Response to The Following in Antigone Play
The theme of the play, Antigone, is, indeed, the opposition between human laws and divine laws, the former represented by Creon and the latter mainly by Antigone. In other words, what we witness in this play is not a conflict of personalities, but of ideologies, or a clash of principles, Creon representing the secular or political ideal and the other representing the religious and spiritual ideal.
Creon stands for the state or organized society which has framed certain guiding principles to maintain and strengthen itself, and to ensure its continued stability. On the face of it, these guiding principles or social formulations are sound, and theoretically nothing can be said against them.
But Antigone and others campaign something higher, something more essential, and something more instinctive and less rational, in short, something divine. Antigone is unable to appreciate the validity and weight of the position taken up by Creon.
On the other hand, Creon is unable to perceive or appreciate the divine sanction behind the position adopted by Antigone. Both Creon and Antigone are justified in their own ways but unfortunately each is incapable of comprehending the other’s point of view and hence the tragedy of both.
As a spokesman of the state of which he is the ruler, Creon makes his position absolutely clear in his address to the elders. This address contains strong reasons for the order that he has promulgated. Eteocles fell fighting gallantly in defense of the city, and has to be honored with burial and all the rights due to the noble dead.
Polynices returned from exile with the intention of burning and destroying his fatherland and drinking the blood of his own people. He must, therefore, have no grave, no burial, no mourning from anyone; his dead body is to be left unburied, to be eaten by dogs and vultures, a horror for all to see.
Creon justifies this decision by pointing out that it is his duty to look to the stability and welfare of his country, and that if a man acts in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the country. He can never call himself a friend of the king.
Later, in the course of his interrogation of Antigone, Creon makes the same point: Eteocles defended his country while Polynices attacked it; a dead patriot and a dead traitor must not receive the same treatment. An enemy cannot be regarded as a friend even when he is dead. On the surface this reasoning is perfect.
Creon has his own honesty, his own justification and his own sense of responsibility as the ruler and as the principal holder and defender of the laws framed by the government. He is neither unintelligent nor irresponsible. He has his own field of action and his own principles.
Unwittingly, however, Creon is violating a divine law which demands that a dead body should be properly treated and should not be allowed to be mutilated by dogs or vultures, no matter whose dead body it was. There was, among the Greeks, a strong belief that the ghost of a dead man could not have peace if the prescribed rites of death had not been performed. In spite of that, Creon chooses to take a decision which goes contrary to the will of the gods.
However, Antigone and the others are against Creon for this action of his as he is violating a divine law. Antigone believes that she is prompted by the gods to defy the ban because the gods demand a certain respect to be shown to a dead body. Moreover, the dead man whose burial has been banned was her own brother, her mother’s son, and her natural instinct does not permit her to allow this dead body to remain unburied and be eaten by dogs and vultures.
That she is prepared to die for her defiance of the ban serves only to show how strong is the hold upon her mind of the law of the gods and also of the family tie which binds her to her dead brother. She justifies her action with reference to her duty towards the gods and her duty to her dead brother.
To Creon, she says that the order banning the burial had not come from god, and that the edicts of a king cannot overrule the unwritten, unalterable, and everlasting laws of god and heaven, because a king is only a human being. Again, she declares that she could not commit the sin of transgressing the heavenly laws, even if she has now to die for what she has done. She further asserts that, having buried her brother, she has earned a great honor. She believes in sharing her love, not in sharing her hate. Thus she has fulfilled her duty to the gods and to her dead brother.
It has, however, to be recognized that even her insistence on her duty to her dead brother is in one sense, a plea for honoring the will of the gods because the feelings which parents have for their children, which children have for parents, and which brothers and sisters have for one another, have also a certain sanctity and may be regarded divine in origin.
In short, Antigone is upholding one code against another, the divine or heavenly code against the secular, or political or human code. Her disobedience to the king or the state may thus be defended on the ground that she is asserting the right of an individual citizen to carry out duties which have a divine sanction.
True wisdom consists in reverence towards the gods, and in a recognition of deep human instincts which, in the present case, mean a due respect for the dead and a strong loyalty to one’s kin.
The final lines of the Chorus state the conclusion the tragedy has come to. It comments on the play as a whole. This closing speech of the Chorus contains the moral that is to be conveyed to the audience. The moral is stated for the benefit of the audience, no doubt. The moral, it is to be noted, is applicable chiefly to the case of Creon; and only to a very small extent, and in a limited way, to Antigone.
It was Creon who was guilty of excessive pride and who showed a want of reverence towards the gods. Antigone had a touch of pride, undoubtedly, but it was the pride of the right kind. It was family pride, a sense of family honor, a kind of self-respect. But Creon’s pride was of a sinful kind; it was a pride which took no account of the laws of heaven and which aimed at self-glorification as much as the prestige of the kingdom, suppressing all human feeling and ignoring all family ties.
The pride of an arrogant man is severely punished. Happiness lies largely in wisdom and in an attitude of awe and reverence towards the gods. Pride is always punished by gods and we realize this only when we have grown old and when it is rather late. The want of wisdom and the want of reverence towards the gods on the part of Creon was responsible not only for the tragedy of Antigone but also for Creon’s own tragedy. Hence the state and church should not be separated but should be blended together harmoniously using wisdom.
A compromise between social laws and divine laws are feasible only if they complement each other. That a human law should contravene a divine law is really unfortunate and something hard to comprehend, because normally a government frames laws which are in consonance with the religious views of the people, and not laws which infringe upon the people’s religious beliefs.
If in this case, Creon’s decision violates a prevailing religious belief, it is because of sheer ignorance on Creon’s part. It is another matter that his eyes are not opened either by Antigone’s reasoning or by the report that Haemon brings as to what people are thinking.
Creon’s refusal to heed either Antigone’s views or Haemon’s advice is due to sheer obstinacy. Creon’s eyes are open only after Teiresias’s stern warning and frightening prophecy. But, in the meantime, one tragedy, that of Antigone, has already taken place, and the second, that of Creon himself, has become inevitable.