Antigone: Book 5
5. Summary of Antigone and Creon
Creon asks Antigone if she told anyone what she meant to do or if she saw anyone on her way. She lies to protect Ismene and says no to both questions. He then tells her to go straight to her room and say she is not well. The Nurse will back her up. He will then get rid of the Guards.
She replies that he should not go to the trouble; she will just try it again. There is a pause as they look at each other. He asks why she buried her brother. She gives the religious reason, that the living are obligated to bury the dead so they won’t wander eternally without rest. Creon says Polynices was a traitor, but Antigone says he is her brother. She admits she knew the punishment before she committed the act. He wonders if she thought she would get off because of her position. She claims she would have done the same if she had been a scullery maid. She knew that her uncle would kill her for it.
He accuses her of having the pride of her father, Oedipus, but he claims he is making a new history for Thebes now, and there will be order. He explains to her that being a king is not personal; it is like a trade that he takes seriously. He tells her that she is going to marry Haemon and have a son. He doesn’t care what she thinks of him. She must go to her room. He volunteers that he is actually fond of her and gave her her first doll.
Antigone gets up to go out, as though to commit the crime again, and Creon says that there is still a chance he can save her if she co-operates. He reminds her that the act is meaningless since there are more Guards who will undo her work. He speaks of the hypocrisy of the priests who can’t possibly have the power to make the dead rest, and she agrees that it is true. He says her act is therefore absurd, and she agrees. She does it only for herself. She provokes him, saying he cannot save her or stop her. Creon twists her arm, threatening her with torture and violence, but she does not back down.
He objects to the fact she is making him be the villain so she can be a heroine. Creon insists he is going to save her as a political act, because he likes things to be orderly. She asks why he is doing this job. He says it was given to him, and someone had to do it. It is his duty. She claims to be superior because she can say no to what is wrong, but he has said, yes. Antigone knows he is frightened of her because he will have to put her to death.
Creon next tries to persuade her by telling her that both her brothers were corrupt and that their bodies were so mangled by the battle, he doesn’t know who got the funeral and who is rotting in the sun. He exhorts her to marry quickly because life is nothing more than happiness. Antigone asks him to define happiness: his kind of duty or her kind of life and death passionate happiness? She refers to the peaceful death of her father, Oedipus, who accepted everything he had done. Creon puts his hand on her mouth, and she tells him to call the Guards.
Ismene rushes in to say that Creon will have to put her to death too. Antigone tells her it is too late for her to join her rebellion. She points out to Creon that if Ismene is willing to join her in her crime, it is only a matter of time before the rest of Thebes will support her too, so he had better kill her at once. He calls for the Guards, who take her out, with Ismene following and wailing.
Commentary on Antigone and Creon
This dialogue is the heart of the play, and the Chorus’s prediction that tragedy is peaceful even with the “shouting” of the characters, is evident in the fact that the audience can relax and thoroughly enjoy this long and brilliant exposition of both sides. We know the outcome, and so do they. As in a court, we relish the testimony. Both Creon and Antigone present compelling views of life. The audience appreciates both because there is honesty in their confessions. Every person must carry on this inner debate, represented by Antigone (individual integrity), and Creon, (conforming to society). Obviously, Antigone is favored because she is the underdog, and because she is a more beautiful and lovable human being. She speaks for the fullness of life. The audience is pleased that a frail girl can frighten a tyrant. She points out that he has absolutely no hold over her, that she can do as she pleases, whereas he cannot: “I don’t have to do things that I think are wrong” (p. 49). He has said “yes” to the crowd and will never stop paying for it. He is not free.
This also represents the perennial argument of experience vs. innocence. Creon’s strongest argument to Antigone is to tell her the real story of her brothers, for whom she is throwing away her life. Both were “cheap gangsters” trying to assassinate their own father and each other (p. 55). This is the reality of what goes on “in the kitchen of politics,” he tells her (p. 54). In this way, he tries to disillusion her, by pointing out her naiveté, whereas he, on the other hand, has had to take on his duty and deal with the ugliness. He made one brother into a hero and another into a villain, because that is all the people can understand. He tells her to grab happiness with Haemon while she has a chance. He too was once young like she was and sees in her his youthful idealism.
Hearing Creon speak of his youth and how she should marry Haemon and be happy are important clues for Antigone that help her to keep her resolve just when Creon has deflated her idealism. She admits she loves the young Haemon, but if he is going to “be worn away like a stone” (p. 57), like Creon, she doesn’t want to live to see it. She wants more than Creon does: “I want everything of life. . . . I want it total, complete: otherwise, I reject it” (p. 58). Antigone identifies herself with her father “of the tribe that asks questions” (p. 58). Her father lived passionately and became beautiful when all questions had been answered and he had lost all hope; then he accepted his fate and was at peace. Creon she calls a mere “cook” and tells him to get into the back kitchen (p. 59).
Antigone’s argument that Creon has sold out is potent. He admits he has always been waiting to debate with some young man who would come to assassinate him, why he had made this choice to become a tyrant. He didn’t think the young man would turn out to be Antigone. The young man Creon has been waiting to debate with, to justify his choices in life, is actually his own youthful self. He admits that Antigone is the voice of “a lad named Creon” (p. 56) who also had ideas of self-sacrifice. Antigone is Creon’s own inner voice, what he gave up with his youth. Antigone refuses to give up her life in the way that Creon has, a little at a time. She says, “I spit on your happiness!” (p. 58). She shows him that she is the more powerful because her idealism could catch on with the people, as Ismene demonstrates that she too is ready to die now. He will have to hurry and stamp Antigone out. He gets the point and calls the Guards.
Both Creon and Antigone are interesting because they become quite human in this scene. We end up feeling sorry for Creon because Antigone convinces us that it is more powerful to live a life of beauty and integrity and passion than to give in to Creon’s calculated politics. He pictures her brothers as thugs, but he is no better. Antigone is free, even in chains, and Creon is the one who is condemned.