Choragos: There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise. (158)
Throughout Sophocles’ drama, Antigone, there are many themes that can be traced. One of the most predominant themes is god versus man, which appears not only in Antigone, but also in many of the classic Greek tragedies written in Sophocles’ time. This quotation above serves as the moral for this tragedy, which includes an illustration of the theme as it was applied to the play. In the drama, Antigone, the theme of the inner struggle between allegiance to human law versus divine law can best be seen through Antigone’s reverence for the gods in relation to her actions, Kreon’s realization of the effects of his selfish pride, and the people of Thebes’ observations about Kreon’s decisions.
Antigone has the most direct struggles with human law and a higher law in the drama, for it is the application of this theme that decides her fate. Faced with the decision to defy the King and properly bury her brother, Polyneices, or leave his body unprepared for death as Kreon wished, she chose to obey the wishes of the gods and bury him. At the time of the drama, the Greeks believed that a decent burial was essential for the soul to be at rest. Kreon accused Polyneices of fighting against his own country and forbade all citizens of Thebes to prepare his body. Instead, it was left to decay on the field on which he was killed. When Antigone first hears this news, she immediately reacts by telling her sister, Ismene, that she wants Polyneices’ soul to be at rest, and therefore is going to bury him on the field. Fearing Kreon’s reaction, Ismene declines the offer to help her sister, and Antigone goes on without her. She justifies her blatant disregard for the King’s law by commenting,
Antigone: But I will bury him; and if I must die,
I say that this crime is holy: I shall lie down
With him in death, and I shall be as dear
To him as he to me.
It is the dead,
Not the living, who make the longest demands:
We die for ever… (140).
Antigone feels that her crime is a display of respect for her dead brother, and her intentions were, in no way, criminal. Antigone’s love for her brother and her reverence for the gods’ wishes help her to overcome her fear of punishment for her actions. She makes the final decision to go through with the preparation of her brother’s body and his burial after coming to terms with her religious beliefs and their prevalence over Kreon’s demands. A sentry catches her in the process of covering her brother’s body with dirt, and brings her before Kreon. Antigone openly admits to her actions, as seen in the following passage:
Kreon: And yet you dared defy the law.
Antigone: It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice
That rules the world below makes no such laws.
Your edict, King, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly. (146)
Antigone argues with Kreon that even though she may respect his decree, she cannot go against the law of the gods, for they are the true rulers of the land and its people, and they will outlast any law that mortal man could conjure up. Her faithfulness is obviously with the rule of a higher power, which Kreon does not approve of. Kreon sentences her to death by locking her in a stone vault and leaving her to fend for herself. She makes one final plea to the people of Thebes in defense of her actions before leaving the presence of the King . . .
Antigone: Thebes, and you my fathers’ gods,
And rulers of Thebes, you see me now, the last
Unhappy daughter of a line of kings,
Your kings, led away to death. You will remember
What things I suffer, and at what men’s hands,
Because I would not transgress the laws of heaven. (153)
Before the guards take Antigone away, she makes a point of telling everyone that she buried her brother, not to disobey Kreon’s orders, but instead to be loyal to the gods and tradition. She is almost asking the people how they can watch the King condemn her for being respectful to her brother and not feel badly about it. Antigone applies the theme of the conflict between divine law versus human law by taking responsibility for her opinions and actions, despite their negative consequences.
Throughout the drama, Kreon is also greatly effected by the struggles that he has between his pride and divine law, and their effect on his rule over Thebes. As the play begins, he is very selfish in his reign, looking to no other source, other than his own ego, to aid him in making the right choices for the people of Thebes. His earliest ideology can best be understood by looking at a conversation that he has with his son, Haimon, who is trying to convince him that he is not right all of the time, and needs external influences to help him make decisions:
Kreon: My voice is the one voice giving orders in this city!
Haimon: It is no City if it takes orders from one voice.
Kreon: The State is King!
Haimon: Yes, if the State is a desert. (151)
Here, Kreon comments that the “State is King,” displaying his disregard for his devotion to the gods and his lack of compassion for his people. In relation to the theme of the struggle between divine law and human law, he has obviously chosen human law. He is very selfish, and he sees himself as the only person that can make competent decisions about Thebian law. Later, in a conversation with Teiresias, where Teiresias is trying to convince him to change his egotistical ways and free Antigone, Kreon responds to him,
Kreon: No, Teiresias:
If your birds – if the great eagles of God himself
Should carry him stinking bit by bit to heaven,
I would not yield. I am not afraid of pollution:
No man can defile the gods.
Basically, Kreon states that even if God himself were to come down and carry the body of Polyneices up to heaven, he would still not give submit to Antigone’s wishes to have her brother buried. He is being very stubborn in not yielding to the rule of the gods, even after the prophet has told him that he must change his attitude, or face grave consequences. Only after Teiresias exits, and the Choragos warns him to listen to the old prophet, does he begin to question his current method or ruling the people of Thebes. Kreon comments that
Kreon: My mind misgives-
The laws of the gods are mighty, and a man mustserve them
To the last day of his life!
Kreon finally comes to terms with the mistakes that he has made throughout the course of his ruling. This is the turning point in his conversion from a self-serving ruler to a leader that humbles himself to the laws of a higher power. Even after his change of priorities, he is unable to save Antigone, who has hung herself in the cave. The theme of the conflict between human law versus divine law had the greatest effect on Kreon and his ideology. The turning point in the story, where he comes to the realization that he has been too concerned with his pride, shows us that this struggle can be overcome with time.
Throughout the tragedy, Haimon, Teiresias, and the people of Thebes offer their insights into the situation. Their messages vary from strict adherence to the King’s rules to absolute devotion to the gods. Haimon, Kreon’s son, is the first to offer his opinion of what his father should do.
Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are
To warn me against losing mine. I cannot say –
I hope that I shall never want to say! – that you
Have reasoned badly: Yet there are other men
Who can reason, too; and their opinions might be
You are not in a position to know everything
That your people say or do, or what they feel: …
Haimon, a very obedient son to Kreon, is trying to help his father with his struggle between selfishness and devotion to the gods. Haimon recognizes that his father must be authoritative over his subjects, but simultaneously accepting of others views and the law of the gods. Teiresias, prophet and long time advisor for families of Thebes, discusses his vision with Kreon about his rule over the people, and his decision to punish Antigone’s life. His view obviously places an emphasis on divine law, although he understands that the King has his own say, too. He tries to give Kreon advice about his struggle with overcoming his narrow views.
Kreon: I tell you, Kreon, you yourself have brought
This new calamity upon us. Our hearths and altars
Are stained with the corruption of dogs and carrion
That glut themselves on the corpse of Oedipus’s
The gods are deaf when we pray to them, their fire
Recoils from our offering, their birds of omen
Have no cry of comfort, for they are gorged
With the thick blood of the dead.
O my son,
These are no trifles! Think: all men make mistakes,
But a good man yields when he knows his course is
And repairs the evil. The only crime is pride. (154)
Teiresias warns Kreon that his pride is blurring his vision, and as a result, his ability to reason as far as the law is concerned has also been distorted. Kreon, at this point, has not yet realized how narrow-minded his philosophies have been, and is still submitting himself to only human law, and caring nothing of the laws of the gods. The Chorus has a different view, however. They are chastising Antigone for her crime, and indirectly supporting Kreon’s selfish views on honoring only human law.
Chorus: Reverence is a virtue, but strength
Lives in established law: that must prevail.
You have made your choice,
Your death is the doing of your conscious hand. (152)
The Chorus holds beliefs that no other person or group, with the exception of Kreon, has supported. They believe that although reverence is very important, following human law is more important because you must immediately face the consequences of your wrongdoing after the crime has been committed. They see that Kreon is a strong leader, and in knowing this, they conclude that his strength comes from his adherence to human law, and his enforcement of this.
In conclusion, we can see that the characters within the play struggle with the conflict of observing human law or divine law, making this theme the most prevalent throughout the drama. The general consensus chose to obey the gods over Kreon, but only after their opinion was asked. Out of fear for their pompous leader, they would submit themselves to his wishes, whether they were in accordance to their own views or not. Antigone and Kreon deal with the difficulties of this conflict most often, and the other citizens make only random attempts to help them sort through their troubles. The conflict presented within this theme is partially resolved by the conclusion of the play though, when Kreon comes to the realization that he has not been following the wishes of the gods, and he has let his selfishness over come him.