Essay: Woe be to Antigone

Oedipus and Antigone.

Image via Wikipedia

Woe be to Antigone

Within the realm of Greek myth, there is much suffering – whether it be the cause of some god’s retribution, or the hasty and most murderous acts of two star-crossed lovers, woe is abundant in all.  Antigone, written by Sophocles (a writer of great tragedies), is no exception.

Sophocles places much emphasis on two characters and one household, those being Antigone, Creon, and the House of Thebes.  The story starts at the end of another, the great tragedy of Oedipus and his sons.  Oedipus was a man of hard luck, or rather, one destined to have a very poor fate.  It all began with the prophecy spoken over him as he a child, that he would murder his father and marry his mother.  Moreover, as those familiar with Greek myth would presume, it all truly came about and in a most horrid fashion.  Oedipus killed his father, mistakenly, while on a mountain road.  Unbeknownst to him, he then married his mother, the Queen of Thebes and took on the position of King (these duo offenses, the murder and the marriage, stood as repugnant in the sight of the gods and their higher law, and this likely contributed to the generational curse that would follow).  They lived in ignorant bliss for a while, until a shepherd’s testimony, and a prophet’s reminder brought them back to reality.  Oedipus’ mother/wife did what was expected of her and committed suicide, while Oedipus blinded himself and lived much of his life in the misery of his past.  He did, however, have four last joys in his life, those of his children.  Yet soon, even those would be taken away.  After some time, Oedipus was asked to resign the throne and leave the kingdom, he did so, under the guidance and care of his daughter Antigone, while his other daughter Ismene, looked after his assets in the kingdom.  Meanwhile, his sons, Polynices and Eteocles fought for rule of the kingdom. Eteocles, who had managed to ascertain the throne, refused to step down in response to his brother’s protest, therefore, Polynices mounted an attack against Thebes, enlisting the aid of foreign powers.  The war that ensued, ended quite terribly (as one would expect), concluding with the death of the two brothers and the reign of their Uncle Creon.  Creon would prove to be quite different than his predecessors, however, the inescapable curse on the House of Thebes would see to it that his life would also be filled with much melancholy.

After Oedipus died, Antigone returned home and lived in the palace with her sister Ismene, and King Creon.  If it had ended there, the story may not have seemed so bad, but the Greeks would not relent in their tragedy!  In response to the war waged against Thebes, Creon issued an edict that the bodies of their enemies, particularly that of Polynices, would not be honored by burial.  Antigone, however, would not heed the king’s command – out of a deep love for her kindred, and a respect for the higher law of the gods, she buried her brother with an act of civil disobedience.  To say the gods were on her side would be a reasonable statement, although they did little to protect her or aid in the task at hand.  According to the higher law, all dead must be buried, and only then allowed entrance into the kingdom of Hades – otherwise, unburied, they would wander for the rest of eternity, never finding peace.  What a horrid conception was this, and all the better for Antigone’s actions, both in the sight of the gods, the view of the people (of Thebes), and that of Sophocles as well.  Antigone sums up the importance of the gods’ mandate, when standing before Creon in judgment,

A 19th century painting by Andre Marcel Basche...

Image via Wikipedia

“ANTIGONE Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.Not through dread of any human pride could I answer to the gods for breaking these. Die I must,-I knew that well (how should I not?)- even without thy edicts. But if I am to die before my time, I count that a gain: for when any one lives, as I do, compassed about with evils, can such an one find aught but gain in death?” (Sophocles 12).

In Sophocles famous prose, Antigone and Creon stand out as the great sufferers, each meeting a poor, dreaded fate.  Antigone was taken into the hands of death – after burying her brother against Creon’s edict, she was imprisoned in a great cavern where she committed suicide.   This was as a result of Creon’s prideful and foolish judgment, disregarding the words of the prophets, the leaders, and most singularly, the chorus (people), as well as the inexcusable stone-set law of the gods.  Creon was, in turn, judged in quick succession.  Too late, he realized the fullness of his folly – he ensured Polynices’ dignified burial, but he was too late to save Antigone.  His son Haemon, lover of the deceased, defied his father and met death by the sword of his own hand.  Hearing of this news, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, followed in the footsteps of her son, killing herself within the palace.  Creon was stricken with grief, issues one last statement before the play’s conclusion, one of recognition to his own foolishness and the deaths he has caused, “Lead me away, I pray you; a rash, foolish man; who have slain thee, ah my son, unwittingly, and thee, too, my wife-unhappy that I am! I know not which way I should bend my gaze, or where I should seek support; for all is amiss with that which is in my hands,-and yonder, again, a crushing fate hath leapt upon my head” (34).  The play ends with the fitting words of a leader, speaking of the divine law of gods, and the vitality of wisdom to the Greeks, “Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness; and reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise” (34).

In a Christian perspective, this play holds some truth – it is indeed important to obey the perfect law of God before the corruptible law of man… however, it does not teach the way of Civil Disobedience, the “doctrine of Thoreau.” Suicide, as well, is never the answer – each life is conceived and given a purpose by God, and it is His right alone to take it away.


About The Game Detective

Hello, my dear Watsons, I'm The Game Detective.

Posted on 08/29/2011, in Christianity, Literary Focus, Post-A-Day {2011} and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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