Thursday, February 3, 2011

Antigone and Creon's Decree

At the crux of the play Antigone is a difference in how two different people view leadership. Antigone believes that being a leader is doing what she believes is right no matter what the consequences. Conversely, Creon feels that leadership must demonstrate control. When Creon makes the decree that the body of Polynices is not to be touched, he believes it is for the good of the city. Creon assumes that forcing a traitor to the city to go unburied and rot in the sun will provide a stern warning to any dissatisfied citizens with designs on defecting. His motives for issuing the decree are purely public. Des Pres claims that it is an arbitrary act that is merely done to cement his power over the war-torn city of Thebes.

Antigone acts on strictly private motivations. She feels a sense of duty to her family and to the gods to see to it that her brother is buried. As Des Pres says, "Challenging Creon is not part of Antigone's plans." She stands in stark contrast to her sister Ismene, who fears his punishment. With two brothers dead, a father disgraced and gone, and a scared sister, Antigone has to assume the leadership role in her family. All she wants is to see her brother honored the way she feels he should be. Her act of civil disobedience is not a political one, it's a personal one.

Although these two main figures differ on how they view leadership, they do share one flaw: ignoring other possible courses of action. Des Pres makes the point that this play does not start with the same fated ending that we see in Oedipus, where the gods have already sealed his destiny. At no point in the play do we feel that it has to end up as tragically as it does. There are many instances where Creon or Antigone could have pursued different courses of action that would have eliminated the need for more loss of life. First, Antigone could have gone to Creon directly and pleaded for lenience regarding his decree. Also, she was married to his son! Surely she could have gone to Haemon to talk some sense into his father. Most obviously, Antigone did not need to try to bury Polynices a second time. Presumably after the burial rites had been completed once they did not need to be repeated. From Creon's perspective, after Antigone was arrested he could have easily pardoned her for her crime. He also could have declared that she was crazy with sadness or even reduced her punishment. But because he was so focused on his concept of leadership as a show of power and control, he could see no other options.

Antigone raises questions about civil disobedience and a sort of "natural law" that are still relevant to this day. The main lesson we can learn from the tragedy that results in the play is that nothing is inevitable. Creon and Antigone were two people with different motivations and philosophies that sucked them into a set of circumstances that seemed to lead to the deaths of three people. However, upon closer inspection we see that both people had options available to them at any time which could have dramatically changed the outcome of the play. A true leader is never blinded by emotion or sense of duty but rather maintains a keen eye for preferable alternatives.

1 comment:

  1. Yes: rightness versus control. But are accepted definitions of leadership so the whole thing depends on context. And often history can declare which context justifies rightness and which justifies control. History is interpretation. And yes, Antigone at first feels the rightness of her act as a personal, private (familial) matter. That’s of course what’s so amazing about its general human rightness – that it just occurs to her, that it’s in a sense part of the accident of her being political by virtue of being human. Personal = political. (Or “local,” as in the phrase: all politics is local. All ethics, too, is local.) There is always a lot of room for compromise and for backing at least a little away from stubborn perfect principle. And in life this happens. But in classical tragedy? We need the extremes to learn the lesson. I like your conclusion that nothing is inevitable.