Conflict is the essence of tragedy. In his Form and Meaning in Drama, Kitto says that “there is a whole series of personal conflicts in Antigone behind which lies a greater conflict” i.e., conflict with the gods. To illustrate this view, I would start with the Greek attitude to burial because Antigone revolves around Antigone’s burial of her rebel brother Polyneices and its consequences. Then I would explore chronologically the human conflicts arising out of it with divine intervention: e.g., conflict of Antigone with Ismene, Creon with the Watchman, Creon with Antigone, Creon with Haemon, Creon with Teiresias, Creon with the upper and the nether gods and Eros Aphrodite. In my discussion, I would also focus on the socio-cultural, political and religious implications of this pathetic story of conflicts. Besides, I would trace on man-woman conflict or gender-role from feminist point of view, and the conflicts of individual versus state, conscience versus law, moral or divine law versus human law.
Before substantiating the topic, it is necessary to have a glimpse of the Theban legend as a background of Antigone. A war broke out between Oedipus’ two rival sons regarding ascending to the throne. Eteocles was of the entrenched faction, in power in Thebes. And Polyneices was the upstart, a returning exile and he brought an invading army against his homeland. In the course of the battle, the two brothers were slain “by their hands dealing mutual death” (1.16), but Eteocles’ army eventually triumphed. Ascending to the throne, Creon declared that Eteocles should be given a full and honourable funeral, while the body of Polyneices would be left for the animals and the sun. Here comes the importance of Greek attitude to burial. Funeral rites were very important to the Greeks. So burial or mistreatment of dead bodies was a common theme in Greek literature; e.g., the significance of Achilles’ mistreatment of Hector’s dead body in The Iliad. In other words, dying as an animal and not being buried was the worst indignity and negation for a Greek. Indeed, burial was the highest law of Greek state. And human right or dignity demanded that a human being must be buried for the peace of his/her soul in the Underworld. It was believed by the Greeks that unless a body was buried, literally or symbolically, the soul of the dead man could not find rest in Hades; this explains why such importance is given in this play to the burial of Polyneices. Now, Creon’s decree is that anyone who tries to perform the proper funeral rites for Polyneices–will be killed by public stoning.
Now, the plot of Antigone unfolds with the conflict between Oedipus’ two daughters Ismene and Antigone regarding their attitude towards Creon’s proclamation. Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury Polyneices, but Ismene fearfully refuses in pretext of being a woman. Antigone tells Ismene–
“And now you can prove what you are:
A true sister, or a traitor to your family.”
Ismene retreats, warning Antigone to “think of the danger” regarding her plan to break the state law; and that she will not disobey the state because “extravagant action is not sensible” (1.78). As a result, now starts their ideological conflict. Antigone replies––
“If that is what you think,
I should not want you, even if you asked to come. You have made your choice, you can be what you want to be. But I will burry him; and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy….”
The root behind the conflict between Antigone and Ismene is that Antigone is more devoted to her brother, obdurately intent on her self-appointed mission. On the other hand, Ismene is more fragile, afraid of what her sister’s obstinacy may cause to happen. Yet Ismene recognizes where her duty lies, but would not stake her life on what she thinks to be a mad venture. Meanwhile, Antigone reasons that the next world is more important than this one:
“The time in which I must please those that are dead is longer than I must please those of this world. For there I shall be forever”. (II. 86-88)
Ismene is not even able to convince Antigone to be discrete: Antigone will not attempt to perform the rites in secret, but will “shout it out. I will hate you still worse//for silence” (II. 99-100). Actually out of love, loyalty, humanity, religion etc., Antigone proposes to defy all the strength of the king. Her conviction is that the dead person is not under Creon’s rule anymore. So she says to Ismene about Creon’s edict––”It is not for him to keep me from my own”. Thus, Ismene and Antigone appear as foils and rivals. Ismene is ‘reasonable’, timid, and obedient to patriarchal state law. In contrast, Antigone is obstinate, impulsive, moody and decidedly resistant to being a girl like the rest. She is ruled by conscience or instinct and obeys the divine “unwritten law” when it clashes with human law. Ismene develops another form of rivalry between the sisters with regards to feminity. Whereas Ismene is the appropriate, beautiful girl; Antigone curses her girlhood. Antigone in particular manifests her hatred for the ideal of feminity Ismene incarnates in their childhood.
Then comes the conflict between Creon and the Watchman. An out-of breath sentry arrives, hesitating before he gives Creon the news that Polyneices’ body has been buried. Creon angrily accuses the soldier of having accepted a bribe to neglect his duty and threatens to execute him if the rebel is not found. In fact Creon’s outburst of rage against the Watchman is quite an unjust and unreasonable enigma, and is left without any explanation. From Creon’s warning to the Watchman, it is remarkable that ‘bribery’ existed in Greece as well. Again, in the Watchman’s vehement protest against the king’s accusation, there lies a seed of democracy and individuality:
Creon: Oh, born to argue, were you?
Sentry: May be so;
But still not guilty in the business.
Creon: Doubly so, if you have sold your soul for money.
Sentry: To think that thinking men [king] should think so wrongly!
The Sentry tries to convince Creon of his innocence, saying that the event was not his fault, but Creon is imperious and unyielding. Indeed, Creon’s outraged reaction and his imperious threatening of the Sentry show some of his weaknesses. He is prone to anger and has the marking of a tyrant.
The most important issue in the play is the conflict of values between Creon and Antigone. And it starts when Antigone is arrested by the Sentry in the charge of burying Polyneices––by sprinkling earth on his body. Creon lashes out with fury in a burst of anger and addressing Antigone inquires incredulously: “You dared defy the law?” Antigone’s reply at this is calm–
It was not God’s proclamation. That final justice
That rules the world below makes no such law.
Your edict, king, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.”
Indeed, Antigone’s logic is that her dead brother is now no longer under the obligation of Creon. And she is taunting Creon without knowing. She is angrily talking back which a king generally does not like. Actually she is assertive and bold because she is his niece, betrothed to his son and belongs to royal blood. In this sense, one detects and holds another through language. From feminist perspective, it is the woman Antigone, not the traitor, who is disobeying Creon. However, in Antigone’s assertion of individuality, there is another seed of democracy and emancipated individuality. Ultimately Creon orders that Antigone’s doom is to be walled up in a cave until death by starvation.
Again, with the encounter between Antigone and Creon, this tragedy has often been regarded as the classical statement of the struggle between the law of the individual conscience and the control power of the state. On the one hand, Creon symbolizes civic order and supremacy of reason. On the other hand, Antigone symbolizes role of heart over head and intuition hardened by faith. It is to mention that, there is no reason but justification in intuition. Creon advocates obedience to man-made laws while Antigone stresses the higher laws of duty to the gods and one’s family. Creon demands obedience to the law above all else, right or wrong. He says that “there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority”. Antigone responds with the idea that state law is not absolute and that it can be broken in civil disobedience in extreme cases. Thus the concept of citizenship appears most clearly in the values clash between Creon and Antigone. Creon defines citizenship as utmost obedience to the will of the state, and thus condemns Antigone to death when he feels that she has abandoned her citizenship by disobeying him. Antigone allows more room for individualism within the role of the citizen. She accuses Creon of tyranny, while he in turn claims:
“Obedience is due
To the state’s officer in small and great
Just and unjust commandments.”
Here, Creon starts with reasoning, emphasizing a king’s responsibility to maintain order and discipline by running the state strictly. Though Antigone and Polyneices are his relatives, he has to treat with them according to the state law, lest the traitors should become rebellious, or he himself should be called a traitor by the citizens.
Again, from feminist aspect, Creon is more than Antigone’s king: he is also her future father-in-law, as well as the man in charge of her well-being since the exile of Oedipus. Her obligations are not only to the abstract state, but to a man with whom she is intimately connected. In this case, struggle against patriarchy is made literal, as Antigone clashes with the man who has had a father’s authority over her since she was a child, the same man who is her future father-in-law. The result is that Antigone is restricted and ruled not only by a distant state, but by the closest familial relationship: indeed, the state is embodied in the man with whom she has these relationships. Meanwhile, Creon asserts that “when I am alive no woman shall rule” (II. 577-8). And “I swear I am no man and she the man//if she can win this and not pay for it” (II. 528-9). At this point, Creon has equated masculinity with victory and compromise with defeat. Antigone’s gender makes it all the more important than Creon enforces his will.
From religious stance, Creon is defying gods by not burying the dead body. Antigone is defying gods by not obeying the king. Furthermore, Antigone and Creon are both extremely proud people and part of Antigone’s pride is her unwillingness to yield to the laws of man. In her case, pride is an affront to the state, while Creon’s pride is an insult to the divine law. When Creon asks how Antigone could dare to disobey the law, she argues for the supremacy of God’s law––”unwritten and secure”. The tone of her speech is fierce and unyielding, evincing disapproval from the chorus.
From political perspective, Creon is equally fierce in his response, saying that Antigone’s pride or boasting of her deed is an insolence, added to the deed itself. Antigone insinuates that Creon is a tyrant and Creon says that only she believes so. She responds that the others keep their mouths closed out of fear. They rapidly argue about who is right, exchanging fierce words defending their actions against the attacks of the other. Significantly, though Antigone claims to be an agent of the divine will, she is also pitting the judgements of her individual conscience against the dictate of human law; human law here symbolized and championed by Creon. Creon also shows how personally he interprets the struggle against Antigone. He has conflated his own person with the sanctity of the law and the state. The proclamation was his and disobedience means disrespect for Creon, which means disrespect for the law. But it is to mention that Antigone defies the state law only when it clashes with the divine law that she believes highly in obeying, especially when it deals with her family. Likewise, Creon’s action is for the benefit of public welfare, though it suppresses individuality and ritual belief.
Again the conflict between Antigone and Creon is what the whole play is basically all about. Charles Paul Segal writes in his essay “Sophocles’ Praise of Man and the conflicts of Antigone” that the character, like the play itself, have many levels which fuse organically, sometimes indistinguishably, into a complex unity; and here the confrontations of the two protagonists create an ever ramifying interplay between interlocking and expanding issues. The issues that Antigone and Creon have between them are what tie this whole play together and the theme is also developed with the use of their issues between each other and what they believe in. On the one hand, Antigone is a woman ruled more by her instincts and emotions, than her rational faculties. On the other hand, the new king feels that if he lets his citizens disobey his proclamation; the populace will not respect his authority. Indeed, there is a clash of principals. Her appeal is to what we should call the overriding demand of natural love and common humanity; to him, this is nothing but disobedience, lawlessness and folly, with shamelessness added. Thus, an impossible gulf lies between Creon and Antigone.
The conflict between Creon and his son Haemon, with whom Antigone is betrothed, starts when the latter comes to plead Antigone’s cause. On Creon’s side is the argument that no single man, however wise, can be absolutely sure of the rightness of his judgements. “The state is the king!”––cries Creon, to which Haemon’s answer is: “Yea, if the state is a desert”. The monarch remains resolute about his decree of confining Antigone to death in cave. In chorus’ view, the power of love over intellect is the force that has made Haemon dare to brave his father’s wrath. He is subjective when talks come about Antigone.
Furthermore, with great caution and courtesy, Haemon tells Creon that the people of Thebes sympathize with Antigone. And Haemon’s hearing ‘rumour’ about the decree politically indicates the beginning of democracy in Greek community. Through Haemon, Sophocles tells us what the ordinary citizen thinks of Antigone: she deserves not punishment but a crown of gold, for preventing her brother’s body from being eaten by savage dogs and birds. But nothing moves Creon; neither Antigone’s appeal to the laws of Zeus and the nether gods, nor Haemon’s implied appeal to his own love for Antigone and his explicit appeal to moderation and to the common judgement of Thebes. When Haemon says that part of wisdom is the ability to acknowledge other’s points of view and accept counsel, Creon is furious. He asks, “Am I to be taught by mere boy?” and asks whether the king should reward a wicked rebel. Haemon replies that the people of Thebes do not think Antigone to be wicked. At this, Creon responds imperiously, “Should the city tell me how I am to rule them?” (I. 794).
In this way, the two men have a heated exchange, during which Haemon accuses his father of foolishness and Creon defends himself in dictatorial terms. The fighting grows more intense and accusatory, until both men are enraged. Indeed, Creon’s anxieties about power make him behave like tyrant: “Is not the city thought to be the ruler’s?” (I. 800). On this conviction, he claims utter ownership of Thebes––a sentiment that would not have gone over well in democratic Athens. Haemon gives the populist retort: “There is no city/possessed by one man only” (I. 801). Here lies the seed of democracy again. On the other hand lies Creon’s hubris to be unwilling to seek anyone’s counsel. He also works from his conviction that it is an administrative policy and divine power given to him to govern the country as he likes. He is too proud and inflexible that he must insist on his own way. Moreover, he rejects his son’s moderate advice out of stubbornness and an uncompromising attachment to a certain set of virtues.
After that, Creon speaks with urgency to Haemon about the need to defeat Antigone, especially because she is a woman and may usurp Greek male status. A universal conflict lies in the fact that Creon wants Antigone to be a woman (submissive, shut up indoors, obedient, defeated and so on) and needs to make sure that he lives as a man (dominant, free, authoritative, victorious and the like). Gender needs to be maintained along the traditional lines and this division is an integral part of the order which Creon cherishes.
Creon is at his most barbaric when he tells the servants to bring Antigone so that she can die while Haemon watches. Creon’s love of order and the state is carried to an immoral extreme, one that violates the bonds of family. He tries to use Antigone’s death to hurt his own son, abusing his authority for the sake of gratuitous cruelty. Creon thinks that Haemon’s love for Antigone is something that can be set aside to order his order. But he has reduced his son to hopeless rage and despair, by his uncomprehending and brutal treatment of his son’s love. Finally, Haemon angrily shouts that his father will never see him again and rushes out to die along with his fiancée.
Hardly has Antigone been taken away to her cell before the old Teiresias, the blind seer, approaches Creon. He asks the king to heed to his advice, as he had in the past. Remarkably enough, here Creon’s conflict with Teiresias reveals his conflict with gods. According to Teiresias, the natural signs say that the gods do not approve of Creon’s mistreatment with Polyneices’ dead body. On the altars, there is “the carrion meat of birds and dogs//torn from the flesh of Oedipus’ poor son” (II. 1074-5). The gods do not take the prayers or sacrifices of the Thebans, and the birds’ cries are muffled because the birds’ throats are glutted with the blood of Polyneices. He warns that the angry gods will punish the city for this sacrilege, and that Creon stands “once more on the edge of fate”. He also expounds on the importance of taking counsel and says that a man who makes a mistake and then corrects it, brings no shame on himself:
“Pay to the dead his due. Wound not the fallen.
It is no glory to kill and kill again.”
Again Teiresias says to Creon:
“Because… you have thrust a child of earth below
And lodged dishonourably a living soul
Within the tomb; but keep upon the earth,
Unburied and unhallowed, one long due
To them that rule in Hades, wherein you
Nor powers above have portion. By your deeds
You have done outrage both to Heaven and Hell.”
Creon is told that he has infringed Dike. Therefore, says the prophet, the Erinys, the agent of Dike, lies in wait for him and will inevitably punish him. However, the purpose of Teiresias’ prophecy is not only to break Creon’s obstinacy but also to imply the law which has the effect of universalizing all that follows. It also clarifies the divine intervention in human conflicts.
However, Creon suspects Teiresias of making a false prophecy for personal gain and refuses to pay heed to the warning. He even goes to the extent of accusing Teiresias of being a greedy manipulator and bribed. Then Teiresias gives him a prophecy: within a few days, one of his children will die and the city will be defiled––if he does not end the desecration of the corpse and make Antigone free. Again we see that Creon is unable to acknowledge that someone else might be right and he could be wrong. He cannot admit that there is a higher law than that of the state. In fact, such hubris leads him to his tragic life-in-death end.
Even though no supernatural beings appear among the other dramatic personae, the gods have come mysteriously close to the action, as a conflicting force with Creon. It is said that Creon is filled with sin. He honours the laws of the land but he does not acknowledge the laws of the gods who swore him into that position of throne. From this angel, he deserves what he gets, though exceedingly. Because, Zeus hates above everything, the loud boaster like him. According to C.M. Bowra, Creon is revealed to be trying to do something that the gods will not put up with.
In an instant, the chorus shows us where the truth lies: the gods are working with Antigone and Creon is revealed as one who is setting himself in opposition to them. He is defying both the upper and the nether gods by pursuing his anger even against the dead one. What he has done in refusing the burial is an offence against Nature itself, against the laws of the gods, against the constitution of the universe. Thus, Antigone is a story that pits the law of the god’s “unwritten law” against the laws of humankind.
By denying Haemon and Antigone’s love, Creon is engaged in another conflict with Aphrodite, goddess of love. The chorus asserts that in her own way Aphrodite is undefeatable. Love, says the chorus, is invincible, a power that moves through the whole universe, working its will.
“Love sits on his throne, one the great powers;
Naught else can prevail against invincible Aphrodite.”
Love is one of the ordinances; one of the Powers that hold sway in the lives not only of men, but also of animals and the gods. Love, in fact, is a Theos. We cannot fail to suspect that it is Creon who has set himself in hopeless opposition to this god, and the sequel will confirm this suspicion. The instinctive respect that humanity feels towards a dead body is, in Antigone’s words, “a law that the god prizes” (519), “something on which the gods lay great store” (77). Creon does not understand this any more than he understands the power, the ‘sacredness’ of love. In fact, the disasters that overwhelm him come directly from this. Equally, the Erinys discharges her function when Creon is caught in the natural consequences of his own folly of the lack of understanding and humanity.
To conclude, what we have seen is a passionate story of conflict and suffering. But it is set within a religious framework by Sophocles’ treatment with the divine intervention and is thereby universalized. And the centre piece of all sorts of conflicts is unmistakably Creon. Throughout the entire play runs a refrain, the refrain of the two laws. For Creon, reason and civic order are of paramount import. While for Antigone, led by faith and emotion, the spiritual commandment is all. Though Sophocles apparently maintains an even course between the conflicting forces, Antigone’s side seems to be more right than wrong, which is realized even by Creon towards the end. Thus, the play is about a war between different values like individual versus state, conscience versus law, moral or divine law versus human law etc. Antigone proudly defies the laws of men and suffers at the hands of those laws. Creon, in his hamartia of pride, defies the laws of the gods and unwritten morality. As a result, he is susceptible to the operation of Fate or divine retribution and suffers ultimately by leading a life-in-death. From the above circumstances, it can be stated that there is a whole series of human conflicts in Antigone behind which lies a divine intervention or greater conflict, i.e., conflicts with gods. All the conflicts lead to suffering by which human must be wise.
Kitto, H.D.F. Form and Meaning in Drama. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1956.
Milch, Robert J. King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. New York: Cliffs, 1965.
Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Trans. E.F.Watling. Middlesex: Penguin, 1947.