The folly of tyranny and the failure of absolute rule in Sophocles’ Antigone

The king is dead, all hail the new king, Kreon. Ascending in the wake of a lethal quarrel between his ruling nephews, Kreon, in Sophocles’ Antigone, is determined to steady the state. Yet, his preference for tyranny over mercy quickly becomes his undoing, for wilfulness does not a kingdom unite. Antigone, devoted to filial love and divine justice, threatens Kreon’s idea of hegemony while providing him the opportunity to choose mercy. Just as she reminds Kreon of his suppressed conscience, her silencing and suffocation represent Kreon’s throttling of the state – and of his own happiness as a result. His ruin reveals the folly of tyranny as a mere illusion of power, and the importance of compassion and consultation in intelligent rule.

             Kreon takes the throne under the presumption that might is right and so is the king. Although it was Eteocles who reneged on his throne-sharing agreement with Polyneices, Kreon deems Eteocles a friend of the state, and Polyneices, “the exile,” a criminal (29). Rather than trying the circumstances of the case, Kreon insists that the occupant of the throne is right, regardless of legitimacy. This specious logic undermines his own rule, casting doubt on his legitimacy and foreshadowing the cost of his violence. He cannot bear the humanity raised by Antigone, who places family before politics, insisting rather that, “dying doesn’t reconcile” enemies and friends (41). But the dead cannot reconcile among themselves; only the living remain to create harmony or discord in their wake. Antigone’s insistence that “Zeus,” did not proclaim Kreon’s edict against burying Polyneices, and “neither did Justice” (39) further delegitimizes Kreon’s absolutism with the reminder of a greater power than his.

            Antigone hearkens to reason higher than Kreon’s, but her wisdom is an anathema to him, revealing as it does the flaws in his thinking. While he might be right that, “when men are ruled right / their obedience to authority saves lives” (48), Kreon’s folly is to assume that his form of rule is right. He takes the silence of his subjects as tacit agreement with his approach, though Antigone warns that “they keep silent to please you” (41). Kreon lacks a finger on the kingdom’s pulse in the absence of his subjects feeling free to speak; yet at the same time, he decries those who dare to counter him. Desperate to appear strong, and unable to summon substantive rationale for his edict against Polyneices, Kreon’s only recourse is violence toward Antigone for crossing him. Haimon attempts to avail his father of the public’s “grief for (Antigone)…no one is more innocent…no deeds more noble than hers” (48). Kreon dismisses Haimon as lovestruck and unreasonable. Indeed, Antigone’s persistence in honouring her dead brother is said to evoke public sympathy but is shown to evoke Kreon’s cold wrath. Defying Haimon’s warnings, Kreon seals her alive in a rock crevice, ironically defying his own edict calling for “death by stoning / in the presence of the assembled citizens” (22). Perhaps he feared the mob, hearkening Haimon’s words privately. But his conscience is inconvenient to his absolute rule, but since he cannot bring himself to snuff it out absolutely, he smothers it in a locked-away place: out of sight, out of mind. Antigone’s self-immolation by hanging represents Kreon’s concurrent emotional suffocation, and lays bare the reality that his sense of power and control are illusory.

The illusion of control is the basis of Kreon’s tyranny, revealing a lack of conviction in his own ascension, and vainly underscored by strongarm tactics. But while Antigone defied Kreon’s edict freely with an awareness of the potential cost to her, Kreon makes his choices without regard to consequences. He seemingly cannot think them through or feels that they do not apply. Thus, he takes an absolute approach with his advisors, discarding that which he does not wish to hear. Haimon asks his father to “be different this once. / Believe in what someone else says for once” (49). The repetition of “once” in close succession suggests that Kreon is used to having his way, without regard to the counsel of others. Thus, he cannot comprehend Haimon’s suggestion that, “It’s no shame even for a wise man / to learn and to relent” (49), even though to do so would be a true show of self-aware leadership and strength. While Kreon may disregard his son, he likewise criticizes the blind seer’s warning that “the state is sick, / You and your principles are to blame…You are a sick man” (60-1). Rather than heeding such counsel, Kreon accuses the seer of graft, arrogance blinding the king himself from life-saving wisdom. It is too late by the time he meekly acknowledges a change of tack: for Antigone, Haimon, and Eurydice are all dead as a result of his obstinacy. As the seer warned, his “stubbornness is stupidity. It is criminal” (60). Indeed, it is lethal. Kreon’s rule by tyranny and his denial of grace or justice to those who seek it, not only risk harm to the state, but cost Kreon the lives of his wife and son at their own hands.

This “new kind of man for new conditions” (27), who is ostensibly about the unity of the state and the principles of law and order, slips quickly from high-minded ideals to the petty assertion of his will. He thinks himself the ultimate leader, and beyond reproach. Yet in this he creates the conditions for his own undoing. Whether it is the divine work of Zeus and Justice, as evoked by Antigone, or the “stupidity” of stubbornness evoked by the seer, Kreon realizes too late that tyranny is an illusion of power. It is unclear whether Kreon will emerge from devastation as a humbled, just, and tempered ruler, whether his pain will fuel further absolutism, or whether he will give up the throne and fade into obscure private life. Regardless, Sophocles’ warning against tyranny is laid bare; Kreon despairs, alone, while others are dead, insulted, or fearful of him. It is tempting to wonder, and perhaps Kreon does, how compassion and consultation could have achieved vastly different ends.

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