Pride Goeth Before a Fall:
An Analysis of Antigone
In Sophocles's Antigone, there are, perhaps, no characters quite so ambiguous regarding morals, motives, and role as Creon. The King of Thebes and the play's accepted antagonist, Creon seems, at first observance, to be a character entirely undeserving of sympathy, whose actions and flaws merited all of the punishment they wrought. He is often regarded as a tyrant, placing a dictatorial yoke over the citizens of Thebes, and appears ruthless in his intransigent pursuit of justice and vengeance. However, one could argue that the character was merely taking a Machiavellian approach to the essential reconstruction of his kingdom in the wake of deleterious war and familial strife, and thus was not the villain of this tale, but rather a sort of anti-hero, whose inherent character flaws act as a catalyst to the play's tragedy. Indeed, many of his attributes seem to suggest the nature of an Aristotelian tragic hero, as opposed to a callous brute with a conscience little plagued by meting out exorbitantly harsh punishments upon family...but neither did Sophocles intend to create in Creon a sympathetic character, for his grievous fall cannot excuse the often deplorable measures he condones regarding his own ambitious pursuits of reprisal and reestablishment of order.
To commence, it is necessary to understand the salient qualities of a classical tragic hero. According to Aristotle, such a character is 'between two extremes...not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about by some error or frailty." He must also be of 'noble birth,' possess 'heroic qualities,' be 'fated to doom by the gods,' and 'cannot accept a diminished view of the self' (Santora). When one examines carefully the character of Creon, he can, in actuality, be seen to command a great deal of those necessary requisites. He is a king born of kings; thus, he is of noble birth. He is, in point of fact, fated to doom by the gods, by virtue of association with cursed Laius's house (Laius being the husband of Creon's sister Jocasta, and the king preceding doomed Oedipus). His 'heroic qualities' are few, but his determination, commitment to the welfare of his state, oratory skill, aversion to human vice, and thirst for justice can be considered features of merit in him, when taken at face value, without consideration of the actions wrought by them.
Perhaps his most visible tragic attribute is his refusal to accept any undermining of his character, be it his intelligence, his authority, or aught else he deems to be integral facets of his nature. He becomes defensive, for example, when the sentry, after relating his observations of the event of the burial of Polyneices (his nephew and Oedipus's son, who led an army to march on Thebes and killed his brother Eteocles in contention for the Theban throne), attempts to 'analyze' him, claiming that 'your very voice distresses me' in the face of the other character's extensive verbosity. The sentry, however, recognizes that it is not Creon's 'ear' that is 'affected by the deed,' but rather his conscience, which chafes at the thought of dishonoring a family member, despite the fact that he perceives the slight as necessity (Sophocles). What is significant to recognize is that Creon reprobates any profession of some weakness of his character. The sentry, there, points out that Creon is human, with a human's conscience and fallibility...a 'diminished view of the self,' in essence. Though the reader recognizes this frailty for what it is, and can find in that grounds for sympathy, he himself does not wish to acknowledge his own flaws. It is not that he is not aware of their existence; rather, he despises the cognizance of his shortcomings, and resents equally trenchantly others' mention of them.
It is interesting to point out that Creon's view of his own self is somewhat (incongruously) exalted. Throughout the play, he professes a sort of bosom familiarity with the ancient Greek gods: he consistently refers to them by name, even dread Hades (whose name none in Greece would invoke, for fear of death); he grows vexed by those in the Chorus who presume to know the minds of the gods; he threatens with death and severe castigation those who would defy his authority, for he is, by the Chorus's own appellation, 'the man the gods have made our king' (Sophocles). As such, in the aftermath of a 'brutal civil war,' Creon has been tasked with 'restoring order,' which is the 'responsibility of the king' (Merchant). If rebuilding the state is his duty, and both family and gods have given Creon leave to rule Thebes in the wake of disaster, it seems to stand to reason that he also should exercise what appears to be ultimate authority at his discretion in 'seeking the good for all' (Walker). Given this knowledge, one could, perhaps, understand why he affiliates himself so closely with the gods, for their aims and his- order, justice, and omniscient knowledge- are like in tenor; therefore his assertion of his will over the citizens of Thebes should not be taken amiss.
It is precisely this sort of self-assurance, however, that turns Creon from a chosen, respected ruler, working for the good of his people, to a ruthless tyrant, bowing before nothing and no one to further his own goals. From the story's commencement, he shows himself to be an ambitious man, who enjoys greatly the power that is afforded him. By voicing the declaration, "I, nearest in line, enjoy the scepter and the throne," he suggests implicitly this appetency for dominion, and appears neither moved by the deaths of his nephews nor discomfited by this pretension (Sophocles). This realization retracts from the credibility of his purported efforts to do all he can for the benefit of Thebes, despite his continued assurances that he finds 'intolerable the man who puts his country second to his friend" (Sophocles). After all, what good will this rigorous interest in the well-being of the state evince if its citizens are paralyzed by fear? For Creon's edict (that those who attempt to honor Polyneices with a proper burial will be put to death) is more than just a mere precaution or punishment for an offense; it is a severe measure of control, with which to temper the Thebans' 'stiffened heads' against the 'yoke' of his rule. He has the power to 'wreak (his) will upon the living and the dead,' and both revels in that authority and takes almost a paranoiac approach to retaining it (Sophocles). He will not, under any circumstances, let anyone subvert his jurisdiction; actually, 'he is the perfect model of a stage tyrant: he does not listen to others, he tries to achieve his aims through violence, and he tramples on sacred principles as a result of hubris' (Woodruff). He 'was willing to put his own niece, and his son's fiancé, to death,' simply because she (Antigone) dared to defy his will (Merchant). He seems to represent a 'call for vengeance,' that he is so willing to implement such portentous measures to deter the commitence of what he perceives to be a mortal offense (Honig). In point of fact, the literary critic H. A. Shapiro condemns the Theban king as being 'guilty of overstepping the bounds of appropriate behavior for mortals, by presuming to give burial to one hero and deny another the rites that are due to every mortal in the eyes of the gods, regardless of the circumstances of his death' (Shapiro). His actions, ruthless as they are, are of such grave import that they violate the moral standards of the gods...and yet Creon, vehement and deluded as he is, affirms them to be just.
Even if one is willing to believe that he is merely a stubborn, desperate ruler utilizing whatever means he deems necessary to achieve his end (restoring Thebes to its former peace and prosperity), one cannot deny that he presents 'tyrannical leanings...he has the tyrant's fear of conspiracies against him, he is a poor and highly resistant listener, and he shows contempt for the opinions of the general citizenry' (Woodruff). These faults- crippling fear of dissention (though he rarely makes it visible), stubbornness, opposition to changes of view, sentiments of superiority, unwillingness to accept others' advice, harmartic pride- are integral parts of his character, as much any thirst for justice or self-upheld standard of integrity and duty that may redeem him.
But is Creon all in all a villain? Do those aforementioned redeeming qualities lend unto him enough of virtue that one may overlook the seemingly overwhelming iniquity? Some, like Walker, would contend that 'Creon, seeking the good for all, operates in an ethical paradigm that prioritizes community,' and thus might view his dispension of morals as being undertaken for the greater societal welfare (Walker). Creon is not Antigone, who places the value of a loved or cherished individual above the well-being of a state at large; rather, he does, as has been mentioned before, view such sentiments with scorn, taking what he deems to be a logical course in restoring public peace, as opposed to upholding personal moral standards. Such behavior as Antigone displays would be inconsistent with Creon's very character. It would be anachronistic for him to act in any way other than this; 'the end justifies the means' is his guiding dogma, and dishonoring one individual to bring a majority to comity gives him no qualms of conscience whatsoever (or so he would like the reader to believe). At the very least, he recognizes the necessity of putting aside benevolence and self-doubt in times of strife, and is able to do exactly that, despite taking that implementation to an extreme level. Therefore, when observed in this light, one may, perhaps, be able to understand why he acts as he does, why he so oversteps ethical bounds in what, ultimately, could be considered a king's honorable quest to rectify the war-torn Thebes.
Again,however, one cannot pardon Creon so easily without first recalling to mind the sheer horror of some of his actions. Being willing to put family to death without so much as a flicker of doubt is but one instance of his embracement of his more tyrannical side. One cannot forget that he begins the play by declaring lethal castigation for any individual who dares to defy his will and bury a nephew whom he claims to be a reviled traitor. Refusing to honor Polyneices's body was a mortal sin, and yet his 'hatred and rage (blinds) him to the offense he is causing the gods' (Shapiro). Throughout the play, Creon displays a hubris and stubbornness of will that rivals that of the most tragic of Greek heroes (Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus, etc.), and this refusal to accept others' advice and remonstrance makes him both visibly tyrannical and inherently flawed. The expression 'pride goeth before a fall' proves only too true in this case, thus presenting Creon as a character representing facets of both the classical tragic hero (or rather, anti-hero), as well as a tyrannical villain archetype (an antagonist, at the very least). He is able to shock the reader with the depth and callousness of his cruelty, and yet manages, with his travail and his ultimate downfall, to touch the human spirit and incite a bit of sympathy, as readers recognize in his flaws the integral tragic aspects of their own natures.
Honig, Bonnie. "Antigone's Laments, Creon's Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of
Exception." Political Theory 37.1 (2009): 5-43. Mainte State Virtual Library. Web. 8 Apr.
Merchant, David Michael. "Antigone." Masterplots 1.4 (2010): 1-2. Maine State Virtual Library.
Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Shapiro, H. A. "The Wrath of Creon: Withholding Burial in Homer and Sophocles." Helios 33.1
(2006): 119-134. Mainte State Virtual Library. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Sophocles. "Antigone." Print. 3 Mar. 2015.
Walker, Kathryn. "Between individual principles and communal obligation: ethical duty in Sophocles's
Antigone." Mosaic (Winnipeg) 41.3 (2008): 199. Mainte State Virtual Library. Web. 8
Woodruff, Paul. "Aristotle on Character in Tragedy, or, Who Is Creon? What Is He?" Journal of
Aesthetics & Art Criticism 67.3 (2009): 301-309. Mainte State Virtual Library. Web. 8
Santora, Ronald. "Tragic Hero Classical Definition." . Web. 8 Apr. 2015.