"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

12 February 2014

Antigone, by Sophocles

Creon: I find intolerable the man who puts his country second to his friends (350).

Leader: No man is mad enough to welcome death.
Creon: And death is it. But greed of gain
has often made men fools (350-351).

Antigone: I never thought your mortal edicts had such force
            they nullified the laws of heaven,
            which unwritten, not proclaimed,
            can boast a currency that everlastingly in valid,
            an origin beyond the birth of man.
And I, who no man’s frown can frighten,
            am far from risking heaven’s frown by flouting these (358).

Antigone: I died long ago,
            when I gave my life to serve the dead (361).

Antigone: No husband dead and gone, no children lisping “mother”
            ever could have forced me to withstand
            the city to its face.
By what law do I assert so much? Just this:
            A husband dead, another can be found,
            a child replaced, but once a brother’s lost
            (mother and father dead and buried too)
            No other brother can be born or grows again.
This is my principle,
            which Creon stigmatized as criminal,
            my principal for honoring you, my dearest brother (372).

Creon: It’s hard to eat my words, but harder still
            to court catastrophe through overriding pride (378).

Messenger: There is no stable horoscope for man.
Take Creon:
            he, if anyone, I thought was enviable.
He saved this land from all our enemies,
            attained the pomp and circumstance of king,
            his children decked like olive branches round his throne.
And now it is undone, all finished.
And what is left is not called life but death alive (380-381).

I think Antigone can be a difficult play to write about because it is such a difficult play to interpret. Part of this results from Sophocles’ skill at shifting how we feel about characters in such a swift but subtle way—in Antigone we begin (I think) absolutely on Antigone’s side, seeing Creon as an autocratic tyrant, but by the end Creon has come face-to-face with his fate and been so destroyed that we pity him. Although he is fundamentally a weak man, Creon also shows himself much more flexible as a pawn of fate than Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. In that play, Oedipus hears the warnings from Jocasta, the shepherd, and Tiresias, but refuses to relent in his headlong pursuit of the truth. Creon, on the other hand, after speaking with Tiresias, reconsiders his position and decided not to punish Antigone and to bury Polyneices’ body. Of course, because it is a tragedy, Creon makes this decision too late and dooms everyone, but his willingness to be ruled by the prophecy of the gods forces us to reconsider Creon’s role as a leader and as a character.

Antigone is another difficult character to get a good grip on. The anti-feminist reading might see her as a kind of death cult figure, in love with her own doom, or as a strong willed woman interfering with things she shouldn’t. However, I think many modern readers/viewers primarily sympathize with Antigone and see her as standing up for the rights of the individual and as a model of female empowerment. Of course, this is problematic because Antigone is not standing up for individual freedom in the sense that vulgar American ideology might posit it—she stands up for an equally stringent set of laws, but they are religious laws/traditions and the ancient law of the family/clan. The issue ultimately hinges on what Creon says in the first quote above—the sometimes competing loyalties between country and family. In some ways this is a clash between the ancient clan system and the emerging political state (a clash played out very differently in many of Aeschylus’ works, like the Oresteia or Prometheus Bound). While Aeschylus tends to side with the forces of progress away from the clan/violence culture, Sophocles is more ambivalent, punishing both the champion of the family (Antigone) and the champion of the state (Creon).

Antigone is the last play of the Theban Cycle, but it was the first written, sixteen years before Oedipus Rex and roughly forty before Oedipus at Colonus. Although it was the earliest written of these three plays, Sophocles was already a mature man (in his fifties) and a mature playwright (with thirty plus plays and several first prizes behind him).

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