Conflict Between Antigone & Creon in Sophocles' Antigone

Instructor: Ashley Bishop
On the surface, the conflict between Antigone and Creon appears to be that of protagonist versus antagonist, but there is more to this literary face-off than meets the eye.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

In the Greek tragic tradition, there is typically a hero, also known as a protagonist, and a villain, also known as an antagonist. In Sophocles' Antigone, those roles would appear to be fulfilled by Antigone and Creon, respectively. After all, Antigone sacrifices herself to fulfill her moral duty to her family and the gods, and Creon stubbornly rejects Antigone's religious convictions as a rationale for disobeying his orders. This seems simple enough, right?

In this lesson, we will explore the conflict between these two characters and the extent to which each character upholds the classical definitions of protagonist and antagonist.

Characterization in Greek Tragedy

Aristotle's ancient text Poetics describes the six pillars of Greek tragedy. Among them, Aristotle places character second in line behind the plot. In the Aristotelean tradition, character is defined by the delineation of virtue. A protagonist, or hero, is held in high esteem; his or her actions and words portray a person of high moral standard. The antagonist, or villain, is portrayed in the opposite manner, usually motivated by immoral impulses such as greed, jealousy, or arrogance.

Antigone the Hero

Although it is generally accepted that Antigone is the hero, or protagonist, of this play, her juxtaposition to Creon poses some interesting questions about the nature of what constitutes a protagonist and an antagonist.

At the opening of the play, Antigone's brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other in a duel. King Creon considers Polyneices a traitor to his city, so he has ordered that no one may bury him. Antigone is determined that her brother should have ''his honor among the dead men.'' She is determined to bury Polyneices despite Creon's order that anyone who buries Polyneices will be executed.

Antigone is motivated by a strong moral conviction that her brother must be honored in death, and in doing so, she must ''please those that are dead,'' as her time among the dead will be much longer than her time among the living.

Antigone, however, is also plagued by a hamartia, or tragic flaw. This is a typical feature among tragic heroes. She is besieged by pride, and does not listen to reason, despite her sister Ismene's pleas for reason and Creon's willingness to pardon her. Antigone prefers a righteous death to a morally passive life.

Creon the Villain

Creon's motivations are a bit more complex than the average villain. Throughout the play he speaks to lawful reason. He is pragmatic to a fault, and like Antigone, he is also a victim of extreme pride. Unlike Antigone, however, Creon is willing to set his convictions aside and forgive Antigone's crime. Upon hearing from the prophet Teiresias that Antigone's death will bring about death in his own house, Creon decides to free Antigone, but it is too late. She has hanged herself.

Motivated by his pride and his lawful convictions, Creon's actual villainy is debated among scholars. His flaw, like Antigone's, is relatable. Villains in Greek tragedies are generally loathsome characters, but Creon bows to reason and an emotional appeal from Teiresias, revealing his emotional vulnerability. In the end, once Antigone's death triggers his son Haemon's suicide, which in turn triggers his wife Eurydice's suicide, Creon is despondent, calling himself ''vain'' and ''silly.''

Antigone vs. Creon

Although audiences may relate to both characters, the conflict between Antigone and Creon develops long before the play begins. Creon has ascended to the throne because Antigone's father, the king before Creon, is deceased, and her brothers are essentially outlaws. Both brothers plotted against their father, and then fought each other over the throne after his death.

In a more modern context, Antigone may have been queen, but Creon adopted his nieces, Antigone and Ismene, claiming the throne for himself. Although Antigone does not challenge Creon's right to the throne, he is still threatened by her. She openly mocks his authority by disregarding his decision to not allow Polyneices' body to be buried.

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