By: J. Churton Collins

The following article was originally published in Sophocles' Antigone. Trans. Robert Whitelaw. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

Nothing can illustrate more strikingly the real complexity which underlies and is involved in the apparent simplicity of the art of Sophocles than the ethics of Antigone. The central purpose is obviously the relation of the law which has its sanction in political authority and the law which has its sanction in the private conscience, the relation of the obligations imposed on human beings as citizens and members of the state, and the obligations imposed on them in the home and as members of families. And both these laws presenting themselves in their most crucial form are in direct collision. Creon was perfectly justified in issuing the edict which deprived Polyneices of his funeral rites. The young man had fallen in the act of committing the most heinous crime of which a citizen could be guilty, and Creon, as the responsible head of the state, very naturally supposed that exemplary punishment was the culprit's rightful due. The decree issued with its annexed penalty became law, and as the law it was incumbent on every citizen to obey it. In the case of Antigone the other law presents itself at the same crucial point. No private obligation was more sacred and more imperative in the eyes of the Greeks than the duty she undertook, and which, as the last of her race, Ismene excepted, she could delegate to no one else. She had a right to look upon it as a divine commission. She had a right to assert that in defying Creon's edict she was loyal to an unwritten law which had a higher sanction than man's will. Up to this point, then, both are in the right, and neither deserves punishment. Had reason and right feeling ruled Creon, he would have seen that Antigone was perfectly justified in disobeying his edict: had reason ruled Antigone, she would have seen that he was perfectly justified in issuing it. It is not till the interview with Teiresias that Creon transgresses in act and is guilty of sin. He had had no divine intimation before that his edict was displeasing to the Gods and against their will. He is here warned that it is, but he defends it and insults the prophet of the Gods. This is his chief sin, and it is this which leads to his punishment. The terrible calamities, then, which overtake Creon are not the result of his exalting the law of the state over the unwritten and divine law which Antigone vindicates, but are the result of his harsh, imperious and intemperate character. It was his intemperance which made him impervious to the impressions which the conduct and position of Antigone ought to have made on him, which made him deaf to the appeals of Haemon, and which led him to disregard till it was too late the warnings of Teiresias; it was his intemperance which was his ruin. This is emphasized by the Chorus in the lines which conclude the play. But if Creon is punished, Antigone is punished also. Does she deserve her fate? Are we to understand that the poet in his moral does not design to represent that the law which she vindicates should supersede the law which Creon vindicates? A careful study of the play will surely show that he leaves the question practically unanswered, or at all events that what can be urged on either side is so nicely balanced that it is difficult to say on which side the scale inclines. It is important to remember that if a poet is a moralist and a teacher he is primarily an artist. Antigone is a noble and pathetic creation, and the poet has lavished on her all that can impress and move us. Of this effect he has been more studious than of the solution of any moral problem. But on what is now in question let us see what light can be thrown. Antigone, it must be remembered, belonged to a doomed family, and her conduct is regarded throughout by the Chorus as an act of infatuation urged on her by the curse resting on that family: it is defended by no one except her lover Haemon. She makes no attempt to conciliate Creon, but maintains throughout a most defiant attitude, glorying alike in her deed and in its penalty. It is indeed difficult to see how Creon, without stultifying his position and his authority, could have acted otherwise than he did. Antigone not merely braves but courts death. That the Gods did not approve of Creon's treatment of Polyneices may be pleaded in justification of Antigone's act, but this hardly affects the question of her fate. In her case as well as in Creon's, it was not so much what they did, as the temper in which what they did was done, that brought ruin on them.

But from how many different points of view may this most subtly suggestive drama be regarded. It might be plausibly maintained that from the first Creon was wholly in the wrong, and Antigone wholly in the right. It might be maintained that the whole play centers on a beautiful martyr in a beautiful cause, and that Creon is merely the means of bringing about her triumph and apotheosis; or it might be contended that Sophocles had no moral purpose at all, and that the whole play is merely an exquisite work of art. But this is certain, that it exacts and will repay the minutest and most reverent study. Different students of it will no doubt arrive at different conclusions as to its purpose and motive, but the impression most generally made will probably be that Sophocles has with wonderful ingenuity played round a problem of deep and permanent interest, presented it in different lights, and illustrated the mischief and peril involved or possibly involved in any attempts at its practical solution.


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