Pride in Antigone
In his play Antigone, Sophocles’ main point is that pride is despised by the gods and punished without mercy. The gods are extremely vengeful and unforgiving throughout the play. The play presents various other themes including individual versus state, conscience versus law, moral or divine law versus human law; gender and the position of women; inaction/lack of agency versus agency; and the threat of tyranny.
These themes move along the action of the play, bringing it to the play’s final conclusion – King Creon’s downfall. Creon’s downfall is further evidence of the extremely vengeful nature of the gods, who force him to be punished because of his display of hubris, or pride.
The plot of the play begins with King Creon who decrees that the traitor Polynicesis not to be buried. However, Polynicesis’ sister Antigone defies the order (as cited in Sophocles 2005). She is caught, and sentenced by Creon to be buried alive, even though she is betrothed to his son Haemon.
After the blind prophet Tiresias proves that the gods are on Antigone’s side, Creon changes his mind, albiet too late (as cited in Sophocles 2005). He goes first to bury Polynices, but Antigone has already hanged herself. When Creon arrives at the tomb, Haemon attacks him and then kills himself.
When the news of their death is reported, Creon’s wife Eurydice takes her own life. Creon left is alone at the end of the play to pay for his sins against the gods (as cited in Sophocles 2005).
There is no question that pride, throughout the context of Antigone, is a trait despised by the gods and punished without mercy. In Antigone, Sophocles describes the type of pride that allows men to create laws that substitute for divine principles. In other words, when Creon creates a law because he believes it is divine will, this is the ultimate display of punishable pride, for no man can ever create a law that is equal to or above divine right (as cited in Wycherley, 1947).
As a result, when Tiresias comes with the news that Creon will suffer, Creon realizes that he has made a terrible mistake, and yet still refuses to admit it, bending to the prophet’s message only because he wants to preserve his life, not because he knows he’s gone too far. As a result, he must suffer the loss of his family.
The gods are extremely vengeful throughout the play. The gods are displeased that Antigone’s brother Polyniecies is kept unburied. In Greece, it was necessary for the dead to be buried otherwise they would not enter the underworld (as cited in Linforth, 1931). Thus, Antigone is more concerned about the law of the gods goes forth to bury her brother even against the order of Creon the king of Thebes.
It is because of her attempt to burry her brother and obey the will of the gods that she is caught and eventually kills herself. Meanwhile, Creon is told about the gods displeasure but while he manages to bury the body of Polyniecies, he fails to stop the suicide of Antigone and her fiancé, this in turn causing his wife Eurydiecies to kill herself as well.
Therefore, Creon looses both his son and his wife. The plot of the play basically goes to say that divine law cannot be altered by any mortal (as cited in Margon, 1970). Creon attempts to break the divine laws by not allowing the burial and, in doing so causes the deaths, of Antigone, his son and his wife. The role of the gods is divine authority (as cited in Margon, 1970). Creon goes against their will and looses all.
The contribution of the gods to the events of the story may be open to largely different interpretations, ranging from indirect influence to constant involvement (as cited in Jacobs, 1996). Taking the story at face value, it can be seen that while the direct interaction of the gods was nonexistent, their indirect effect on the stated beliefs and actions of the main characters influenced the events of the entire play (as cited in Jacobs, 1996).
The character of Antigone was portrayed throughout the tragedy as being clear of mind, always certain not only that honoring the divine was the proper course to take in any situation, but also of how exactly to pay respect to them, as in her quote, “I know I am pleasing those I should please most” ( Sophocles, 2005).
Another theme that the play touches on is individual versus state; conscience versus law; moral or divine law versus human law. These three conflicts are very closely related, and together they can begin to untangle some of the central issues of the play (as cited in Butler, 2000). Antigone and her values line up with the first entity in each pair, while Creon and his values line up with the second.
Antigone continues to be a subversive and powerful play, and the inspiration for generations of rebels and dissidents (as cited in Butler, 2000). The conflict between the individual and the power of the state was as pressing for Greek audiences as it is to modern ones. Antigone is a threat to the status quo; she invokes divine law as defense of her actions, but implicit in her position is faith in the discerning power of her individual conscience (as cited in Butler, 2000).
She sacrifices her life out of devotion to principles higher than human law. Creon makes a mistake in sentencing her, and his mistake is condemned, in turn, by the gods. However, his position is an understandable one. In the wake of war, and with his reign so new, Creon has to establish his authority as supreme. On the other hand, Creon’s need to defeat Antigone seems at times to be extremely personal (as cited in Butler, 2000). At stake is not only the order of the state, but his pride and sense of himself as a king and, more fundamentally, a man.
Another theme present in the play is gender and the question of the position of women. Antigone’s gender has profound effects on the meaning of her actions (as cited in Willner, 1982). Creon himself says that the need to defeat her is all the more pressing because she is a woman. The freedom of Greek women was extremely limited (as cited in Willner, 1982).
The rules and strictures placed on them were great even for the ancient world. Antigone’s rebellion is especially threatening because it upsets gender roles and hierarchy (as cited in Willner, 1982). By refusing to be passive, she overturns one of the fundamental rules of her culture. Ismene, Antigone’s foil, is completely intimidated by the rule of men and believes that women should be subservient to them or risk incurring their wrath.
Men are stronger, she says, and therefore must be obeyed. Ultimately, however, she has merely bought into the problematic concepts that Creon espouses, for even when Creon realizes he may be wrong, he switches his defense, arguing that even if he were incorrect, he couldn’t admit defeat to a woman, for that would upset divine law even more than backtracking on his principles (as cited in Willner, 1982).
It is this fundamental untruth that Sophocles’ play seeks to correct, mainly through the punishment that the Gods inflict on Creon as a result of his obtuse and misguided thinking.
Another theme present in the play is inaction/lack of agency versus agency. When faced with injustice, Antigone and Ismene react quite differently. Antigone acts aggressively, progressively, while Ismene more conservatively (as cited in Clancy, 1954). Ismene is not so much afraid of injustice as she is frightened of her own demise and she cannot bear to incur the wrath of men for fear of being condemned to the same fate as the rest of her family.
After watching her father and brothers die, she believes that the best course of action is to lie low and obey. In the case of Ismene, it seems inaction is tied to fear, at least until she willingly offers to die next to Antigone, at which point we realize that she is not so much inactive as she is unsure of her place as a woman (as cited in Clancy, 1954).
Thus, while Ismene is a figure characterized principally by doubt, Antigone is one who plunges ahead purely on self belief and her firm convictions about right and wrong (as cited in Griffith, 1990). Ultimately, then, because of these fundamental differences in philosophy, they cannot die together; though Ismene wants to, Antigone forbids it.
The final theme is the threat of tyranny. In Sophocles’ time, Athenians, and particularly Thebans, were sensitive to the idea of tyranny and the fine line between a strong leader and a brutal tyrant (as cited in Adams, 1955). Creon is in many ways a sympathetic character, but he abuses his power subtly, mainly by decreeing man’s law as a consequence of divine will.
His faults do not necessarily stem from a lust for power, for he often has noble intentions. He is completely loyal to the state, but is subject to human weakness and poor judgment. Indeed, at the beginning of the play he frequently comments on his desire to do what’s best for Thebes and gains the confidence of both Haemon and the Chorus of Elders, who say that they will follow him if that is his goal (as cited in Adams, 1955).
And though he continues to reprise this theme, Creon is clearly more concerned with preserving certain values of law rather than the good of the city. When faced with a choice that would preserve ‘tradition’ or his own interpretation of the rule of law against a more progressive approach that does not follow precedent but clearly benefits Thebans, he chooses the former (as cited in Adams, 1955).
Therefore, there are many themes throughout the play, but they all boil down to the very important central theme throughout the play – pride. The play is strongly against pride which is greatly looked down upon by wrathful gods. The other themes throughout the play move along the action of the plot, bringing it to the final conclusion of King Creon’s downfall.
Creon, because of his pride, is forced to face the death of all of his loved ones and live in misery alone. Therefore, it is pride that is the ultimate theme of the play, along with the vengeful nature of the gods.
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