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The central concern of the play is Antigone’s fateful struggle against Creon’s cruel edict. Sophocles in Antigone expresses his belief in the spiritual capacity of a human being. Antigone is endowed with the finest qualities. She is noble, upright, and possesses a strong sense of loyalty to family and devotion to the gods. She sticks to her ideals, even in the face of a cruel death.
Creon represents the harshness of the world of physical and political power as opposed to Antigone’s idealistic world. Creon must act to protect the interests of the state and to protect his own interests as sovereign. He follows an ancient tradition of battle in denying the enemy, Polynices, a proper burial. But in doing so, he not only acts inhumanely, but as Sophocles reiterates throughout the play, displeases the gods.
The Greeks had a firm belief in the force of destiny, which is central to the play. The Chorus in the second stasimon refers to the role that fate has played in causing the woes of the House of Cadmus. After Tiresias’ warning, Creon finally admits that fate is all-powerful, and he accepts the Chorus’ advice and sets out to save Antigone. Thus, one could conclude that the characters in the play are not in control of their own lives; fate ultimately controls their lives.
Yet, in the prologue, Antigone refers to the freedom of will (choice) available to a human being. She asks Ismene to choose whether she will help her to bury their brother. In the second episode, Antigone reminds Ismene: “Life was the choice you made,/ Mine was to die.” The two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, are polar opposites. While Antigone chooses to defy Creon and to die nobly, Ismene, desiring the security of life, timidly accepts the dictates of the male- dominated society of which she is a part.
Antigone’s confrontation with Creon is also the confrontation of the individual against the state. Antigone is able to question Creon’s laws because of her determination and courage. She is unrepentant, as she does not believe that she has committed a crime. In the climax of the play, she chooses the divine laws of heaven over the laws of the state (as laid down by Creon). She declares that the laws of the state are not binding in her case because they have been laid down by a man, and men are not infallible. Creon attempts to subdue Antigone’s “stubborn spirit” by condemning her to death, but Antigone retains her composure. It is only in the scene of her exit (the fourth episode) that Antigone breaks down, when she is led to her death. Sophocles shows here that Antigone, despite her courage, suffers the anguish of any normal human being.
While Antigone believes in the power that emanates from within the individual, Creon professes faith in the power gained by holding office. “Power shows the man” says Creon, in his opening speech to the Chorus of elders. A certain gender bias is evident in lines such as the following: “Better, if it must happen, that a man/ should overset me./ I won’t be called weaker than womankind.”
Creon plays the game of political expediency. He is trying to restore peace and stability to Thebes and cannot allow a mere girl to defy him, as this will make him appears spineless. He had favored Eteocles against Polynices in the battle between the two brothers, as it was politically profitable for him to do so. Creon tries to justify his actions in episode four (the scene with Haemon), by stating that he must protect the interests of Thebes. Here, Sophocles deals with the relationship between father and son, and between Haemon and Antigone. Creon tries to win Haemon over to his line of thinking by introducing the idea of filial devotion. But Haemon does not fall into the trap. His love for Antigone seems greater than his concern for the state and the king. He accuses his father of acting like a dictator and succeeds in arousing Creon’s wrath.
Each of the two major characters of the play, Antigone and Creon, have their own faults. Antigone’s tragic flaw (or hamartia) is, according to the Chorus, “a self-willed passion.” She yearns for a noble death and seizes the opportunity to gain it by defying Creon. Until the scene of her exit, she shows no desire to live. She tells Creon:
“That death would come, I knew Without thine edict;--if before the time, I count it a gain. Who does not gain by death, That lives, as I do, amid boundless woe?”
If her life appears tragic to her, death seems even more pitiable, and Antigone breaks down in the scene of her exit. It is only at this late stage that she betrays any desire to live. She mourns because she will never enjoy the fruits of marriage and thus will not be fulfilled as a woman and a mother.
Creon, like Antigone, is obstinate and unyielding. Like Antigone, he too is a shattered individual in the end. At different times in the play, different people warn Creon that he is acting irrationally. The watchman, Haemon, Tiresias and the Chorus all advise Creon against foolish and impetuous conduct. Creon’s decisions are quite rash. He even insults Tiresias and angers him. Finally, fate catches up with Creon when he goes to the cave where Antigone is immured. It seems as if Tiresias’ predictions have sealed Creon’s fate.
In the end, Creon realizes that royal powers are of no use in a world determined by the dictates of fate. It is Creon’s destiny that he must live on and suffer the pangs of guilt, while the innocent people, Antigone, Eurydice and Haemon, have killed themselves. The Exodus is, in a way, a statement of the major theme of the play. The leader of the Chorus concludes that devotion to heaven and rational behavior are essential for man. Creon’s pride has brought him disaster. Thus, there is a sense of “catharsis” at the end of the play, as all the emotions of fear, pity and awe are exhausted.
Sophocles makes use of dramatic irony in Antigone to heighten the tragic effect of the play. Instances of irony can be observed throughout the play.
One major instance is Antigone’s own idea of a noble death. Before her final exit, Antigone appears steadfast and courageous and ready to face death. But as she is led to the tomb, she is unable to maintain her composure and reveals her human frailties.
The Parodos, too, holds an instance of irony. Here, the Chorus hopes and prays for peace after the civil war in Thebes. Little do they know that Thebes is soon to face problems again. Creon’s fall at the end is also ironic, for he believes from the beginning of the play that his fortunes are on the rise after his enthronement. However, he comes to the conclusion that even the mightiest king is powerless in the face of destiny. This is an instance of the irony of situation. Creon’s opening speech, in which he makes his proclamation concerning Polynices, is also fraught with ironic possibilities. When he passes his law, Creon does not realize that he is about to bring a fresh crisis to Thebes. He foolishly believes that he is restoring stability and peace to his kingdom by establishing such an inhumane law.
The Greek epic poet, Homer, made excellent use of epic similes in his famous Iliad and Odyssey. Sophocles, too, uses an epic simile in the opening Chorus (the Parodos) when he describes how the man from Argos came to Thebes like an eagle descending on its prey. The metaphor is extended as the eagle is described feeding with “hungry jaws” on Theban flesh. The armor of the man from Argos is compared to the plumed crest of the eagle.
In the second stasimon, “Blest is the life...,” the Chorus compares the troubles faced by the House of Cadmus to a Thracian tempest. These similes lend a certain grandeur to the choral songs. The comparisons are fitting and well executed, and through them the choral songs become more poetic in nature.