Antigone’s anguish: the devastation of rule without mercy

The myth of Antigone is ancient, and has been interpreted over the ages by numerous storytellers. Sophocles’ play of the same name may date to 441 BCE, but its themes remain timely, including questions of a leadership and governance, the balance of earthly and divine laws, and fealty to family versus the state.

It’s a family affair

The daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, Antigone is perhaps also the child of inherited misfortune. Her father is the Oedipus of myth, who unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, despite being left for dead as an infant and growing up as the son of a family elsewhere. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes.

Their children, Eteocles, Polyneices, Ismene, and Antigone, remain. On Oedipus’ death, it is agreed that rule will be shared by the brothers Eteocles and Polynices, handed back and forth in one-year intervals.

Unfortunately, Eteocles decides not to cede power at the end of his year, resulting in a war between the two, and their mutual untimely death at each other’s hands.

A petty tyrant rises

Jocasta’s brother Kreon, a “new man for new conditions,”[i] succeeds the brothers as king. Unfortunately, he is an insecure and small-minded man who supposes that an orderly kingdom is one that is cowed by fear into following his directives. “When men are ruled right / their obedience to authority saves lives,” he insists.[ii] He just doesn’t stop to consider whether his rule is, in fact, right.

To make an example of what happens to traitors, he honours Eteocles while issuing an edict refusing to dignify Polyneices with a burial. The latter is to rot, to feed the dogs and vultures. Death by public stoning awaits anyone who dares defy this order.

Antigone is appalled that her brother should be left without a burial and its rites, lest he be deprived of eternal peace. She determines to set the situation right, and attempts to enlist her sister Ismene’s help. Afraid of the consequences, the latter declines to participate, accepting that life brings with it moral conundrums – and that living with this one at least leaves her living.

Whether a daughter of inherited misfortunes or a willing martyr to her sense of morality, Antigone reflects that “anyone who lives the troubled life I do / must benefit from death.”[iii] Inevitable as death is, what difference if it comes sooner than later? Whether driven by nihilism or principle, Antigone is determined to do right by her brother.

It’s not about gender this time

Just kidding! Of course it is. If it weren’t for male primogeniture, either Antigone or Ismene would be heir to the throne. It is tempting to imagine how differently the story might have unfolded in that event, and how all this drama could have been avoided.

Besides which, Kreon’s casual misogyny belies his fear of being supplanted by a woman: “no woman will rule me,”[iii] (42). He insists that his nieces “have to be women and know their place”[iii], and that his son Haimon, Antigone’s betrothed, should “never let women get the better of us.”[iv]

Unfortunately for him, Antigone will do just that.

Failing upward

The Peter principle suggests that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their inherent level of incompetence, naturally progressing upward to the level just beyond one’s capacity. Kreon worked his way up the ladder less than he was catapulted up it; yet as third in line to the throne after Oedipus’ sons, he must have lived with some sense of what leadership looks like.

Kreon is obsessed with loyalty, law and order, and paying lip service to – while discarding and even condemning – good advice. This seems tyrannically familiar in the modern age.

As an aside, this is the same Creon we met in Medea, he who attempted to banish that titular character from Thebes after her husband Jason decided to marry Creon’s daughter and casually forgot to tell Medea about it. Reading Antigone makes Medea feel like Kreonic karma delivered.

Anyway, taking advice is beyond Kreon’s capacity, let alone taking criticism or being called to account. His thinking is binary: you know, the false “you’re with us or against us” dichotomy accompanied by a lack of nuance or grey area. Compassion to him is a weakness, and force asserts power.

Kreon quickly gets a taste of his own medicine, learning the hard way that respect through fear is not synonymous with leadership; it rather demonstrates one’s insecurity and a lack of legitimacy. His inability to lead with his heart and make space for the needs and thoughts of others leads directly to his own personal devastation.

Never cry uncle

When Kreon learns from a sentry about Antigone’s stealth burial of Polyneices, he assumes the sentry is guilty of graft, and threatens him with death if he fails to find the perpetrator. This, he reasons, will teach others not to take bribes. The sentry bravely retorts, “sir, it’s terrible; you make your mind up / even when what’s wrong looks right.”[iv]

Kreon belies either his paranoia or his deeply limited reasoning when he likewise accuses the blind seer of graft. The latter has come to advise him of an omen suggesting that “the state is sick,” and that Kreon and “(his) principles are to blame.” [v] Kreon remains defiant, at least until the blind man departs.

But attempting to save face and show unerring strength by challenging even those who attempt to help him costs him irrevocably and dearly. By the time he is moved to reconsider his position, it is too late. The wheels are set in motion that take the lives of Antigone, along with Kreon’s son Haimon and wife Eurydice, the latter two whose suicides piggyback on the protagonist’s death.

Hoisted by his own petard

Kreon, in his hubris, cannot at first imagine that Antione herself buried Polyneices, and then returned to do it again when sentries exhumed the body the next day. But he then appears to take the treachery personally, as an offense against him rather than the state – as do rulers of the thin-skinned kind. Instead of resolving the matter through a dignified negotiation or quiet compromise, the situation devolves into a test of wills between two deeply stubborn people.

Antigone invokes the gods, decrying Kreon’s edict, and naming Zeus and Justice as the givers of divine and eternal laws. She is unwilling “to pay, before the gods…because of my fear of one man and his principles.”[vi] The laws of men, after all, are earthly, politically expeditious, and liable to be flawed. That, and Kreon has just ascended. How significant can his version of justice be?

Yet Kreon refuses to hear the truth of the public’s sympathy for Antigone. Worse, he seems positively emasculated by her personal strength: “She is a man – she’s the king – / if she gets away with this.”[vii] Perhaps he knows, however unwilling he is to admit, that there is truth to her words and in her moral stance.

Fanning the flames

There is no shortage in history of martyrs whose personal sacrifice has outlived their cause, galvanizing sympathies and citizens to fight for principle in the face of treacherous, tyrannical, inhumane rule. Antigone becomes one of these, though it was not inevitable.

Rather than death by public stoning, as Kreon’s edict decreed, he banishes Antigone to a rock hollow, where she is walled in and left to die. Apparently he will break his own rules, when it suits him.

But Antigone gets the last word, in a manner of speaking. Her suicide by hanging reflects the suffocation of Kreon’s happiness when he learns of the knock-on suicides of his son and wife. His arrogance tragically cost him much more that would have burying Polyneices; indeed, a cleverer leader would have turned Antigone’s popularity into a public relations coup for himself. He could have raised a sense of his legitimacy as a ruler of the people, but instead, the man and the state are heaped with disaster and grief.

Sophocles concludes that “Kreon has shown that there is no greater end / than men’s failure to consult and consider.”[viii] There is surely truth in this. But failure to lead from a place of compassion and humanity must be seen as equally devastating.


[i] 198.

[ii] 819-20.

[iii] 570.

[iv] 404-5.

[v] 1170.

[vi] 562-4.

[vii] 590-1.

[viii] 1438-9.

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