Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1631
This scene begins with the first appearance of the blind seer Tiresias, who has come to consult with Creon. Tiresias gives a warning, saying that Creon is now poised “on the razor-edge of fate” (line 1100). As a seer, Tiresias interprets the Furies, and he informs Creon that the signs suggest the gods’ displeasure with the decision not to bury Polynices. Tireasias admonishes Creon for the order and says that Polynices must be buried and Antigone let out of her tomb immediately—or the Furies will come to exact punishment on behalf of the offended gods.
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Although Creon begins their interaction by admitting the ways in which Tiresias has been correct in the past and by offering assurance that he will listen, he now accuses Tiresias of selfishly turning against Creon’s kingly authority, suggesting again that money is the motivation for such treachery. Tiresias, however, is not afraid to point out the king’s foolishness and continues his prophecy, informing Creon that his own son may die unless he ceases in his decision to put the living in tombs and leave the dead unburied. He continues by saying that the gods are angry with the incursions into their territory—in particular the territory of death—and that Creon never had any right, as a king or otherwise, to force his will upon these powers. Tiresias warns again that the gods will be vengeful if Creon does not correct his mistakes, and he dismisses Creon as a foolish leader, saying that he can ignore the prophecies at his great peril.
This marks a turning point for Creon; for the first time, he questions his decisions and considers swallowing his pride. After asking the leader of the chorus what he should do, Creon admits that, though it hurts his pride to do so, he will heed Tiresias’s advice. He then leaves to bury Polynices and release Antigone.
The chorus then begins singing a celebratory hymn to Dionysus, rejoicing in the king’s decision. However, immediately upon the conclusion of the hymn, a messenger approaches and delivers tragic news: Creon has made his decision too late.
The messenger begins by listing some of Creon’s various lifelong successes and contrasting them against the current state of tragedy (as yet unnamed), saying that everything Creon used to have is gone and that the man now seems more like “a living corpse” (line 1286). The messenger then reveals to the chorus that Haemon, the king’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, has committed suicide.
Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother, Eurydice, who has not appeared in the play until now, comes out of the palace and asks the messenger what news he has to give. The messenger then recounts the whole story of Haemon’s death. He first describes the burial of Polynices. Creon and a number of men, including the messenger, went out to gather what was left of Polynices’s corpse, washed it in holy water, and burned and buried it with full honors.
After burying Polynices, the group went toward Antigone’s tomb, where they intended to release her. On the way, they heard a wail of agony: Haemon’s. He had entered the tomb and found Antigone dead, having hanged herself, and let out a wail out of anguish for having lost his true love. When the group found Haemon in the tomb, he was weeping and holding Antigone’s corpse in his arms. Creon sobbed and ran to Haemon, begging forgiveness from his son. Haemon, however, spat in Creon’s face and drew his sword, attempting to swing at his father. Haemon missed Creon and, in grief and desperation, fell instead on his own blade. With the last of his strength, Haemon held Antigone in his arms: the two betrothed lovers embraced finally in death. The messenger relays the entire scene to Eurydice, blaming the tragic result on Creon’s poor judgment.
Eurydice then leaves and re-enters the palace without speaking a word, which causes the messenger and the chorus to converse briefly amongst themselves about whether or not the queen could be inclined to do something rash in her grief. The messenger ultimately decides to go into the palace after her. As he leaves, Creon enters the scene, carrying Haemon’s head in his hands, which the chorus interprets as evidence of Creon having gone mad with grief. Creon speaks then of the bitter and untimely loss of his son, blaming himself solely for the death and expressing remorse at his own poor judgment.
The messenger returns, indicating to the king that his grief is not yet over. The messenger informs Creon that Eurydice, the queen, has also committed suicide, having stabbed herself upon the altar inside the palace. Her final words, according to the messenger, were to blame Creon for the death of her family. The queen’s body is taken out of the palace, and Creon exclaims his grief and his guilt, praying then to the gods for his own death. The leader of the chorus replies by telling Creon that his death will come in its own time, when the gods ordain that it should be so. Creon begs the men to take him away, saying that he no longer truly exists and is a “wailing wreck of a man” (line 1462), and finally acknowledging that fate has come crashing down upon his head.
The final lines of the play are delivered by the chorus. They speak of the necessity of holding the gods in due reverence, and of the wisdom that may be taught by the cruel blows of fate.
The final section of the play shows Creon as, through his conversation with the seer Tiresias, he receives a third and final chance to reverse his unjust decree and potentially avert tragedy. Tiresias, who also appears in both Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, represents the most authoritative voice to convince Creon of his own folly, or at least of the dangers involved in crossing the gods.
Creon’s first response to Tiresias is to dismiss him, asserting once again that money is at the root of all the malcontent with his fateful decree. Tiresias, however, is not afraid to talk down to kings, and he tells Creon that his actions have resulted in the gods becoming angry. In leaving the dead unburied and instead burying the living, a cruel mockery of the gods’ demands, Creon has perverted the natural order of the gods and incurred the wrath of the Furies. The only thing that Creon can do, according to Tiresias, is bury Polynices properly and release Antigone from her tomb before it is too late.
It is ironic that Tiresias’s argument only convinces Creon to act after Tiresias has left: the time Creon wastes for the sake of his own pride turns out to have been critical. As in all tragedies, the characters learn important lessons only once it is too late for them to avoid the outcomes of their foolishness, and Creon arrives at the tomb only in time to see the hatred in Haemon’s eyes as he takes his own life.
It is worthy of note that Creon’s single-minded approach to political leadership, aside from causing his fall into tyranny, yields not one effective ruling. No single decision of Creon’s ever comes to fruition in the way he intended, making him an entirely ineffective leader. Indeed, his very first decree as king (that Polynices be left unburied) is undermined by Antigone before he can even inform the public of it. From then on, every order Creon gives is undermined by others taking matters into their own hands. Even Antigone’s death was carried out by Antigone herself, not by the act of burial to which Creon condemned her. In this way, Sophocles drives home the point that an approach to governance that does not give proper respect to divine laws can never be effective.
Once Creon does change his mind, the chorus’s celebratory hymn to Dionysus stands as a particularly effective use of dramatic irony; the audience surely knows that the celebration is for naught, for the king has changed his mind too late. The song’s celebration is undercut immediately, as the very next lines of the play come from the messenger, who bears news of the tragic events that unfolded during the time of the chorus’s celebration.
In the end, the play’s conflict is resolved poetically. Antigone, for her part, meets her death at the culmination of the curse her family has suffered for generations, and she descends to the underworld as an emblem of those characteristics that had defined her: love and death. Nearly everyone she holds most dear has died, and the depth of her filial piety compels her toward them. Similarly, her betrothed, Haemon, enters the tomb of his own accord and embraces her in death, where she hangs by her own veil.
Creon’s conflict, which is placed in contrast with Antigone’s from the start, resolves in a directly oppositional manner: Creon is left with neither love nor death. All of those whom Creon holds dear have taken their own lives, and Creon remains alone and, importantly, alive. He must live with the terrible consequences of his folly, which he now fully understands and accepts.
The final lines of the play, delivered by the chorus, leave the audience with some measure of hope against the backdrop of a particularly miserable resolution. Wisdom, says the chorus, may be gained from the cruel hand of fate. If there is joy to be had in wisdom, and wisdom to be had from tragedy, then therein may lie some value for those who have the ability to behold it: that is, the audience.