Antigone: Opposing Rights

William Wilberforce, an English politician during the late 1700’s, strongly believed his morals should be incorporated into the law. People were being ripped from their homes in West Africa and forced into slavery. But, there was no law preventing these inhumane acts. The law at the time reflected the popular opinion that slavery was beneficial to the economy and should be encouraged. In contrast, William Wilberforce’s beliefs would not let him sit idly by while millions of Africans were whipped, beaten, and taken to a foreign country against their will. His unrelenting campaign against the British slave trade resulted in the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

In many instances, morals should be reflected in the law, but asserting that they should always be incorporated into the law makes this statement false. If Wilberforce’s values had been reflected in the law earlier, millions of Africans would have been spared untold agony. All around Wilberforce, merchants were exploiting Africans purely for profit which violated his vision of human dignity and the fundamental equality of man.

Throughout history, individuals have put themselves at risk because of their personal beliefs and have changed the course of history as a result. Many people of Wilberforce’s time attempted to justify slavery by arguing that they were converting the slaves to Christianity and saving their souls in the process. Wilberforce’s faith, however, led him to a completely different conclusion. He argued forcefully in Parliament that Christianity mandated the abolition of the slave trade.

Personal beliefs or morals should be reflected in the law because in many cases they make the government more humane. Many heroes of history, like Wilberforce, decided based on their personal moral beliefs that the current laws had to change and through their determined efforts brought about societies that were more just and equitable.

Family First

Sophocles introduces many different intriguing conflicts throughout the course of Antigone. Antigone’s inner conflict of whether to honor her brother or to obey the law is especially interesting. Is family more important than government in this instance? Antigone’s willful stubbornness to remain loyal to her family outweighs the part of her which obeys the rules. To leave her brother dead, unburied, and to be picked away by birds just simply was impossible for Antigone to imagine. There is no height nor depth that I would not go to in order to help my siblings. I would defend their honor and their character at all costs.

Antigone laments, “Don’t die along with me, nor make your own that which you did not do. My death’s enough” (Antigone. 544-45). Antigone basically claims that she is sacrificing herself to save the honor of her brother. Her death is significant, because through her passing, her brother can pass through to the afterlife. Not only does she feel morally obligated to help her dead brother, but she is aware that her honor hangs in the balance as well. The suffering her brother once endured, she now experiences.

Nothing else matters in her mind which is the same way I feel when my siblings are in trouble. Her emotional death has made her stone-cold in her decision to disobey the law and risk her future in helping her brother’s spirit. The feeling of nothing else mattering but family is so overpowering to her. All of the reasoning of Ismene is no match for Antigone’s will. Eventually Ismene gives up and says, “Go, since you want to. But know this: you go senseless indeed, but loved by those who love you” (Antigone 98-99)

The people closest to Antigone think she is crazy, but yet that does not deter her. Once my mind is so set on one outcome, nothing anyone else says can change my mind or steer my course in another direction. Antigone follows what she believes is right because of the importance of a proper burial. Obeying the law seemed ludicrous to a determined Antigone who sought to save the honor of her brother.

Antigone vs. Creon

Various tensions are evident throughout the text of Antigone, but one that carries the most importance is the conflict between Antigone and Creon. Antigone’s belief about what is right directly clashes with Creon’s decree about Polyneices burial. Creon haughtily rules and oppresses his kingdom, so defiance greatly angers him. Their character to character clash only heightens when Creon realizes the person who rebelled against his decree was family. With Antigone filling the role as the protagonist in this story, one would assume therefore that Creon would naturally be the antagonist.

Interestingly enough, Creon does not necessarily play the role of the villain as he merely wants law and order, something which Antigone defies. When the guard brings the news about Antigone’s rule breaking mishap, Creon asks, “Is this the truth? And do you grasp its meaning?” (Antigone. 403) If Antigone really was the culprit of breaking this law, then it could upset the balance of the government and town. Antigone would rather die than live with the pain of knowing her brother would not pass into the afterlife.

Antigone believes that not only her brother’s honor would be damaged if she does not save her brother’s spirit, but her own honor would be stripped from her. She exclaims, “But let me and my own ill counseling suffer this terror. I shall suffer nothing so great as to stop me dying with honor” (Antigone. 95-97). Her own honor is tainted with her brother’s corpse rotting on the ground with no one able to bury the remains.

In contrast to this view, Creon believes that the law is above all and that it must be respected and followed with no exempt cases. Creon’s tyrannous manner by which he runs his kingdom demands that everyone be completely submissive to him. Each feels as if they cannot yield to one another. Creon’s duty as king is to enforce the law which Antigone directly rebels against. Antigone’s duty is to save her fallen brother’s honor. Neither can give in to the other creating a struggle for power and tremendous tension.

Another source of tension between Creon and Antigone is found in the interesting dynamic of man versus woman, vying for the role of the tragic hero in the story. Women obviously had a lower status in this day and age than men. Therefore, a woman directly related to the ruler defying Creon’s decree made him look weak and unable to control his subjects. If the citizens of a kingdom sense weakness in the kingdom, then restlessness permeates through the whole area. The king allowing Antigone’s rebellious act would begin a chain of events completely out of his power, most likely leading to the downfall of his kingdom.

Antigone’s determination to bury Polyneices is a force to be reckoned with. Her purpose becomes so clear that she claims, “Take heart. You live. My life died long ago. / And that has made me fit to help the dead” (Antigone. 559-560). Nothing else matters for Antigone, she only desires honor in death. If helping Polyneices entails her dying to the government, then so be it. Antigone argues with Creon that the will of the gods is to have Polyneices buried in the statement, “Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could overrun the god’s unwritten and unfailing laws” (Antigone 453-55).

Antigone directly attacks Creon’s large male ego by proclaiming that he still is merely a mortal man who falls subject to the gods, like everyone else. Antigone claims that the gods will is opposite to that of Creon, meaning that they support Antigone’s decision. This is important because if the gods side with one of the two instigators of this conflict, then one has the obvious advantage, proving that the other was in the wrong.

The tension between Antigone and Creon is palpable throughout the story of Antigone. Creon’s desire to uphold the law versus Antigone’s loyalty to her family makes for an intriguing dynamic.

Who’s the Tragic Hero?

In a story with no definitive antagonist, Antigone by Sophocles possesses two protagonists that are both tragic heroes. Creon desires to uphold the law and rule the Kingdom of Thebes powerfully, but has one crucial flaw, his arrogance. He begins as a fair and just ruler, but over time, his pride becomes overpowering in the way he rules his kingdom. Creon, unable to recognize the haughty demeanor in which he rules his kingdom, leads himself ultimately to the demise of his own kingship. The Chorus Leader only inflates the ego of Creon by saving, “This resolution, Creon, is your own, in the matter of the traitor and the true. For you can make such rulings as you will about the living and about the dead” (Antigone. 211-214).

Controlling matters concerning the living and the dead is power only the gods possess. Creon is arrogant and elevates himself by trying to portray that he has the power of a god. No man should be able to control anyone’s passage into the after-life. While speaking to Teiresias, a wise, blind soothsayer, Creon’s prideful attitude is initially deferential, but soon turns disrespectful when he is told he is making the wrong decision. Creon insults the soothsayer and his judgement in the excerpt, “Old man, you all, like bowmen at a mark, have bent your bows at me” (Antigone. 1033-35). Creon feels attacked by the soothsayer’s proclamation that his edict might not have been in line with the will of the gods and likens it to having a weapon pointed at him, a direct attack to Creon’s pride.

Disrespectful insults do not end there however, as he degrades every important piece of wisdom the soothsayer shares. As king, he believes that he ought to be respected which further proves how Creon’s pride has been his tragic flaw. Categorizing Creon as the antagonist is a bit of a stretch, although he may be tyrannous and arrogant at times, he is only trying to protect his kingdom and uphold the law.

Antigone, on the other hand, fills the role of a tragic hero because of her undying support for her family. Her loyalty may have been a good part of her character, but it actually ends up being her tragic flaw. When Creon proclaims that no one can bury the corpse of Polyneices, Antigone becomes all-consumed by the thought of her kinship being dishonored. Antigone has nothing left to lose which makes her willing to go to great lengths to save her brother. Whether or not her own honor is tainted, her stubbornness would not allow Antigone to sit idly as her brother’s corpse is picked away at by birds.

The people also supported Antigone in her venture to bury one of the former kings. Antigone speaks about the supporters of the former king in the excerpt, “All these would say that they approved my act did fear not mute them. A king is fortunate in many ways, and most, that he can act and speak at will” (Antigone. 504-07) Creon rules using intimidation in his kingdom which was quieting the supporters of Polyneices. Antigone wants nothing more than being able to have the power to act and speak at will. Creon uses this power to tear apart his own life while that immense power could have been used for good.

Antigone’s tragic flaw of loyalty prevents her from seeing reason. Her stubbornness allows her to only see one outcome to this issue of Polyneice’s burial. She thinks about nothing other than herself, her honor, her brother, and his honor. Antigone’s tragic flaw of undying loyalty eventually led to the death of herself, and many of those around her.