Antigone: Theme Analysis
Human Law vs. Divine Law
The play opens with the debate between the sisters Antigone and Ismene about which law comes first—the religious duty of citizens, or the civil duty? Antigone invites Ismene to join her in burying their brother Polyneices, though the king has forbidden burial on pain of death. Ismene reminds Antigone that burial is against the king’s law. She says, “I yield to those who have authority” (line 67). Antigone denies that Creon has authority in the matter of burial, a sacred duty she feels bound to fulfill. She protests, “He [Creon] has no right to keep me from my own!” (line 48). She explains she is willing to die to do her duty to Polyneices, for “I have to please/ The dead far longer than I need to please/ the living; with them, I have to dwell forever” (lines 74-76). Antigone takes the long view of things, warning Creon “Nor could I think that a decree of yours-- / A man—could override the laws of Heaven/ Unwritten and unchanging” (lines 453-55). The laws of the gods regulating the life of man “are eternal; no man saw their birth” (line 457). She fears “the gods’ tribunal” (458) more than the judgment of Creon, though she knows disobeying him will cost her life.
Creon, on the other hand, believes the state is supreme. He says to the city counselors: “It is the city that protects us all;/ She bears us through the storm; only when she/ Rides safe and sound can we make loyal friends” (lines 188-190). Furthermore, since he represents the city-state of Thebes as its king, his will is sovereign. He explains the decree against burying Polyneices to the elders, and they agree that “You, being sovereign, make what laws you will / Both for the dead and those of us who live” (lines 213-14).
When Antigone laments that she must die so young and alone, the Chorus comments that she has done a noble deed for her brother, and “Such loyalty is a holy thing/ Yet none that holds authority/ Can brook disobedience. O my child,/ Your self-willed pride has been your ruin” (lines 872-875). They point out here that the two laws are in conflict—civil and religious.
Tragedy is bound to occur when these two vital laws are set against one another, for both sacred law and civil law are necessary for the welfare of the people. Creon unwisely forces the issue, and it does not come out in his favor, for the people choose Antigone’s side of the argument. The gods also weigh in through omens, and the prophesy of the seer, Teiresias.
When the body of Polyneices is mysteriously buried against Creon’s will, the Chorus hints, “Do we not see in this the hand of God?” (line 279). Creon has to admit in the end that “I fear it may be wisest to observe/ Throughout one’s life the laws that are established” (lines 1113-14). He proves by example the will of the gods overrides human law.
Fate vs. Free Will
Fate variously means a person’s destiny, or the predetermined outcome of the will of the gods, or the necessary consequence of some action. The play fuels the debate whether fate is stronger than one’s free will. An early choral ode praises the wonders of human accomplishment: men have conquered the sea; they are lords of the beasts and the land; they create civilizations of beauty with their hands, speech, and thought (lines 332-375). On the other hand, humans seem limited by their mortality and their fate, or predetermined destiny. Someone like Oedipus, born with a certain prophesied fate, is not able to circumvent it by any means. Creon, however, seems to suffer through his own choices and stubbornness. Creon feels confident that through his will, he can make laws for the city of Thebes, and at first he sticks by his decision to punish Antigone. After Teiresias points out to him the fate or consequences awaiting him if he persists, he gives in saying, “one cannot fight/ Against Necessity” (1105-06).
Necessity was a goddess of Fate (Anangke), but there were also the goddesses of past (Clotho), present (Lachesis), and future (Atropos) who spun the threads of an individual’s life. Together the fates were called the Moirae, the ones who apportioned human destiny. In early Greek literature, Fate was all-powerful, even more powerful than the gods, for even Zeus did not know when his reign would end.
Sophocles and the later philosophers like Plato, however, tried to balance the picture by glorifying human reason as an echo of the reasoning intelligence behind cosmic law. Humans could thus modify their own destiny if they were wise. In the Timaeus, Plato says, “Beside Reason, we must also set the results of Necessity. For this world came into being from a mixture of Necessity and Intelligence. Intelligence controlled Necessity by persuading it for the most part to bring about the best result, and it was by this subordination of Necessity to Reasonable persuasion that the universe was originally constituted as it is.”
This evolution of the idea of Fate to include the participation of human choice and reason is part of the Greek legacy of humanism. Fate still is powerful in this view, but more so where humans are arrogant and blind. The purpose of tragedy then is to show how humans bring fate down on themselves. There is usually more than one choice available, and the tragic hero makes the wrong choice, as in the case of Creon. Antigone, however, is entangled in a legacy of fate that plagues everyone in the family of Oedipus. Her destiny seems more set and less her fault, though she does brings it down on herself by rebelling against Creon. She could have chosen as Ismene did. She had free will, but if she exercises it to go against the king’s law, it carries consequences.
In tragedy, Fate usually has the upper hand, because tragedy highlights the limitations of humans when they overreach, and when they do not possess wisdom. When Antigone is led away to her death the Chorus sings: “Mysterious, overmastering, is the power of Fate./ From this, nor wealth, nor force of arms/ Nor strong encircling city-walls/ Nor storm-tossed ship can give deliverance” (lines 951-954).
Wisdom vs. Power
Sophocles, like Shakespeare, includes political discussions in his plays that are important topics for the audience. What would the ideal ruler be like? In Antigone, Creon, Antigone, Haemon, the Chorus, and Teiresias all have something to say on how a ruler should govern Thebes.
Creon is king and in an early speech to the city elders (the Chorus), he explains how he will be a tough ruler because of his loyalty to Thebes. He will not let partiality or family connections dictate over the good of the city: “if any holds/ A friend of more account than his own city/ I scorn him” (lines181-183). He then tries to prove his tough impartiality by denying burial rites to his own nephew, Polyneices, who was a traitor to Thebes. Creon asks the elders to reinforce the decree, but though they agree he has the power to make the law (“You, being sovereign, make what laws you will,” line 213), they decline to enforce it, begging him to find younger men. Creon then sets guards around the body. The Chorus does not defy Creon as Antigone does, but they do give feedback to him at critical points. For instance, when the body is mysteriously buried, they say to the king, “Do we not see in this the hand of God?” (line 279) Creon denies it. By refusing to enforce the law, the Chorus implies that it will take strong men to carry out Creon’s will; they anticipate trouble from this hasty decree.
Antigone is outspoken that Creon’s authority cannot extend to sacred matters, especially when he puts himself at odds with the will of the gods. Creon sees her as a rebel, a threat to his power: “While I am living, no woman shall have rule” (line 525). Antigone is more of a threat than a man would be, for she has the status of a slave in Thebes, and he calls her a slave (lines 478-79). A woman should not be seen or heard. If he gives in to her, he is doubly shamed. First, she is a relation, and it would seem like giving special favors. Secondly, she is a mere woman, and yielding to her would make him seem weak. If he cannot rule his own house, he says, how can he expect to rule Thebes? (lines 658-662).
Creon’s son, Haemon, however, tries to break this impasse by bringing up the notion of wisdom. He wants above all his father’s “good government” (line 638). Haemon is not only motivated by his love for Antigone, but by anger against his father’s tyrannical rule. Haemon tries to explain that Creon is out of touch with the people, who with one voice support Antigone. This lack of consensus indicates to Haemon that his father’s government is faulty. While Thebes was not a democracy like Athens, a king needs the support of his people. Haemon wants his father to succeed: “no son can find/ A greater prize than his own father’s fame” (lines 702-03). He urges his father to listen to others, for “The man/ Who thinks that he alone is wise” (lines 706-07) will fail. Haemon counts wisdom supreme: “he does best who has/ Most understanding; second best, the man/ Who profits from the wisdom of another” (lines 720-722).
Creon continues to insist on “obedience”(lines 671-76), while Haemon accuses Creon of “opposing Justice” (line 743). Antigone goes to her death, certain that “what I did, the wise will all approve” (line 905). She is right in that everyone except Creon agrees with her. Teiresias, the blind prophet, underscores Haemon’s position that there is “no disgrace” in knowing when to yield (line 710). Teiresias says “the wise and prudent man” can and should change his mind when he has gone the wrong way (line 1024). Wisdom is thus equated with balance. Creon, on the other hand, is obsessive on a “single thought”(line 705).
The Greek ideal of sophrosyne, or wisdom, stemmed from self-knowledge. “Know thyself” was a popular teaching of the philosophers and inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Such self-knowledge was supposed to be a lifelong pursuit and would lead to wisdom, balance, harmony, moderation, control, and good judgment. Creon goes in the opposite direction, choosing not to know himself and thus creates tragedy from clinging to his stubborn and egotistic will. Antigone may be wiser in choosing the gods over human law, but because her behavior is also rebellious and extreme, she does not create harmony around her and suffers the consequences.