Moral Lessons in Antigone
The play Antigone was written by Sophocles around four hundred forty B. C. E, in the height of the golden age of Greece. Theater was then, as it is now, a medium through which to implicate the outlooks of its writer and to examine moral issues, whilst providing entertainment. The subjects discussed through theater were often deeply rooted in the dialogue of the characters in the plays and struck the chords of the audience such that enlightenment could take place, and in that day and age this purpose was valued.
Each episode and stasimon was laced with nuances of whatever message the author wished to convey; political themes were common, particularly regarding the foundations of democracy that were being laid, as well as themes of fate and honoring the gods. Sophocles’ Antigone is no exception. The conflicts within the script of Antigone address many larger moral issues, including women’s position in society, reverence for the gods, loyalty to the state and to family, and the dangers of absolute power and pride.
The characters of Creon and Antigone represent opposites concerning these topics, and Sophocles adeptly utilizes them to debate the arguments in question. Neither Creon nor Antigone is in the right, rather both have impure motives- Creon is not completely solidified in his position, and although Antigone persists in hers, her reasoning is unclear- that are corrupted by excessive pride. The women’s inferiority question was alive in ancient Greek theater.
Woman did not have rights in that time period: she could not participate in government, she had no claim to property or belongings, etc. Many playwrights wrestled with this issue, creating characters such as Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Medea, and Antigone that embodied courage in the midst of a man’s world. Ironically, these female heroes would have been played by male hypokrits, as women were not allowed to act in the theater. Sophocles hints at the irrationality of the principle that “one rules, the other is ruled” and the development of a gender hierarchy through the persona of Creon.
Creon makes derogatory comments toward women, such as when he says “there are other fields for him to plow” (line 643) of his son Haemon when discussing the death sentence of his bride, calling Haemon a “woman’s slave” (line 848), and again when he says: Oh Haemon, never lose your sense of judgement over a woman. The warmth, the rush of pleasure, it all goes cold in your arms, I warn you… a worthless woman in your house, a misery in your bed (lines 723-726). Creon’s own judgement proves to be flawed, however, as his tyrannical tendencies are fully revealed, and his comments are seen as expressions of arrogance.
Another segment of the script emphasizes the role that he expects women to fulfill in society- Creon declares “from now on they’ll act like women” (line 652) as he orders that Antigone and Ismene are tied up- this is viewed as prideful by the audience as well because he’s treating them cruelly and unfairly. His sense of the inferiority of women is even more clearly revealed by his articulation numerous times that “no woman is going to lord it over me” (line 593); he says “Better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man- never be rated inferior to a woman, never. (lines 759-761). His belief that men should rule over women is solidified once more when Creon says “I am not the man, not now: she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free”.
It’s apparent because of this line that he feels threatened to some degree by Antigone’s defiance. His monologue preceding it allows the audience to perceive his pride with still more lucidity: No? Believe me, the stiffest stubborn wills fall the hardest; the toughest iron, tempered strong in the white-hot fire, you’ll see it crack and shatter first of all.
And I’ve known spirited horses you can break with a light bit- proud, rebellious horses. There’s no room for pride, not in a slave, not with the lord and master standing by. (lines 528-535). Ironically, Creon ends up proving weaker in his resolve than Antigone, as he retreats from his original decision while Antigone holds to her beliefs even unto death. Sophocles also conveys the theme of egalitarianism between men and women that permeates the play through a remark from Ismene- she attempts to urge her sister to “be sensible”, advising her that “we are women, we’re not born to contend with men” (lines 74-75).
This line accurately encompasses the attitude of the Greeks during the time when Antigone was first performed. Uttered by Ismene, though, who was portrayed as weak and feeble, it takes the form of a limitation that begs to be contradicted- a challenge. Antigone directly confronts this unwritten law, and by depicting her as a heroine and Creon an oppressive tyrant, the play endorses gender equality and rebukes the premise that women are inferior. Another moral issue dealt with in Antigone that was also common to Greek theater is that of the perils of pride and of absolute power.
The combination of democratic principles being integrated into Greek society and the value placed in reverence for the gods serves as the backdrop for the play, in which Antigone poses somewhat of a threat to Creon’s absolute power by defying a law he lays down which she believes contradicts the will of the gods. Sophocles teaches the lesson that absolute power and pride lead to downfall using the character of Creon; the development of his pride, descent into tyranny, and eventual moment of hubris are outlined in the plot and described through dialogue, augmenting the conclusion of these events in divulging the message.
At the beginning of the first episode, Creon makes a famous speech about loyalty to the state and proclaims his commitment to honor those who exhibit loyalty. He uses this reasoning to justify his refusal to give a dignified burial to Polynices, whom he sees as a traitor. At first this seems plausible, but when his decree is defied, Creon embarks on a power trip. His admirable loyalty to his state regresses into self-centered control of it, as he plainly reveals in a conversation with Haemon: And is Thebes about to tell me how to rule? Haemon: Now, you see? Who’s talking like a child? Am I to rule this land for others- or myself? Haemon: It’s no city alt all, owned by one man alone.
What? The city is the king’s- that’s the law! Haemon: What a splendid king you’d make of a desert island- you and you alone. (who knew- Sophocles had a sense of humor! lines 821- 827). It’s evident that part of the stimulus for his rampage is the authority that has been afforded to him- “If this is your pleasure, Creon, treating our city’s enemy and our friend this way…
The power is yours, I suppose, to enforce it with the laws, both for the dead and all of us, the living” (lines 236-239)- and that, when coupled with pride, this ability is a precarious privilege to hold. The first symptom of tyranny that Creon contracts is paranoia. After hearing the news that Polynices’ body has been uncovered, he says: No, from the first there were certain citizens who could hardly stand the spirit of my regime, grumbling against me in the dark, heads together, tossing wildly, never keeping their necks beneath the yoke, loyally submitting to their king.
These are the instigators, I’m convinced- they’ve perverted my own guard, bribed them to do their work. (lines 328-334). He jumps to the conclusion that this is a conspiracy against his rule, then becomes convinced that clandestinely disloyal citizens are collaborating with his guard, further leaping to the idea that his guards had been bribed. The suspicion and furtive rummaging for solutions display a lack of sound judgement and a hunger for power that will escalate in Creon and instigate the tragedies to come.
When it is revealed that Antigone is the culprit, this is further manifested as he perceives her defiance as a threat to his rule (as opposed to disagreement with a single proclamation), saying “she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free” (lines 541-542). The chorus states later, to Antigone, that “attacks on power never go unchecked, not by the man who holds the reins of power. ” (lines 960-961); Creon’s vicious smothering of Antigone when she undermines his authority reveals this tyrannical tendency even more, and also serves to advance his power by displaying his abilities.
He similarly flaunts his power when the Sentry delivers the message that Polynices’ body has been covered, telling him that “simple death won’t be enough for you, not till we string you up alive and wring the immorality out of you. ” (lines 349-350), and when Haemon rebukes his stubbornness, by threatening him: Is that so! Now, by heaven, I promise you, you’ll pay- taunting, insulting me! Bring her out, that hateful- she’ll die now, here, in front of his eyes, beside her groom! (lines 850-854).
This parading of power becomes especially dangerous when Creon’s words and actions become irreverent to the gods. By refusing to allow Polynices’ burial and ignoring the pleas of Antigone to submit to “the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” (line 505), he is declining to defer to what has pleased the gods in the past, although this is minute as he firmly believes that the gods do not celebrate traitors (line 327). Some of his statements in which he makes reference to Zeus, however, are quite blasphemous.
For instance, he demeans the King of the gods and Antigone’s worship of him by saying “so let her cry for mercy, sing her hymns to Zeus who defends all bonds of kindred blood. Why, if I bring up my own kin to be rebels, think what I’d suffer from the world at large. ” (lines 745-738). He repeats this, much more blatantly, when arguing with Tiresias: You’ll never bury that body in the grave, not even if Zeus’ eagles rip the corpse and wing their rotten pickings off to the throne of god! Never, not even in fear of such defilement will I tolerate his burial, that traitor.
Well I know, we can’t defile the gods- no mortal has the power (lines 1151-1157). Although he recognizes his inability to disobey the gods, his determination to fulfill his own desires is such that he has the guile to profane Zeus. Another element of Creon’s pride, and the chief hazard of absolute power, is that he is blind to the counsel and opinions of others. This is exposed when Antigone asserts that there is no greater glory than to give her brother a decent burial (line 560-561), and that “these citizens here would all agree, they would praise me too if their lips weren’t locked in fear” (lines 564-565).
Creon retorts that “You alone, of all the people in Thebes, see things that way” (lines 567-568), demonstrating his ignorance and unwillingness to take other viewpoints into account. Haemon reveals the same fault in his father later: The man in the street, you know, dreads your glance, he’d never say anything displeasing to your face. But it’s for me to catch the murmurs in the dark, the way the city mourns for this young girl… Now don’t, please, be quite so single-minded, self-involved, or assume the world is wrong and you are right.
Whoever thinks that he alone possesses intelligence, the gift of eloquence, he and no one else, and character too… such men, I tell you, spread them open- you will find them empty. (lines 773-776, 788-794). Creon snaps back at Haemon, too, refusing to listen to his counsel (which also serves the purpose of teaching the audience to elude pride and absolute power) and saying “Why, you degenerate– bandying accusations, threatening me with justice, your own father! ” (lines 831-832). He instead demeans Haemon’s words: “So, men our age, we’re to be lectured, are we? –schooled by a boy his age? (lines 812-814).
Creon bequeaths the same response to Tiresias when the prophet warns him of the consequences of his actions, accusing him of being “mad for money” (line 1171) and having a “lust for injustice” (line 1176). He finally realizes his mistakes and follows the advice of the Leader of the chorus after Tiresias leaves, but by the time his actions are reversed, it is too late for Antigone and for Haemon. In addition, the contrast between Creon’s sound judgement in Oedipus Rex and his clouded vision in Antigone is a testament to the negative effects of absolute power.
The fact that his discernment is distorted is explicitly stated by the Sentry- “Oh it’s terrible when the one who does the judging judges things all wrong” (line 366-367)- and by Tiresias- Oh god, is there a man alive who knows, who actually believes… Creon: What now? What earth-shattering truth are you about to utter? … just how much a sense of judgement, wisdom is the greatest gift we have? Creon: Just as much, I’d say, as a twisted mind is the worst affliction known. You are the one who’s sick, Creon, sick to death (lines 1162- 1168).
This assessment of the importance of sound judgement is a sub-theme of the point that absolute power and pride are treacherous, and is further stated by the Messenger that heralds Haemon’s death: “Creon shows the world that of all the ills afflicting men the worst is lack of judgement” (line 1372-1373). Antigone’s exodus well elucidates that the crushing blows that fate deals to Creon are “clear, damning proof, if it’s right to say so- proof of his own madness, no one else’s, no, his own blind wrongs” (lines 1390-1392); they’re proof of his senseless, stubborn stupidity (line 1393, 1394, 1399).
Tiresias says, too, that “it is you- your high resolve that sets this plague on Thebes. ” (line 1123). Throughout the play, Sophocles’ both moral and political message is clearly and convincingly laid out, then partly summarized by the chorus at the end of the performance: Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last these blows will teach us wisdom. (lines 1466-1470).
Through the moral debates of Antigone and in the plot itself, Creon seems to be the antagonist. It is possible to view him as a cruel, irreverent, pompous tyrant that oppresses the pure, innocent, courageous Antigone in her pious and family-honoring purpose. This, however, is not the impression that Sophocles set out to make, and although considering these characteristics of Creon and Antigone is important in analyzing the moral issues within the play, this perspective fails to expose Antigone’s faults and what can be learned from them.
Creon asserts that women should acquiesce to the authority of men and that loyalty to the state should be above all else, and while opposition to him is warranted, Antigone goes to such lengths in pushing the limits of these expectations that she defies her city in a way that is punishable by death. Rather than approaching Creon and presenting her argument respectfully and/or with support from more of his subjects than merely her sister and her fiancee, she brandishes her statement as a holy crusade against tyranny, immorality, and male dominance.
Furthermore, she picks apart his proclamation concerning Polynices’ body, immediately making the assumption that it’s a direct challenge to her and her sister- “such, I hear, is the martial law our good Creon lays down for you and me- yes, me, I tell you” (lines 37-38), calling it “an outrage sacred to the gods” (line 88), and becoming extremely defensive- “he has no right to keep me from my own” (line 59) when it’s not even certain that what she’s heard of his decree is true- “a city-wide proclamation, rumor has it” (line 33).
She rashly and hastily decides hat she’ll “lift up his body with these bare hands and lower it” (line 52-53), bearing in mind the possibility of martyrdom from the beginning- “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: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever” (lines 86, 88-90). When Ismene hesitates to join her in burying Polynices, and even before she tells her of her plans (lines 44-46), Antigone treats her sister as an obstacle in her holy path and aggrandizes herself for going ahead despite the lack of affirmation:
Ismene: You’re wrong from the start, you’re off on a hopeless quest. If you say so , you will make me hate you, and the hatred of the dead, by all rights, will haunt you night and day. But leave me to my own absurdity, leave me to suffer this- dreadful thing. I will suffer nothing as great as death without glory. (lines 108-113. Also see lines 81-83, 97, 100-101). Her method of proposition, instantaneous revolt against Creon’s new law, death wish, treatment of Ismene, and her rants divulge the impurity of her motives in disputing Creon’s edict- she’s unmistakably on a glory spree.
This fact is further proven by Antigone’s refusal to allow Ismene to be convicted as having a part in Polynices’ burial and abusive conduct toward her-“Who did the work? Let the dead and the god of death bear witness! I have no love for a friend who loves in words alone… Never share my dying, don’t lay claim to what you never touched. My death will be enough. ” (lines 610-612, 615-617), ranting about her terribly glorious fatality (see the droning dirge she wails on p. 102-106), and her continual veneration of death- “I gave myself to death, long ago, so I might serve the dead” (lines 630-631, also refer to her dirge).
Antigone’s pride in her piety and loyalty to her family is just as volatile as Creon’s own pride, as is recognized by the chorus: “Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you” (line 962). Both Creon and Antigone are blinded, having logs concealing their vision whilst attempting to remove the specks in the other’s eyes. What distinguishes Antigone as the heroine of the play is that, although contaminated by pride and glory-mongering, elements of the battle she fights are of courage and of standing for honorable values.
She is admired by the audience because she does not bend before adversity” (line 527) in what she originally set out to accomplish. The speech she makes to Creon in defense for disobeying him well represents this agglomeration of selfish and unselfish, logical and irrational thinking: Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation- not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.
They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light. These laws- I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods. Die I must, I’ve known it all my life- how could I keep from knowing? – even without your death sentence ringing in my ears. And if I am to die before my time I consider that a gain. Who on earth, alive in the midst of so much grief as I, could fail to find his death a rich reward?
So for me, at least, to meet this doom of yours is precious little pain. But if I had allowed my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse- that would have been an agony! This is nothing. And if my present actions strike you as foolish, let’s just say I’ve been accused of folly by a fool. (lines 499-524). This justification for her actions combines valour, eloquence, and fidelity to family and religion with self-enhancement and overly compliant receipt of death.
Antigone is not right, though, because her crusade is for her own glory, and this is reiterated by the fact that she was not saved or credited by the gods she claimed devotion to, and again between the lines of her final cry: Land of Thebes, city of all my fathers- O you gods, the first gods of the race! They drag me away, now, no more delay. Look on me, you noble sons of Thebes- the last of a great line of kings, I alone, see what I suffer now at the hands of what breed of men- all for reverence, my reverence for the gods! (lines 1027- 1034).
Neither Antigone nor Creon is right when it comes to the moral issues addressed in Antigone: they are situated at the polar extremes concerning these topics, and the ‘right’ answer can only be found by balancing the two. The larger moral issues at stake in the dispute between Creon and Antigone include the position of women in society, reverence for the gods, loyalty to the state and to family, the dangers of absolute power, and the inevitable payment of the “mighty words of the proud” with “mighty blows of fate” (lines 1468, 1469).
These topics are examined in Antigone using the antithetic characters of Creon and Antigone as well as through other characters, the plot line, and hints of the intended message. Neither character is perfectly in the right*, but scrutiny of each and consideration of other aspects of the play result in the development of a sound viewpoint. Sophocles adroitly intertwined these devices into a tragic drama that successfully imparts moral lessons to its audience, from the fourth century B. C to the twenty-first century A. D. * “They’re both mad, I tell you, the two of them. “