The Non-Sacred Monster: Antigone as a Self-Determined Tragic Hero

One of the key thematic threads running through the plays of The Oedipus Cycle is the debate regarding the primary importance between the laws of the gods over those of the State. For example, in both Oedipus Rex and Antigone, the eponymous characters are torn between serving the Theban body politique and heeding the moral imperatives inherent to the prophecies of Fate. In these two plays, judgment falls on the side of the gods, whose laws must trump those of manmade “statecraft” (The Oedipus Cycle, 204). For both Oedipus and Antigone, their tragic heroism, the way they prove themselves to be “better in degree” to their fellow man, derives from their ultimate sacrifice to honor the will of the gods and repair the State.

However, within this dramatic framing, there are fundamental differences between father and daughter that show Antigone to be less the chosen “sacred monster” figure embodied by Oedipus, and rather a model of intelligence and reason who serves the common good. It is through her agency, through her moral choices, that she paradoxically fulfills the will of the gods and protects the communal good, while not being the mere, passive observer of their prophecies. Additionally, because her decisions dramatize the potential conflicting relationship between the laws of the gods over those of the State, Antigone demonstrates how tragedy and turmoil arise as a consequence of this discord. By again honoring her capacities for intelligence and reason, she offers the idea of “conscience” as a possible solution, as a way to incite change within the State and bring these two systems in commune with each other.

Although the “heroic journeys” Oedipus and Antigone traverse lead them to similar ends, and are both guided by a common truth, their particular origins are significantly different. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus denies at every turn the preeminence of Fate. For example, Teiresias is well-known in Thebes as an agent of the gods, as a “lord clairvoyant to the lord Apollo” (15), a (blind) “seer” able to speak on his behalf. Despite this consensus opinion, as reinforced by the Choragos, Oedipus is certain that the prophecies delivered by Teiresias are false. He questions their validity by disparagingly calling Teiresias a “decrepit fortune-teller,” “fraud,” and spouter of “mystic mummery” (21). He also questions the integrity of Teiresias’ character and purpose, accusing him of “infamy” (20) and of conspiring with Creon in a plot against the King. Refusing to concede to Teiresias’ announcement that he is the very “pollution” (19) causing the plague on Thebes, Oedipus insists on the sanctity of the State, as represented by his defense of his position as King. He maintains, for example, that he is the rightful protector of the city-state, his unique (riddle-solving) abilities having initially saved the people from the curse of the Sphinx. It is not until the full details of his wretched back-story are revealed, not until he has conducted various inquiries that belie his fundamental doubt, that Oedipus is convinced of the supremacy and truth of the gods and the inevitability of his fate: “It was true! All the prophecies…I, Oedipus…damned in his birth, in his marriage, damned/Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!” (64) In this way, Oedipus represents a kind of “sacred monster”–a virtuous King who has nonetheless committed a crime so vile, it has ruptured the natural order. He is a figure selected by the gods, then, to perform the divine/inhuman function of both restoring this disrupted balance and, through his own tragic end, teaching the preeminence of Fate. By contrast, Antigone supports the will of the gods (and protects the communal good) not because she is the subject of prophecy, nor as the coerced result of an unequivocal revelation. Instead, she actively seeks out the will of the gods through her particular moral choices, through her intelligence and capacity for reason.

Unlike her father, Antigone embraces the primacy of the gods, which is manifest in her moral imperatives, over the codes of the State from the onset of her dramatic installment. Although both plays are set within the context of a disturbed or unstable city-state (Thebes), the plague at the opening of Oedipus Rex is the result of a deep crime having been committed against nature–the murder of one’s own father and marriage (sexual consummation) with one’s mother–while in Antigone, the inciting dilemma is one of cultural practice — the burial of the dead–and how its implicit ethical questions stage the greater, theoretical debate at the center of The Oedipus Cycle. In this play, Antigone’s brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, have both been killed in the aftermath of war. However, because Polyneices committed two acts of treason, both breaking the terms of his exile and fighting against the side of Thebes, the newly-ascended King Creon has mandated the denial of his proper burial:

Polyneices, I say, is to have no burial: no man is to touch

him or say the least prayer for him…This is my command,

and you can see the wisdom behind it. As long as I am King,

no traitor is going to be honored. But, whoever shows…that

he is on the side of the State–he shall have my respect. (197)

Creon here asserts the sound rationale of his decision, alluding to the clear “wisdom behind it,” and describing those that oppose or question his rules as “traitor(s)” who will not be tolerated (or “honored”). Therefore, as evidenced by this quote, Creon justifies the power, strength and legitimacy of his “command” by associating it with the good of the State. He aligns his decree–and himself as King–with serving the interest of the “public welfare” (197).

Antigone, however, supports another kind of mandate—one, in fact, that more accurately and profoundly attends to the needs of the communal good: the mandate of fundamental moral justice, as inherent to the decree of the gods. She disagrees with Creon’s self-proclaimed “wise” command, and considers it both her duty as sister and fellow human to give her beloved brother a true religious burial. She expresses her point of view in a kind of resolute tenacity that harkens slightly to Oedipus’ prideful denial (according to the Choragos, “Like father, like daughter…both headstrong” [209]). With her sister, for example, Antigone adopts a tone of determination that borders on the callous. When Ismene refuses to join, and thus support, Antigone’s decision to bury Polyneices, Antigone says: “Go away, Ismene:/I shall be hating you soon, and the dead will too,/For your words are hateful” (193). Similarly, she criticizes her sister for siding so vehemently with the State. Ismene is convinced that she and Antigone are powerless against Creon’s rule, and advocates submission: “We are only women/We cannot fight with men…we must give in to the law” (191-192). In response, Antigone not only reinforces the strength of her conviction, but correlates the notion of the moral good with the wish of the gods: “You (Ismene) may do as you like/Since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing/to you” (192). She reiterates this point when defending her actions, her violation of the “burial” mandate, before Creon. Antigone argues that Creon’s laws are weak because they are provisional, the product of a human temporariness, a “now” (208) which pales in comparison to the significance and legitimacy of the “immortal unrecorded laws of God…operative forever, beyond man utterly” (208). Therefore, she disobeys Creon’s decree because she does not invest it with any sense of valid, lasting authority: “It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice/That rules the world below makes no such laws” (208). Antigone, thus, does not come to recognize the supremacy of the gods inevitably, after the full disclosure or revelation of an individual destiny. Unlike Oedipus, her tragic heroism does not stem from her status as the passive subject of prophecy. Rather, her decision to abide the will of the gods, and her demise in death (a suicide by hanging, which itself demonstrates a kind of agency), are the results of self-guided choice informed by a system of values and a capacity for reason and intelligence. This important distinction is reflected, also, in the precise ways Oedipus and Antigone’s acceptance of the gods and tragic ends repair the State, offering a mere purification on one hand, and an actual reversal within the governing body on the other.

Identified as the contagion responsible for the plague upon Thebes, and fully convinced of his (unintentional) culpability, King Oedipus at once understands the necessary, healing goodness of his exile. Specifically, at the end Oedipus Rex, he demands of Creon, “Let me go…Let me purge my father’s Thebes of the pollution/Of my living here” (77). In this way, Oedipus represents the “scapegoat” of ancient religious ritual. A good and well-meaning King, he epitomizes the “best” of the community, a paragon of man, whose ultimate sacrifice would restore the disrupted order of the city-state. Therefore, by virtue of his simply fulfilling a prophecy, an act that was pre-ordained and thus completely outside his realms of choice, agency, and self-determination, Oedipus cleanses an afflicted Thebes. On the other hand, Antigone’s demise repairs the State through a more profound corrective change, further removing herself from the helpless, “sacred monster” figure embodied by her father, and reinforcing her “tragic heroic” figure as one shaped by the powers of human intelligence and reason.

In comparison to Oedipus’ exile, Antigone’s punishment and eventual death serve the communal good by correcting the State, inciting a readjustment within the political establishment that is attributed not to the irresistible will of the gods (prophecy), but to the reasoned decisions of the citizens (that, if correct, will ultimately reflect the will of the gods). Specifically, in Antigone, Creon turns away from his original stance of privileging the sanctity of the State (and thus the authority of his own self) and toward recognizing the supremacy of the gods. As already mentioned, King Creon is an ardent defender of the laws of the State, sentencing Antigone to imprisonment within a cave as penalty for her refusal to obey these mandates. Throughout the play, he asserts his defense of the State against challenges from within. For example, his son Haimon, husband to Antigone, questions his father’s decision, and criticizes the King’s general narrow-mindedness, unequivocal nature and lack of humility/flexibility. He says to his father: “Yet there are other men/Who can reason, too: and their opinions might be helpful,/You are not in a position to know everything/That people say or do, or what they feel:/…everyone will tell you only what you want to hear” (218). Haimon would like his father to be more “changeable” (219), to allow himself to be “moved” and “learn from those who can teach” (219). However, Creon is firm in his choice, insisting that the “State is King” (221) and that all his will, automatically, protects the public interest. Ironically, however Creon also sometimes undermines the community for the sake of his individualism. For example, he asks his son, with some incredulity and disdain, whether the City could ever truly “propose to teach [him] how to rule?” (220) Therefore, he purports to celebrate the “public interest” while simultaneously, and contradictorily, championing his sole authority as King.

Despite his firm standpoint, the resolute, self-important Creon does ultimately change his mind. He eventually believes Teiresias, whose prophecies of “calamity” (231) and doom he, like Oedipus, initially denies (in fact, he calls Teiresias a “doddering fortune-teller” (232), which recalls Oedipus’ earlier disparaging remark of “decrepit fortune-teller” [21]). He recants his sentence on Antigone, admitting that Teiresias’ words have “trouble[d him]” (235) and affirming that, indeed, “the laws of the gods are mighty, and a man must serve them” (236). However, he soon realizes that his reversal has come too late, for, upon opening the door of Antigone’s cave, he discovers her hanged (by her own hand) and his son Haimon also dead, having killed himself in response to her suicide. With the death, also, of his wife Eurydice, Creon cannot help but view this chain of familial murder and tragedy (which also resembles the downward trajectory of Oedipus’ family line) as proof, finally, of the preeminence of Fate over the mandates/control of the State. At the end of Antigone, much like the enlightened but dismal, wretched character of Oedipus at the beginning of his exile, Creon is ruefully aware of his own folly as King. He says to the Choragos, “Lead me away…I look for comfort; my comfort lies here dead./Whatever my hands have touched has come to/nothing/Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust” (245). Therefore, both the technical recall of Antigone’s sentence, and the sobering realization and change of attitude Creon experiences, evidence how Antigone’s demise induces a more forceful, powerful reparative effect within Thebes. As the product of her human choice, a matter of her own determination, Antigone’s death, rather than simply fulfill a “purification prophecy,” actively corrects a flaw within the State. This decision certainly further divorces Antigone from the passive, even hapless “sacred monster” figure symbolizing Oedipus’ tragic heroism. Additionally, however, by pointing to, and then readjusting, a flaw within the governing body, Antigone’s “change” highlights the clashing tension between the laws of the gods and those of the State. She illustrates the negative consequences that emerge from this dueling relationship, and suggests the idea of the citizens’’ “conscience” as a possible way of bridging or reconciling these two systems of laws.

The very fact that Creon “turns,” that he moves from one end of the spectrum of personal opinion towards the other, testifies to the grave disparity and disconnect existing between the moral imperatives of the gods and the political codes of the State. Throughout The Oedipus Cycle, tragedy results from primary characters trying to fight against one set of laws, embrace the other, and challenge non-believers (anarchists) within both camps. Is one “side” ultimately better, more correct than the other? According to first Ode of the Chorus in Antigone, the laws of the gods–and thus the good of the whole–must be abided by above all else. However, this Ode does not reject, but rather exalts, the capabilities of man. According to the Chorus:

O Clear intelligence, force beyond all measure!

O fate of man, working both good and evil!

When the laws are kept, how proudly his city stands!

When the laws are broken, what of his city then? (204)

Here, the Chorus is asserting that the gods’ laws cannot be conquered, but it is also praising man’s abilities and intelligence (as a “force beyond all measure”). Therefore, by representing the close relationship and benefit to both the will of the gods and the agency/reason of man, and yet also highlighting the potential for a toxic clash, the “Ode I” Chorus in particular, and Antigone in general, proves that the communal whole will only survive if the laws of the State and of the gods are made identical.

Antigone’s–or really the any citizen’s–“conscience,” a combination of reason, agency, and morality, is the source from which this harmonizing process can begin. By channeling the will of the gods through her adherence to a personal, rather than State-mandated, definition of justice, but also by not submitting to the pre-ordained design of the gods and maintaining her own choice instead, Antigone demonstrates how adherence to both the laws of the State and of the gods can yield a fruitful, complementary relationship. As long as he possesses an intimate sense of the moral good and respect for the power of the gods, it is once man can make his own decisions that peace, prosperity, and preservation of the community will be ultimately realized.

In conclusion, Antigone does not embody the “sacred monster” figure perpetuated by of her father. Although a tragic hero, and certainly an example of the “best” citizen a village might offer as sacrifice to the gods, Antigone does not manifest the passive qualities implicit to idea of the ritualistic “scapegoat.” She is not chosen by the gods to fulfill some divine function. Rather, she is a tragic hero for the fact that her decisions, her belief in the supremacy of Fate, and her eventual demise, are the products of willful self-determination. The Oedipus Cycle, then, seems to move away from the notion of the “sacred monster.” With Antigone, we encounter an image of the tragic hero as someone who serves the communal good by virtue of her reason, intelligence, and capacity to render a moral choice.