In Antigone, first produced in 442, Sophocles deals with part of the cycle of myths centered on Thebes and the house of Oedipus. Following his disgrace, Oedipus, now blind, quit Thebes and sought refuge in Athens. His sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, then assumed power, taking turns to rule. The brothers quarreled, and Polyneices was expelled. Polyneices returned, invading Thebes with the aid of six other heroes. Both he and Eteocles died in battle before the walls of the city. Sophocles’s play turns on the dilemma created by Creon, the new ruler, who has decreed that Polyneices may not be buried. His body is left to rot outside the city. As the play opens, Antigone and her sister Ismene debate their plans. Ismene reminds Antigone of the terrible fate of their family. “We are in the grip of those stronger than ourselves,” cries Ismene. For Antigone, the choice is clear. “Do as you think best,” she tells her sister. “As for me, I will bury him, and if I die for that I am content.”
The arrival of Creon draws our attention to the problem of power. Creon is called by the chorus the new ruler, by virtue of the new turn the gods have given affairs. He confirms his proclamation, that Polyneices’s corpse shall be eaten by the dogs. A messenger comes to announce that the body has been buried with full funeral rites. Creon orders that the person responsible must be found. The action is then interrupted by a famous ode sung by the chorus, celebrating the glories of mankind. The theme of this ode is the power of humans to bend nature to their will.
Sailing, farming, and hunting all demonstrate man’s dominion over nature. Politics and statecraft are included in the list. The final note of caution expresses a typical Greek sentiment: “Yet in his rashness often he scorns the ways that are good.” Should we read this as subverting Creon’s authority? The play moves toward its central confrontation as the guards return with Antigone. In the battle of wills that follows, Antigone remains steadfast in her insistence that family and natural law required her to bury Polyneices. Creon, however, weaves two themes together in his condemnation of Antigone: He insists on the primacy of law. Antigone disobeyed and must be punished. He is also threatened by her resistance. “But I am no man, she is the man, if she can carry this off unpunished,” he exclaims. Two other characters now enter. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, represents a less extreme resistance. She is the voice of conciliation and compromise. Haemon, Creon’s son and the man to whom Antigone is betrothed, also points out the fatal stubbornness of his father. The play maps the personal onto the political. As Creon says, “Only a man who rules his own household justly can do justice to the state.” The exchange with Haemon undercuts Creon’s appeal to law and authority. “Then no one but yourself may speak, you will hear no reason?” asks his son.
From this point, the play winds inexorably down. Haemon flees. Creon orders Antigone to be locked in a cave: her prison and her tomb. Teiresias, the blind seer, appears to condemn Creon for his impiety: leaving the dead unburied and burying the living. The play comes to a conclusion with a rash of deaths. News comes that Antigone has hanged herself. Haemon, too, has killed himself at the feet of Antigone. In despair, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, kills herself after cursing Creon. Creon is left to contemplate the disasters he has wrought.
The play clearly hinges on the confrontation of Antigone and Creon. Each is unbending in a commitment to either family or state. These appear to be contradictory and utterly at odds with each other. One can either obey the dictates of family honor or the orders of the state. Yet, in actuality, these two spheres are shown to overlap and reinforce each other. We can detect this by examining audience response. To contemporary eyes, Antigone’s fate is dreadful and undeserved and proves that she is right. Creon becomes a villain undone by his own inflexibility. In terms of the audience in Pericles’s day, however, it is the cost to Creon that is critical. As father of a household, he learns that it is his intransigence that has brought down disaster on his family. His son is dead, his wife is dead, and all this has occurred because of his mistreatment of his niece. The true measure of disaster is not the death of Antigone, as terrible as that may be, but the dissolution of Creon’s household that her death precipitates.
[Courtesy: Professor Jeremy McInerney]