Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Haemon, having learned of his father’s order to have Antigone killed, comes to speak to Creon. Haemon’s first move is to yield deference to Creon’s kingly rights, as well as the right of a father to approve or disapprove of a marriage. Creon is pleased by this, making a lengthy speech about the necessity that sons subordinate themselves to their fathers—much as, he believes, subjects must subordinate themselves before kings. In his speech, Creon ascribes masculinity to law, order, and respect, and compares femininity to anarchy. This gendering of abstract concepts continues throughout much of this section of the play.
Haemon, however, begins to argue against his father’s decision to kill Antigone, choosing his words carefully. Haemon informs Creon that there have been murmurs among the people of Thebes that indicate widespread sympathy for Antigone. She was, after all, only performing her divinely ordained duty for a family member. Haemon asks Creon to reconsider his command to have Antigone executed, suggesting that going against the public’s will on this matter is foolish.
Creon reacts angrily, interpreting the plea as an act of insubordination. Creon says that he will in no way take advice on how to rule from his young son or from the people of Thebes, asserting that the power to rule is his alone and that the city and its inhabitants are similar to his possessions. Haemon counters a number of times by suggesting that Creon will lose his power if he loses public respect. With this, Creon returns to his practice of gendering the two sides of the argument, defining political order as masculine and insubordination (even, and perhaps especially, out of deference to the gods) as feminine. He accuses Haemon of taking “the woman’s side” (line 828).
Over the course of an increasingly heated dialogue, Haemon asserts that his advice is intended with respect for the king’s interests. The will of the gods and the will of the people, argues Haemon, are valuable things for a king to consider when meting out justice. Neither the gods nor the public consider Antigone a criminal for her act of burial.
Haemon’s arguments, however, only cause Creon’s rage to increase. The king insists that Haemon and Antigone will never be married—that Antigone is a criminal and a tool of anarchy, unfit to wed his son and deserving of a death sentence. Creon further accuses Haemon of being a “woman’s accomplice” (line 837) and even threatens to have Antigone killed before Haemon’s eyes. Haemon, in response, threatens that Antigone’s execution would cause two deaths (line 843)—both hers and his own—and leaves the king in a sorrowful rage.
The leader of the chorus indicates to Creon that Haemon may do something violent in response, but Creon dismisses this. Instead, Creon decides that Antigone will no longer be killed by public stoning; she will instead be killed by being buried alive in a tomb, with minimal rations, until she dies by either starvation or suicide. This punishment, Creon suggests, would act as a lesson against Antigone’s undue respect.
The chorus then sings a hymn to the powers who govern love: Eros and Aphrodite. In the hymn, they praise and lament the awesome power that love has over human lives, including its ability to cause pleasure as easily as pain and to drive people mad. The hymn also asserts that these powers are unassailable and describes a father and a son at war with one another, with love being the only victor (lines 889–90).
At this point, Antigone is brought out by the guards and led to her tomb. The chorus, representing...
(This entire section contains 1669 words.)
the people of Thebes, exclaims sympathy for Antigone’s unjust punishment. She is now a tragic heroine, and the chorus asserts that she is blameless for ensuring the burial of her family member.
The chorus and Antigone sing responses to one another. Antigone sings of her lifelong grief, the curses of the gods having taken nearly her entire family. She also bemoans the fact that she will never be able to marry Haemon and have a new family of her own; she must instead join the rest of her family in death. She compares herself to the Greek mythological figure Niobe, whose twelve children were killed by Apollo and Artemis and who, in her grief at the loss of her children, turned to stone.
The chorus does not entirely agree that the comparison is just, however, and responds with some antagonism, suggesting instead that Antigone is paying for the crimes of her own family—for the deeds of Oedipus and Laius, and for her own unnatural birth. With this, Antigone weeps for her own death, a fate incurred by merely following the gods’ commands, and is led to the tomb, exclaiming that she will soon be dead with all those she loves. Before finally descending into the tomb, Antigone utters a curse, calling suffering upon those who have punished her unjustly. Her final words are of her reverence for the gods.
After Antigone descends into the tomb, the chorus sings of other mythological figures whose stories bear poignant similarities to Antigone’s tragic fate at the hands of the gods.
Creon descends fully into tyranny during his conversation with Haemon. The king’s initial decision to forbid the burial of Polynices was a symbolic intrusion from the realm of the political into that of the divine, and this displeases the gods. His choice to cancel the wedding between Antigone and Haemon also constitutes an intrusion—this time against the powers that govern love, particularly Eros and Aphrodite. This is part of the importance of the chorus’s hymn about love. Love and death, two decidedly apolitical realms, are now the subjects of Creon’s symbolic control, which sets Creon up for an impending downfall.
Creon’s interaction with Haemon serves as a final chance for Creon to adopt a more balanced perspective, one offered almost explicitly by both Haemon himself and the chorus. Instead, Creon applies an irrational association between Antigone (and women in general) and emasculation or loss of power—and, as a result, insists upon Antigone’s death. Creon’s choice is ironic, since his practical role as king, as well as his symbolic role as the embodiment of the city-state, exists solely for the purpose of enacting the will of the people. The population, however, largely identifies Antigone as a tragic heroine, punished unjustly for simply obeying the gods. Creon’s hubris as a leader—his certainty in the primacy of political law above all else—causes him to lose the support of the very population those laws exist to defend.
Creon’s decisions, each made in anger, culminate in Haemon’s heartbreak and Antigone’s death. These will, in turn, set up Creon’s own impending downfall.
The climax of Creon’s tyranny and hubris sees Antigone being led to the tomb, a new and creative punishment that further mocks the gods of death by mirroring the burial rites Antigone gave to Polynices. Here, the play shifts focus from Creon to Antigone, as this is also the climax of Antigone’s fated demise, divinely ordained since before her birth due to the acts of her father and grandfather. Indeed, Antigone’s cry—“I am agony!” (line 967)—is a direct allusion to the same line delivered by Oedipus in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, marking her death in the context of her family’s fate. Antigone’s death is also the clear result of her anti-political piety coming into conflict with the will of a king who does not respect divine law. As Antigone has no real power in the political realm, death is the inevitable result of her rebellion.
The chorus hails Antigone as a tragic heroine as she is led to her demise, and there is a particularly dense use of language and imagery illustrating Antigone as a “lover of death.” As Antigone’s family is nearly entirely dead, this combination of powers makes a certain sense, as death is the common quality of nearly everyone she loves. Love and death are also the divine powers in the service of which Antigone is now to die, and they juxtapose powerfully against that which Antigone once had and that which is taken away from her. With her final cries before being led to her death, Antigone admits to an inner humanity that she was otherwise hiding: she is scared, and she does not want to die. This grounds Antigone as a truly sympathetic character and solidifies her as a tragic heroine.
Ultimately, the tragic downfall of Antigone, as well as the impending downfall of Creon, can be summed up beautifully by one passage spoken by the chorus:
Reverence asks some reverence in return—But attacks on power never go unchecked,Not by the man who holds the reins of power.Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you. (Lines 959–962)
The chorus had been interacting with Antigone directly in the ancient Greek tradition of kommos, but this passage occurs immediately following Creon’s entrance to the scene, indicating that the words may be directed to either character in equal measure. It is important to note that Antigone is not above wrongdoing: she defied a direct order of the king, whose power the gods do indeed uphold. Her deference to the gods lacks respect for the laws of humans, and this blind passion against a man who holds the reins of power was never to go unchecked. Similarly, Creon’s utter lack of respect for the laws of the divine—in ordering a family member to go unmourned, in interfering with the love of his son, and in mocking the powers of death—sets him squarely against the true holders of power: the gods. Both Antigone and Creon are correct to hold the reverences they hold, but their tragic conclusions will both stem from a lack of respect for the other’s perspective.