Antigone is a play that is based on the conflict between a young girl and a new King. The young girl, Antigone, is appalled by the King's, Creon's, words. No one is to bury or in any way show respect to her fallen brother, Polyneices. However, Creon is appalled that the traitor, Polyneices, led the attack against his beloved city, Thebes. Scholars have long debated over which side is right: Antigone standing up for her family or Creon defending his city.
The death and burial rites of Polyneices are viewed differently by both Antigone and Creon. Creon is the newly established king whose duty is to maintain order in the city. Polyneices is a traitor to Thebes, one who broke his exile to come back with fire and sword against his native city and the shrines of his fathers' gods, whose one idea was to spill the blood of his blood and sell his own people into slavery (Sophocles 157-58). Creon issued an edict stating that no one was to bury or pay tribute to the fallen solider Polyneices. According to Brown, It was evidently normal practice, at Athens and elsewhere, to forbid burial on their native soil to men convicted of treason or sacrilege (6).
Ruth Scodel adds, In Athenian law, a traitor could not be buried in Attic soil. The relatives of one executed for treason could, however, carry his body beyond the border and give it funeral rites (46). Leaving the body to where it could easily be seen by others serves as a deterrent to committing treason to any citizen who finds it (Brown 148). Creon must protect his city and he is caught in, as Magill puts it, a double bind, which is a situation in which they are doomed no matter which course of action they choose' (1807). Magill also states that Creon suffers because he regards his will as more important than the demands of the gods, although political pressures compelled him to punish the traitor of his city (1807). Creon does what he knows is right for his beloved country and forbids the burial of Polyneices.
Antigone does not agree with this edict. Antigone sees Creon s edict as wrong, plain and simple. From the beginning of the play Antigone passionately attacks Creon s edict. For it is her brother Polyneices, who fought as bravely and died as miserably, who is refused burial (Sophocles 18). Antigone asks her sister, Is mene, to help her bury their brother; she refuses. Antigone then unleashes her rage on her sister, Oh tell it: Tell it to everyone: Think how they ll hate you when it all comes out if they learn you know about it [Antigone s plan] at all times' (69-71).
Antigone, filled with rage and sorrow, must bury her brother alone. Antigone stated that by burying her brother she would be guilty of a righteous crime. She did not mean this. It is interesting to find that The Greek fuses two contrary ideas, combining a rather undignified word for act criminally with hos ios, sanctioned by divine law. Clearly Antigone is being sarcastic and does not acknowledge any actual guilt (Brown 141). Antigone herself is also found in a double bind situation: Although Antigone suffers because she violates the law of Creon by burying her brother Polyneices, she would have neglected her religious duty had she left him unburied (Magill 1407).
Antigone s love for her brother is very powerful and she knows that she is doing what is right. Brown notes, Now most critics still assume, with little argument, that she was under a genuine moral and religious obligation to attempt the burial (7). It is the gods laws that Antigone chooses to follow not that of men. Creon was warned by several people that what he was doing wasn t right. When his own son pleas with him to change his mind, Creon simply disregards his warning because he believes Hame on s judgement is clouded by love (Scodel 50). When Tiresias warns Creon, he disregards his warnings due to bribery.
Creon feels that nothing Tiresias says will happen. While seers have been bribed in the past, in tragedy (as in most fiction of every age) to disregard a prophecy is to invite disaster (Brown 210). Creon feels betrayed by the gods and misses his last chance to escape his edict without injury. Some say that Antigone had the gods on her side. Antigone allegedly buries the body the first time during the still of the night. When the guards arrive, the body was lightly covered with dust and there was not a trace of animal tracks or anything foreign.
Some scholars believe that the light dust helped to keep animals away and concealed the smell of the corpse and others believe that the gods helped keep the body of Polyneices protected from wild animals (Brown 151). The second burial of Polyneices is a mysterious one. Antigone is hidden from the guards by the whirlwind of dust until she is already beside the body; she has traveled to the body through a storm during which the guards were forced to close their eyes. This is an implicit miracle... (Ruth 55-56). Why did Antigone come back to bury her brother the second time? Isn t one ceremonial burial enough? The gods themselves may of buried Polyneices the first time, but if the gods really were at hand, no one knows.
Is it Antigone that is right or is it Creon? There is not a very clear answer to that question. Both Creon and Antigone are right, and both are wrong, so that the spectator must question seriously the values that each represents (Sophocles 411). Sophocles is a master at the use of language. To paraphrase Wolgang von Goethe and Eckerman, when Creon orders his edict, everyone is against him: the chorus, the people at large, Teiresisa, and even his own family. His actions are considered a political crime. ‘ And still', said I, ‘ when we hear him speak, we can not help believing he is somewhat right'.
Goethe and Peter continue by saying, ‘ This is the very thing,' said Goethe ‘ in which Sophocles is a master; and in which consists the very life of the dramatic in general. His characters all posses this gift of elegance, and know how to explain the motives for their action so convincingly that the hearer is almost always on the side of the last speaker' (Wolgang von Gothe and Eckerman 302). This is one reason why siding with either Creon or Antigone is difficult. So both Antigone and Creon succeed. Antigone can claim to have buried Polyneices, although Creon has caused the corpse to be devoured by animals (Ruth 56).
Antigone is now dead and Creon has lost his wife, son, and soon to of been daughter in law. Kenneth Rexroth says The drama is human, not mythic; the protagonist not wiser; experience has been in vain; the burnt children still love the fire… (425). Antigone is dead and Creon might as well be. It is ironic that The very quality [inflexibility and confidence] that made Antigone seem admirable makes Creon seem stubborn and petty... (Magill 1808).
Standing strong allowed Antigone to do things others only dreamed of, but it ended Creon s life, as he knew it. Bloom, Harold, ed. Sophocles. New York: Chelsea, 1990.
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