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In Sophocles’s Antigone, the two protagonists, Antigone and her uncle Creon, could both claim the title of ‘tragic hero’. But which of these is the real deal?
Antigone is a story of conflict and of passion. To fully understand this text, we must first understand the background behind it. Antigone and her sister Ismene are the daughters of Oedipus, from Oedipus Rex. Much has happened since Oedipus’s banishment, and in the tale Seven Against Thebes the story of Oedipus’s two sons both vying for supremacy. Eteocles takes control of Thebes, and, bitter and angry, his brother Polynices raises an army to march against the city. Both are slain in the ensuing battle.
This is where the story of Antigone picks up. Creon, Oedipus’s brother in law and uncle (Oedipus married his mother) is now King of Thebes. He issues a decree to give funeral honours to one, but not the other. He honours Eteocles for defending the city, but leaves Polynices out to be eaten by dogs. However, as part of his family, it is Antigone’s right and obligation to bury both of her brothers, and she does so. Under Creon’s edict, this incurs the death penalty for the headstrong young woman. Creon becomes increasingly stubborn, eventually showing hubris, which the gods could not ignore for any longer. He imprisons her alive in a tomb, not knowing that his son Haemon, who is bethrothed to her, follows. The prophet Teiresias comes to Creon and after initial resistance, Creon repents and decides to go to free Antigone. He finds that he is too late, however, and rather tragically, Antigone has hung herself, Haemon falls on his sword before Creon’s eyes and the body of Creon’s wife is found shortly after, leaving Creon a broken man.
Creon’s tragedy is his dilemma over how he deals with his headstrong niece, Antigone. He upholds the law of the polis, or city, and as king, upholds his edicts. When Antigone rebels against his law, he becomes stubborn, close minded and begins to commit hubris. He insults Hades by dishonouring death, Aphrodite by breaking up the marriage of Haemon and Antigone, Earth by imprisoning Antigone in her alive and Zeus, saying to “Let the eagles carry his carcass up to the throne of Zeus”. He refuses to listen to Antigone’s case and ignores his son’s pleas for reason and mercy. This leads to him being brought down by the gods, his wife and son committing suicide, one life in payment for the death he caused and one for the dishonour he dealt to Polynices, left lying above the ground.
Antigone’s tragedy comes because of her unswerving loyalty to her brother, Polynices, and her determination to give him burial honours despite the personal danger. Her defiance and disregard of Creon leads to him imprisoning her alive in a tomb, where she commits suicide.
Aristotle defined a tragic hero as someone “between two extremes... not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is not brought about by some error or frailty” (Aristotle, Poetics). Tragedy is meant to produce catharsis by making the audience empathise with the protagonist. The purpose of a tragic character, therefore, is to produce these emotions by being raised to a great height and then sent plummeting down. An effective tragedy causes the audience’s emotions to mirror this rise and fall.
Some would argue that Antigone is indeed the main tragic character, as her fate is unarguably tragic. She at first, celebrates a victory when she is caught by the sentry and put to trial before Creon. However, there is no moment of ‘Oh, it’s going to be alright now’ as there is in Oedipus Rex when Oedipus finds that Polybus is dead of natural causes and thinks that half the prophecy about him marrying his mother and murdering his father is unfulfilled. Aristotle used Oedipus Rex as the example of a perfect representation of a tragic play in the Poetics, However, Antigone, although she does experience a tragic end due to her own actions and harmatia, or flaw, she does not experience that lifting up. Indeed, it is obvious from the beginning that she is heading towards death.
Creon on the other hand, is seen as a very strong and fair minded leader at first. His fatal flaw is his stubbornness and reluctance to see anyone else’s view. He begins, like Oedipus, as a character that is easily admired and portrayed as an open, caring king “I have always held the view that a king whose lips are sealed by fear, unwilling to seek advice, is damned. And no less damned is he who puts a friend above his country”. These patriotic words would have appealed to the Ancient Greek audience, who were proud of their democracy and way of life. However, there is typical Sophoclean irony in that these words are also a foreshadowing of his tragedy – he puts the State too far before his family, and as a result, he loses his wife and son.
There is also that crucial moment when the audience is assured that thinkgs will in fact, turn out well. After Creon decided to heed Teiresias’s words, he decides “’twas I imprisoned her and I will set her free”, deciding to undo the what he had done. However, Teiresias had come not with a warning, but a judgement. The audience’s emotions and hopes are sent crashing down as Creon arrives too late – Antigone is dead, his son falls on his sword before his eyes and the discovery of his wife’s body is reported by a messenger.
Greek tragedy is meant to purge the audience’s emotion and teach them. Creon, then fulfils this purpose well. This leads me to the conclusion that actually, he is the main tragic character, as he makes many decisions which could have led him either towards his tragedy or away from it, but ultimately he led himself to tragedy. This keeps the audience guessing and heightens catharsis, while Antigone’s fate was quite obvious from the beginning where she says “If I die for it, what happiness!” There is also a larger capacity for learning as Creon, having been punished and learning a very hard lesson, teachers the audience as well. He is left alive, which allows the audience to empathise more because his grief is evident when he carries his son’s body out of the palace. While Antigone is indeed a tragic character with a tragic fate, it is arguable that Creon is in fact, more tragic.