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Literary Critique: Sophocles' Antigone


The scene is ancient Greece. Oedipus and Jocasta are dead, and their two sons, Eteokles and Polyneices have killed each other battling for the throne. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, has assumed the throne as next of kin. His first decree is that Eteokles, fighting for his country and his right to the throne, shall be given a hero’s burial. Polyneices, however, who is considered a rebel because of a marriage alliance with another nation, shall be left on the battlefield to be eaten by vultures and wild dogs, upon pain of death to any who dares bury him. Oedipus and Jocasta also had two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Antigone, believing that the Creon’s decree is unjust, goes out and buries her brother Polyneices, performing all the sacred rites and rituals over him. She is caught, and Creon sentences her to death. Antigone accepts her fate and is left buried alive in a cave. However, Creon’s son Haimon, betrothed to Antigone, pleads her case and finally commits suicide over her when Creon refuses to withdraw his sentence. Creon’s wife hears of this and kills herself, leaving Creon alone to think over the damage his command has caused.

Creon and Antigone struggle over authority, and whose authority is the highest. The plot concerning Polyneices is virtually a McGuffin” (a term which film director Alfred Hitchcock coined meaning the event that set the plot in motion, but is not actually the main idea). It is used only as a jumping-off point for the conflict over authority that becomes the centerpiece of the play.

Creon believes that the State is the ultimate authority; that he is the State due to his kinghood; therefore, he is the ultimate authority. He trusts in his own power to make laws and to judge people. “Will the nation tell me what orders I can give?…It’s my job to rule this land…Nations belong to the men with power.” While he acknowledges the intervening of the gods (concerning the state: “The gods have quaked her in heavy weather. Now they have righted her.”), he does not acknowledge, until the very end, his own subjection to them. The gods, to Creon, are more whimsical in their actions then vengeful. Antigone clearly realizes that the laws of the gods are more important than the laws of any man. “I didn’t suppose your decree had strength enough…to violate the lawful traditions the gods have not written merely, but made infallible.” However, her decision to disobey Creon’s unlawful law was ill-advised and unwarranted. “..even to start is wrong.”

Sophocles keeps his characters complex, not allowing the reader to identify completely with either one. There is no trite answer here. Both Creon and Antigone have good points and bad. Creon should not have made such a dishonorable law, but I admire him for sticking it through as long as he believed it was just. However, his failure to admit his mistake publicly (or privately, for that matter) and correct it turns out to be his tragic flaw. Antigone originally has good motives for her actions, but she went about accomplishing her goal in the wrong way. Her blatant defiance and insensitivity to others, particularly her sister Ismene, make her an unlikable character as we move through the dialogue between her and Creon. I admire her courage, but her character needs a little help. She becomes blinded by her stubbornness to the point that when she is executed, she is no longer primarily concerned with the fate of her brother, but with her own suffering for the sake of morality. In other words, she honors herself and her own actions, rather than those of her brother. “…see what I suffer at my mother’s brother’s hands for an act of loyalty and devotion.”

Creon, on the other hand, is blinded by his own sense of power. In the beginning, he seems genuinely to believe that his law is just, and that he is righteous in his sentencing of Antigone. Creon’s argument with his son Haimon is the first step in his realization of his mistake. Haimon’s argument itself is a model approach. He starts off by praising his father, respecting what he has been able to accomplish. “I lack the power and the training to tell you you’re wrong.” He then moves into loving criticism and advice. “Believe in what someone else says for once.” Only at the very end does Haimon lose his temper and state his intention of dying with Antigone. He makes a statement which really hits on Creon’s problem: “You expect to talk but not listen, and to speak but not be judged by what you say.” Haimon realizes that his father wants to be an absolute authority, a demi-god. Haimon, however, knows that there is a higher authority than himself—his father, whom he treats with respect, and the gods, whom he reveres and defends. Creon refuses to acknowledge an authority higher than himself.

Although Creon and Antigone seem to be exact opposites and in constant conflict, in actuality, they are very much the same. Both have problems with authority: Creon does not recognize that the gods have authority over him, and Antigone refuses to accept Creon’s authority over her. Both attempt to be a law unto themselves. Both are ultimately blinded by their own stubborness: Creon moves from defending the power of the State to defending his own power; Antigone moves from honoring her brother to honoring her own self-sacrifice. Neither accept or respect the advice of others: Creon turns a deaf ear to his advisor Korphaios, his son Haimon, and the local prophet Teiresias; Antigone will not even listen to her sister Ismene. Sometimes the people who have the most in common have the worst conflicts.

While the gods in the play are those of the pagan Greeks, the parallels to the Christian God may still be accurately drawn, at least concerning the question of authority. I believe that God’s laws are infallible and more important than man’s laws. But I also believe that God put authority over us for a reason—for us to obey it. Even if we do not agree with a certain law, we should not disobey it. We should work to change it. Antigone does not even go so far as to discuss her reservations about the decree with the king. Remember, Creon is her uncle. It is not as if she were intimidated by his power—if that were the case, she probably would not have had the courage to disobey him in the first place.

Antigone and Creon argue over the nature and relativity of authority. Antigone says that she is subordinate to the gods, but is really living by her own feelings. Creon says that he is subordinate to the State, but thinks of himself as the State. Both need to learn a lesson about submission to authority, and how to take criticism when they are not submissive.

Note: I worked from a translation by Richard Emil Braun, published by the Oxford University Press in 1973.


This paper originated as a paper for College Composition II, Missouri Baptist College, Fall, 1999.

©1999 by Jandy Stone