The Power of Pride in Oedipus Rex and Antigone
What happens when pride takes control of a human? In the plays Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Sophocles paints a dismal picture of what happens, where pride is depicted as both an obstruction to sight and an obstruction to hearing. According to Sophocles, the pride of Antigone, Creon, and Oedipus blinds them from seeing their own stubborn determination and deafens them from hearing the wise counsel of their advisors. These characters’ pride produces tragic consequences not only for the arrogant characters themselves, but also for those closest to them. Sophocles utilizes the prideful determination of Antigone, Creon, and Oedipus to illustrate how disregarding wise counsel leads to fatal errors in judgement.
First, Antigone’s pride takes the form of a stubborn desire to act on her own volition. In the opening act of the play, Antigone, in her arrogant persistence to get her way, does not listen to the counsel of her sister. This initiates a chain of events that leads to her demise. Insightfully recognizing Antigone’s fiery determination, her sister declares “You have a hot mind over chilly things” (Ant. 88) and warns her against the dangers of acting against their powerful uncle Creon, who has commanded that no one can bury Polyneices, Antigone’s brother. However, Antigone is resolved to bury her brother, despite her sister’s warnings about the risk of such reckless actions. Antigone cannot let the matter rest, for in her eyes, she must protect the honor of Polyneices and her own pride by burying her brother. Though Ismene speaks sensibly, Antigone’s arrogant determination to bury Polyneices deafens her from hearing the wisdom of Ismene. Therefore, she wrongfully attributes Ismene’s warning to mere fearful excuses. Ismene, seeing the futility of her counsel, relents, leaving Antigone with a warning: “go, since you want to. But know this: you go senseless indeed” (Ant. 98-99). Through her dogged determination to have her own way, Antigone cannot see the folly of her actions and the consequences for defying Creon. Though some may argue that Antigone was right to bury her brother, there is no doubt that Antigone would benefit from proceeding in a more honorable fashion rather than blatantly disobeying Creon’s decrees. Conceivably, it was more of Antigone’s misplaced stubborn pride, as opposed to true honor, in action when she buries her brother a second time, even though she fulfilled the burial rituals when she buried her brother the first time. As expected, Creon does invoke a fatal punishment on Antigone. If she had listened to Ismene’s warnings against foolishly acting instead of blatantly acting against Creon’s decree, perhaps Antigone’s story would not have such a tragic end. Had she allowed Ismene’s warnings to pierce her stubborn pride, her errors in judgement could have been rectified by allowing Ismene to show her that it was not honor at work in her actions, but rather a prideful, stubborn attitude.
Moreover, though Creon was the one to invoke punishment on Antigone, he also ensured his own demise in his condescending attitude towards counsel. Unlike Antigone’s pride, his pride takes the form of sexism, which allows him to write off his son Haemon’s counsel as foolish love for a woman. In a testament to his own maturity and love for his father’s well being, Haemon reveals to Creon that he has been keeping “watch on all men’s doing where it touches you,” (Ant. 687-689). He questions his father’s course of punishment for Antigone out of this concern, as he discovers that “the whole town is grieving for this girl, unjustly doomed” (Ant. 693-694). Furthermore, he recommends that his father slackens his firm stance against Antigone, for, as Haemon states, “a man, though wise, should never be ashamed of learning more, and must not be too rigid” (Ant. 710-711). Even the chorus leader notes the wisdom of Haemon’s words, agreeing that Creon would be prudent to heed his son (Ant. 724-725). Unfortunately, all the sensibility of Haemon’s words is lost on Creon, who cannot look past his own prideful sexism. Rather than regarding Haemon’s words, which are so undoubtedly rational to the chorus leader and even the city as a whole, he excuses Haemon’s sentiments as simply his feeling towards Antigone doing the talking. Antigone threatens Creon’s masculine pride, and he is fixated on the fact that a woman had the audacity to disobey him. He pours out this anger, which has misogynistic undertones, on Haemon, calling him “weaker than a woman” (Ant. 746) and a “woman’s slave” (Ant. 756). Creon’s chauvinistic pride shows itself in the way he distributes punishment. He does not punish a male guard, who is part of a group incriminated for failing twice to watch over the body of Polyneices. However, when a female dares to cross his path, he penalizes her with the ultimate form of punishment: death. Though Antigone’s crime is arguably more deliberate, the massive difference in Creon’s administration of justice to those who have failed him points towards his sexist attitude. Creon’s dismissal of Haemon’s counsel ultimately leads to the death of Haemon and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. Had Creon listened to the wise counsel of Haemon, he would not have experienced the tragedy of both his wife and his son dying. For if Creon had looked past his misogynistic reasoning for ignoring Haemon’s words he could avoid his errors in judgement in punishing Antigone.
Similar to Antigone and Creon, Oedipus’ resolute determination to act as he pleases keeps him from hearing the warnings of his counselors. Oedipus’ pride manifests itself in his belief that he is invincible against the fate set before him by the gods. As Oedipus searches to find the murderer of Laius, he inches closer and closer to the tragic truth that he is, in fact, Laius’ murderer. When he questions the wise Teiresias, the prophet shrewdly advises Oedipus to not seek the truth, for it will only bring pain. He says, “Let me go home. It will be easiest for us both to bear our several destinies to the end if you will follow my advice” (OT. 320-322). However, Oedipus refuses to let him go, saying “you’d rob us of this your gift of prophecy?” (OT. 323). Furthermore, Teiresias is not the only one to warn Oedipus that he is headed down a dark and dangerous path. Oedipus’ prideful tenacity reveals itself more so as Jocasta offers her counsel, which Oedipus, unsurprisingly, does not heed. Jocasta recognizes that this search will only lead to more suffering, and she entreats Oedipus, “do not hunt this out” (OT. 1060). Oedipus brushes her off, insisting that he must find the truth, despite that fact that she continues to ask him to end this search. Jocasta proclaims that “it is because I wish you well that I give you this counsel- and it’s the best counsel” (OT. 1066). However, Oedipus grows frustrated with Jocasta, saying her counsel “vexes” him, and he continues in his pursuit of the truth (OT. 1067).
Oedipus’ prideful tenacity stems from the evidence that Oedipus believes, at least on a subconscious level, that he is greater than the gods. For before he was king of Thebes, Oedipus left who he thought were his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope, so as to escape the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. It’s as if he believed that he could, by his own power, change the path the gods had set before him. Throughout his search for Laius’ murderer, he consistently ignores the warnings of Teiresias and Jocasta, denying that he could be the murderer because he, in all his strength, obviously escaped the fate of the gods. This prideful belief in his own sovereignty over fate leads to his errors in judgement about the identity of Laius’ murderer. However, Teiresias and Jocasta’s warnings come true, and Oedipus realizes he is, unfortunately, the murderer of Laius. When he finds this, Oedipus cries in despair and remorse, “madness and stabbing pain and memory of my evils!”(OT. 1316). His wise counselors saw through his prideful belief in his own power against fate, and foresaw where his investigation would undoubtedly lead. Had he listened to the wisdom of his counsel, perhaps he would have continued to live in the mindless bliss that he had at the beginning of his reign and marriage to Jocasta.
Despite the fact that Antigone, Creon, and Oedipus’ pride takes different forms, they all make errors in judgment. As Sophocles implies, these errors could be rectified by heeding the counsel of their less hot-headed counterparts. Their counselors had the ability to see through the arrogant determination and self-blindness which displays itself in Antigone through stubbornness, Creon through sexism, and Oedipus through belief in his strength against fate, and can thus offer valuable guidance from a less emotionally charged place. Sophocles offers wisdom on this through the voice of Haemon, saying, “Have you not seen the trees beside storm torrents – The ones that bend preserve their limbs and leaves, while the resistant perish root and branch?” (Ant. 712-714). Through this, Sophocles suggests that those who utilize the wisdom of others and allow themselves to compromise and change based on wise counsel will survive, while those who remain fixated on their resolute desire to do things their own way will perish. Thus, Antigone, Creon, and Oedipus’ prideful determination blinds and deafens them from acknowledging their own limits in their ability to make crucial decisions.
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