I recently finished reading Sophocles’ play Antigone. Antigone is the final chapter of the famous tale of the ill-fated Oedipus. It was the first play in the Oedipus series written by Sophocles.
Overview of the Plot
Shortly before the play took place, Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polyneices fought for the rule of the city of Thebes. Eteocles defended the city and Polyneices attacked it. The brothers killed each other during the battle. Creon, the brother of Oedipus and the acting ruler of Thebes, decreed that Eteocles would be given a hero’s burial but Polyneices was to be left to rot as a public spectacle. Antigone, the eldest daughter of Oedipus decides to rebel against Creon’s law and burry Polyneices. She tried to convince her sister, Ismene, to help in her crime. She refused. Antigone went ahead and buried Polyneices, without her sister’s help, and was caught. Creon was outraged and condemned Antigone to death. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s lover, tried to get his father to resend his order but Creon refused. Antigone was walled up within a cave to die. The blind prophet Tiresias came to Creon and warned him that he would loose one of his sons due to his actions. Creon, terrified by the prophet’s words, ordered the cave to be opened. Sadly, it was too late. Antigone hung herself in the cave and Haemon killed himself. Eurydice, Creon’s wife killed herself upon hearing of the deaths. Creon recognized his hubris too late and entered his palace a broken man.
First of all, this is indeed a tragedy! It’s not a happy tale but a cautionary play about the fatality of pride, the danger stubbornness, and the superiority of God’s law over the laws of man. It is also about civic duty (represented by Creon) and personal and conscience duty (represented by Antigone.) However, the conflicts in this play have a psychological aspect. I would like to zoom in on two of the key conflicts in the play and show what I believe is going on behind the scenes.
Antigone vs. Ismene: Firstborn vs. Lastborn/Middle Child
Birth order has a huge influence on personality. I believe that some of the conflict between Antigone and Ismene comes down to their birth-order. Antigone is the first daughter of Oedipus. Firstborns are known for being stubborn. They also believe in being in the right and wish to be in charge. As a firstborn, I understand why Antigone felt driven to bury her father to honor her family and the gods.
Ismene, on the other hand, is a latter-born (I was unable to determine if she was a middle-child or a lastborn.) I can see elements of both birth-orders in her. Middle children generally value harmony and agreement. Lastborns thrive attention and are entertainers.
Firstborns and latter-borns view the world in drastically different ways. Considering these facets, look at this exchange from Antigone:
ISMENE:...[W]hat will be the end of us, If we transgress the law and defy the king? O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, and we must obey in this, or in worse than this, may the dead forgive me, I can do no other but as I am commanded; to do more is madness.
ANTIGONE: No; then I will not ask you for your help. Nor would I thank you for it, if you gave it. Go your own way; I will bury my brother; and if I die fore it, what happiness? Convicted of reverence—I shall be content to lie beside a brother whom I love. We have only a little time to please the living. But all eternity to love the dead. There I shall lie forever. Live, if you will; live, and defy the holiest laws of heaven.
ISMENE: I do not defy them; but I cannot act against the State. I am not strong enough.
ANTIGONE: Let that be your excuse, then. I will go and heap a mound of earth over my brother.”
While Antigone is interested in the bigger issues of honor and righteousness, Ismene is interested in harmony. We also see the classic stubborn streak we firstborns are famous for. Once we get an idea into our heads, it takes an act of God to stop us!
Antigone vs. Creon: Thinker vs. Feeler and Firstborn vs. Firstborn
There are few things more terrifying than two firstborns locked in battle. Neither will back down, neither will give the other the upper hand, and both believe they are right. Not only is Creon (a functional firstborn) and Antigone’s conflict an example of two firstborns in battle but we also see a conflict of a thinker vs. a feeler. Thinkers are interested in logic and justice. Feelers are interested in people and honor. Creon is a thinker. His entire focus is on the justice of the state’s laws. Antigone is a feeler. Her focus is on her family honor and on her personal conscience. Keeping this in mind, look at these quotes.
CREON:...Now tell me, in as few words as you can, did you know the order forbidding such an act?
ANTIGONE: I knew it, naturally. It was plain enough.
CREON: And yet, you dared to contravene it?
ANTIGONE: Yes. That order did not come from God. Justice, that dwells with the gods below, knows no such law. I did not think your edicts strong enough to overrule the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven, you being only a man. They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting though where they came from, none of us can tell. Guilty of their transgression before God I cannot be, for any man on earth. I knew that I should die, of course, with or without your order. If it be soon, so much the better. Living in daily torment as I do, who would not be glad to die?...
CREON: Ah, but you’ll see. The over-obstinate spirit is soonest broken; as the strongest iron will snap if over-tempered in the fire to brittleness. A little halter is enough to break the wildest horse. Proud thoughts do not sit well upon subordinates. This girl’s proud spirit was first in evidence when she broke the law; and now, to add insult to her injury she gloats over her deed. But, as I live, she shall not flout my orders with impunity...
ANTIGONE: Now that you have caught, will you do more than kill me?
CREON: No, nothing more; that is all I could wish.
We can clearly see the stubbornness of both functional firstborns. We also see Antigone's focus on honor and conscience and Creon's focus on logic and civil law.
There are many other conflicts in Antigone that I see as rooted in personalities.
Eteocles and Polyneices: Firstborn vs. Middle-child Power Struggle
Creon vs. Haemon: Ruler vs. Lover
Tiresias vs. Creon: Divine Law vs. Civil Law
Antigone vs. Haemon: Rebel vs. Sympathizer
Creon vs. Eurydice: Paternal Love vs. Maternal Love
Personality has a huge bearing on how we deal with conflict. We should learn from the tragic end of the characters in Antigone to recognize both our own personality and the personality of others in dealing with them. We must be careful to approach them in a loving manner, being willing to compromise to maintain peace. Ultimately, we must rely on the peace only God can give to avoid tragic consequences in our conflicts. “Peace Ileave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
I will close with the final words of Antigone, spoken my the Chorus:
“Of happiness the crown and chiefest part is wisdom, and to hold the gods in awe. This is the law that, seeing the stricken heart of pride brought down, we learn when we are old.”