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DIONYSUS VOLUME 10

CITIZEN CREON
Professor Robert Parker New College, Oxford The play we are about to see is one that is dominated to a quite unusual degree by the clash of two characters, the heroine who gives the title to the play and her opponent Creon. Creon wants to deny burial to the body of Polyneices on the grounds that he is a traitor. Antigone intercedes to try to ensure the burial of her brother. In a sense the play has a double climax. The first is the suicide of Antigone, a suicide caused by Creon's actions against her. The second is the boomerang effect this has back on Creon, because in consequence of Antigone's suicide her fianc Haemon, Creon's son, also commits suicide; and then so too does Creon's wife, the mother of Haemon. So all the evils come back on Creon's own head at the end, and the double climax brings these two characters together. It is not just that the play is about the clash of Antigone and Creon, but they are the two tragic focuses of the play. I cannot think of any other Greek tragedy which has quite this kind of this bifocal concentration. In consequence, any discussion of the play cannot escape becoming a discussion of the issue between these two characters. Indeed, you find yourself siding with Creon or Antigone. This seems an odd thing for a critic to do, to get sucked into an ancient, fictional family quarrel. But it is a proof of the power of the play that essentially you can't not do so. If you don't get sucked in, you have not really engaged with the play at all. Most moderns in this great quarrel side with Antigone. The French dramatist Anouilh in 1944 created an adaptation in which Creon stood for the occupying German forces in France at that time, and Antigone stood as a heroine of the Resistance. Bertolt Brecht did a rewrite in 1948, and in that the resemblances between Creon and Hitler were clear. But there are things that can be said in defence of Creon. That is the case I want to look at today and that is the reason I have given the talk the title Citizen Creon. I do not think that these defences of Creon are in fact finally convincing, but the complexity of the portrayal of Creon does not emerge unless one says the things that can be said in his defence. The best formulation of this approach is the old one of the C 19th German philosopher, Hegel. According to Hegel, the conflict in this play is not a conflict between right and wrong but one between two rights. Creon stands for the state, the good of the community against that of the individual, the claims of a city against those of the gods. Antigone stands for the claims of the family and of kinship and of the gods against those of the state. On this view there is real right on both sides and the tragedy is precisely that there is no way of reconciling these two rights. Or (according to Hegel) there was no way at that date of reconciling these two rights. Hegel saw the matter historically. He thought that originally

in early human life the basic obligation was that to one's kin. Antigone stands for that you bury your brother in all circumstances. Subsequently there emerges the state, the city, which creates a new set of obligations. Creon stands for these new obligations and this play dramatises the conflict of the two successive moralities. Within the terms of the play there is just no way of resolving this conflict. The only answer there could be would be a comprehensive morality that would somehow contain and reconcile the two opposing principles, family and state, but that is not on offer within the play. So, Creon and Antigone are each both right and wrong. They are right in upholding the principles that they uphold. What is wrong about them is that they neglect the other principle and indeed deny that it has any validity at all. I think this view of the play is not both right and wrong, but wholly wrong. But it does help us to see the real point. I want to make the case for Creon. On his first appearance it is undeniable that Creon makes a fairly good impression. He tells us how Polyneices and Eteocles have died and he explains how he himself is now the ruler of Thebes, a position which he holds not through force but legitimately. He has succeeded to the throne. Then he enters into some general reflections on patriotism: "As for me, whoever rules the state, but does not take best counsel, but out of fear keeps his lips sealed, I think now, as I've always thought he is the worst of men. And then, whoever puts a friend, a relative, before his fatherland, him I account as nothing. For I may Zeus know this, who sees all things for ever I'd not keep silent, seeing strife and ruin bearing down upon the citizens in place of safety, nor would I ever count a man my friend who was not loyal to the land. For I know that it's this that carries us to safety, and, when its course is smooth, then we can make firm family ties and friendships. These are the principles by which 1 mean to lead this city to prosperity. " So, the city is, as it were, a ship in which we sail to safety. You may think that there is a touch of pomposity and complacency about all that. It is a bit like a certain kind of editorial you get in a Conservative newspaper, but at bottom these are sentiments that would appeal to any Athenian: "Whoever puts a friend, a relative, before his fatherland, him I account as nothing... For I know that it's this that carries us to safety." It is very easy in Athenian literature to find parallels for ideas of this kind. It is the kind of thing that politicians were always saying in public speeches. There were a lot of legends about people who offered their lives for the good of the city or the lives of their daughters! It is not just subjective on my part to say that this speech of Creon's sounds good in Athenian terms. We have very good evidence of this: the evidence of Demosthenes, a great Athenian statesman and patriot. Demosthenes, denouncing his political opponent Aeschines in the C4th, asks, "what is a good citizen like?" And he quotes this passage of Creon in Antigone as an example of what good citizenship really is. So that speech was taken as an expression of real patriotism in the C4th. Later in the play there is an impressive speech by Creon to his son Haemon about the need for a spot of discipline in the state:

"The man the state appoints to rule he must be listened to in little things, in justice, and in their opposite. And I'd believe that man who listened would himself wish both to rule and be ruled well, a bulwark standing firmly in the stormburst of the spears, a just and good protector of his friends. There is no evil worse than anarchy. For it sacks cities, razes homesteads to the ground; it smashes allied spearranks, turns your friends to rout; while firm obedience of the law that saves the skins of most rightthinking people. " That, too, is a very admirable sentiment. Indeed, when Creon says "a bulwark standing firmly in the stormburst of the spears, a just and good protector of his friends", those words have particular Athenian appeal. At the age of eighteen, every Athenian had to swear what was called the "Oath of the Ephebes", the oath of the young men, and one of the things he had to swear was that he would not abandon the man who stood beside him in battle. Creon is definitely echoing that oath here. So far, so good. I have made the case for Creon as best I can. The trouble lies not with these general sentiments that Creon utters, not in his overall notion about what is for the good of the state, but more in the way he puts it into practice. I quoted earlier the speech that Demosthenes quotes about what the good citizen is, and how one should rule in the interests of the citizens. But Creon immediately goes on from that general point to make a particular declaration. He tells us that he has proclaimed a decree to the people that Polyneices must be left unburied, "a corpse for birds and dogs to feast on, a mangled, bloody thing, and all might see him". This must have come as an immediate shock to the Athenians. It is true that the Athenians did sometimes refuse burial within the territory of Attica to traitors, but Creon is doing worse than this. He is not just saying that Polyneices cannot be buried within the state but that he can't be buried anywhere at all, even beyond the boundaries, and there is a very unpleasant insistence. The corpse is going to be left out there to be chewed by dogs and birds. Normally after a battle, the convention was that you made a treaty and then both sides recovered their dead and then buried them. And Creon has done this without any consultation, by simple proclamation. Already at this point Creon has descended from his fine principles to a rather unpleasant practice. Quite soon after this, another side of Creon's love of the city is revealed. Almost as soon as Creon has repeated his edict saying that Polyneices is not to be buried, in comes the guard who is supposed to be protecting the body in order to announce that the body has in fact been buried. The guard is unusual. Greek tragedy does not have many semicomic figures, but he is one. He is a coward; he is long winded; he is rather pompous; he mixes his pomposity with homely truths; he grumbles a lot. He is a comic figure, but he is not there just for light relief. The real point is to contrast him with Creon and to show the way that Creon reacts to him. The guard is a foil for the king. One evident point about the guard is that he is a rather simple fellow, and so we, the audience, believe him. But Creon doesn't. Creon immediately assumes that there is a conspiracy against him. Creon is a very narrowly political figure who just can't understand any other kind of motivation. The way in which he speaks about these presumed conspirators is extremely revealing: "But from the very start there have been men here in the city, who took my order badly, shaking their heads in secret, and not conforming to m y government as lawfully they

should, if they accept me. I have sure knowledge that it was by them these guards were bribed and led astray to do these things. " That turns out to be Creon's idea of what the state means. He himself is on top and everybody else is underneath. The image in the Greek is that they have their necks bowed beneath the yoke, and this is an extremely revealing one. Part of the art in Sophocles is the way in which this slips out in spite of Creon. It has been well said that the thing to watch out for with Creon is not so much what he says but the way he says it, the kind of image that he adopts. This happens again and again. I quoted earlier that fine speech about not betraying the man you are standing beside in battle, but listen to the way this speech concludes: "So, we must be protectors of all those whose lives are lived in harmony, and we must never let ourselves be weaker than a woman. For it is better, if necessity demands, that we should fall before a man and not, no!, not allow it to be said that we are weaker than a woman. So behind all this fine talk that Creon has been conducting about obedience to the state, it turns out that what is really bugging him is resentment at being opposed by a chit of a girl, his own niece. It is very important that Antigone is a young woman, not a great age at all. From the whole speech it becomes clear that although Creon is stating certain principles about how the state ought to be run it is remarkably convenient for himself that these principles should be adopted. They are principles that are going to suit him a lot. He thinks very strongly that sons ought to obey fathers. He is a father. He thinks that citizens ought to obey those set in authority in the state. How lucky for him that he is, as it happens, in authority. And though he does in fact speak of those whom the city sets in authority, it is not true that the city has set him in authority. He has not been appointed or elected, he has merely occupied the throne admittedly by succession but he has not been chosen in any way. He is laying claim to a kind of justification for the obedience that other people are supposed to owe to him which he does not really have any right to. So it goes on, and in particular in the crucial edict that Polyneices is to be denied burial. According to Creon this 'is a law, and we all know that we have got to obey the law. Antigone has broken the law that has been established, he claims. The proposition that you must obey the laws is a proposition that some even of us might accept, and it is certainly one that was highly congenial to the Greeks. But as Antigone points out, it is not really a law but just an edict. It is just something that Creon has proclaimed. One reason why the individual ought perhaps to obey the law is that laws are an expression of the general public will, but this particular socalled law is not a law at all. It is just a whim of Creon. It becomes clear during the play that actually there is only one person in Thebes who supports this law, and that is Creon. The first time he mentions it to the chorus it becomes clear that they do not much care for it, even though they are portrayed as very timid yesmen. What they say to him is: "such is your pleasure in respect to both our city's enemy and its protector. You have the power to use any law against the dead and us, who live." They say that Creon can use any law he chooses, but law is supposed to be established, not at the whim of the person in power. They are saying then that anything you decide will

bind us whether it is truly legal or not. They are simply indicating that they are frightened, and that they do not think this edict is truly a law. Creon later admits himself to the guard that everyone has been opposed to his edict, all those men who would not keep their necks under the yoke. We then learn from Haemon that the whole city supports Antigone. He tells us what they are saying in the streets and alleys and barbers shops about Antigone: "I've heard the city mourning for this girl as being by far the least deserving of all womankind to die the worst, most shameful of all deaths for deeds which should have earned the greatest praise of all. For when her brother fell there in the charnelhouse of battle, she would not let him lie unburied, nor be torn and mauled by dogs that glut their hunger on raw flesh, nor any bird. Is not this woman worthy of a golden honour? And this black word is spreading now in silence. " Of course, we cannot prove that Haemon is reporting the truth, but I believe it. There is a very revealing detail about the manner of punishment for anyone who breaks the edict. In the prologue there is talk of how anyone who disobeys is going to be stoned. But the thing about a stoning is that you have to get the whole city together in agreement to throw stones all with one will. In practice Creon backs off from that and he just tries to destroy Antigone by burying her in a horrible tomb that he creates for her; you don't need a general consensus just to wall someone up in a living tomb. At this point, I am afraid that Hegel's thesis collapses. Creon is not a true representative of the good of the state. Noone except Creon believes his edict is really in the public interest. There is no clash in the play between two duties, the duty to the family and the duty to the city. On the contrary, what is good for Polyneices to bury him would also be good for the city as a whole. The two interests coincide. This is the crucial significance of the scene twothirds through the play in which the blind prophet Teiresias comes on. Up till that point, the dispute between Creon and Antigone has been conducted on a theoretical level: Antigone's assertion on one side that the gods want Polyneices to be buried; Creon's assertion on the other side that they don't. With the arrival of Teiresias we get conclusive proof about whose side the gods are really on, and it turns out that they are on Antigone's. It is Creon, the supposed representative of the city's interests, who had in fact brought pollution, the danger of divine anger, on the city, whereas Antigone has been protecting the city from pollution. So, the play is not really about the clash of real irreconcilable values. Creon is not an embodiment of an abstract value, the value of the state. If he is not that, what is he? He is something more subtle and interesting. He is a man who disguises behind arguments about the public good his own authoritarianism and lust for power. He claims to represent the good of the community but it turns out to be merely his own will. There is a division between what Creon says and what he is at bottom. There is a famous passage in the historian, Thucydides, about the corruption that happened on the island of Corcyra, now the delightful holiday island of Corfu but in the year 427 divided by terrible civil war. Thucydides describes how fair words were used as shields for dirty deeds. Words had to change their

ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given to them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally. Prudent hesitation came to be considered specious cowardice. Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness. One could describe Creon in the same way: Creon represents as patriotic virtue what is really arrogant selfassertion. Does that mean Creon is just a hypocrite, consciously doing all this? No, I think that is not right. If it were so, Creon could scarcely have a real share in the tragedy, but at the end of the play the tragic focus is as much on the broken Creon as on anything else. Creon's problem is that he believes his own claims. He does not realise what he is doing, that he is confusing his own authority and the desire to assert himself with the good of Thebes. If he really were just a villain and nothing more, we would have to be pleased by the end of the play. We could only relish his humiliation. But in fact, when Creon much too late is convinced by the prophet Teiresias that he is wrong, he does change his mind. And when his world has fallen in ruin around his ears he admits that it is all his own fault. It is extremely pathetic, the contrast between Creon before and after. Before, he is very insistent that he can do nothing wrong. He is burying his niece, Antigone, alive (just giving her a scrap of bread, nothing else, in the terrible chamber he has devised for her under the earth) and he declares that because he is not actually putting her to death no sword is going into her body "we are absolved in all things that concern this girl". But afterwards, after his wife Eurydice has committed suicide, he accepts the blame for everything: "There is no other man can take the blame for this from me. For in my foolishness, I killed you. The judgement's fair. Nothing now is left me." This is what gives even Creon a certain tragic dignity. Aristotle's notion of character flaw being the source of tragedy does not really work with any other play, but it does work with this one. Creon really does have a tragic error. He is not just a bad man; he is a deluded man. This is not to say that Creon is a desperately attractive figure. He is still a somewhat repulsive person. A famous Victorian editor of Sophocles, Jebb (who was himself a great gentleman) declared: "Creon's temper is hasty and vehement, but he is not malevolent". Possibly not malevolent, but he is a touch brutal, particularly towards Antigone. Again it is not just what he does, but the way he speaks. Antigone says, "I do not have it in me to hate when others hate; my nature is to love", to which Creon replies, "If you must love, then go beneath the earth, and love him there. And while I live, I'll have no woman rule me." Then he tells his son Haemon to abandon this wretched girl with whom he has become entangled: "Spit her away. Think that she hates you. Let her, the girl, go find a husband for herself in Hades." One critic has said about that image that Antigone is reduced to the status of an orange pip or some irritating piece of food stuck in one's teeth a very unpleasant image. There is just one other aspect of Creon that I would like to stress, and that is that for him tyranny starts at home. Sophocles shows very clearly that the absolute obedience that Creon wants in the state is really just a transfer of what he wants in his own house. The hideous spectacle that Sophocles shows us in Creon's relation to his son Haemon is the spectacle of domestic tyranny. "Are we friends, whatever I should do? Such feelings well should fill a man's chest, that in all things he carry out his father's will." I think it is not just the post Dr. Spock world we live in that makes us find that rather chilling. Creon is happy to trample over the feelings of his nearest and dearest.

A horrific moment in the play is the moment when Haemon is crouched by the corpse of his fiance Antigone, leaps forward at Creon and seeks to kill him. What is terrible about this is that we sympathise at that moment with Haemon: in the Greek world, where parricide is the greatest of evils, to have brought us to the point where we sympathise with Haemon in his attempted parricide shows us just how bad Creon is. Is the play then just the clash between a deluded middleaged man and a wonderful but unfortunate girl? No, it is not that either. I could speak ill of Antigone too if I had the time. Wonderful heroine though she is in many ways, she too is not a straightforward embodiment of a particular set of values. There are complications, kinks in her psyche that give this play its force. But my subject was supposed to be "Citizen Creon", not "Antigone and Family Values", so I shall pass over all the senses in which I personally am quite glad not to have Antigone in my family. I shall raise instead a question about the ending of the play. There has been a lot of debate about who the hero or the central character of Antigone is. In one sense this is a waste of time, because it is an unreal question. Who says that one has to seek a single hero for a play? But it does seem to me appropriate that the play ends with Creon and not with Antigone. One of the puzzles about the ending of the play is to what extent we are thinking about Antigone right at the end of it. The reason it is good to end with Creon is because Creon's folly is the origin of all the tragedy. Creon has made one of those misjudgements that bring an individual himself and all those who associate with him to total disaster. This is a fundamental idea of Sophocles: the idea of the limits of human understanding, the idea of how humans just by virtue of being humans are always in danger of getting things disastrously wrong. There is a famous chorus in this play, about halfway through, about this situation of delusion of the mind, of the man to whom evil seems good and the horrors this leads to. This is why irony is such an important feature of Sophoclean drama. Men do not understand the true meaning of what they are engaged in. Creon says early in the play that you can't judge a man's character until he is tested in office. How right he is! Nobody realised quite what a bad promotion Creon's was until he was actually in the job. Similarly he says that a man who can't run his family properly won't be able to run the state properly. How very true on both points! This idea of disastrous delusion, the horror of bad seeming good to an individual is often expressed by the Greeks in religious terms the idea of godsent madness, or ate. What is dressed up in these grand terms is really a recognisable human experience, one that all of us know in small matters if not in great. How lucky we are not to be in a position of passing edicts to deny burial to our nephews, or we might get it as wrong as Creon did! It is all about the decision that one insists on taking, the point one refuses to yield on in the absolute certainty one is right. One just knows one is right, when one isn't. Ultimately one gets to discover this, and this is why it is possible to pity Creon at the end, and indeed necessary to do so. If you don't pity him finally, then you are declaring yourself, madly, superior to the kind of divine madness that Sophocles is alluding to, the madness in which to you evil seems good.

To sum up, what I have been trying to argue is that Creon and Antigone are not abstractions, embodiments of principles, but that they are human beings of a type still recognisable. The source of the tragedy, too, fatal folly is still, alas!, all too much with us.