The struggle between right and wrong, the demands between family and that of the government, and the ultimate struggle between divine law and those made by man is the center of Sophocles’ Antigone. Through this expression of Greek drama, a sense of what life must have been like in the time of Sophocles comes across. In his world, women are subjugated and supposed to be silent spectators to the world around them as men’s search for power leads to incredible acts against both human and divine law. Antigone is a woman who firmly believed in these divine laws and whose actions changed the course of Thebian history.
The story of Antigone begins much sooner than the famous play makes known. It is filled with tragedy. Antigone is the daughter of the late king of Thebes, Oedipus. A seer told Oedipus’ own father, at the birth of his son that the king would be slain by this only son. He would then seize the throne of Thebes. He therefore banished Oedipus in order to maintain power. Years later the omen would come true. Oedipus would seize the Thebian throne, kill the king, and take Jocasta, the late king’s wife as his own. Unbeknownst to Oedipus that the man he had slain was his father and that his new wife was in fact his mother. When he learned of the truth, Oedipus blinded himself and Jocasta committed suicide.
Together, Oedipus and Jocasta were to have four children. Their two sons were named Polynices and Eteocles while the two daughters were named Ismene and Antigone. In the palace, Oedipus stayed with his children. It was agreed upon that Polynices and Eteocles would govern the city of Thebes in alternate years, but when their quarrels and disobedience were too much to bear with, their father placed a curse upon them. Under the omen, Oedipus said that the siblings would destroy one another. The first year of rule fell upon Eteocles. When it seemed that he would not give up power, Polynices went to Argos and prepared an invasion with the ruler of the land. As a result of the invasion, the two brothers would be dead, each by the other’s hand. Power over Thebes would then fall on the brother of the late Jocasta, Creon.
Being a man who was loyal to Thebes, Creon’s first order of business was to banish any traitors and forbid the burial of Polynices for invading the city with “foreigners.” This is where the story of Antigone begins. Horrified with the thought of her brother’s soul not reaching eternal peace without a proper burial, she decides to defy the order of Creon. In the night while the world is sleeping, Antigone flees to the place where the body of Polynices is being held. She lays dust over the body as a symbolic gesture. When Creon hears of this, he orders that the culprit responsible would be slain for defying the laws of the land.
As Antigone hears of the decree and of the fact that the body of Polynices was uncovered she goes to relay dust over the body again. This time the guards captured her and bring her to Creon. Dismayed, Creon tries to give her life and acquits Antigone of
the crime, but she is adamant about her actions. As Creon asks why she would “overstep the law,” she replies “because it was not Zeus who ordered it, nor justice dweller with the nether gods,” signifying the ultimate struggle between the laws governed by man and those governed by the gods. Despite the fact that Antigone is of his sister’s womb and that his own son Haemon is betrothed to her, Creon decrees that she is to be put to death.
The struggle between Creon’s own thoughts and the laws set before him in his religion are seen as the seer Tiresias first enters the story. He has been undoubted in the past because his predictions have always been correct, but when Creon is asked by the reverend to rethink his position on Antigone and Polynices, the king is adamant. He tells the seer “Not even for horror at such sacrilege will I permit his burial when for the sake of gain they speak foul treason with a fair outside” As Antigone is being led to her death, Tiresias’ warnings are being ignored. As his own final omen is being delivered to the deaf ears of the king, the seer obliges to say that death will be repaid by death, Creon will “learn to keep a tongue more gentle, and a brain more sober, than he carries now.”
Creon is left alone to ponder over the situation. Haemon, Antigone, and Tiresias have pleaded with him for a change of mind. His struggle over power in the family and government as well as his thoughts on divinity have led him to the ultimate ending of this story. Antigone hangs herself in the cave where she was supposed to spend her last days and Haemon at the very sight of his beloved kills himself in front of his father. Eurydice (Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife) then kills herself with a dagger through the heart
when she hears of her son’s death. Creon is left to ponder over his actions and to take full responsibility for the deaths of three people whom he cared about.
This play is as true today as it was in the time of Sophocles in terms of the struggle of humans to find a median where they can be loyal to divinity, family, and government. As C. Warren Hollister so eloquently states, Sophocles “probed with majestic dignity the fundamental relationships of humanity and its gods, the problem of injustice in a righteous universe, and the terrible consequences of overweening pride.” (129) Antigone is a great example of the search for truth in his dramas and I enjoyed reading about this aspect of Greek history.