Karl H.'s Reviews > Antigone

Antigone by Sophocles
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Feb 14, 12

Read in February, 2012

One of the more compelling definitions of tragedy I've heard goes like this: tragedy is not a struggle between good and evil. That is melodrama. Tragedy is good struggling with good- one virtue set against another. And nowhere is this definition more compelling than in Antigone.

Let me set the stage: a ruinous and costly war of succession has recently ended in Thebes. Oedipus's two children, both vying for the throne, have both died in battle. Creon, a distant relative, has now succeeded them as the king of Thebes. Creon is not secure in his kingship- though the war has ended, his claim on the throne is not strong and there may be more challengers. He is resolutely determined to restore order and law to Thebes, and to do this, he must shore up his claim to the throne. To cement his legitimacy, he marries one of Oedipus's daughters, and engages the other to his son. He decides that the traitors to Thebes will not get a proper burial- an implicit threat to anyone who would challenge his authority. When Creon hears that Polynices has been buried, he first assumes it is the work of anarchists, or more likely rebels, who wish to claim Thebes themselves.

Into this delicate situation comes Antigone, his own daughter-in-law, who decides to openly defy the king and the law in front of the entire kingdom, in deference to her family and the gods. It would be foolish to deny her courage- but her discretion is questionable. Why not petition the king for a change of heart privately, so that Creon can save face? Her cause is just, Creon has perhaps gone too far, but rather than give him the chance to make that realization, she has undermined him publicly.

Creon and Antigone are both too proud to back down, no matter what the cost. What is Creon to do? Punish Antigone and alienate the gods? Or backtrack, and have his newly minted rule openly defied? He is not completely in the wrong when he talks about the need for public order- if the law is openly flouted what will happen to the fragile order just reestablished? And Antigone is not wrong in wanting to honor the gods and bury her brother. Which good do we choose: law and order or religion and family? Both sides have justifiable reasons to do what they are doing. That's the tragedy of it.
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