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Charles Segal

Click to see Segal's 1995 book on Sophocles.Segal, Charles.  Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text.  1986.  Originally, this segment appeared in an article in Arion 3.2 (Summer, 1964:46-66) as "Sophocles' Praise of Man and the Conflicts of the Antigone."  It was revised by Segal for republication without footnotes in Twentieth Century Views Sophocles, ed. Thomas Wooland (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 19??: 62-85.  summarized below

See also Segal's 1995 book on Sophocles, Sophocles' Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society published by and can be ordered from Harvard University Press by clicking the photo or the link just above.

Listen to Dr. Segal on a panel about Antigone.  The link at left goes to an archive for a program called The Connection; on that page, you can click the "Listen" link.

Jan. 10, 2002, obituary in the Harvard Gazzette.

In Antigone, two protagonists oppose each other, and this is the source of the play's many conflicts. Friedrich Hegel's analysis led to considering whether Creon or Antigone was more "right," but these characters are more than just embodiments of opposing principles.  These characters are not just issues but layered "individuals moving as all men do in a complex entanglement of will and circumstance, passion and altruism, guilt and innocence" (63).  Creon's absolutism causes Antigone's harshness, and her moral stance provides the measure to which Creon falls short.  Yet their conflict defines the limitations of human nature when confronted with opposing obligations--"divine versus human law, individual versus state, religious versus secular, private versus public morality" (64).

Creon uses the words "decree" and "law" interchangeably, but Antigone's speech on the supremacy of divine, eternal, although unwritten law over a merely human decree separates the two words.  Similarly, Creon identifies justice with the state and suggests [ironically] that one who is "just" at home is "just" in public.  When he taunts Haemon, Creon shows that he is unjust in both private, familial ways and in the polis.  Antigone asserts public "autonomy," placing herself above Creon's decree, and becomes heroic in that she is willing to die for familial obligation (65). 

Antigone and Creon also use the word "profit" in different ways.  While Antigone asserts that she profits by dying early if she lives a life of woe, Creon sees bribery as a motivator for the guards and Tiresias. Antigone also turns Creon's and the chorus' use of the word "foolish."  She embraces her apparent "folly" [because she will be rewarded for it in the hereafter], and she is not understood by Creon or the chorus.  In addition, Creon and Antigone oppose each other on the matter of "wisdom" or "intelligence" or "knowledge."  Antigone claims divine law's origins are not known; she acknowledges the limits of human wisdom while Creon arrogantly claims to have cornered the knowledge market (66-67).

Who of these two is truly pious?  Creon talks piety but in a way that must have made the audience for his inaugural speech shudder.  Just before calling on Zeus, he remarks on Polynices' guilt and swears that the state comes before everything; then he announces his decree and its unusually harsh punishment. When the chorus suggests that the burial given to Polynices may have occurred through divine intervention, Creon abuses the chorus for being foolish old men rather than the prescient elders they are.  At his angriest, Creon is invoking Zeus' name--when he swears to kill Ismene even though she is closer to him than the altar to Zeus in his household and when he is denying to Tiresias that anyone will bury Polynices. Mentioning the chief god while cursing and punishing people is not a form of piety. Strategically, then, it is appropriate for Sophocles to have Antigone begin by mentioning Zeus--not just as the chief god or even as the sky-god who would be offended by a rotting corpse, but also as an indicator of Creon's pride and the height of her own dissent from Creon's decree (68).  Antigone mentions the irony in her last words of being accused of impiety for the pious act of honoring the dead.  Antigone dies because she rejects life that falls short morally.  It is Creon who sees life simplistically in opposites while Antigone sees complexity (69).

Creon's categories of opposites basically show various forms of strength vs. weakness.  This simplistic view is most pronounced in his hatred for Antigone trying to conquer him as a man.  Creon really brings up the question of who is deserving of love and of honor, presuming that "human and divine--or political and religious--values exactly coincide" (71).  

The Chorus' Praise of Man:  Ironically, the first choral ode, which praises human intellectual achievement and control of nature, is preceded by Creon's anger (being out of control) and the guard's pondering on the role of chance and perhaps the gods in human endeavors.  Within the ode itself, the Greek adjective that describes man (deinos) means not just "wonderful" but also "terrible" or "fearful."  The word often translated as "order" (orgas) also means "anger" (71).  So, although the ode "reflects much of the optimistic rationalism of Sophocles' time," Sophocles sees reason and technical control as a double-edged sword: more freedom on the one hand, but more potential for tyranny on the other (72).

Creon echoes the opening word of this ode when he later talks to Creon about the terror of yielding to forces he cannot control (74-75). Earlier, he demonstrates distinct lack of control in his angry scene with his son, thus not living up to the image of "man" in the ode (75).

This ode also begins a motif of "bird" images that run through the play, since catching birds is one of man's skills.  But birds threatening the corpse seem more like reminders of Creon's authority [yet they are also a force of nature beyond control] and therefore sinister.  For Tiresias, birds are the means to know prophecy and the will of the gods.  So when the guard likens Antigone to a "mother-bird in bitter grief" over the loss of her young, we see both his pity for the hunted creature and Creon's will to dominate Antigone by "caging" or killing her, connecting domination of Antigone to man's conquest of nature (75-76).  

The whole last half of the play shifts its imagery to the "rebellion" of nature--woman, gods, and the non-rational.  The choral odes mention Eros and Dionysos.  Creon's reply to Antigone's speech in the first episode uses imagery of domination, devolving finally to calling her a "slave," a reminder of "Creon's debasement of man" (77).  Antigone renounces the idea of slavery with brotherhood (78). 

Creon's rejection of his son as an individual is accomplished by echoing the imagery of plowing from the end of the first stanza ("strophe") of the ode praising man.  When he suggests that Haemon has "other fields to plow" and so does not need Antigone, he rejects the notion of love, even mocking his son and marriage by threatening to kill Antigone "in the presence of her bridegroom" (78-79).  This motif plays itself out with imagery that merges marriage with death--in Antigone's cryptic bridal chamber and in the deaths of Creon's marriage partner and son, leaving Creon as nothing--both in the private and the public realm (79). 

In contrast to the notion that man the builder can shelter himself against the elements, the guards report immediately after the ode praising man on their exposure to the elements and the windstorm, a reminder of the untamable wildness now associated with the corpse of the rebel Polynices (80-81).  "Thus, the corpse, in its connections with the themes both of shelter and pollution, serves as an active link between the two aspects of Creon's 'irreligious' attitude, his degradation of man and his disregard for the divine sanctions" (81).  Antigone's burying Polynices affirms the dignity of man and the divine requirement of honoring the dead (81-82).

While Creon seems to negate the ode on man, Antigone affirms it--but with some corrections.  Antigone achieves stature by her willingness to face death; so, too, does mankind.  "In regarding death as another instrument of control, not as a necessary condition of existence to be approached with compassion and understanding, Creon disvalues his subjects and ultimately himself (83). 

The Significance of Antigone:  Although the play can be seen as an affirmation of the ideals of Athenian democracy and an echo of Pericles funeral oration (83), its real strength rests in affirming human nature. Man is more than a builder and maker of objects (84).  Creon's denial of humanity leaves him perhaps more alone than Antigone. "To live humanly, in Sophocles' terms, is to know fully the conditions of man's existence; and this means to accept the gods who, in their limitless, ageless power . . . are those conditions, the unbending realities of the universe" (85).  If the first ode praises man, the play defines exactly what is praiseworthy in humans and a later ode reminds us of the human condition: "Nothing of magnitude comes into the life of mortals without suffering and disaster" (85).

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This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.