MAN AND LAWS OF THE LAND
By: Gaither Stewart
Antigone’s travail begins when she learns she was born of the incestuous union of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, and his own mother, Jocasta. After the blindness of her father-brother, Antigone follows him into exile, before returning to Thebes after his death to try to reconcile her brothers quarrelling over the throne. Instead the two warring brothers are both killed and Creon, Antigone’s uncle, becomes king. Creon honors the brother who defends Thebes but forbids the removal of the corpse of the second, condemning it to rot as a traitor.
Antigone, moved by love for her brother and convinced of the injustice of the command, which she believes violates divine law, buries his body secretly. For this crime, Creon orders she be buried alive in a cave.
This complex and bewildering story is the polarization of one of the basic elements of the relationship between man and society—the individual’s challenge to Power … and Power’s reaction to the challenge. Since then, Antigone’s act of burying her brother has been repeated down through the centuries as women have risked all to bury their dead men-warriors.
King Creon: “Shall the mob dictate my policy…. Am I to rule for others, or myself?”
Haemon (King Creon’s son, pleading for the life of his fiancée and Creon’s niece, Antigone, who has violated the king’s law: “A State for one man is no State at all.”
Creon, who has usurped power illegally: “The State is his who rules it, so ‘tis held.”
Haemon: “As monarch of a desert thou wouldst shine.” Then later, sending his father to the devil, Haemon adds: “Go, consort with friends who like a madman for their mate.”
When Creon, despite his son’s pleas, accusations and threats to join Antigone in death if the king-dictator maintains his edict, the Chorus charges both king and submissive people:
“Mad are thy subjects all, and even the wisest heart
Straight to folly will fall, at a touch of thy poisoned
“Yet,” the Chorus adds: “it is ill to disobey
The powers who hold by might the sway.
Thou hast withstood authority,
A self-willed rebel, thou must die.”
The confrontation between Antigone and Creon reflects the dialectics of Western society since the time of the ancient Greeks in all its political, social, moral and legal ramifications. The reading I have given here to the tragedy is socio-political—the individual vs. Power.
The heart of the tragedy lies in Antigone’s free admission that she committed the act—she buried her brother’s body in disobedience of King Creon’s edict that the body was to remain untouched. Since her father-brother Oedipus was unaware of his crime of the murder of his father and of incest with his mother, his crime was excusable. Antigone’s crime on the other hand was a conscious act and therefore inexcusable.
Since Antigone knew and admitted her action but not her guilt as Creon insisted she do, her defiance of Power appears not only as a demand for justice, an expression of the greatest love, a passion for an ideal and conformity to an ethical norm superior to the public one, but also as the head-on collision between individual rights and the requisites of the State. Hers is more than a death urge, at the edge, the limit that humans can hardly cross. It is much more than an act of feminine heroism.
Her act is a symbol of the ideal, the emergence of the higher, individual law vis-a-vis Power, the qualities of good and evil which both the modern political Left and Right would historically claim. This tragedy of 2500 years ago turns on the politics of the private spirit and the violence which political social change exacts on the individual. This is truly the dividing line of the abyss separating individual man and society.
A terrible beauty on the one hand, a terrible ugliness on the other. The clash of private conscience and public welfare. Yet, in modern times, both private conscience and most certainly the concept of public welfare have weakened.
Antigone—first demanding justice, then claiming also that her dead rebel brother stood outside the law—stands on the lip of that abyss before she disappears from the action of the tragedy into a death so un-understood that the Chorus called her “inhuman.”
Antigone admits that she broke the law. But ethical man forgives her in the name of an unwritten law that exists above and beyond the public law that idealists in all times would make part of written law. She is criminal. But only to the extent that her act enters into an ambiguous territory of the very concept of law.
Here we are speaking of the law of the State as opposed to ethical law, “The immutable unwritten laws of heaven,” that however may never be written. In later days and down to our times not even the holy scriptures condemn war unconditionally, which however every thinking man knows is criminal. Antigone is symbolic of an unwritten law, perhaps nonetheless divine, eternal, universal. She exists somewhere in a shadowy realm that contemporary men strain to understand.
Though that unwritten ethical law appears as the most elevated part of man, a law that is near the divine, her defiance borders on what some theorists today would define as terrorism, because of her fanatical longing for death in defense of that law.
Yet, her choice is also not distant from the concept of the divine rights of man that lie in that same shadowy territory. In that sense her choice is transcendental for each of us, because it is linked to the good.
Instead Creon at first justifies his severity in application of the law—though it is his own arbitrary law—in the name of the good of all, as per Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. His will becomes law. And he would compel the ethical individual to obey his arbitrary law. In his application of the law he exceeds ethical law, basing his authority on his own desire, as in President Bush’s justification for going to war in Iraq: “I want to do this thing!”
The unfolding, the denouement and conclusion of Sophocles’ Antigone not only do not lead to a resolution but to irresolution. In fact, the action intensifies Antigone’s defiance, causing a cycle of death, things go insane with the suicides of her fiancé Haemon and his mother and Creon’s wife.
In that sense the entire cast—Antigone, Haemon, and Creon himself—stand on the edge, at the limit of life, somewhere between life and death. No wonder ambiguity reigns supreme. Antigone evokes laws of heaven and earth, yet exists within the presumption of criminal guilt—which in one view is only grieving for her dead brother—and in a sense not even clearly in opposition to Creon’s edict in the name of the good for all. Strangely, they both claim the gods are on their sides. It is unclear if she a Christ figure, as some philosophers have concluded, a God’s child, emerging from the tomb to live through the millennia until our day.
And Creon himself, was he evil? That too is a real and eternal question: Was his edict another kind of social heroism? Or was his act purely arbitrary, a case of, “I want to do this thing.”
In the end—and as a boon to the conscience of those persons dedicated to the role of the just social state—Creon, the man of State, does come to regrets. Though here I am tempted to argue with myself, I recognize that Creon understands and appreciates Antigone’s stance and that he also knows that she too appreciates his position. Here we stand before the familiar old duality of life: between what we think we desire to do and what we actually do. Between enlightenment and madness. Illusion and delusion.
Meanwhile, in Sophocles, the Chorus, that is, the public and society, discerning or not, vacillates in its support, first for the man of State and Power, then for the higher right. For the Chorus, Antigone is less than human. She is one who no longer counts, somewhere out of the world, a substratum, to be compared to the unconsidered masses, non-represented, non-participating, non-voting majority of America who take no role in the exercise of Power.
At the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, one wonders which gods and what kind of gods they are all appealing to if they all believe they are acting within the mandate of the gods. However that may be, in my reading, Creon is the representative of arbitrary Power which the oppressed, for whatever their reasons, have the divine right to doubt, question and bring down.
Freedom requires that man act polemically, precisely in order to realize himself and a just society. In order to reject the fatalism that leads us to accept that what will come to pass will come to pass. People die but others must go on.
Life will go on.
One must live. One must participate in order to be part of continuing life. When the laws of the land are in conflict with justice, when Mother State is no longer the just mother, then acts which Power labels criminal and which in fact can become violent and revolutionary become not only just, but necessary.
In my reading, Antigone is representative of the conflictual revolutionary ideal.
One recalls the proverb, “if you strike at the king, you must kill the king.”
Providence, Rhode Island, February 2007
Re-worked in Buenos Aires, September 2007
Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor of The Greanville Post, and Cyrano’s Journal Today, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His latest novel is Lily Pad Roll, second volume in his Europe Trilogy (Punto Press/ Trepper & Katz Impact Books).
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Antigone by Sophocles that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in Antigone and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Antigone by Sophocles in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Antigone at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Agency Versus Inaction in Antigone
Ismene and Antigone vary greatly in their respective attributes, Ismene is breathtakingly beautiful, while Antigone is plain; Antigone is brave while Ismene is frightened. The core difference between the two of them lies in Antigone’s willingness to create change and Ismene’s hope that she can make it through life without creating waves. This difference manifests itself most brilliantly in the burial of Polynices. Antigone is willing to risk anything to have her brother buried with honor, while Ismene worries solely for the safety of her sister. This behavior continues throughout the novel, with Ismene acceding to Creon’s demands, and Antigone taking brave but stupid risks. In the end of the play, Antigone even takes her life in her own terms. What can be said about the desire to make life happen, the ability to not sit idly by? Does Sophocles seem to advocate this position, despite the death of Antigone?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Function of the Chorus in Antigone
For most plays, the role of the Chorus involves a small number of people, usually between 7-12, who make commentary on the unfolding events and serve as foreshadowers to the action to come. They are usually apart from the action, yet also apart from the audience; they function best as an uninvolved narrator. However, in Antigone, the chorus breaks most literary conventions. Instead of being portrayed as a group of people, the chorus is merely one person, who aligns himself with the audience. He quite frequently refers to the audience and himself as the collective “we" and by doing so, makes the audience a part of his chorus. Why is this important? What feelings towards the play are created when the audience takes on the role of the chorus?Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Antigone and Sisterhood
The rivalry between Ismene and Antigone is strong, because both girls are similar in age with very contrasting personalities. Antigone is decisive, moody, brave and impulsive, while Ismene is beautiful, timid and beautiful. The two are set up as classic “good girl" and “bad girl" stereotypes, with Antigone eventually tying Ismene to a tree, and stealing her sister’s makeup and other items to make herself more attractive to Haemon. However, despite this fierce rivalry between the two sisters, when Creon is threatening Ismene with death and imprisonment if she does not stop her attempts to bury her brother, Ismene is quick to jump to her defense, stating that if Creon locks Antigone up, Ismene will simply take over and die alongside her for their treason. What can be said about the juxtaposition of their past relationship and Ismene’s sudden willingness to die for Antigone? Is their rivalry perhaps less fierce than expected because of their bond of sisterhood?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Individual Versus the State in Antigone
The role of the individual in Antigone is very important. Obviously, Antigone herself is a strong individual character, who is not willing to allow her brother to be dishonored, no matter what the cost is to her own body. Creon is also a strong character, and while he knows the law and is convinced that he must follow it, he has sympathetic feelings for Antigone and tries to get her out of trouble. In which ways are Creon and Antigone both destroyed by the power of the law? How do they try to get around the laws that have been set down by Creon, and in which ways do they fail at that attempt? What is the meaning behind their failures?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: Tragedy in Antigone
As the reader progresses through Antigone, it becomes obvious by the plot twists that the play is a tragedy at heart. However, to make the nature of the play even more clear, the Chorus appears halfway through the production to tell the audience that the tragedy has begun. This statement proves the inevitability of the coming tragic events, and takes the pressure off of the characters to attempt to stop such things from occurring.
This list of important quotations from Antigone by Sophocles will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Antigone listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for Antigone above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Sophocles they are referring to.
“I didn't say yes. I can say no to anything I say vile, and I don't have to count the cost. But because you said yes, all that you can do, for all your crown and your trappings, and your guards—all that your can do is to have me killed." (18)
“My nails are broken, my fingers are bleeding, my arms are covered with the welts left by the paws of your guards—but I am a queen!" (19)
“If Haemon reaches the point where he stops growing pale with fear when I grow pale, stops thinking that I must have been killed in an accident when I am five minutes late, stops feeling that he is alone on earth when I laugh and he doesn't know why—if he too has to learn to say yes to everything—why, no, then, no! I do not love Haemon!" (14)
“As for those three red-faced card players—they are the guards. One smells of garlic, another of beer; but they're not a bad lot. They have wives they are afraid of, kids who are afraid of them; they're bothered by the little day-to- day worries that beset us all. At the same time—they are policemen: eternally innocent, no matter what crimes are committed; eternally indifferent, for nothing that happens can matter to them. They are quite prepared to arrest anybody at all, including Creon himself, should the order be given by a new leader." (17)
“Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's ax goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner—so that you think of a film without a sound track, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamor that is not more than picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in the desert of your silence. That is tragedy." (9)
“I'm simply powerless to act against this city's law.” (11)
“I intend to give my brother burial. I'll be glad to die in the attempt,– if it's a crime, then it's a crime that God commands.” (7)
“Isn't a man's right to burial decreed by divine justice? I don't consider your pronouncements so important that they can just.overrule the unwritten laws of heaven.”(12)
“These signs portend evil for Thebes; and the trouble stems from your policy. Why? Because our altars are polluted by flesh brought be dogs and birds, picking from Polynices' corpse. Small wonder that the gods won't accept our sacrifices.” (18)
Source: Sophocles, Antigone. New York: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.