Greek tragedy often teaches moral lessons at the expense of human life and political will. Antigone is the tragic story of the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta of Thebes after the army of Argos vanishes and her brothers have killed each other on opposite sides of the battle. While the Greeks were well-aware of the literary history, the tragedy still provides a historical and modern perspective for one of the oldest questions in society: how does one protest an unjust and cruel law that is contrary to moral obligation? The tragic conflict between Creon, Antigone and Ismene illustrates the struggle between the unjust laws of kings and the Greek gods.
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Creon, as the king, represents the dictator of human laws; Ismene represents the frail human emotion of submission to power; and Antigone illustrates the concept of facing unjust and tragic death without doubting its purpose. Antigone is the quintessential character who risks her life to comply with divine order, familial loyalty and social decency in the face of political power. In the process, her actions demonstrate how to follow ones moral soul to do the right thing.Historically, Greeks held burial of the dead as the most sacred of acts.
Honoring the dead and their valor plays a significant role in their literature and mythology. Homer provided examples in the Iliad regarding an agreement and ceasefire during the Trojan War to pay homage to the bodies of fallen soldiers and conduct their funerals with admirable rituals. The extraordinary sense of duty and honor continued centuries later in Greek Theatre. Respect and burial of the dead played a significant role between the democratic city and those who fought for it. Sophocles wrote in an era of democracy, but the laws of the gods were still powerful. The citys and the individuals fate were one in the same and even after death, they would be remembered as honorable men continuing to live in the city. The legend of Oedipus and his children was well-known by all of Greece. The conflict between the brothers seeking to rule was a story that repeats throughout history. Thebes was a divine monarchy under attack. Against this landscape, the stories of Antigone begin after the armies of Argos has vanished and the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other in war. Each brother believed his actions were just.
Sophocles interprets the ancient story with the Chorus, whose role changes throughout the play. The city, represented by the Chorus, is summoned by the new ruler, Creon. Creon thanks the citizens for their loyal service and dictates a proper burial for Eteocles to honor his loyalty as a defender of his city. He then prohibits, under punishment of death, any burial of Polynices as a punishment for his treason. The city is aware this law is an assault on their religious laws, but ultimately, they submit to Creons law and are convinced that no one would sacrifice their own life to violate it.In the first scene, Antigone asks her sister, Ismene, to help her bury her brother Polynices. When she sees that Ismene does not have her convictions, Antigone argues that her family has suffered enough. She explains that her father, died in hatred for his actions killing his father and marrying his mother. Then his mother hung herself and their brothers killed each other in war. Ismene can only see the authority of the King and refuses to help Antigone. Antigone challenges Ismene to be a true sister instead of a traditional female who obeys male guardians, especially the king. (Moral and Civil Disobedience. PowerPoint). Antigones purpose is to inject morality into the conflict.
Rejected by her sister, Antigone acts with her conscience and buries her brother. She felt it was morally wrong to leave her brother without a proper burial. The rituals did not change the outcome of the battle or dishonor the City. Thus, Antigones rituals with Polynices body in no way harmed anyone. She accepts the consequences of defying the king and the risk to her life. Antigone followed natural law over political law.Creon believes his rules must be obeyed, even if those rules are against the gods he is the almighty ruler and his rule over every man transcends natural law. Creon is arrogant and his power and excessive pride does not allow him to see beyond his own political will. He described his power to his son,you ought to feel within your heart, subordinate to your fathers will in every way. (Fagles, 202). Creon was fully aware of the natural law and custom of burial when he issued his order. He believed he was justified when he determined that Polynices should not be buried, as an appropriate punishment. He does not consider the moral consequences of his decision because he believes his authority is unquestioned among men. Creon believed disobeying his orders carried grave consequences. This belief combined with his excessive pride and paranoia led him to view and act at the extremes. Whomever the gods placed on the throne should be obeyed, no matter how small the matter. He judges as a male chauvinist, imploring his followers to never lose your sense of judgment over a woman (Fagles, 203).never let some woman triumph over us. Better to fall from power, if fall we must, in the hands of a man never be rated inferior to a woman, never. (Fagles, 205-206). When Creon finds out Antigone has disobeyed her, he orders her death. No mortal, especially a woman, has the power to disobey him.
While her actions were to follow natural law, Antigones decision to contradict political law conforms to the idea of civil disobedience. To further the basic definition of Civil Disobedience: The main elements of Civil Disobedience include a non-violent protest of unjust actions or laws. (Jones, lecture Antigone). In the play, Antigone followed her personal beliefs to defy state authority because she believed she was following a higher authority. She was not protesting the law to challenge Creons law, she was performing her moral obligation to a higher authority. She accepted the consequences because she believed no mortal had the power to contradict divine laws. Thebes response to her actions is the same goal of any civil disobedience: to question the justness of the law. The tragedy was that Creon could punish her with death, but that he was still powerless to overcome natural law and custom. Antigone takes a position against the political rules and against the state, positioning the natural law of burial for everyone versus the political law of burying everyone but Polynices. Thebes sides with Creons law, not because they believe, but out of fear of death. Antigones actions lead the city to question that fear with their beliefs.Creon is confronted by his human failure to appreciate divine authority. After Creon sentences Antigone to death, blind prophet confronts him and foreshadows the folly of his acts.
Creon realizes his mistake but is too late to save Antigone or his son. This is the triumph of natural law over his political decree. Pious Antigone loses her life but wins a moral victory against Creon. Creon tragically loses his son, his wife and his moral authority in the process. Creons political strength is undermined by his second-guessing, lack of leadership, and ultimately his failure to act. In traditional Greek Society during the Classical Age, women are shown to be submissive in political life. Sophocles Antigone takes on what were traditional male characteristics of strength, leadership and conviction under moral authority. This portrayal was unique during this period of history. Antigone is a strong woman who went beyond death by a tyrant to do what her heart dictated, that is, follow the ethical and moral laws that go beyond human beings. Because she never gave in, she remains true to her beliefs actively chooses to act in a way that guarantees her death.
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