires a proper burial. By doing so, he is not only going against both the gods and chorus, but even his own family in that he’s breaking apart his son’s marriage with a “traitor” just to prove his own supremacy and prideful thinking. In the same sense, Macbeth also refuses to give in to his surroundings. In the very beginning, Macbeth is described as “brave Macbeth” (Act 1, scene 2, Line 18) and a “worthy gentleman” (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 26) . When Ross discussed the battle, he says, “Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof. Confronted him with self-comparisons” (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 61-62) This quote exposes how Macbeth was a loyal and worthy warrior because “Bellona” alludes to the Roman goddess of war, and the phrase “Bellona’s bridegroom” implies that the individual is the fiercest warrior, because the goddess of war would only marry the most courageous, powerful warrior. “Lapped in proof…self-comparisons” indicates to be clothed in worthy armor while matching a foes attacks, which further emphasizes how Macbeth proved his bravery and loyalty to the king during that battle and was one of the best warriors in Norway. Even the king, Duncan, called him worthy as Ross describes him as being brave, pointing out that Macbeth is a war hero in the very beginning. This reinforces how Macbeth was a loyal citizen and was willing to die for his king, even though there was no close relationship between them. Macbeth’s actions confirm that his good character is believable and consistent because in society, people are only willing to die for things they truly believe in. However, Macbeth is manipulated by his wife, which leads to his downfall. When he says that he will not proceed any further in the planned murder of Duncan, his wife convinces him to continue, asking if he will just “live a coward in thine own esteem” (Act 1, Scene 7, Line 47) and urging him to “screw your courage to the sticking place” because “we’ll not fail” (Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 70-71). Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to hold onto his courage, which is ironic because it takes a coward to murder a sleeping king, but he will also be a coward if he does not kill the king, because there is no courage when one is betraying someone, yet Macbeth’s wife corrupts him and gives his pride a push, setting his downfall into motion. Creon isn’t as admirable as Macbeth because he was made king by circumstance and did not prove his loyalty to his country through his actions. Also, Creon chose his own actions that lead to his downfall and takes no orders from anybody. He says “You’ll never bury that body in the grave, Not even if Zeus’s eagles rip the corpse and wing their rotten pickings off to the throne of god!” (1151-1152) and tells Tiresias that he only speaks “it out for profit” Sophocles (1178). Macbeth was encouraged to betray the king, which led to his downfall, but Creon was discouraged to follow his own ways leading to his downfall when he followed his own path.
Although these two characters are both faced with tragedy, Macbeth is more tragic than Creon because while Creon was able to understand his mistake and correct himself, Macbeth was not given an opportunity to change. Creon also shows realization of all the trouble he has caused as he confesses, “And the guilt is all mine– can never be fixed on another man, no escape for me. I killed you, I, god help me, I admit it all!” (126) Creon admits his wrongdoings and transforms from a tyrant to a compassionate individual willing to change his ways. The pride that he once showed is now replaced with guilt and remorse. This shows how Creon is vulnerable to disappointments, griefs, and sorrows. Unlike Macbeth, Creon transitions from a flawed and prideful character to a sympathetic and regretful one and therefore makes Macbeth more tragic of the two. He says “Thou wast born of woman. But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn” (Act 5, Scene 7, Lines 15-17) and “I will not yield to kiss the ground before Malcolm’s feet” (Act 5, Scene 8, Lines 32-33). Macbeth now believes that he is invincible since he can only die to someone not born of a woman. “Swords I smile at” is a hyperbole, indicating that Macbeth is not afraid of swords or weapons because the blinding pride he possesses causes him to believe he cannot be killed. However, he is killed by Macduff before he can realize how his own ambition and pride changed him. Even to his dying breath, he did not “kiss the ground”, emphasizing how stubborn he was and emphasizes Macbeth’s strong will to do as he pleases and not surrender to anyone who stands in his way. This proves that Macbeth’s pride, pushed by his wife, led to his downfall because he believed no one could kill him, and even when nearing death, he refused to give up his pride. This is tragic because Macbeth is never given the chance to repent or realize the extent of the atrocities he committed. When pride is never acknowledged and never given up, fate takes over and leads to death.
Ultimately, Macbeth is more of a tragic hero compared to Creon despite their shared tragedies because Macbeth’s character was more believable and constant, as he never had the opportunity to comprehend his mindless acts or correct them. Creon went against everyone’s reason, yet had the chance to move on and improve his character. They both had a taste of fault but unlike Creon who learned to change himself for the better, Macbeth remains stubborn to his death. Both characters experienced a tragic downfall due to their pride, but Macbeth fell harder and farther.
Antigone and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Comparison of Juxtaposing Antagonists
The success of the narrative arc of both Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone and Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream heavily rely on character interactions with the natural world. In each play respectively, the protagonists must purpose and negotiate elements of nature to achieve their particular objective. The plot of Antigone revolves around returning the body of Polynices to the natural world through a ritualistic burial process. Similarly, A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves a necessary pastoral escape to nature in order to resolve matters of unrequited, intertwined love affairs. Because the natural world drastically hinders the progress of the protagonists’ achievement of objective in both dramas, this conflict is emphasized as the central antagonistic force both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antigone. In Shakespeare’s classic pastoral play, a character versus environment conflict is emphasized for the main human protagonists. Thus, the natural world is clearly meant to be the central antagonist in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most importantly, the human lovers’ central objectives of romantically connecting with other specific characters are ultimately delayed by a very specific natural element. Lysander, one of the lovers, states his primary objective within the lover’s first scene in the forest. He tells Hermia that he desires that they become “Two bosoms interchained with an oath” (II.ii.49). The realization of this goal is entirely prevented by the interference of a powerful “little Western flower”, which is vested with the faculty to “make man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees” (II.i.164-172). Instead of allowing Lysander and Hermia’s love for each other to continue undisturbed (and thus achieve Lysander’s objective), this natural element interferes directly with the amorous agenda of Lysander by making him lustfully pursue Helena, who Lysander (post interference of nature) now considers to be “the worthier maid” (II.ii.116). In the same manner, the flower directly interferes with the goal Hermia has adamantly fought for since the beginning of the play: being able to love Lysander, despite being betrothed to Demetrius by her father. This specific element of the natural world proves to be a similarly antagonistic force in Demetrius’ ability to achieve his objective in the play. Apart from his desire to marry Hermia, Demetrius’ central objective in the storyline is arguably to escape the sickening love of Helena (II.i.212). He repeatedly makes this objective clear by threatening Helena with “the mercy of wild beasts” and “mischief in the wood” should she continue to romantically pursue him (II.i.228, 237). It is the same Western flower that causes Demetrius to abandon his clearly established objective, and eventually act on the complete opposite. Because a natural element directly causes this removal and reversal of self-agency in a major character decision, it is clear that nature is also an antagonistic force in the individual narrative of Demetrius. Puck, the character that initiates the antagonistic contact between natural element and human character, cannot be considered an antagonist because of the removal of intentionality from his actions. Before leaving to execute the flower-human interaction, Puck clarifies that he is solely performing these actions as the servant of Oberon (II.i.268). In saying this, Puck removes himself from the ramifications of his interference, and transfers the consequences of his actions to the fairy king. As a consequence of contributing to the antagonism of the lovers, Oberon symbolically becomes part of the natural world. This integration of character into the fiber of the natural world is supported by the Studio Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The costume design of Alison Yanota purposefully clothes the actor playing Oberon (Stuart McDougall) in a garment composed almost entirely of fragments of wood and earth-toned fabric to convey that Oberon is effectively part of the natural world that antagonizes the lovers. The adversary force of nature becomes the central antagonist of the play because the lovers are the central protagonists of the story. Of the groups of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lover’s must overcome the most vicissitude in order to achieve happiness. Thus, their numerous conflicts compose a majority of the narrative body of the play. In addition, the lovers are arguably the most relatable characters that speak to the human experience. As a result, the audience can viscerally and more tangibly relate to their story, which endows their narrative with a distinctive importance. Because the natural world directly interferes with the lover’s fulfillment of character objectives, and there is no character that directly assumes the role of antagonist, nature has to be considered the main antagonistic force for these characters, and by virtue of this association, the natural world becomes the central antagonistic force in the entirety of the play. The conflict structure of Sophocles’ legend Antigone follows a similar pattern. The natural world is created as a comparatively vilified force that assumes the central antagonistic role within the play. Antigone, undoubtedly the protagonist of the text, clearly states her narrative objective early on in the first act. She intends to “heap a mound of earth over [her] brother” despite King Creon expressly forbidding this action (Sophocles, 128). This stated objective is further clarified when supported by historical evidence. In an article about death and the afterlife in Ancient Greece, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City states that:
Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial [for one to progress to the afterlife] and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals… (The Met, 1)
When supported by this contextual evidence, it is clear that Antigone’s central objective is to allow her brother, Polynices, to progress to the afterlife through proper burial in the earth. It is the achievement of this objective that is entirely hindered by the interference of the natural world. Nature is explicitly vested with the authority to grant Polynices post-mortem bliss in the afterlife, but disallows the full completion of this process several times. After Antigone buries the body of her brother the first time, the sentry, following Creon’s orders, “swept off all the earth that covered the body” (137). After this action, Antigone is forced to repeat the entire burial action again, which gets her caught by the Sentry, and ultimately ends in her punishment and death by King Creon (138). It is through this action that nature prevents the achievement of Antigone’s central objective, as well as incites the pressures of a contagonistic force to contend with the protagonist character of the drama. Because of intricacy of a proper burial which nature demands in allowing Polynices to progress to the afterlife, Antigone’s objective in the play is never fully realized because of the time and specificity nature demands in completing this process. Antigone’s frustration with this repeated process (and therefore the natural world) is told through the Sentry’s words when he narrates that upon discovering Polynice’s body uncovered, Antigone is caught “screaming like an angry bird/When it finds its nest left empty and little ones gone” (137). Here, Antigone explicitly shows her vexation with natural forces in the denial of her achievement of objective. Antigone’s confrontation with nature also incites a separate pseudo-conflict with King Creon, furthering the notion that the central conflict within the play is nature versus character. Dramatica’s Theory of a Story defines a contagonistic character as one that “works to place obstacles in the path of the protagonist, and to lure it away from success” (Dramatica, ch. 3). If Antigone’s central aspiration is to achieve the proper burial of her brother, then King Creon is solely a contagonistic force that aids the central antagonistic natural world to hinder Antigone’s progression. Creon does so by sentencing Antigone to die in a “rock vaulted tomb”, thus removing Antigone’s agency to achieve her objective (Sophocles, 150). However, a natural element (the “rock vaulted tomb”) is still the force that physically prevents Antigone from pursuing the burial of Polynices for a third time and ultimately leads to her death, symbolizing the victory of antagonist over protagonist. It is also important to note the repeated negative connotations of nature by other characters in this text, as the Sentry demonstrates above. For example, King Creon, when accusing Ismene of participating in the burial of Polynices, calls her a “crawling viper” (140). Similarly, the chorus, when describing the divided household of King Creon, compares it to the “restless surge of the sea” and the consuming power of fire (143). Finally, Antigone, when describing her fate, compares herself to a Phrygian maid who was imprisoned in a fashion “merciless as the ivy”, while the “rain and snow/Beat down upon her” (148). Taken together, the repeated repudiation of a protagonist’s objective by natural elements, the symbolic death of Antigone while confined by natural elements, and the leitmotif of the negative associations of nature cumulatively create nature as a vilified, central antagonist in this play-text.
Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antigone rely on the natural world to provide antagonistic forces for the protagonists of each respective story. In Shakespeare’s infallible comedy, nature removes character agency, interferes with the ability to achieve clearly defined objectives, and encompasses the other adversaries of the lover characters, who are the central protagonists of the piece. In Sophocles’ model tragedy, the natural world prevents the central character from achieving her clearly established narrative objective, creates a character versus character pseudo-conflict through this same denial, and is repeatedly characterized negatively by a variety of the text’s characters. In these ways, both texts employ the same intangible central antagonist: the natural world.
Characteristics of a King Who Can Fight Anarchy And Conflicts In Antigone
Throughout Antigone, Creon maintains complete confidence in his belief that, in order to prevent anarchy and chaos, the rule of a king must be obeyed even it contradicts proper morals and/or the will of the gods. The decisions that he makes in an effort to defend this belief ultimately lead to his downfall and the death of most of his family. Of the many opportunities he is given to retract his decree against the proper burial of Polynices, the most significant are Antigone’s dissent, Haemon’s suggestions, and Tiresias’ prophecy. Through the use of repeated examples illustrating Creon’s failure to change his views, Sophocles demonstrates his own belief that a king who puts his desires above maintaining a moral standing and the laws of the gods is ultimately corrupt and will inevitably be met with bitter consequences.
Antigone’s initial rebellious actions in reaction to Creon’s immoral decision directly exhibit how his belief causes anarchy rather than preventing it. In denying Polynices’ right to a proper burial, a right that is given to all human beings during this time period, Creon is not only acting immorally but also against the will of the gods. Antigone is the first in the play to realize his mistake and that it is her duty to break the rule of the king, claiming “that this crime is holy” (192). Her use of and attachment to the word “holy” portrays Antigone’s loyalty to divinity which happens to be the greatest contrast between her and Creon: their faith in the power of gods. While one could argue that Creon believes his word to be equal or even superior to that of the gods, Antigone “would not transgress the laws of heaven” even if she must act in opposition to the laws of the kingdom because she values life after death over which the gods have immense control(228). Through this statement, she explains how the law of the gods should always be upheld before the law of the kingdom no matter the circumstances. Yet her god-permitted dissent is not enough to swayed Creon’s stubborn mind, thus bringing out objection from a new, more significant source: family.
Creon’s second fatal mistake is his rejection of his own son’s plea to spare Antigone’s life. As Haemon fails to convince his father to change his mind, he becomes more and more disappointed in his father’s foolishness. At first he just suggests that “there are other men who can reason, too; and their opinions might be helpful” (218). Sophocles uses Haemon as a preacher of his own belief in the importance of understanding and even incorporating the ideas of others into one’s own ideas. It is also important to notice Haemon’s choice of words. In using vague language (“there are other men”) and the qualifier “might,” Haemon attempts to make a rational suggestion without offending Creon. However, the king remains stubborn leaving Haemon with no choice but to directly confront him. He even points out his father’s fatal flaw, stating that “it is not reason to never yield to reason” (219). In this remark, Haemon calls out his father for being so stubborn, specifically in his inability to recognize the good judgment of others when it contradicts his own opinions. Through his remark Haemon describes the type of leadership that should be expected of not only the king of Thebes, but the ruler of Athens as well. However, Creon’s stubbornness is too strong as he claims “My voice is the one voice giving orders in this city!” (220), once again denying the existence of the gods’ power within his city and demonstrating how his character in the play fails to understand the significance of the gods and their will. With stubbornness prevailing over even familial dissent, the gods must turn to Creon’s last opportunity to fix his mistakes — through the tongue of a prophet.
The final and most crucial mistake that Creon makes is his disbelief of the blind soothsayer Tiresias’ cautionary prophecy about his absolute rule. As Sophocles attempts again to convey his moral values through his characters, Tiresias states that “a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong” (232). Not only is a literal voice for the gods giving Creon general advice for leadership, but he is also directly stating that the actions that he is currently making are actually wrong. Regrettably, he once again fails to take advice from others, even if it comes from the mouth of a prophet who has previously successfully demonstrated the strength of his abilities to Creon, claiming that “Tiresias, it is a sorry thing when a wise man sells his wisdom, lets out his words for hire” (232). With those words, Creon made his worst mistake of all: repeating the same blunders as Oedipus, a man from whose mistakes he should have learned. In failing to learn from the mistakes of his previous ruler, who was an infamously poor example of a king, Creon has made it clear that he is not worthy of his position in the kingdom. Even with three different chances, each with incentives and logic exceeding the last, he refuses to back down, forcing the wrath of the gods upon himself and causing the deaths of his son, his future daughter in-law, and his wife.
Antigone is a guide by which Sophocles hopes to teach his audience of proper democratic morals. Through Creon’s mistakes and failure to make amends to his situation, Sophocles demonstrates the corrupt nature of leading like such a king and the power and importance of the qualities of humility and self-reflection. While Creon believes that any order of a king must be upheld in order to prevent anarchy and chaos, Sophocles explains instead that others’ opinions must be appreciated, one must be willing to recognize their own mistakes and either attempt to undo them or prevent a recurrence of such mistakes, and that one’s desires must never be held above the will of the gods. Creon’s character is the representation of a leader that is undesirable as a ruler of Athens, giving Sophocles the power to explain the characteristics that are needed in a king in the 400s B.C.E. and into the future.
Metaphors as Euphemistic Action in Tragedy: Indirection, Staging, and Bloodshed in Agamemnon and Antigone
There is no shortage of violence and death in the stories and myths adapted to the stage by the Ancient Greek tragedians. However, these actions are almost never depicted explicitly onstage: murders play out offstage while the audience is only privy to the sound of the victim’s last cries, characters onstage recount violent events in words after they have already occurred unseen by the audience. Typically, the audience only views the aftermath of such an event, if that at all. In lieu of actually reenacting such fatal encounters onstage, Greek tragedians of Classical antiquity (such as the fifth century Aeschylus and Sophocles) perhaps opted to communicate these events through vivid metaphors. The enactment, or reification, of these metaphors can be done in an entirely bloodless way while still evoking powerful, emotionally resonant images of real violence and death. In this way, metaphors in tragedy—such as the carpet scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the “marriage” of Antigone to Death in Sophocles’ Antigone—allow a tragic poet working under the constraints of Ancient Greek staging to depict violence onstage in a way that more effectively informs the audience about the characters or themes of their work.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the Argive king, recently returned from a ten-year battle with Troy, is killed by his wife Clytemnestra for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia at the outset of the war. Despite being a defining moment of the Greek myth surrounding Agamemnon’s return to Argos, this act happens out of view. The true climactic scene of the play comes, instead, when Clytemnestra brings out a red carpet for Agamemnon to step onto from his chariot. Ostensibly, this is an act of love and reverence for her dear husband who valiantly fought and conquered the Trojans in battle, and clearly this is how Clytemnestra wishes Agamemnon to receive her gift: “Such is my greeting to him, that he well deserves” (Aeschylus l. 903). However, like much of Clytemnestra’s speech in this play, her words here are expertly double-edged. She counts on her husband’s pride to infer that she thinks so highly of him that he could rightly walk on (and in so doing ruin) expensive, luxurious red robes. Indeed, such a presumptuous action is acknowledged by Agamemnon as “befit[ting] the gods, and none beside,” so he initially refuses his wife’s request (l. 922). On the other hand, from Clytemnestra’s point of view, Agamemnon is the wretched killer of her beloved daughter; these red robes thus represent the innocent blood he shed and the life so rashly tread upon in the pursuit of glory in the Trojan War.
The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is of course never shown in Agamemnon, but this scene offers the audience something of a metaphorical reenactment of Agamemnon’s commitment of the act that also serves to illustrate vividly Clytemnestra’s own stance on the matter. While Agamemnon initially turns down Clytemnestra’s offer to march upon the red carpet, her persistence eventually wins out, and his “feet crush crimson” as he walks with his wife toward their home (l. 957). This action has two layers of meaning. The first is that it demonstrates Agamemnon’s pride and aggrandized sense of self, a trait that Clytemnestra knows she can rely on. After a few lines of exchange between the husband and wife, he deigns to perform an act he has recently described as permissible only for the gods. This is not to say that he now believes himself a god, but rather that he had always thought himself worthy of it. Any prior objections were likely an attempt to save face in the eyes of his peers. This scene reveals his true character as perceived by Clytemnestra: prideful and shameless. The second layer of meaning is that of the metaphor for Iphigeneia’s death. Agamemnon’s feet destroy precious crimson fabric, much like how, in the eyes of Clytemnestra, he destroyed the life of her precious daughter. While subtextual, this reading is no doubt evoked within the audience by the blood-coloration of the carpet and the act of destruction. Agamemnon’s treading on the red carpet is an echo of his previous actions, and Clytemnestra sees it as yet more proof of the wretchedness of his character which condemns him to die at her hands. This metaphor for Iphigeneia’s death thusly acted out onstage serves dual purposes of providing a way to depict this violent action (while still adhering to the conventions of Ancient Greek tragic theatre) and of manifesting physically just how Clytemnestra views her husband’s misdeeds.
Likewise, in Sophocles’ Antigone, the metaphor of “marrying death” expresses more than just the action symbolized. In this play, the cursed daughter of Oedipus is sentenced to die for having performed the proper funeral rites for her brother Polynices against King Creon’s orders. Once again, the actual event of Antigone dying is not shown, but the imagery of her metaphorical death is repeatedly provided throughout the play preceding it. Once Antigone is convicted of this crime, other characters and even Antigone herself begin to talk as though her death will be more of a marriage. Upon interrogating her and discovering her motives for defying his decree, Creon responds, “Go down below and love, / if love you must—love the dead” (Sophocles ll. 591-592)! Antigone is a being made to love, in her own estimation, but the unfortunate circumstances of her birth and her family line preclude any possibilities of normal, non-incestual love. She cares deeply about her family, a sentiment that likely reflects her father’s relationship with their mother in being incestual. Her father and two brothers now dead, though, Antigone’s love can only be directed at the deceased. The metaphor continues with references to her eventual tomb, a place described by the sympathetic chorus as a “bridal vault where all are laid to rest” (l. 899). This combining of marriage and death in one image is reinforced with Antigone’s words as she faces the reality her fate: “O tomb, my bridal-bed” (l. 977). Here, no husband is explicitly provided for Antigone to wed, but it is clear enough through the repeated pairing of these two major life events that the very act of dying will be a “marriage” of sorts to death.
Although Antigone later describes herself as going to “wed the lord of the dark waters” and a messenger designates her as “the bride of Death,” this metaphor of marrying death is more about Antigone’s unwavering love for her late relatives than it is about a suicidal infatuation with the concept of dying itself (ll. 908, 1238). Discussing Antigone’s death in such terms is somewhat euphemistic, but the real aim in employing this imagery is to highlight her feelings of love that go beyond the grave. Again, her death is not displayed onstage, but the realization of this metaphor is shown in its aftermath: the messenger’s narration of the discovery of Antigone’s body hung by her wedding veils corporealizes this hitherto only alluded to imagery. Even though it occurs out of sight, her passing can be vividly imagined, and the presence of this metaphor throughout the play allows for it to be so striking and to mean something more to the audience. Instead of simply taking her life to avoid dying a slow death in her tomb, Antigone’s suicide comes to embody her undying, incestual love for her family. This exhibits the tragic poet’s adeptness at finding ways to best utilize the conventional constraints of staging of the time to enhance his work.
Although Ancient Greek tragic theatre typically did not allow for much show of physical violence onstage, poets like Aeschylus and Sophocles found ways to work around or even use this constraint to their advantage when crafting their works. As can be seen in the carpet scene of Agamemnon and the marriage of Antigone and Death in Antigone, metaphors made real can present visually descriptive scenes and pregnant events that communicate more to the audience than if the violence or death itself had been enacted onstage. Such metaphors allow the poet to express more information and in a more visually or conceptually compelling manner.
Comparing Hubris Pride to Antigone’s and Oedipus’
The idea of hubris is monumental in a plethora of Greek mythological works. In many ways the excessive pride of certain characters fuels their own destruction. This is certainly true with respect to the characters of Pentheus, Antigone, and Oedipus. All three of these characters demonstrate, through their actions, various degrees of arrogance that seem to undercut the traditional role of the Gods, and thus largely contribute to their downfall. However, it should be noted that while each of these characters demonstrate hubris, they way in which their arrogance manifests itself is unique to each character.
Pentheus, the authoritarian newly appointed king of Thebes is immediately troubled with the rising influence and odd rituals that surround Dionysus. He seeks to prove his authority and influence over the kingdom, and crush the leader of these ecstatic rituals, which he perceives as a direct threat to his rule. Early on in the play Pentheus is warned by Tiresias, the old seer of the kingdom not to over stretch his bounds and to respect Dionysus as he would the other gods. “No we don¹t play at theologians with the gods. We stay close to the hallowed tenets of our fathers, old as time. Nothing can undo them ever. I don¹t care how brilliant or abstruse the reasons are” (Euripides 404). This passage is significant because it provides Pentheus with a direct warning not let his own pompous notions of earthly and temporal power go against the divine will of the gods. Pentheus disregards the warning and goes ahead in a direct act of sacrilege by destroying the sylvan alter and detains Dionysus. As Pentheus interrogates Dionysus he again is issued a direct warning not to go against the will of the gods by persecuting one whom the gods favor. As Dionysus calmly states, “Very well, I¹ll go along with this wrongful undestined destiny, but remember this: Dionysus, who you say does not exist, will wreak revenge on you for this” (Euripides 417). The story culminates in Dionysus playing on Pentheus¹ curiosity and voyeurism regarding the intoxicated hordes of Thebian women, by tricking him to go out to see them in action. Pentheus is brutally ripped apart by the possessed women, yet in effect it was his own actions that caused his destruction. As Dionysus directly addresses the hubris of Pentheus, “The sins of jealousy and anger made this Pentheus deal unjustly with one bringing blessings, whom he disgracefully imprisoned and insulted; and so he met his end at the hands of his own kin an unnatural end and yet a just one” (Euripides 453).
Antigone also over steps her bounds, yet in a drastically different way. Rather than embracing the authoritarian ideals and decrees of Creon, the Stalinist new leader of Thebes, Antigone¹s dual sense of pride and stubbornness fuels her personal reactions. Her belief that her brother deserves a proper burial seems to transcend logic and directly counter both temporal and divine authority. Antigone herself, by burying her brother, has taken on the role of the gods. Thus, she contributes to her own downfall. While Antigone believes that her actions are defending a moral good, it is the way in which she goes about her actions that propel her own hubris. She makes the burial rights a public question, rather than using tact and diplomacy to approach Creon as Haemon demonstrates. Both Antigone and Creon are wrapped up in a personal struggle that is quite stubborn. Her actions, like that of Creon¹s, are acts of hubris. The fact that Creon is wrong doesn¹t justify the actions of Antigone. In this respect both characters are quite similar despite their protagonist nature. As the chorus states, “Surpassing belief, the device and cunning that man has attained, and it bringeth him now to evil, now to good” (Sophocles 14).
Oedipus perhaps demonstrates the most direct and painfully obvious acts of hubris of the three characters. His temper plays a crucial role throughout the play, along with his arrogance. He possesses a precipitous rage in his blind quest to uncover his past. Again, his grandiose sense of pride and impulse ignites his destined downfall. From the onset, the vanity of Oedipus is latent when he travels, against warnings, to the oracle of Delphi. His inflated notions of his stature as ruler directly question the authority of the gods, and lead to his eventual decay. Oedipus represents common notions inherent in tragedies of the precarious sense of human prosperity. Oedipus, in an extremely short time, has extreme highs and lows, which demonstrate the classic patterns of the god¹s rough justice. This sudden and constantly altering nature of fate leads Oedipus to glory, yet his stubborn and arrogant quest to see¹ ultimately blinds him, as he is reduced to nothing in an instant. Oedipus¹ story exemplifies how destiny is inescapable. His quest to outwit fate, in effect, perpetuates his own destruction. This notion of tragic irony trying to run away from destiny yet perpetuating it instead, illustrates the hubris of Oedipus. By disregarding the knowledge and warnings of Teiresias, and thus the gods, Oedipus¹s stubborn sense of pride goes directly against the will of the gods. Ironically it is Oedipus who states, “True; but to force the gods against their will that is a thing beyond all power” (Sophocles 57). Simply put, Oedipus can not see that his actions are doing just that, and only when his hubris is punished and he losses his literal eyesight, can he finally see the truth.
Sophocles’ Antigone Relativist Justice
The trio of classic Greek texts, The Last Days of Socrates, Antigone, and The Eumenides all strike a contrast between public and private morality. In each work one person carries forth an unpopular action that he alone believes in, and must later justify the result that, while deemed unsatisfactory by the greater public, he feels was necessary for his own private conscience. For Socrates, philosophizing his version of the truth was his own private responsibility that was scorned by the public. Antigone’s loyalty lay with her brother rather than the state that decreed he not receive a proper burial. Orestes sought vengeance against his mother for killing his father, though that meant committing a heinous crime he knew would not be well received. Each hero challenged the absolutist notion of justice and shifted the public’s attention to a more relativist interpretation as he appealed to common sense rather than entrenched archaic tradition, and each one valued the word of the gods over the word of his human rulers.
In The Apology, Socrates defends himself against the charge of “…committing an injustice, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example.” (19b) In other words, he is accused of delving into supernatural matters others rely upon the gods for, is a sophist, and corrupts the youth. To justify his role as philosopher, Socrates first reminds his accusers of the oracle’s proclamation that he is the wisest man alive. Though he erases some of the blatant immodesty from this statement by attesting that the oracle truly meant “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless,” (23b) the appeal to the gods is a technique of justice that Socrates knows is infallible; no mortal can refute the opinion of deities.
Socrates furthers his claim for the necessity of his proselytism in his cross-examination of Meletus, a system in which he asks leading questions he knows the examined will agree to, thus allowing him to build up a counterpoint as he exposes the fallacious logic his opponent has employed. For Socrates, justice comes in the scientific form of deduction, not in random points thrown about haphazardly. Socrates asks Meletus “…who is it that makes the young good?” (24d) to which Meletus eventually concurs that everyone in “Athens has a refining effect upon the young, except [Socrates]; and [Socrates] alone corrupt[s] them.” (25a) This is an easy point for Socrates to refute as this time, instead of invoking a god’s statement, he uses an analogy of horse-trainers and horses to derive the logical statement “…that the ability to improve [horses] belongs to one person or to very few persons, who are horse-trainers, whereas most people, if they have to do with horses and make use of them, do them harm?” (25b) Syllogism is a staple of Socrates’s argument, because only through irrefutable logic, and not emotional appeal, can he exonerate himself.
After much more inference in hopes of acquittal, Socrates finally maintains that his allegiance is to God over his fellow mortals. He is a staunch believer in perseverance, as he claims “Where a man has once taken up his stand, either because it seems best to him or in obedience to his orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger…This being so, it would be shocking inconsistency on my part…when God appointed me…to the duty of leading the philosophic life…to desert my post.” (28d,e) He feels he is the chosen one and must continue his ways regardless of punishment. He would even deny the compromise of acquittal with the qualification that he cease philosophizing, for he reasons “I owe a greater obedience to God than to you…I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and indicating the truth…for I spend all my time going about trying persuade you…to make your first and chief concern…the highest welfare of your souls…” (29d,30b) This mulish sentiment is what eventually leads to Socrates’s punishment by death, but his point rings clear: justice should be interpreted logically, rather than emotionally, and the edicts of the gods and personal beliefs hold more substance than the orders of an unwise, unjustified public.
Sophocles’s Antigone begins with Oedipus’s two cursed daughters, Antigone and Ismene, discussing the public decree that forbids the burial of their brother Polyneices, who was a traitor to the state. Antigone sees the disobedience to this law as admirable, and tells the hesitant Ismene “soon you will show yourself as noble both in your nature and your birth, or yourself as base, although of noble parents.” (42-4) Antigone believes one’s actions form one’s character, and lineage plays no part. Ismene tries to soothe her sister’s anger in a self-subjugating monologue: “You ought to realize we are only women, not meant in nature to fight against men, and that we are ruled, by those who are stronger, to obedience in this and even more painful matters…I shall yield in this to the authorities.” (70-3,77) Ismene believes that justice is, in Thrasymachus’s words, the advantage of the stronger. Inferiors should bow to their leaders no matter how unfair the situation may seem. Antigone is a far more independent woman, and holds the immortal to a higher standard than the mortal: “The time in which I must please those that are dead is longer than I must please those of this world. For there I shall lie forever. You, if you like, can cast dishonor on what the gods have honored.” (86-9) Like Socrates, she values the gods and her personal beliefs more than the fickle orders of her rulers, and thus will perform proper death rites the gods would approve of for someone she loved, though that means certain death.
Creon soon enters the story as the leader who outlawed Polyneices’s burial. His philosophy as to the character of a man is outlined in a speech to the chorus: “It is impossible to know any man…until he shows his skill in rule and law. I think that a man supreme ruler of a whole city, if he does not reach for the best counsel for her, but through some fear, keeps his tongue under lock and key, him I judge the worst of any…” (195,97-201) He believes justice is that which aids the city the most; in this case, justice entails punishing a traitor and honoring a good citizen, as that encourages good behavior among his people. When Antigone is brought to him as the culprit of the burial, he cannot fully believe she would break his law, to which she replies “Yes, it was not Zeus that made the proclamation; nor did Justice…I did not believe your proclamation had such power to enable one who will someday die to override God’s ordinances…They are not of today and yesterday; they live forever…I know that I will die…But if I dared to leave the dead man…dead and unburied, that would have been real pain. The other is not.” (494-501, 504,510-2) Her reiteration of her convictions that the immortal and the personal prevail over the public does not phase Creon, who stubbornly sentences her to death, stating “I hate indeed the one that is caught in evil and then makes that evil look like good.” (538-40) His disdain for sophistry is apparent, but he refuses to see any point of view other than his own, even when the noted seer Teiresias explains that sacrificial rites are no longer accepted by the gods: “This is the city’s sickness?and your plans are the cause of it…So the gods will not take our prayers or sacrifice…All men can make mistakes; but, once mistaken, a man is no longer stupid nor accursed who, having fallen on ill, tries to cure that ill…It is obstinacy that convicts of folly.” (1072,6,80-5) Teiresias introduces here another element of justice, wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to select the right course of action, even if it means self-disavowal. Creon is steadfast in his opinion, though his desires conflict with the good of the city. It is only when his son kills himself in protestation that he admits “The mistakes of a blinded man are themselves rigid and laden with death.” (1339-40) He changes his mind only when motivated by personal emotion, not abstract theory, exactly what Antigone believed in when she disobeyed his command. Relativism has unseated absolutism even in the mind of the most headstrong, and once again common sense and obedience to the gods are given first order as the Chorus ends the play with the lines “Wisdom is far the chief element in happiness and, secondly, no irreverence towards the gods.” (1420-1)
Orestes, the matricidal hero of The Eumenides, explains his murder in a simple exposition to Athene: “It was my mother of the dark heart, who entangled [my father] in subtle gyves and cut him down…I came back and killed the woman who gave me birth. I plead guilty. My father was dear, and this was vengeance for his blood. Apollo shares responsibility for this. He counterspurred my heart and told me of pains to come if I should fail to act against the guilty ones.” (459-67) Since he valued the life of his father over that of his mother, he was just in killing her, and doubly so because of the encouragement he received from a god. The Chorus, the prosecution in his trial, believes, like Creon, in determent, and cries “Here is overthrow of all the young laws, if the claim of this matricide shall stand good, his crime be sustained. Should this be, every man will find a way to act at his own caprice…There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” (490-5,517-9) Once again, private responsibility mixed with decrees of the gods conflict with the public good. Apollo, acting as Orestes’s lawyer, backs up Orestes’s previous statements, stating “Never…have I spoken a word, except that which Zeus…might command. This is justice. Recognize how great its strength…For not even the oath that binds you is more strong than Zeus is strong.” (616-21) He then goes on to minimize the importance of women: “The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts.” (658-60) It is this misogyny that swings the decision in Orestes’s favor, as Athene declares “…I am always for the male with all my heart…So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband…her death shall not mean most to me.” (737-40) Her vote breaks the jury’s tie, indicating the harsh divide among Greeks at the time concerning private versus public morality and its relations to justice.
Socrates, Antigone, and Orestes all contributed to the ever-evolving thrust of individualism and independent thought in ancient Greek. Using relativism and support from the gods (which was the Greek equivalent to the human psyche) to warrant their actions, they negated the prevailing sense of absolute acquiescence to the public that had previously hung over their states. Of course, tragedy was the result in all three cases, with the heroes themselves dying in two of them, so it is clear that acceptance of this newfound ideology was hard to come by. Still, public dominance was eroding as the Greeks could not avoid the strong rush of logic and personal commitment coming their way, a new blend of science and humanity, that would forever change the face of justice.
Denial of Glory: Batman And Creon
A little boy went to the corner store to pick up the newest edition of his favorite comic; Batman. The boy entered the store and despite his efforts to withhold his excitement, dashed straight to the massive stack of magazines the store had received at nine that morning. He scanned the comics and magazines until his eyes marked his target. He slowly removed the comic from its place, cautious not to bend any edges. But when he took a closer look, his wild-eyed expression changed to one of confusion. The title wasn’t Batman: The Masked Avenger, as advertised in the last issue, but rather: Robin: A True Hero! He sighed, and despite his upsetting discovery, sat on the tile floor and read the comic. As he read, he was increasingly disturbed as the character of Robin, whose name had proudly been marked as the title, wasn’t nearly as much of a main character as Batman. And he was jolted severely when only halfway through the adventure, Robin was captured by the wily Joker, and didn’t appear at all until the child closed the comic, done with his reading. This situation may sound familiar. Throughout the Greek play Antigone by Sophocles, there exists a dispute as to who should receive the designation of main character. Antigone, the daughter of the cursed King Oedipus, as well as Creon, stately king of Thebes, both appear as the key figures in this historic play. I believe that Creon, king of Thebes, should be considered the main character in this work of Greek theater. Three points can be used to make this argument: Creon suffers greatly, he learns a lesson, and is a tragic hero.
Creon, like all main characters in Greek drama, suffers many losses and undergoes emotional pain and anguish. A target of the curse on the House of Oedipus by relation, Creon was already a victim of fate. His destiny has already been predetermined by the curse on the house of Oedipus, so he must either undergo suffering, death, or even both. He loses his future daughter-in-law, Antigone, by initiating her death, his son through suicide, and his wife by suicide as well. Antigone broke a decree of Creon’s: not to bury the traitor Polynices. The sister of Polynices, she breaks this new law because she knows that in order to please the gods she must so the right thing and bury Polynices. When she does Creon sentences her to death by sealing her in a cave. After realizing that he has made a critical error, he and his followers unseal the rocky tomb to find that Antigone has taken her own life. Creon’s son, Haemon, the to-be husband of Antigone, rushes into the cave in mourning. He attempts an attack on Creon, but fails to connect with his sword thrust, and in anger and remorse kills himself with his weapon beside his dead love. Creon, overwhelmed with anguish, returns to the castle. But when Creon’s wife, Eurydice hears of her son’s death, she slips away quietly and stabs herself in the heart with a dagger before Creon’s return. Creon realizes that all of the blame for these deaths rests on him alone, and undergoes great suffering, just like other central figures in Greek tragedies. For example, in the play Medea, by Euripides, Medea suffers the loss of her family, friends, land, and children. Creon faces this same kind of suffering, and wishes for his life to end to stop his suffering. He poetically states in the play, “Come, thou most welcome Fate, Appear, O come; Bring my days’ final date, Fill up their sum! Come quick, I pray; Let me not look upon another day!” (51). So with all this suffering, one might ask what the purpose of such a depressing play might be, or what lesson Sophocles attempts to teach us. This brings up the concept of morality. Creon did not get out of this sticky situation without getting something from it.
Creon learned valuable lessons of morality, moderation, piety, reverence, wisdom, and humility. Throughout all Greek dramas, myths, and even architecture, the idea of moderation has always been the front-runner in lessons. Creon, a rather overconfident king, wants his authority and power in the polis to not be challenged. New to the job, he makes his first judgment against the body of Polynices, instructing that his body is not to be buried and left for the dogs, threatening death by public stoning if one dared to disobey him. After making his decree, he boldly stated, “No man shall bury, none should wail for him;…His body shall be left to be devoured / By dogs and fowls of air.” (9) But his bad attitude gets ahead of him when Antigone warns, “If the sin / Belong to these-O may their punishment / Be measured by the wrongfulness of mine!” (34) Even so Creon seals her in the cave. He is further warned by the wise seer Tiresias who tells that he must release Antigone immediately as well as perform the proper burial rituals for Polynices. Creon refuses to comply, accusing Tiresias of taking bribes, but the lead speaker for the Chorus persuades him to do so because of the fact that the seer has never been wrong. He does so, but he suffers the consequences of his stubbornness. The Chorus of Theban senators puts Creon’s lesson in words well.
Wisdom first for a man’s well-being
Maketh, of all things. Heaven’s insistence
Nothing allows of man’s irreverence;
And great blows great speeches avenging,
Dealt on a boaster,
Teach men wisdom in age, at last. (52).
Creon learns that a boaster will surely exceed the boundaries of being a moderate person, which surpasses the normal for modest living. He says sadly, “Ah yes, I have learnt, I know my wretchedness!” (48). In the end, he knew of all his errs and learned from them.
At the center of every Greek tragedy exists a tragic hero, and Creon is just that. He fights for the right, makes a choice that results in suffering, tries to reverse an injustice, has a character flaw, and despite his efforts, becomes one of fate’s victims. Creon was crowned king when the current king Eteocles was killed in the Battle for Thebes, which was initiated when Polynices attacked the city. Creon took the throne with a sense of aggression towards the enemy of Thebes. He punished a traitor, and punishes anyone who sided with the traitor. Creon’s sentencing of death to Antigone was a choice that resulted in great suffering. The decision to execute her set off a chain reaction that ended with a body count of three and one remorseful king. When Creon realizes that his actions against both Polynices and Antigone are terribly immoral, he immediately makes an attempt to correct them by burying Polynices and attempting to free Antigone. He therefore tried to change a wrong, his judgments against Polynices and Antigone, to a right. Creon has a character flaw that reinforces his role in this difficult situation; his arrogant attitude. His arrogance, or hubris, gets him into heated debates, arguments, and confrontations with his followers, such as the Sentinel, his victims, Antigone, and even the wise seer Tiresias who has never been wrong. When done talking with Creon, Tiresias says, “And let him vent his spleen on younger men, And learn to keep a tongue more gentle, and / A brain more sober, than he carries now” (40). And finally, Creon suffers the wrath of fate. Throughout all Greek tragedies and myths, people and even Gods have attempted to evade their fate, but have never been able to do so. Creon is affected by fate through the curse of Oedipus. The Chorus recites:
The stress of a Fate is hard;
Nor wealth, nor warfare, nor ward,
Nor black ships cleaving the sea
Can resist her, or flee. (35).
Creon may not wear a black cape, cowl, and jumpsuit, but he could be compared to Batman in the situation described earlier in the paper. Despite the fact that the play’s name stands as Antigone, I still believe that Creon should be recognized as the central character in this play. He lives longer, has more lines, stands in the middle of many moral arguments, and doesn’t pull a disappearing act in the middle of the play. Provided with this knowledge, maybe a reader will read the play Antigone with a new prospective, and look at the story from both point-of-views. Not placing Antigone as the ‘good-guy’, and Creon as the ‘bad-guy’, but thinking of the pair as good people fighting for the right in conflicting situations.