The Individual and Collective Loyalties in Sophocles’s Antigone

Sachin Namdeo Gadekar

Sophocles, the first-hand acquaintance with the life and spirit of the age, was one of the major writers among the three tragedians, Aeschylus and Euripides and the comedian, Aristophanes. The Greek drama, in the age of Sophocles, was not meant for telling stories just to earn the livelihood or to hold the mirror up to life with all kinds of ephemeral details. The drama was deeply rooted, in words of E. F. Watling, in his Introduction to The Theban Plays, “the ritualistic expression and interpretation of the power of natural forces” (Watling 09). The plays narrated the heroic past of already established legendary figures rather than the tragic aspects of ordinary people against a contemporary background. They largely concerned about the individual and collective consciousness and “presented amid high civic splendor and religious rituals” (09). Moreover, they emphasized the nexus of past, present and future.
          The present paper studies Sophocles’s Antigone, one of the important plays from the cycle of legend concerning the royal house of Thebes, which focuses on the battle of a woman with the eternal forces, in words of Sophocles “the encounter of man with more than man”. The paper highlights the individual and corporate consciousness and loyalties along with the cycle of life and death. Moreover, it presents a conflict between the principles of right and wrong and the stately order and the moral responsibility.

Key words: individual, collective consciousness, conflict, stately order and moral responsibility etc.

Title |The Individual and Collective Loyalties in Sophocles’s Antigone

Antigone (442-441 B.C.) is mainly concerned with a conflict- a king, as a ruthless punishment, denies the last rituals of sepulture and subsequently solace to the soul of a traitor as his responsibility towards the state and orders a death punishment upon a rebel. For a woman political expediency is secondary to her responsibilities towards her dead brother. Hence, she defies the order and willingly accepts the death punishment. On the contrary, she becomes martyr for the sake of her brother whose soul has denied the peace. It is a conflict between the principles of right and wrong and the stately order and the moral responsibilities between Antigone and the King. Both try to defend their decision by stubborn blindness to the merits of the opponent. Between these two opposite views we have the third stand which focuses on the tragedy of both and of the humanity and more interestingly the excuses and their hypocrisy. In words of Watling the play focuses on “a young man, betrothed to the woman, whom he honours for her courage and piety, and son of the king, whom he has respected and longs to go on respecting for his fatherhood and for his office. To see statecraft misdirected into blasphemous defiance of piety is for him the greater tragedy; the sacrifice of a well-meaning woman, the less”. (Watling 13-14)
          However, the final scene the loss of Haemon is very much dramatic, where the king is humiliated than the tragedy of the woman. It is also the tragedy of Antigone who is ruled by her consciousness, the king, for whom his authority is the priority and the young man, who is tormented by his loyalties towards his father and the beloved.
          The opening of the play presents Creon as the defender of the city that subsequently strengthens his claim of loyalty towards the state and its citizen as well. His principles appeal to be more patriotic. Creon’s decision of the exposure of Polynices’ corpse seems inhuman but that does not challenge his loyalty to the state but rather emphasizes his patriotism than personal loyalties. According to him it is also not anti-religious. He believes that he is faithful to all gods of the city and has been performing his duty by protecting the shrines, sacrifice and celebrating all the rituals. For him the destruction of the city is anti-religious. Therefore, it is his sole duty to protect the city and punish the traitor.
          Even for the people of Athens the denial of burial to the corpse was not shocking. During the Persian invasion in 480, Themistocles, the hero of the Persian war was driven from Athens on the charge of involving in pro-Persian conspiratorial activity. His bones had been forbidden to bury in the Athenian soil. (Fagles 40) So, it is quite possible that for Athenian this action of Creon may not appear barbaric or cruel as to Antigone. The opening part emphasizes on Polynices treachery and more significantly the heroism of Creon as savior of the city. The beginning presents the conflict of loyalties based on the political and religious principles which are closer to Hegel’s analysis of the play in which he sees it as “a collision between the two highest moral powers” (Fagles 41). He does not call Creon ‘a tyrant’ but ‘a moral power’ that is not ‘wrong’ but “one-sided”. (41)
          However, Creon’s order of an exposition of the corpse cannot be justified as his patriotism. He himself made it clear that his action has violated the divine law. As the action of the play develops the positive impression of Creon starts diminish. His order to expose the corpse and violent desire to tear the body of traitor by dogs and vultures are very shocking and also opposite to his earlier patriotic ideology. Significantly, this idea of torturing the dead underlines his cruelty. Moreover, his arrogance is also noticed in his order of death punishment to Antigone, in denial of rational and political advice of his son Haemon and more seriously in avoiding the imperious summons from the god’s spokesman Tiresias. He is ready to send to death anyone who stands on his way. He makes a mockery of blood relationship and of the rules of religion or of god, which confirms his punishment as his son and wife commit suicides by cursing him. He threatens the sentry, deprives his son from his bride and expects Antigone to fear her death sentence and turn away from her decision. More seriously, he makes mockery of the rights of the dead.
Creon is firm on his decision that the traitor should be punished. For him the laws of the state are the highest obligations. He takes this decision for the public welfare. As a wise ruler he acts according to his sincere belief which later proves as narrow and too strict as the ideal king. He adds,
I am determined that never, if I can help it,
Shall evil triumph over good. Alive
Or dead, the faithful servant of his country
Shall be rewarded” (131-132)
At the end, he realizes the futility of his decision and for the first time, he speaks about the divine power with respect,
God has delivered this punishment,
Has struck me down in the ways of wickedness,
And trod my gladness under foot
Such is the bitter affliction of moral man….
Insatiable Death, wilt thou destroy me yet?...
I am already dead,
And is there more? (160)
He abandons his authoritarian nature and recognizes the power of social and religious imperatives. Creon, now, no more claims as the representative of the whole community. At the end, he has been depicted, in words of Robert Fagles, with “all the characteristics of the ‘tyrant’, a despotic ruler who seizes power and retains it by intimidation and force” (Fagles 43). But his tyrannical insistence is weakened to avoid the divine wrath. He is defeated by a woman. He says, “There is no man can bear this guilt but I….Lead me away, away. I live no longer”. (161) He betrays the principles he claimed to stand for; and also submits himself to the pressure built around with the death punishment to Antigone. He is completely shattered by the last warning of Tiresias and yield to the chorus “what must I do?” (155) But it is too late because Antigone has chosen her own way to die and his son and wife also kill themselves.
          On the other hand, Antigone has opposite views. Antigone challenges the stately law and order. For her the laws of invisible god are more important to whom she is faithful. Her highest obligations are to the gods and not to the king. It is confirmed in her response to her elder sister Ismene:
Go your own way; I will bury my brother;
And if I die for it, what happiness!
Convicted of reverence-I shall be content
To lie beside a brother whom I love….
There I shall lie forever. Live, if you will;
Live, and defy the holiest laws of heaven. (128)
Unlike Creon her commitments are more personal. She speaks and insists about the rights of dead and duties of a family member. She appeals to the city at the end when she has been punished by the death sentence. She laments and appeals for sympathy to the chorus, who are symbolically representative of the city. She, like Creon, too acts in the name of gods, but their gods are different. Creon makes mockery of her desire as she worships the god Hades’ simply means ‘death’. He condemns as “there let her pray to the one god she worships: Death”. (140). Therefore, it can be said that she is “much possessed by death” (Fagles 44).
          Antigone with her sister Ismene is the last living member of the doomed family. She has seen the deaths of her parents and also brothers. The sorrow has burdened her life. Hence, it becomes difficult for her to live in the midst of grief. For her deaths seems to be a reward. She, therefore, sacrifices her life just to perform the last rites or burial of the corpse of her brother Polynices. In words of Robert Fagles, “she looks forward to her reunion with her beloved dead in that dark kingdom where Persephone, the bride of Hades, welcomes the ghosts” (Fagles 44). She, in the name of Hades, sacrifices her life for the proper symbolic rights of the burial of the dead. According to her, god is the supreme authority, whom human must respect, which she feels as her duty irrespective traitor or patriotic or living or dead.
          She proudly admits that she has defied Creon’s command. She not only accepts the story of treason but emphasizes his insignificance as a human being as to God regarding his proclamation about the sons of Oedipus. She responds Creon,
That order did not come for God. Justice,
That dwells with the gods below, knows no such law.
I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you being only a man. (138)
However, Antigone claims that she has acted as a champion of the supreme unwritten laws of gods, and also followed the path of honour without having fear of death punishment. She believes that even dead have their rights guaranteed by the gods and must be same for all. She is almost mad after her responsibility towards her brother, who according to her deserves a better fate, at least, after his death. So, she answers Creon: “now you have caught, will you do more than kill me?” (139). She becomes a self-sufficient woman, who is ruled by her own emotions. Moreover, she becomes proud of her action and believes that it will also be approved by gods. She does not regret for her action but simultaneously, grieved by the thought that she will never experience the joys of life. But more ironically, she asserts that what she has done for her brother, she could not even have done for her children or husband though they have the blood relationship. She opines that she can have another husband and children but could not have brother again because her parents are no more alive. Hence, brother is her prime concern. But the irony is her brother is already dead. She cannot recall him back. Then the question is why she has sacrificed her life. So, it seems that her motive is more personal than the fanatical loyalty to the blood relationship which she claims against Creon.
          She mourns for denial of certain pleasures including the royal comfort, marriage and children etc. She, therefore, appeals for the support to the elders of Thebes when she is on her way to prison. Except their sympathy for becoming the victim of her family curse, she does not get any relief from the elders. However, there is no one from her family, except elder sister, left to mourn over her death that too makes Antigone sadder. So, it can be observed that for her there is no alternative but to sacrifice her life for the honour of her family. She wails her own dirge before dies and through her action brings herself to the brink of death. She address to the tomb as she has already reunited with her family. The way that she speaks with Polynices, who is no more alive, seems more as she has sacrificed her life and already left the living world and joined the dead family members.
I believe my father will be there
To welcome me, my mother greet me gladly,
And you, my brother, gladly see me come….
I earned the punishment which now I suffer. (150)
After realizing her death, she does not counter anyone and identifies the purpose of her life. It can be said that her fanatical devotion to her family has doomed her life. She feels lonely and realizes that has been abandoned not only by people but also gods. She, therefore, laments “what law of heaven have I transgressed?” (150). She goes to her death alone as she lived after realizing her personal deepest motives. The penetration on her own soul makes her accept an immediacy of death proclaiming as the champion the divine law. Significantly she, unlike Creon, does not betray her loyalties. Without surrender or compromise, she becomes firm on her decisions. She reaffirms her action, “all for reverence, my reverence for the gods!” and not yields to death. (1034) She, by her own action, sealed the doom and has ensured the punishment to Creon. But sadly enough, she is no more alive to see the judgment and to her surprise, not saved by the Almighty. Hence, she hangs herself not only because of the ‘lingering agony of starvation’ but in ‘a sort of existential despair’ and in terms of Eliot “did the right thing for the wrong reason?” (Fagles 53)                         
          The story has religious significance and also reveals the universal human issues. The role of god is very complex. God is not visible but simultaneously, an invisible source of a moral law. The chorus resolves the question by appealing to God’s law. The joyful Ode of the chorus in the fifth Stasimon reaffirms the supreme position of God. Creon acknowledges his responsibility for all the tragic events and prays for his death, “there is no man can bear this guilt but I…. lead me away, away. I live no longer” (161). And the play ends with the chorus’ warning to all:
Of happiness the crown
And chiefest part
Is wisdom, and to hold
The gods in awe.
This is the law
That, seeing the stricken heart
Of pride brought down,
We learn when we are told. (162)
Thus, this pattern of characters and their behaviour emphasizes, in words of Robert Fagles, “the uncompromising determination, the high sense of their own worth and a consequent quickness to take offense and the readiness to die rather than surrender- a heroic temper” (Fagles 51). More significantly, it is tragedies of human beings who cross their limits imposed by men and gods and submit themselves to death just for their individual will. 

Works Cited:
Fagles, Robert. Sophocles The Three Theban Plays Antigone, Oedipus the King,
 Oedipus at Colonus. (trans.) USA: Penguin Books, 1982.
Grant, Michael. Greek Literature: An Anthology. Great Britain: Penguin Books,
Iyer, K. S., Pradip Patil and M B Kauthekar. The English Drama. New Delhi:
 Prestige Books, 2000.
Watling, E. F. Sophocles The Theban Plays: King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus,
 Antigone. (trans.) Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1947. 

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