Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Sophocles, Antigone (c. 441BC) (Translated by E. F. Watling 1947)

The play Antigone (c. 441 BC) (Translated by E. F. Watling 1947) tells the tragedy of King Creon of Thebes, whose fatal flaw of pride, arrogance, stubbornness and uncompromising attitudes in the face of reasoned contrary arguments and moral principle corroborated by the will of the gods, led to the loss of his family (his son and wife) and left him devastated.  Although he held onto the high office and royal authority he sought to preserve, his behaviour cost the lives of those who made him truly happy in life, an avoidable calamity that left him devastated with what now seemed like the empty trappings of office. 

Determined to reassert his royal authority after an armed rebellion, he refused to grant an honourable burial and period of mourning for a nephew (Polynices) slain in battle on the opposing side, while he granted full honours to his other nephew (Etiocles) who fought loyally on the side of the crown.  Hoping to impose a punishment so severe it would deter future treason, he contravened time-honoured dignities afforded the dead, rites that were approved by the gods.  Respecting the laws and the authority of the king is highly valued by the Greeks, so Creon initially had some support from the Chorus of Theban Elders. He had a case, even though Creon had asserted that his decree, as law, should override higher moral laws sanctified by the gods.  However, Creon’s assertion of man’s law over a higher moral law would be challenged, producing a crisis for Creon that brought his fatal flaw to the fore.

The catalyst for the crisis was Creon’s niece, Antigone, the sister of the slain Polynices, who refused to allow her brother to remain unburied.  Undeterred by the penalty of death for transgressing the law, she heroically defied the king and willingly faced execution.  Her noble stand asserted the pre-eminence of time-honoured morality and the will of the gods over the laws of man, and her principled defiance brought out Creon’s pride and stubbornness.  Refusing to compromise when faced with reasoned arguments from his son Haemon (who was betrothed to Antigone), and when faced by widespread contrary popular opinion and the judgements of the Chorus, he even demanded additional unreasonable punishments be imposed on those who defied him.  When he went so far as to defy the revered prophet Teiresias, accusing him of dishonesty, the prophet revealed the cruel fate that Creon would soon suffer as a consequence of his own attitudes and actions. 

Creon’s last-minute change of heart failed to prevent Antigone’s death, Haemon’s grief and resulting suicide, and then the grief and suicide of Creon’s wife Eurydice.  The tragedy concluded with a devastated Creon appreciating his responsibility for what had happened. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Antigone meaning, Antigone themes, Antigone analysis, Antigone notes