Antigone’s life, like her father Oedipus’s, is filled with grief and tragedy. As the daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, Antigone is a product of the cursed line of Thebes.
Antigone’s demise comes about when she secretly decides to give her dishonored brother Polynices a proper burial. When King Creon finds out, he becomes furious and orders Antigone to be walled up alive in a tomb. Rather than live in dishonor, Antigone sees it as her religious duty towards the gods and her brother to take her own life by hanging herself.
Departure from Thebes
After realizing that he had killed his father and married his mother, Antigone’s father, Oedipus, pricked his eyes and went blind. He then asks for exile and flees the city of Thebes, bringing Antigone with him to serve as his guide. They wandered until they reached a city on the outskirts of Athens called Colonus.
Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles, Oedipus’ other children, stayed behind in Thebes’ city with their uncle Creon. Creon has been entrusted to the throne because both of Oedipus’ sons were too young to rule. Once they became of age, the two brothers were to share the throne of Thebes.
However, before his exile from Thebes, Oedipus had cursed both of his sons to die by each other’s hands. Because of this, the shared ruling of Thebes by Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polynices was destined to fail.
Betrayal of Polynices
After Oedipus’ sons had grown up and ascended to the throne, war soon broke out between them. Eteocles, who held the throne at the time, refused to give up Polynices’ position, the elder son, as had been agreed. Eteocles then banishes Polynices from Thebes.
Polynices subsequently gathered an army of his own and started to attack Thebes to dethrone his brother and take back the crown. During the battle, both brothers ended up fighting and killing each other, as Oedipus’ curse had prophesied.
The Burial of Polynices
After the death of the two brothers, Creon was again entrusted to the throne of Thebes. He declared that Eteocles would have a proper burial. Meanwhile, Polynices’ body would be left for the dogs and vultures to devour. This was a punishment for Polynices’ treason against the kingdom.
Antigone heard the news of her brothers’ death, and soon after the passing of Oedipus, she returned to Thebes to give her brother Polynices a proper burial. She is committed to doing so despite the decree left by her uncle and despite knowing the terrible punishment she would face for breaking the decree.
At Thebes, Antigone reunited with her sister Ismene. Ismene soon learned that Antigone wanted to give Polynices a proper burial despite Creon’s order. Ismene warned Antigone about the consequences and the dangers of her actions and clearly stated that she would not be involved in Antigone’s plan.
Antigone does not heed Ismene’s warnings and instead finds Polynices’ body and performs a proper burial for him.
The Capture of Antigone and the Demise of Creon
Knowing that Antigone had gone against his order and performed a proper burial for Polynices, Creon was enraged and ordered that Antigone be captured, along with Ismene.
Creon’s son, Haemon, who was engaged to Antigone, came to Creon pleaded for Antigone to be released. However, Creon merely dismisses his son’s request and ridicules him.
Antigone tells Creon that Ismene had nothing to do with the burial and asks Ismene to be released. Creon then takes Antigone to a tomb outside of Thebes to be immured.
Later, Creon is warned by Teiresias, the blind prophet, that the gods are unhappy with how he had treated Polynices and Antigone. Creon’s punishment for this act would be the death of his son Haemon.
Now worried, Creon buried Polynices’s body properly and then went to the tomb to free Antigone, but it was too late, as she had committed suicide by hanging herself.
Haemon later took his own life after learning about the death of Antigone. To Creon’s dismay, his wife, Eurydice, also took her own life after finding out about her son’s death.
Natural Law: The main theme in Antigone’s story is the theme of natural law. As the king of Thebes, Creon declared that Polynices, who had performed treason to the kingdom, did not deserve a proper burial. Antigone defied her uncle’s command as she appealed to another set of rules, which are often called the “natural law.”
It stated that there are standards for right and wrong that are more fundamental and universal than any particular society’s laws. Because of this “natural law,” Antigone believed that the gods had commanded people to give a proper burial to the dead.
Moreover, Antigone believed that she had a greater loyalty towards her brother Polynices than she did towards the law of the city of Thebes. The gods’ wishes and Antigone’s sense of duty towards her brother are examples of natural law, the law that outweighs any human laws.
Citizenship vs. Family Loyalty: Another theme in Antigone’s story is citizenship versus family loyalty. We could clearly see that Creon, the king of Thebes, had a strict definition of citizenship. From his perspective, Polynices has stripped his right to be buried properly as a citizen of Thebes because of the treason that he had committed to the kingdom.
In contrast, Antigone held the tradition and loyalty towards her family above all else. To Antigone, her loyalties to the gods and her family outweigh one’s loyalty to a city and its laws.
Civil Disobedience: Another theme of Antigone’s story is civil disobedience. According to Creon, the law that the city’s leader enacted must be obeyed. The city’s law is the basis for justice, and so unjust law is non-existent. This is not the case for Antigone as she believed that unjust laws exist, and it is her moral duty to disobey these laws by performing a proper burial for her brother.
Fate Vs. Free Will: The final theme found in Antigone’s story is fate versus free will. We can see this theme portrayed clearly through the act of the Greeks to consult and rely on the prophecy from independent prophets or seers, as well as the oracles who reside at the temples of god.
Prophets and seers were known to be able to see the future through their connection with gods. Creon, who failed to heed the seer Tiresias’ warning, instead wished to act out of his own free will. However, we discover that Tiresias was right in his prophecy that his son Haemon would die as a punishment for Creon’s actions.
The Tragic Hero: Antigone
One question remains: who is the hero in this tragic story of family honor and power? Is it Creon the King or Antigone?
Some debates have said Creon is the tragic hero. This is because female characters in ancient drama have often been said to be lacking depth, as they existed to contrast or emphasize the feeling of the main male case. In Antigone’s story, it is Creon who held more responsibility and with more political power.
But first, let’s take a look at the main traits that define a tragic hero. A tragic hero has high social status, high responsibility for one’s actions, moral ambiguity without a black and white portrayal, determination, compassion from the audience, and a trait or flaw that causes the tragedy of their story.
It is known that Antigone is the oldest daughter of Oedipus, the former king of the kingdom of Thebes. This makes her social status almost one of a princess, although she doesn’t hold any political power.
A tragedy befalls her family, and so Antigone has a lot to lose. At stake for Antigone are honor, principles, wealth, and most importantly, her reputation. This gives her a high level of responsibility for her actions.
Although Creon is being depicted as the superior character in the story, Antigone remains, under any circumstances, an important character within the kingdom of Thebes. Not only is Antigone is engaged to Haemon, son of Creon, but she is still a noble and a righteous person on her own.
Both Antigone and Creon present the portrayal of the trait of moral ambiguity without black and white. Both characters cannot be classified as overly good or plainly evil characters.
Creon can be seen as cruel through his act of not granting or allowed proper burial for Polynices. For ancient Greeks, a proper funeral is a must, even if it is for an enemy. However, in his actions towards Ismene, Antigone’s sister, we can see Creon’s better side. He treated Ismene with nobility, respect and affection, and was soft-spoken and calm in his treatment of her.
While it was rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her brother, Antigone is a character that is known to be faithful towards the traditions of the city and has mercy for others. She believes that human judgement can only take a person’s body, but their soul should have peace in the afterlife. Therefore, she demanded Polynices to be buried properly even if it cost her her own life.
The most important aspect of a tragic hero is a fatal flaw that leads to their demise. Antigone is her stubbornness and lack of diplomacy, which results in her brash actions after hearing her uncle’s refusal to give her brother a proper burial. Instead of convincing Creon about traditions and mercy, she resorted to disobeying the king’s decree, questioning his authority and going against his will without any repercussions.
In the end, her stubbornness led her to her death. If Antigone had yielded to Creon, she would have been forgiven and released. However, she decided to take her own life, not knowing that Creon had changed his mind and wanted to release her from her punishment.
Meanwhile, it seems that Creon does not have a single fatal flaw that a true tragic hero falls victim to. As a king, he shows stubbornness, as he refuses to let Antigone get away with what she had done as it would lead to questioning his political power.
However, later we see that he can control his anger and his inability to seek compromise. Although he decided to punish Antigone, he later changed his mind and decided to free Antigone. This behavior change is unusual for a tragic hero.
Therefore, in this comparison of Creon and Antigone, it is clear that Antigone meets more of a true tragic hero’s traits. Antigone is a noble birth woman who has a lot to lose, and her actions are not strictly good or evil. Above all else, she stays true to her actions and beliefs, and when her fatal flaws lead to her death, the audience is compelled to feel sympathy for her and her tragic demise.