Antigone is the quintessential character who knowingly risks her life to comply with divine order, familial loyalty and social decency. Antigone, with her defensive posture of sacred laws that no human will can prohibit, is the heroine that will die to defend divine order. The conflict is with Creon, king and uncle of Antigone and Ismene, who confronts the world of politics, the world of the dead and of the gods.
At the beginning, Antigone is seen as a fierce and strong woman; however, in the end we see a fragile and terrified character who accepts her death. The antagonist, Creon, represented as the dictator of human laws, fights against Antigone as she defends divine justice against Creon’s moral justice to the bitter end. Her actions are uncompromising. She actively participates in the decisions she has taken and obtains her strength from the nature of the divine laws, that is, honor the dead and family values.
Historically, Greeks held burial of the dead as the most sacred of acts. Even after the Trojan War, an agreement and ceasefire were made to pay homage to the bodies of fallen soldiers and conduct their funerals with admirable rituals. There was extraordinary sense of identity that existed and played a significant role between the democratic city and those who fought for it. The city’s and the individual’s fate were one in the same and even after death, they would be remembered as honorable men continuing to live in the city.
The story of Antigone begins after the armies of Argos has vanished and the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other in war. The city, represented by the Chorus, is summoned by the new ruler, Creon. It is here when Creon thanks the City for their loyal service and before announcing his first order of business, he 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 the gravity of this law is an assault on their religious laws, but ultimately, they submit to Creon’s law and are convinced that no one would sacrifice their own life to violate it.
Creon believes he is the almighty ruler and his rule over every man transcends natural law. Creon is an arrogant man and his power 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 father’s 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 within reason when he determined that Polynices should not be buried, as an appropriate punishment. He does not consider the moral consequences of his decisions.
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 Disob. Powerpoint)
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, Antigone’s 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 believed disobeying his orders carried grave consequences Whomever the city placed on the throne should be obeyed, no matter how small the matter. He came across as a male chauvinist who believed one should “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.
While her actions were to follow natural law, Antigone’s decision to contradict political law conforms to the idea of civil disobedience. Professor Jones indicated in her Antigone outline, “the main elements of Civil Disobedience include a non-violent protest of unjust actions or laws. 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 Creon’s 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.
The City’s 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 is taking a position against the political rules, thus pitted against the state–the natural law of burial for everyone versus the political law of burying everyone but Polynices. The Chorus sides with Creon’s laws, not because they believe in them but out of fear of death.
After Creon sentences Antigone to death, he is confronted by a blind prophet who 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 loses his son, his wife and his moral authority in the process. Creon’s political strength was undermined by his second-guessing and lack of leadership, and ultimately failure to act.
Women are shown to be submissive and unimportant in political life. Antigone took on traditional male characteristics of strength, leadership and conviction under moral authority. This 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 him, she remains true to her beliefs actively chooses to act in a way that guarantees her death.