In the fifth century B.C., Athens was one of the great city-states of Greece. Antigone takes place in Thebes during the Bronze Age (1200s B.C.), 800 years before the birth of Sophocles. The story Sophocles tells is based on the oral history, or genealogy, of the ancient rulers of Thebes. By removing the action of his play to the mythic past and using heroic characters, Sophocles was able to touch on the profound and significant issues of his day from a safe distance. Athens in Sophocles's time was one of the world's first experiments in democracy. Antigone represents the conflict between traditional government, which advocated following the laws of the state and the absolute rule of its leader, and democracy, according to which citizens obeyed a set of laws that they themselves had helped to institute. One school of critical thought argues that the figure of Creon, who abuses his power, may have been a veiled warning to Pericles and the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship. In the play, Creon stubbornly insists that Antigone suffer an awful fate for her actions. His refusal to listen to any line of reasoning served to remind the Athenian audience of the terrors that tyranny could bring. Other critics, however, insist that Creon behaves as he does precisely because of the democratic ideal. As Arlene W. Saxonhouse noted in her Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought: "Creon, the political leader, categorizes and simplifies; one female equals another.... In a perverse way, Creon's refusal to distinguish, to particularize, to see differences, may make him more the democrat than the tyrant." This difference of opinion serves to underscore how complex the play is. Whether one perceives Creon as tyrant or democrat, he meets a tragic end. Sophocles respects the gods, but tends to explore human characters rather than supernatural ones. Scholar Jacqueline de Romilly stated in an essay in her A Short History of Greek Literature: "The relation between men and gods ... is a major theme in Sophocles. But it is nothing like the relation between men and gods as described by Aeschylus. In the first place, the gods are more distant. In the surviving plays, they almost never appear onstage ... Likewise, their influence on human emotions is less immediate; and the principles by which they act are harder to discern." Unlike previous writers who used the gods as characters in their plays, Sophocles tends to focus on the human characters' actions and choices. When the gods do make their presence known in Sophocles, it is usually through oracles. It is Teiresias who makes the gods' wishes known in Antigone; through the prophet's examination of a ritual sacrifice, the god's displeasure with Creon is revealed. Creon's unwillingness to accept what Teiresias tells him leads to his downfall. De Romilly further remarked that Sophocles "respects the gods; and in his plays only the arrogant who are about to be struck down dare to doubt the veracity of oracles. Instead of revolt or doubt we find an overwhelming sense of the distance between gods and men. Among men, everything passes, everything changes.... The sphere of the gods, by contrast, is the sphere of the absolute, which nothing disturbs." Creon is struck down because he refuses to acknowledge the "unwritten law'' of the gods which is absolute and binding: that the dead should be respected and that those who defend this law are morally right. His further refusal to acknowledge his mistake when Teiresias gives him advice seals his fate and moves the gods to revenge.
Sophocles's characters are complex in terms of their emotions yet simplistic in terms of their moral code of conduct. De Romilly maintained that Sophocles's "characters have different mentalities because each embodies a different moral ideal, to which he or she adheres. Each knows the basis for his actions and defends his principles, making them his cause; each stands in contrast to those among whom he...
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