Antigone: Sacrifice and Justice

The last of Sophocles’ Theban Plays  is Antigone, which was not written as part of the same set as Oedipus the King or Oedipus at Colonus, but is a good fit. Antigone is one of two daughters of Oedipus who comes into conflict with Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ wife (and mother) Jocasta. Her two brothers Polyneices and Eteocles have fought over the rule of Thebes, which led Polyneices to besiege the city to take it from Eteocles. Both die in the battle, but Creon who now takes power, has very different ideas about what it to be done wit the corpses of the two brothers. Eteocles was ruling the city, was therefore guarding it against Polyneices, and Eteocles orders an honourable funeral for him. Since Polyneices was the invader of the city, he is counted as an enemy by Creon, who commands that the body of Polyneices should be left on the battlefield, unburied and unmourned. The idea produces complete horror for Antigone,whose sister Ismeme is also horrified but less willing to take action though in the end wishing to share Antigone’s sacrifice.

Antigone takes the decision to resist Creon, and insists on burying Polyneices. The act is something that brings her into a sharp conflict between familial duty based  on divine law, and the commands of the sovereign. Leaving Polyneices unburied means that he becomes part of nature, as vultures and wild dogs will feed on him. There is an exclusion from human community and for Antigone a horror at the thought of her brother’s body decaying in the wild. Antigone is not yet married, and is clearly not at all experienced in intimate relations, as would have been expected of a woman of her standing. She is the daughter of incest, and there is a hint of improper desire in her attitude to her brother’s body.

Her repeated disobedience to Creon leads to entombment while still live, so that she becomes someone on the border of life and death. Oedipus crossed boundaries, killing  a man at the crossroads in the woods outside Thebes, the challenged and defeated the Sphinx, he became king in a city where he had no hereditary right, he found he had confused mother and wife, lost his sight, and went into the wilderness . Antigone challenged Creon, twice tried to bring her dead brother from the desecrating wilderness to ceremonial burial, and was placed between life and death. Antigone’s punishment leads to her suicide by angling in the tomb, paralleling the death of her mother after finding she has married her son. The death of Antigone leads to two further deaths, as her fiancé Haemon commits suicide after finding Antigone’s dead body in the tomb. Haemon is the son of Creon, and his death leads to the suicide of his mother Euydice.

Creon’s command to leave the body of Polyneices unmourned, and his determination to enforce this command on his niece, leads to the death of his niece, his son and his wife. The death of his son follows Creon’s retreat from his wishes to enforce his commands absolutely. Like Oedipus, he comes in conflict with the prophet Tiresias. Tireseas exposes Creon’s claim to just kingship when he provokes anger. This follows, as with Oedipus’ earlier anger against Creon, Creon’s anger and conflict in relation to Antigone, Ismeme (the other daughter of Oedipus) and Haemon. Unlike Oedipus though, Creon does give way to the advice of Tiresias, who predicts disaster for the city otherwise. He gives way to that advice and voice of the chorus, standing for the people of Thebes. His initial stance is to claim to listen to the people, but to insist on the absolute authority of his own commands.

In the play he progresses to a more real willingness to listen to other voices, and does not arrive at anything like the total downfall of Oedipus. However, that evolution of his understanding that his power is best used when not exercised t the most extreme limit follows three deaths which leave him isolated as king in that his closest family members have gone, because of his tendencies to autocracy. An autocratic tendency focused on his attempt to deny the most basic relation of the community to death, and of family members to keep dead members within the community after death, through the proper ceremonies. A way of regulating the relation between life and death that is about the relation with the gods, which is a way of summing up the community’s relations with death, nature, its outside in various forms, internal divisions, and its enduring nature despite death and change. Antigone is named after the central female character for good reasons, but it is the story of how a male ruler who learns to understand that power is better exercised within limits, through a most devastating series of personal losses and challenges to his authority.

The play Antigone has two points of concentration: the sacrificial death of Antigone; the melancholic survival of Creon. Sacrificial death of a woman who might challenge male power is inevitable in Greek tragedy, its values are those of a very patriarchal society. The plays expose a deep ambiguity in which it is recognised that women can be agents of justice and possessed of the capacity to criticise power gone beyond measure. Creon can only be a good ruler after learning from Antigone, becoming her in some way. He placed her alive in a tomb, which might serve as a metaphor for her relation to his kingship.

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