In his tragic play ‘Antigone’, Sophocles presents the audience with a variety of interesting protagonists. One of the main characters is Creon, regent of Thebes and brother in law of former king, Oedipus. Another important character is Oedipus’ daughter/sister, and Creon’s niece, Antigone. She is a character for whom the audience will undoubtedly have great sympathy, and even more so as her tragic fate unfolds over the course of the play. Indeed, the same could be said of Creon, although perhaps initially, we do not feel so well disposed towards him.
However, the audience may have greatly mixed views on these characters as different events occur in the play, and as such we can neither completely condemn nor praise their actions. Antigone’s traumatic background and troubled past induces pity within the audience right from the beginning of the play. By a tragic and unfortunate series of events she and her siblings came to learn that their father Oedipus was also their brother.
These terrible circumstances rendered Oedipus’ children outcasts in society, destined to live a life of misery and disgrace. uffering at the hands of fathers misguided actions, not their own.
The fact that Antigone’s suffering was at the hands of another’s misguided actions and not her own fills us with pity for her. When, in her opening speech she says “There’s nothing, no pain-our lives are pain-no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your griefs and mine”, we feel immense sorrow for her.
Also, the fact that there was nothing she could have done to avoid her destiny seems cruel and unjust, deepening our sympathy for Antigone, who is truly the tragic heroine.
We quickly come to learn of the events that have passed between Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices. Again, the audience feel it is unfair that Antigone has lost her loved ones, probably the only comfort in her life. Creon’s harsh proclamation that Polynices’ body be left unburied and untouched only adds to her discontent. However, Antigone demonstrates great strength of character in vowing to bury her brother, even though the penalty for doing so would be death. We feel a great deal of admiration for her courage and determination.
When Ismene asks her if she will dare to break the law of the city, she replies: “Yes! He is my brother and-deny it as you will- your brother too. No one will ever convict me for a traitor” These fine sentiments display even more estimable qualities in Antigone, such as loyalty and respect for tradition. She clearly loves her brothers and cannot bear the thought of only one of them receiving the correct burial rites. Antigone feels that she is doing her duty by Polynices as well as by the gods. In ancient times it was believed that everyone had the right to burial, no matter who they were or what they had done. ndeed, it was believed to be an unwritten law of the gods, and as such, Antigone felt justified in her actions.
The audience feel great sympathy for Antigone who faces an impossible situation. She must either obey Creon and face the wrath of the gods, or bury Polynices and in turn sacrifice her own life. Once Antigone has committed the crime of burying her brother, her punishment is almost inevitable. After Creon discovers that she has defied his orders, he treats her very cruelly. He shows her no sympathy, even though he is her next of kin, but talks to her threateningly, as though she were a complete stranger.
He calls her “an old hand at insolence” and warns “there’s no room for pride, not in a slave. ” Creon does not speak to Antigone with any of the affection that an uncle would show his niece, but instead has the audacity to call her a slave and subordinate. We feel great pity for Antigone, who deserves at least the love and kindness of the few relatives she has left. Initially, Creon’s proclamation stated that whoever dared to disobey his orders was to be punished by “stoning to death inside the city walls”.
However, incandescent with rage and fury, he soon decides to change the penalty. Instead of having Antigone stoned to death, Creon vows to have her imprisoned inside a rocky cavern, where she would slowly starve to death. He says: “I will take her down some wild, desolate path never trod by men, and wall her up alive in a rocky vault, and set out short rations, just the measure piety demands to keep the entire city free of defilement. ” The audience feel that this punishment is a far worse one than that of stoning, as the death will be slower and much more painful.
We are appalled and dismayed by Creon’s merciless change of heart and feel extreme sadness for the grim predicament in which Antigone finds herself. From the very beginning Antigone was determined and courageous enough to accept the consequences of her crime, however, in the scene in which she is lead away to her doom we see that deep down she is afraid of what is going to happen. The prospect of “looking into the last light of day, the last I will ever see” must have been an extremely daunting one for Antigone. Her sorrow is made deeper when she realises everything that she will loose and leave behind.
When she says: “no part in the bridal-song, the bridal-bed, denied all joy of marriage, raising children”, we feel greatly for her immense sadness. Similarly, Antigone’s complete isolation and solitude is heart rendering, particularly when she says “unmourned by friends” and “no tears for the destiny that’s mine, no loved one mourns my death. ” The audience realise what a lonely life she has lead, and her sense of total abandonment is pitiable indeed.
At the very end of the scene, Antigone’s terror is revealed as she exclaims “Oh god, the voice of death. It’s come, it’s here! , and we feel much anguish and sorrow for her. Although for the most part Antigone is a character who is well deserving of the audience’s pity, there are some instances in the play when we feel her behaviour is not acceptable. Antigone would certainly not have been considered a conventional character by Sophocles’s contemporaries. Her brave and fiery nature is a far cry from the submissive, docile temperament women were expected to have in ancient times. Her bold actions may have seemed like the right thing to do, but perhaps she was overstepping the mark.
She did, after all, disobey Creon’s orders and consequently break the laws of state. For this reason, many would condemn Antigone’s rash impudence. When Antigone speaks with her sister Ismene, the audience feel once again that perhaps she is taking her violent passion too far. Ismene begs her to obey the law, even though she too loves her brother and would like to see him receive a proper burial. She is far more prudent than Antigone, and warns her: “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men.
Then too, we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands, o we must submit in this, and things still worse. ” We can see that Ismene loves her sister dearly and wants to protect her from the terrible punishment which her crime will result in. However, instead of heeding her sisters words, or thanking her for her concern, Antigone turns on Ismene and speaks to her very harshly. She says: “I’d never welcome you in the labour, not with me. So do as you like-whatever suits you best. ” This hot-headed response makes Antigone a far less favourable character in the audience’s eyes, particularly considering Ismene’s genuine anxiety and care for her sister.
Similarly, when Antigone says “I’ll hate you all the more for you’re silence” we feel her contempt is unreasonable and unmerited. Even when the crime has been discovered, Ismene remains faithful to her sister and implores Antigone to let her “share the guilt and the consequence”. This makes us all the more astonished at Antigone’s fierce reply: “Who did the work? Let the dead and the god of death bear witness! I have no love for a friend who loves in words alone. ” When we consider that Ismene is totally innocent, and yet prepared to sacrifice her own life for her sister, Antigone’s abusive behaviour seems ruthless and unacceptable.
We can find no sympathy for such malicious conduct and blind obstinacy. Like Antigone, another character who arouses a mixture of emotions within the audience is Creon. In some instances we feel empathy for him, and are in accordance with his actions, whilst in others we find his behaviour far from laudable. Despite her troubled past and unnatural parentage, Creon has promised Antigone in marriage to his own son, Haemon. This was a magnanimous decision on his part, particularly considering the disadvantage Oedipus’ female children would find themselves at in acquiring a husband.
Indeed, Oedipus himself said that no man would ever want to marry them for the shame and disgrace he had brought upon their heads. Creon could have chosen any wife for Haemon, but instead, he took pity on Antigone, even though the union may have proven potentially scandalous in public opinion. Creon is a conscientious ruler, and at first he appears to be quite the noble and benevolent king. Deep down, he wants the best for Thebes. He will not tolerate traitors endangering his city state, and expresses such fine and patriotic sentiments in his opening speech: “I could never stand by silent, watching destruction arch against our city, putting safety to rout, nor could I ever make that man a friend of mine who menaces our country. ”
Creon is also fairly pious, which would have been approved of by the contemporary audience, and is something which even the modern audience can appreciate. He believed he was doing the gods a favour by punishing his nephew. When Polynices marched on Thebes with his army, he not only committed the crime of treason, but also that of sacrilege in burning the temples and holy places of the city. Creon found this intolerable and as such felt he was doing right by the gods in punishing Polynices.
The audience can admire the more honourable characteristics of Creon, however misguided his actions may have been. He is a man of his word, and one who refuses to see laws broken. For this, the audience holds him in high esteem. During the play, Creon proves himself to be quite the tyrant, and the audience find him a far less appealing protagonist. However, at the end of the play, we feel more pity for him than we thought possible. After he has discovered the error of his ways, he rushes to Antigone’s vault to try and make amends, only to find her hanging from the roof of the cavern.
Haemon is also there, and in his desperation and fury, he stabs himself, flinging his arms around Antigone in a final embrace. The loss of his only son must have been a tremendous blow for Creon as we can tell from his dialogue with the chorus leader and the messenger. He says: “Oh my plans, my frantic heart, my son cut off so young! Ai, dead, lost to the world not through your stupidity, no , my own. ” It seems that Creon has learned his lesson too late, and all his repentance and sorrowful lamentations are in vain.
When Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears the news of her sons death, she too takes her own life, adding to Creon’s misery. Although he did bring about the destruction of his family, and has no one to blame but himself, we do feel immense pity for Creon. When he says: “Oh god, the misery, anguish- I, I’m churning with it, going under” we sympathise with tremendous loss and utter desperation. He is no longer the great and formidable king, but a man broken by misery and anguish. Although we do feel sympathy for Creon in some instances in the play, for the most part he is a character to whom the audience do not take kindly.
Like his predecessor Oedipus, he quickly changes from the admirable and generous ruler of Thebes, to the dominant, tyrannical king. This radical transformation occurs fairly on in the play, when the sentry announces that someone has buried the body and broken the laws of state. Creon swiftly turns his anger on the sentry, accusing him of having a hand in the matter and brutally threatening to “string him up alive”. Believing the sentry to have been bribed, he also threatens to “have the immorality wrung out of him. ” This violent paranoia is reminiscent of the behaviour of Oedipus.
Just as Oedipus did, Creon bombards Tiresias with an onslaught of threats and abuse, promising that he will “pay the price”. He ignores the good advice of the prophet, assuming he too has been bribed. Creon says: “You and the whole breed of seers are mad for money” and calls his prophecies a lie. His short temper and highly suspicious mind lessen our opinion of Creon. We cannot pity a man who refutes all the good advice given to him but blindly follows his own course of action. indeed, there is a point in the play where Creon says, as ruler of Thebes, the people must follow his orders “whether they be right or whether they be wrong.
This attitude is rather disconcerting, and the contemporary audience would probably have been extremely disturbed by Creon’s dictator-like behaviour. Creon also treats Antigone and her sister very harshly once he has discovered the truth. He has the nerve to call her a slave and subordinate, and even insults Ismene, who had no hand in the crime. He turns on her, saying: “You! In my own house, you viper, slinking undetected, sucking my life-blood! “. Such cruel words seem unnecessary and repellent. The way he talks to Antigone is perhaps even worse.
He says: “The stiffest stubborn wills fall the hardest; he toughest iron, tempered and strong in the white-hot fire, you’ll see it crack and shatter first of all. ” These threats seem ironic indeed, for who could be more stubborn and wilful than Creon himself? He seems to have absolutely no regard for the bonds of kinship, and treats his own niece as a mere criminal, and inferior. He even dares to change her punishment from stoning to being locked away and starved, making her death far slower and more painful. Again, our opinion of Creon is lowered by his unacceptable behaviour. When Haemon attempts to offer his father good counsel, again Creon spurns and insults him..
Haemon acts as a kind of mediator between the king and the people of Thebes. He knows that there will be public outrage on the death of Antigone, who is already being hailed as a heroine and martyr. However, despite the backing of the chorus leader, who agrees that Haemon is ‘talking sense’ Creon fails to be moved by his son. In fact, an argument ensues, in which Creon calls Haemon “you degenerate”. We feel Creon is very foolish in ignoring his son’s advice, particularly seen as Haemon acts as the voice of public opinion. The audience at this point have no sympathy for Creon and would gladly see him punished for his misdemeanours.
When the chorus leader dares to suggest that the burial may have been a token act of the gods, Creon is furious. Although he believed himself to have been doing the gods a favour in punishing Polynices, in reality his actions were arrogant and egotistical. He has overstepped the mark in thinking he can act as an equal to the gods, who regard it as their duty to punish the perpetrators of sacrilege. Not only this, but in priding himself on being a man who abides by the laws of state, he has forgotten that he is breaking the unwritten laws of the gods. It was also the custom and tradition of Thebes to bury traitors outside of the city walls.
In conclusion, I would say that both Antigone and Creon deserve our pity, however, not in equal amounts. Overall, I felt Antigone to be the more deserving character. Although at times she is capricious and hot tempered, it was her love for her family and a respect for the gods that drove her to carry out her crime. Creon, in contrast shows none of this love. He initially believes that money was the sole reason for the crime, never suspecting that it might have been committed for a different motive. He shows himself to be cold and heartless, turning on the members of his family and severing the bonds of kinship with ease.