Critics have traditionally divided over the question of whether Antigone or Creon is the protagonist in the play, Antigone, by Sophocles. The answer lies in ones interpretation of the play. Is it a play about a woman doomed by the sins of her father or is it a play about a king who holds himself more powerful than the gods?
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. Oedipus, once the king of Thebes, unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Four children, Polyneices, Etocles, Antigone and Ismene were the products of that union. When Oedipus learns the true identity of Iocaste, his wife and mother, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes.
His two sons, Polyneices and Etocles, wage war over the control of Thebes and kill each other in doing so. When the play opens, Antigone is speaking with her sister Ismene about Creon's (present king of Thebes) decree that Polyneices be denied a burial. Polyneices' body will be put into the fields, unburied, as punishment for his attack on Thebes. Antigone decides she must bury the body.
If Antigone is the protagonist of this play, then the action is a further saga in the chapter of Oedipus. Oedipus and his family are doomed for his sin against the gods. Sophocles describes this in Ode II…
Where once the anger of heaven has struck, that house has shaken
For ever…. damnation rises behind each child
Like a wave cresting out of the black northeast,
When the long darkness under sea roars up
And bursts drumming death upon the wind whipped sand.
Creon becomes a tool of the gods used to further the doom of the family of Oedipus. Antigone knows that she is cursed. In the prologue, Antigone says “. . . You would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus... She decides that it is her duty to defy Creon's proclamation and bury her brother, Pyneices, so that his soul can rest in peace in the Underworld. Antigone is not concerned with the punishment of death that he (Creon) has promised to impose on anyone who dares defy his edict, because her death has been foretold by the gods. Antigone oozes to bury Polyneices so that they can both die with honor. She notes that life is short, but that death is forever. Antigone remarks, "It will not be the worst of deaths - death without honor".
If Antigone is the protagonist, all the action of the play is derived from this choice. Creon is the antagonist, the means by which Antigone makes the choice to die with honor. Creon becomes a pawn between the struggle of Antigone and the gods. Antone chooses to make her peace with the gods by sacrificing her life to uphold their laws of burial. She tells Creon" . . . all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of the gods".
If Creon is the protagonist, this is a play about the hubris of a man who thinks himself more powerful, and more important than the gods. He has decreed that Polyneices remain unburied to pay for his crimes against the state. But in making this proclamation, Creon defies the laws of the gods and prevents the gods from claiming Polyneices, after his death. When Antigone is brought to Creon, after her crime has been discovered, Creon is enraged. Antigone explains that there is a higher law than his, at of the gods, and she is obeying the god’s proclamation. But Creon can only see that she has broken his laws…
The girl is guilty of double insolence,
Breaking the given laws and boasting of it.
Who is the man here?
She or I…if this crime goes unpunished?
He condemns Antigone to death by entombing her in stone. With this action, Creon seals his fate. Creon listens to no one’s advice. His son Haimon and Charagos warn him against challenging the gods. Creon, however, cannot see past his own pride. Teserias finally convinces him of his foolishness. He tells Creon that “. . . the Furies and the day gods of Hell are swift with terrible punishment for you". Creon goes to set Antigone free, but it is too late, his fate has been written.
Antigone has hung herself, and Haimon is grief stricken that his love has taken her own life. Haimon attest to kill his father, but fails and kills himself. Creon returns home to find that his wife, grief stricken by her son's death, has also killed herself. Creon realizes that all that has happened is a result of his arrogance. "Fate has brought all in pride to a thought of dust".
If Creon is the protagonist, the action of the play is derived from Creon's choice to make his laws more important than the laws of the gods. Antigone is the antagonist, the means by which Creon defies the gods. He chooses to hold himself above the gods and is severely punished for this action.
While there is evidence for both Antigone and Creon being the protagonists, I believe the action of the play is centered around Creon. While Antigone's basic character remains the same, Creon's character undergoes a profound change. He begins as an agent, proud king, and ends as a broken humble man. Choragos states the theme of the play…
There is no happiness where there is no wisdom
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.
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