Last Reviewed on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
The chorus identifies Antigone, who is being held as a prisoner, as she approaches.
The sentry brings Antigone before Creon and informs the king that she was caught burying Polynices. He explains that he had returned to the other guards after Creon had dismissed him earlier with a command to find the culprit. The group of them cleaned the dust off Polynices’s body and brought him to higher ground, as a means of reversing the burial rites that had been performed earlier. After standing guard near the body diligently through a storm, the sentry reports hearing Antigone wail at the sight of the washed Polynices before covering him once again with dust and pouring out libations.
When asked, Antigone admits that she performed the rites and asserts full understanding of the fact that Creon had forbidden them. She proudly confesses her guilt, arguing that she was obeying divine law, rather than the laws of Creon, and proclaiming,
It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least,
who made this proclamation—not to me.
Nor did that justice, dwelling with the gods
beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. (Lines 499–503)
It is Antigone’s position that, as Creon is not a god, he does not have the power to deny any person the right to do that which is divinely ordained.
Antigone and Creon argue their positions to one another at some length. Creon believes that Antigone is dishonoring Eteocles by providing his killer with the full rites of burial. Antigone, on the other hand, argues that the distinction between Eteocles and Polynices is purely political; from her perspective, both men are equally her brothers—and therefore equally entitled to the rites of burial. Furthermore, Antigone expresses that she understands the penalty to be death and welcomes it, seeing death in the service of the divine as a glorious end to a life filled with grief.
Creon, in turn, affirms that he fully intends to have Antigone executed for her crime, admonishing her for her defiant attitude. Creon furthermore invokes gender, admitting that allowing Antigone to walk free would be emasculating to him and would work against his power as a ruler.
Believing that Ismene had conspired with Antigone to bury Polynices, Creon then orders both women to be brought before him and punished. Ismene immediately tells Creon that she shares blame with her sister and will accept punishment, but Antigone denies Ismene’s involvement, insisting that she alone made contact with the body of their brother. Ismene asks Creon if he would truly be so cruel as to kill Antigone, given that she is betrothed to Haemon, Creon’s son. Creon affirms without hesitation that he is sickened by the idea of his son wedding an unfit bride, and asserts that “there are other fields for him to plow” (line 642).
Creon makes the final ruling that Antigone is to be executed, and the chorus sings about the doom and tragedy that has befallen the line of Oedipus. In the song, the chorus attributes the tragedy that has befallen the family to the will of the gods, cursed by virtue of having attempted to defy Zeus’s divine will.
In this section of the play, the audience sees Antigone and Creon interacting together for the first time, each unable to move the other in the slightest. Antigone and Creon define their beliefs in arguments that follow a logical structure, allowing the conflict to be viewed as one between two distinct positions: divine law versus political law.
Antigone’s attitude towards Creon is abjectly defiant, causing Creon to fly quickly into rage. It is through the anger of both Antigone and Creon that the audience is able to see their unwavering perspectives more clearly. Antigone, whose family has suffered tremendous and constant tragedy, welcomes death as a kind of respite from the grief of life. Her familial connections, made all the more important by ancient Greek gender roles, are almost entirely to the dead, as Ismene is Antigone’s only remaining blood relative. Antigone’s deference to the needs of the dead has caused many to refer to Antigone as a “lover of the dead,” which is paraphrased from Creon’s words in lines 592–593:
Go down below and love,
if love you must—love the dead!
Indeed, Antigone does not even mention Haemon, despite the fact that they are engaged to be wed and are shown later in the play to be truly in love. This is because Antigone’s role is one of divinity and blood relations, while marriage is fundamentally a political union. As such, Antigone is symbolically unconcerned with her fiancé and willing to die for the rights of her brother (a state of affairs perhaps also intended to recall their incestuous birth by Oedipus and Jocasta).
Creon, conversely, is entirely willing to have Antigone killed, despite the feelings of his son, which constitutes yet another step toward his role as a tyrant. Furthermore, while Ismene defends Antigone, Creon is ultimately swayed against having Ismene killed due to the political innocence of her choices. She displays the bonds of blood with her sister, even offering to die alongside her, but ultimately Ismene has not clearly committed any crime, either divine or political.
The events of this scene help to solidify the context for the impending tragedy, which is foreshadowed by the chorus’s song about the inevitability of Zeus’s will and the doom brought on those who seek to defy it. The chorus, furthermore, identifies the beginnings of public sympathy toward Antigone. Beginning when the leader of the chorus asks Creon if the minimal burial could have been the work of the gods (line 316), the chorus displays a growing unease with Creon’s decision not to allow a proper burial for Polynices.
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