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Sophocles Antigone


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Piety and Justice
The wise Henry David Thoreau once stated "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." This quote emphasizes that what one follows through obligations of the “law”, whether it is commitments to your city, family or divinity, it may not be what is righteous in regards to your own moral values. This theme of obligations vs. moral justice can be expressed in Sophocles’ Antigone, which can be seen through the main characters Antigone and Kreon, who have opposing views, but actions depict that if the law contradicts one’s moral duties, then one is justified to act in a manner of disobedience.
The tragic Greek playwright Antigone is set in a more traditional era of time, where the city of Thebes is organized completely around religion and there are strict gender roles and expectations the citizens must abide by. Men are socially obliged to take care of the city, whilst women are to be taking care of the household, and more importantly are not to be seen wandering out in public. This distinction is important, as in all Greek plays, nothing is coincidence and the polarities between the gender roles plays a huge role in how the characters justify their actions.
The play begins with Antigone and her sister Ismene sitting outside the palace the morning after the attack of the city of Thebes. The day prior, their brother Polyneices attacked their other brother Etyokles, and both committed acts of fratricide in pursuit of the title of King in the city of Thebes. Antigone is in distress as she has just heard news from the new King Kreon that he has made a proclamation that no one in the city of Thebes will mourn over the death of her brother Polyneices, and even more so, there won’t be a burial. The lines 23- 30 “Eteokles he has seen fit to treat with justice, so they say, and lawfully concealed beneath the ground, there to be honored by the dead below; but as for Polyneices’ miserable corpse, they say the townsfolk have received a proclamation, that none may shroud him in a tomb or wail for him; he must be left unwept, unburied, treasure sweet for watching birds to feed on at their pleasure.” (Sophocles), give us foresight into a time the law of the city clashes with what would be considered morally just, the laws and traditions of the gods. Whilst their brother Etyokles received a proper burial, their other brother is seen as a traitor of the city, and will not be respected even in matters of death.
Antigone takes this proclamation very negatively and views it as a dishonor to her sacred obligation as a women to perform the burial rites, as well as dishonor to her family for allowing one brother to be buried, whilst leaving the other out to be fed to the birds and most importantly a dishonor to the gods whose traditions and customs regarding death have been to bury the dead, and for those that are traitors to be buried outside the city. In the playwright, Kreon orders to leave the body unburied, and this emphasis of punishment makes Kreon look like the antagonist of the play. Antigone takes the task upon herself to give her brother a proper respectful burial and asks of her sister Ismene’s help in achieving the morally just task. Ismene disagrees, as she believes that she must follow the order of the law. The lines 72- 74 “To me its fine to die performing such a deed. I’ll lie there, dear to him, with my dear friend, when I’ve performed this crime of piety.” (Sophocles) And the line 77 “If you think it is best, dishonor what is honored by the gods”, (Sophocles) shows that Antigone believes that she must defy the law in order to fulfill the customs and traditional rituals performed by the gods. These lines display Antigone’s perspective on the moral justice and where her loyalty and obligations lie and show for the first time the distinction between the law of man and the city vs. the law of the gods.
In comparison to Antigone’s perspective, King Kreon views that his loyalties lie towards the city. The lines 175-181 “It is impossible to learn in full the spirit of a man, his purpose or his judgment, till he’s shown up by experience of rule and law. For anyone who rules the city as a whole and does not hold on to the counsels that are best, but keeps a lock fixed on his tongue because of fear, I think that man most evil.” (Sophocles), and the line 191 “Such are the laws with which I make this city great.” (Sophocles), clearly express that Kreon’s views on the law are that the law of the city and the man is far greater than all, and by not following these rules, he is taking part in evil. One must remember that historically, the city of Thebes revolves around religion and the gods, and when Kreon places more importance on the law of the man, some consider his views to be acts of defiance against the higher beings. It is important to note that due to the polarities in the gender roles of men and women, the men portray the laws of the city to be greater whilst the women believe the laws of the gods to be greater, and depending on perspective as one’s morals are subjective, it can be seen that neither side is unjust in their doings. Whilst Kreon considers the law of the city to be greatest, when he finds out that Antigone did not follow his orders and performed the burial rites of her deceased brother, he becomes infuriated and believes that she must be punished. The lines 480- 483 “This girl I knew well how to commit an act of outrage when she first transgressed against the published laws; and here’s a second outrage after doing it to boast of it and laugh, exulting her deed.” (Sophocles) express his initial reactions upon hearing of Antigone’s doings. Lines 655- 658 “For I have caught her disobeying openly, this girl alone of all the city; and I shall not falsify myself before the city, but I’ll kill her.” (Sophocles) Exemplify that Antigone’s crime cannot go unpunished, and must die for disobeying the law. His decision to punish Antigone is not unjust, as Kreon is only abiding by his civil duties as a political figure to the citizens that disobedience will not be tolerated. Although Kreon’s decision poses many implications as not only is Antigone tied to Kreon through kinship, but she is also the bride to be of Kreon’s son, Kreon must choose between his duty towards his family, and his duty towards the city.
Lines 450- 463 “It was not Zeus who made this proclamation; nor was it Justice dwelling with the gods below who set in place such laws as these for humankind; nor did I think your proclamations had such strength, that, mortal as you are, you could outrun those laws that are the gods’, unwritten and unshakeable. Their laws are for not for now, or yesterday, but live forever; no one knows when first they came to light. I was not going to pay the gods just penalty for breaking these, dreading the purposes of a mere man. I knew that I must die- how could I not?—regardless of the proclamation that you made. But if I die before my time, I count that as a profit.” (Sophocles) Antigone is well aware that to the city, her actions are a crime and she does not care that she must go through punishment, as she sees her death as a noble and a validated one. She shows no signs of remorse or guilt, and this is especially important in showing that she does not believe that her actions are unsound. Her duty to the gods is much greater than her duty to the civilians, and thus justifying her actions and her death.
Whilst neither Antigone nor Kreon are wrong in their doings, the polarities between their views makes it difficult to see what justice is. Sophocles’ intentions were not to say that what is pious is what is just, nor that what is just may not be pious, but his intentions were to show us that one must oblige to his/her own moral beliefs and that is what is just. It can be clearly seen that compared to most literature, Sophocles creates an illusion that Kreon is the antagonist, but upon further observation, we learn that Kreon and Antigone are neither protagonists nor antagonists in the playwright. Through historical analysis of the time and period, and a greater understanding of the reason behind Kreon and Antigone’s actions, we can see that whilst neither were wrong, their polarity of views create a distinction that teaches us that our moral duties and obligations are what is deemed righteous and just, and not that of which is the law, whether it be the law of the city, law of the gods, or the law to your family.

Works Cited
Sophocles. Antigone. Focus Publishing/R.Pullins Company, 1998.

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