Often thought of as a “sequel” to Oedipus Rex, Antigone belongs to a different part of Sophocles’ career and a completely different trilogy. Clearly, though, this story would be impossible and far less poignant were it not for the preceding story of Oedipus.
Who is the tragic hero of this play? On the surface, it would seem to be Antigone, although this daughter of Oedipus is not brought down by a flaw or hamartia, as commended by Aristotle. Instead, I would suggest, the tragic hero is Creon, Antigone’s uncle. The crown falls to Creon who does not push it away but did not seem to seek it. Still, this man seems as unsuited to ruling as does Macbeth.
At its heart, the element that makes Antigone more palatable to a wider audience than Oedipus is the profound unity of the plot. Gone are the complexities of the backstory. Sure, we could get into the whole Seven against Thebes story, but we don’t need to. We simply need to know that Polyneices lies unburied outside the city walls with Creon forbidding that this bit of decency be done.
We can perhaps understand Creon’s motivation. It’s easy for us, at a remove of twenty-five centuries, to simply dismiss him as a control freak, but keep in mind that backstory that I have just dismissed. What became of the previous three rulers of Thebes?
- Laius–murdered on the road
- Oedipus–ousted/resigned after gouging his own eyes out
- Eteocles–killed during failed revolt
Can we forgive Creon for being a rather severe law-and-order guy? Of course we can. This is, I believe, the sort of understanding that ought to be extended to the members of the U.S. security forces in the wake of 9/11. Certainly, waterboarding is an unpleasant thing–perhaps not as unpleasant as an unburied corpse, but unpleasant. Maybe it’s torture. Probably it is. But can we condemn those who opted for that technique, who crossed a line of decency perhaps, in their zeal to prevent future catastrophes? I have to pause before offering that condemnation.
We can understand and excuse a person choosing to do unpleasant things, up to a point, in the wake of extreme events. The problem here is identifying precisely where that point, the point between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, lies.
Creon’s choice to make a horrible example of Polyneices, at least in Antigone’s eyes, crosses that line. In Greek culture, burial was more than just the decent thing to do. Unburied corpses failed to find peace in the afterlife. As jarring as a loved one’s body being desecrated might seem to us, it was far more significant to the Greeks.
Creon overstepped the lines of decency because he transgressed not the laws of man but the laws of God. I’m reminded here of Peter and John’s response in Acts 4:19. When commanded not to preach about Jesus any longer, these two politely declined to obey. We can, perhaps, understand the stubbornness of the Sanhedrin. They wanted to put a lid on this whole “Jesus” thing, but in the course of doing so, they, like Creon, brought destruction onto their own houses.