Thursday, January 4, 2007

Antigone: Family vs. Country

A fascinating debate from classical literature that rages on today is the question of who was in the right in Sophocles’ Antigone. Both Antigone and her uncle, the king of Thebes, Creon, believed that they were doing what was best – Antigone’s burial of her brother Polyneices and Creon’s refusal to and subsequent condemnation of his niece. Who was right?

It seems likely that even Sophocles’ audience would have been in conflict over which character made the correct decision. Both were acting according to the law they believed to be superior. Creon believed that since Polyneices was a traitor to Thebes (he had, after all, lead an army against his brother, King Eteocles) he deserved the punishment fitting of such a traitor. Antigone, quite to the contrary, believed that family loyalty takes precedence over everything, even the law of the land. She therefore had no choice but to bury her brother. When it comes down to it, this is a story of family versus country. Which demands our greater loyalty?

Sophocles makes the answer unclear. Both Antigone and Creon suffer horrible fates. Antigone loses her own life. Creon loses his niece and, consequently, his son and wife. It is debatable who suffers more in such a situation. However, I think the text seems to hint that Creon was in the wrong and that he was the one who suffered more when all was said and done. In the end, Creon decides that he must free Antigone; that she was not wholly in the wrong. He declares, “We must not wage a vain war with destiny;” deciding, “’tis best to keep the established laws, even to death’s end.” However, it is too late. By the time Antigone’s cave is opened, she has already hung herself. The tragedy of her death is magnified by the fact that Creon acknowledged the error of his judgment with almost enough time to save her, but it was just barely too late. To make things worse, Heamon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancĂ©, kills himself after finding his love hanging in the cave. These two incidents alone would be enough of a horror for Creon. But it is not yet over. Eurydice, the queen, upon hearing of the deaths of both her son and niece, quietly climbs to her room and she, too, commits suicide. Creon, thus, is left wholly alone at the end of the play, believing he is being severely punished for his wrongful condemnation of Antigone. She, on the other hand, accepts death. She has the ability to avoid it, if she were to but leave her brother’s body lying outside the city. However, she takes action, knowing full well the consequences. She never doubts herself, as seen in her address to her fallen brother, “And yet I have honored thee, as the wise will deem, rightly.” Antigone, at least, has the satisfaction of believing herself to have a death in sacrifice for her family. Creon, on the other hand, is left with nothing.

I know no answer can be provided with complete certainty, but I am curious to see what others have to say on the topic. Who was in the right? Who does the text itself point to as being correct, or at least more correct than the other?


Tim Harris said...

The dramatic tension in the play comes from the tragic ambiguity over who is right, but the issue ancient audiences probably chewed over here is whether there is a higher morality than what tradition dictates. Given the way everything works out in the end, in seems that challenging tradition has its costs, and that rigid traditionalists might be better served by a bit more flexibility.

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I will reload the matter this way. Nowadays, it is time to family to fit in into society, due to society will never ever change due to family facts, I mean, The environment's motion resides on money, then family has nothing to do against that. Family members must be taught how things work.