Antigone

20 Jul 2010 by Fausto Sicha, No Comments »

By: Fausto Sicha

Sept. 2007

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          Antigone is an excellent play with a powerful message, an unforgettable lesson, and a mistake that is repeated over and over again.

          This short but interesting play reveals that what we tend to think of as modern-day issues, such as the role of women in society, political leadership, conflicts between the beliefs and morals of the individual and the laws of a society, are in fact issues that have been troubling people for thousands of years. The message of the play is about the need to obey the law while still following the dictates of one’s own conscience and beliefs. It is also about the need for leaders to be firm in their leadership, and yet open to discussion and differences of opinion. In life it is important for everyone, especially leaders, to never be so presumptuous as to think they are all-knowing and infallible in their judgment.    

          Being open to discussion, different opinions, deliberation, negotiation, and compromise are the best avenues to deal with problems and find reasonable and fair solutions. Being intolerable, believing that one is right and that everyone else is wrong, ignoring the unwritten laws, customs, traditions, and beliefs of the people does not work today, nor did it work in the time of Sophocles. The description of the play follows.

          A recent war has killed two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. According to the wishes of their dead father Oedipus, the nation of Thebes was to be ruled by the brothers in turns. In the absence of a leader, Creon, Oedipus’ brother in law came to power. Creon decreed that Polynices would not be buried, because he returned from exile, fought against Thebes, and nearly brought the city to ruin. Eteocles on the other hand, defended Thebes, and therefore would receive a hero’s burial. Antigone, the sister of the two dead brothers, sees no fairness in Creon’s decision. For her, this decision disregards the duty that family members owe one another. Antigone is determined to bury Polynices, and seeks the help of Ismene, her sister. Ismene decides to follow the king’s decree even though she loves her brother Polynices. Although Ismene agrees with Antigone’s motives, she is too fearful to defy the king.

          Antigone succeeds in burying Polynices, and Creon’s new decree is that whoever buried or mourned Polynices must be put to death. 

          Creon’s use of words like “principle” “law” “policy” and “decree” make it clear that in his view, government and law are the supreme authority. In fact, Creon tells his son, “The  man the city put is charge must be listen to, in small things and in great, just and otherwise.” (49) According to Sophocles, the desire to live within a city is emblematic of humanity’s highest endeavors, because as Creon says, “Our city is our safety, and it is only when she sails safely that we can make friendships.” (15) It is true that there is a sense of safety and security in knowing that one is a part of a community. However, the safety of that ship may be called into question if the leader steering the vessel is not doing his job properly. Creon seems to think that the only way to keep the city afloat is by the absolute deference of all its citizens to its ruler.

         From this point of view, the desire to live within a city is emblematic because one puts the common good and the well being of the state before the personal good. A noble citizen living within a city or state, not only deserves respect, but his actions should be honored with imitation. The government, the law, and respect for the king’s decrees are a fundamental part of the state according to Creon. Whoever goes against these principles may be considered an enemy of the state. It is not clear how much Polynices cared about Thebes, but his actions of leaving the city, coming back with an army, and almost destroying the city are regrettable.

            One might argue that Polynices caused a good part of the suffering of Thebes. However, Creon’s actions and decrees eventually destroyed the whole nation. Throughout the play quotes such as “a woman will never rule me while I am alive.” (41) “Whoever transgresses and breaks the law, or thinks to give orders to his superior can win no praise from me” (49) suggest that Creon was never open to discussion. From this, one can conclude that as a king, Creon was not open-minded. People obeyed his decrees not because in his character one saw leadership, but out of fear. Creon’s own son Haemon tries to point out the flaw of Creon’s inflexibility. First, Haemon tells Creon, “A man who believes that he alone has the ability to think and speak, that he and no-one else possess intelligence- when such men are laid open, they are seen to be empty.” (51) Haemon is trying to warn his father about the danger of being so proud that he sees himself as perfect and infallible. In regard to Creon’s inability to consider the views of others, as well as his refusal to change his own decree once it is given, Haemon tells him “See how the trees that bend beside the storming winter floods save even their twigs, while those that resist are turn up by their roots.” (53) In this way, Haemon is trying to tell his father that what he perceives as his strength may actually be weakness. What Creon would perceive as weakness, flexibility and the ability to bend and give way, is actually strength.

          Creon’s words also describe a world dominated by men. In his battle against Antigone, he is not only determined to stand by his word because he is king; he seems particularly loathe to change his mind because Antigone is a woman. Creon says that if he were to give in to Antigone and let her live then “I am not he man now – she is.” By saying this, Creon is proclaiming a belief in the inherent inferiority of women.  This belief is shared by others in the community. Antigone’s sister Ismene tells her, “We must remember that we were born women, not to fight against men, and that since we are ruled by stronger hands, we must listen.” (7) Although this may have been the general belief in the minds of people during that time, Sophocles seems to suggest that that there is perhaps an inherent superiority in women rather than inferiority. In this play, it is the character of Antigone that acts from the highest moral motives. Antigone has a clear vision of her duty and carries it out, even knowing that it will lead to her own death. This is the type of moral courage, the type of strength that the ancient people wanted to believe was the sole province of men, yet it is a woman in Sophocles’ play who is exemplifying these traits. Perhaps Sophocles is suggesting that a woman may have inherent powers and strengths that could be used for leadership.

          In the play, Antigone personifies the tension between the rules of the gods and the rules of the polis. Antigone points out more than once, that the rules of the gods have been in place from time immemorial, and that the rules of men are only temporary and subject to the mistakes and ignorance of whoever is in charge at any given time. Antigone believes that it is her sacred duty to see to the burial of her brother. While she recognizes the leadership of Creon, and has heard his decree against burying her brother, she tells him, “It was not Zeus who made this proclamation to me, nor did justice who dwells with the gods below lay down these laws for mankind. Nor did I think that your human proclamation had sufficient power to override the unwritten, unassailable laws of the gods.” (35) Antigone feels it is her duty to obey the unwritten laws that have held fast through many different rulers and their changing laws and opinions. The conflict that Antigone personifies is also the conflict that can arise between the desire to obey the law, and the need to follow the dictates of one’s own conscience. Everyone has an inner voice, an inner truth, a moral compass that tells them what is right. What is a person to do when what they know to be right in the deepest core of their being is against the law? Antigone clearly feels the need to follow the dictates of her own conscience. She tells her sister she must follow her own as well. Antigone points out the difference between leadership and power by burying her brother in defiance of Creon’s law. Although Creon is the leader, Antigone shows that he has no power over her. Antigone has decided that the law of the gods and her own sense of right and wrong are what powers her choices. By defying Creon’s laws Antigone takes away his power. By killing herself in the cave before Creon’s sentence against her is fully carried out, Antigone takes even that last bit of power from Creon; she does not even allow him to cause her death. Leadership is not power. A man may be proclaimed leader and yet not be qualified to have power over his subjects.

          Different characters in the play try to let Creon know what flaws there are in his leadership, and what steps could be taken to remedy the situation. Antigone shows by her choices that a successful leader must take into account the beliefs and morality and traditions of the people he is ruling if they are to be expected to follow his rule. Haemon tries to tell his father that flexibility and an openness to debate would make him a better leader. Even the chorus and the prophet Teiresias try to convince Creon that listening to the opinions of others can make him a better leader. Teiresias says to Creon, “Mistakes are common to all men; but when a man makes a mistake, he is not foolish or doomed to failure if, after falling into trouble he find the remedy, instead of remaining obdurate. Stubbornness brings the charge of stupidity.” (75) He is letting Creon know that while he thinks his inflexibility is strength, there may be more wisdom and strength in the ability to admit you have made a poor decision, and in showing your willingness to try to right your wrongs. While the conflict will always exist between the rules of the gods and the rules of the polis, Sophocles seems to be showing us some possible resolutions to this conflict. These include open debate and discussion, and an ability and willingness on the part of leaders to listen to and respect the views of their followers.

          Unfortunately, Creon’s fatal flaw is pride, and this keeps him from listening to his advisors until it is too late. When he finally decides to free Antigone, it is only from fear that bad luck will befall his family; he still does not really understand the error of his ways. In a way, Antigone and Creon are two sides of the same coin. Both are set in their decisions and refuse to budge. The difference is that Creon’s staunch refusal to change his mind stems from his belief that because he is a man and a ruler, whatever he decides is right and must be obeyed. Antigone’s refusal to bend comes from her strong inner belief that she is doing what is right for her brother. Creon’s strength comes from stubbornness and pride; Antigone’s strength comes from a religious need to do what is right in the eyes of the gods. For this reason, Antigone impresses the reader as a heroine, while Creon is a man full of flaws and weaknesses. In the end, Creon’s stubbornness cost him his son and his wife. Antigone’s decision cost her her own life, but set an example of strength that could perhaps change the thoughts and the future of her people.

          In conclusion, it can be said that Sophocles used this play to convey a strong message about leadership. Leadership is not about oneself, but the well being of the state. The same fallacies of leadership seen in the nation of Thebes ages ago can be seen in today’s world. Once a ruler gains power, he seems to believe that the state belongs to him, and that everyone else is his subject. Even today, in some countries, and with some leaders, contradiction is not allowed, and he who dares to defy a decree is considered an enemy of the state. The outcome of this story could have been different if the two parties allowed negotiation. Antigone died knowing she did what was right. Creon’s misguided concept of leadership caused the loss of all he loved.

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