Antigone. annotation by Susana Cook
Sophocles. Antigone: The Oedipus Cycle. Translated from the Greek by Dudley Fitts & Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1967.
Antigone is a play about obedience to the law, the paradoxical relationship between the laws of men and the laws of God. Creon, King of Thebes proclaims that “Polyneices is to have no burial” (197). Antigone, sister of Polyneiches, Eteocles and Ismene, daughter of Oedipus, decides to challenge the King’s orders and give a burial to her brother Polyneiches, following God’s orders instead. When Creon finds out that Antigone buried her brother against his wishes, he asks her, “had you heard my proclamation touching this matter?” Antigone replies: “It was not God’s proclamation [.]”
The play also deals with religion, fear of God and punishment. The maximum punishment that Creon can threaten to impose on whomever disobeys his orders is death. Antigone reminds the King that God’s laws’ are stronger than the laws of the human king, that her action carries honor instead of shame because giving a decent burial to her brother is in line with God’s wishes: “there is no guilt in reverence for the dead” (210). She shows no fear in disobeying the king’s orders, reminding him that we are mortal anyway, because of God’s law and not his, and that disregarding the laws of God concerning the honor due to the dead can be far more dangerous than disobeying the King, because God is the supreme power. The paradox of obedience is very clear in the postures of Antigone and Ismene. Antigone represents obedience to God, Ismene to the King. Creon himself is disobeying God’s laws with his actions. The Chorus warns him about the dangers of his hubris: “Fortunate is the man who has never tasted God’s vengeance” (215). The idea of religion and obedience to the Gods is pushed by Antigone to the extreme. “I shall be a criminal--but a religious one” (164), she proclaims dramatically.
The genesis of the tragedy is Creon’s proclamation about Polyneices’ dead body left unburied, and not Antigone’s disobedience. Creon’s proclamation violates God’s laws, and the people of the town feel disturbed by it. Antigone’s actions are honorable but illegal at the same time. She trusts that the people of the town would applaud her actions if they weren’t all afraid of Creon. “All these men would praise me/ Were their lips not frozen shut with fear of you” (210).
Ismene sees her sister becoming nobler with her actions, so she changes her position and decides to be “guilty” in the eyes of the King so she can be forgiven in the eyes of God.
As the play advances, Creon keeps losing authority. The first one to challenge him is Antigone, then his own son Haimon, then Ismene. Creon gets frustrated and angry because he is not getting the obedience that he feels he deserves as a king, and so his actions keep escalating, but ironically, he becomes weaker as he becomes more and more of a tyrant. Creon orders
to bury Antigone alive in a cave. Antigone, goes to her living tomb, and Tiresias warns Creon that the Gods will be on Antigone’s side.
In the end, the laws of God prove to be stronger. Creon, carrying the dead body of Haimon, is seen by Choragos: “Here is the king himself. Bearing his own damnation in his arms” (242). Soon after Creon finds out that his wife, the Queen, committed suicide out of grief, he realizes that his tragedy is the result of his own arrogant actions. He offended God and he is being punished for it. “I have been rash and foolish. I have killed my son and my wife” (244), he suddenly realizes. Creon feels the power of God falling on him for disobeying his laws and cries out, “Oh God, I am sick with fear” (244). He becomes at the end a sad, humble man who felt intensely the consequences of trying to supersede God’s wishes, but finally succumbs, lamenting that “fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust” (245).