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DIONYSUS VOLUME 10

WHERE DOES CREON GO WRONG?


Gordon Cockburn University of Durham I am very pleased again to have the opportunity to support the excellent work of Actors of Dionysus in their promotion and interpretation of Greek plays. It is always a bit nervewracking doing this before the performance. I don't know how it is being put on, and I must trust that my interpretation will agree with that which the director and actors have come up with. I can remember one occasion when this worked very well in my favour. I was talking about the anger of Oedipus and presenting him as a very angry character. Someone in the audience argued with me, and we had a very nice discussion about it. He didn't think that Oedipus was particularly angry or brought down by his anger, and I was left looking very smug when the performance produced for me a very angry Oedipus indeed. But of course this is Greek tragedy and one shouldn't be smug for long, because what goes your way one day can go the other way the next, and this is one of the messages that come across from Greek tragedy very regularly. Where, then, does Creon go wrong? Perhaps we know the answer to that already. It is not really terribly difficult to work it out. But other things that I would like to look at with you are the opposite of that where Creon doesn't go wrong and also to make it my purpose to argue that Creon isn't really such a bad fellow after all in spite of the impression that you get of him from Antigone at the beginning of the play. Antigone of course is very much against him right from the beginning. She makes a rather sarcastic remark about the "noble Creon": it is against you, Ismene, and me that he has passed this decree. I would also like to say from the start that I don't want to imply that I see Creon as the main figure of the play, the main tragic figure. It is true, of course, that he dominates the last third of the play after Antigone's early departure, and this can be a little embarrassing at times in interpreting the play as the tragedy of Antigone. Our final picture, after all is of Creon, the tragic figure who has lost his family through his own actions. But if I had to I would argue that both before and after Antigone's departure, her actions are more important to the tragic outcome. If you like, she acts and Creon reacts to what she has done. The balance is 60/40 in favour of Antigone. But it is also important not to oversimplify her opponent. Everybody talks about Antigone. That is why I have chosen to talk a little bit about Creon. Starting with his good qualities, I would like to pick out a couple. The first you can see in his first speech, when he comes in just after the chorus' entry. The good qualities that Creon has come across very strongly. The introductory section shows his piety towards the gods, his respect for the elders, the chorus of the play, and also his justification of his own position, making it clear to the audience and the people of the city that he is not just a usurper who has taken over after the previous king Oedipus has died. He is genuinely entitled to be there. He addresses his counsellors, recognising the role of the gods from the start, and his respect for the chorus: "The gods have battered us with crashing waves, and now they've brought our city back upon an even keel. And you I sent you messages alone of all the rest, and called you here. I know well you were always loyal to King Laius' regime. "

Then towards the end of that introduction, when he has talked of Oedipus and his wise rule: "I hold the throne and I have total power, as 1, I was their closest relative, and they are dead." He has justified his position and shown some of his good qualities in the introduction. Then in the first main section of his speech he sets out some of the principles of his rule. These principles are such things as openness, placing the common good before the interests of the individual. This is connected with incorruptibility. He is not going to make rules for the state which will not apply to himself and his own family. Then towards the end of that main section he also expresses his faith in the state in language which is very reminiscent of the Periclean vision of Athens that is familiar to us from Thucydides: "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 1 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 1 ever count a man my friend who was not loyal to the land. " And then, the Periclean summary of his view of statehood: "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 words which would fit very well into contemporary democratic Athens. He then makes his decree about the burial of Eteocles and the nonburial of Polyneices, and the decree is linked to these principles. The defender of the state, which is the most important thing, is to be honoured with a decent burial: Eteocles, who died in battle, fighting to protect his city, shining in his military might, he shall be buried with full honours, which accompany the noble dead below. "But his brother, Polyneices, who came back, an exile, wishing, as he did, to waste with fire right to the very roots his fathers' land, yes, and the sacred shrines, too, of his fathers, wishing as he did to glut himself on blood he shared, and if there were survivors, lead them off to slavery it is my express order, published for the state, that noone must perform for him the rites of funeral, nor raise the wails of ritual lament, but let him stay unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to feast on, a mangled, bloody thing, and all might see him. " The treacherous and impious Polyneices, who has gone against the state and the gods, who stands for everything that Creon does not stand for, is to be cast out unburied. This is a speech that repays a lot of close study. It ends with a brief restatement of the general principles on which his decree is based: "This is my policy, and I shall never suffer criminals to be held in honour higher than the good. But if a man is loyal to this our city, alive or dead alike, then I shall honour him. " What we have here, from the first time we see Creon, is a sincere manifesto of good government.

The second passage that I would like to look at is the trial of Antigone. What we see here is Creon's fairness. He still adheres to his earlier principles of good government. The first thing he does in this trial is to confirm with Antigone that the guard's account of the burial is true: "You! I can see you hang your head. Do you admit you did it, or deny it?" He does not just take the guard's word for it. He confirms with the suspect that the account is true, and Antigone duly confirms that it is. "I admit it. I do not deny it." Then, he dismisses the guard about whom he had previously been suspicious. Now he accepts his innocence. "You! You can go now. Go wherever you want. You're free now of this heavy charge." Sophocles didn't need to include this. The dismissal of a guard even though he was suspected before could easily be taken for granted. Sophocles is making a specific point here, that Creon is showing his fairness. Then Creon proceeds to take account of Antigone's possible ignorance of the decree, the implication being that if she was ignorant of the decree this would be a mitigating circumstance and she should not be condemned: "But you, tell me briefly and concisely, Did you know of the edict which forbade this?" Antigone does not let Creon off so easily: "I knew. How could I not know? Everybody knew." But Creon is asking the right questions. He is conducting this trial along fair principles. Finally, when Antigone admits that she did know about the decree, he gives her the opportunity to explain what she has done. "And yet you dared to set yourself above the law?", he asks. This is a cue for Antigone to deliver a *speech of about 15 lines, so she is allowed to explain what she has done. In her explanation she even more gives Creon no escape from what awaits him, the consequences of his decree. She tells him that he has acted against the gods, therefore she has disobeyed him, and Creon is a fool. She is not a person who bears fools gladly. A little aftermath to this comes along considerably later. After the Haemon scene, Creon is talking about Ismene and Antigone both being punished, but here he recognises the innocence of Ismene and excuses her. The chorus asks him, "So you intend to execute them both?" "No," says Creon, "Not the one who's not involved." He has recognised that Ismene was innocent and again is showing fairness towards her. The upshot of that (whether we should draw this conclusion or not I am not sure, but it does seem to be a legitimate conclusion to draw) is that Creon is actually a fairer judge of Ismene than Antigone is. Finally, he changes the nature of the death sentence. Originally it was to be death by stoning. He can't change the actual sentence. That would be showing favour to a member of his family, and does not feel that he can do that. But he changes the nature of the sentence to the less violent one of shutting her up in her tomb, even entertaining the notion I think sincerely that she might escape from death, and of course this would happen if the events at the end of the play were timed rather differently. "I'll take her on a lonely road where no man goes, and I shall wall her up, while she still lives, there, in a cavern in the rocks, with food, as much as is required to make it proper, so that the city might escape pollution. And there she can pray to Hades, the one god she reveres, that he might grant that she might live, or know at last just what a strange and heavy task it is to honour those in Hades. "

He does not really expect that she is going to be released from death, but the possibility is left open, and if the timing turned out differently at the ending of the play she could indeed escape death. Even Creon's decree, although it turns out to be wrong in the end, is understandable, and he is not to be condemned in making it. Others apply nonburial to their enemies, and examples include Achilles in the Iliad who tries to maltreat the corpse of Hector and appears to have no intention of giving it up for burial. Another instance is Sophocles' Ajax, where at the end of the play Menelaus and Agamemnon try to stop Ajax from being buried. In all these other cases of nonburial, those insisting on the nonburial are ultimately either forced or persuaded to relent. At the end of this play, Creon will admit his own folly. It is not entirely clear what he is admitting to, but part of the folly surely must include the folly of the original decree. As far as the understandableness of the decree is concerned, one can put forward three arguments. First of all, Polyneices, the victim of the decree, unlike Hector or Ajax, has no redeeming features whatsoever. He is a clear traitor to his city, and he could therefore legitimately be buried outside the city. All Creon has done is go one stage further than that and deny him burial at all. The second mitigating factor is the background to it. You see that in the joyful opening ode that the chorus sings, showing their relief at the delivery of the city, and the sense of justice that has been inflicted on the enemy who threatened them: "Shafts of bright sunrise, you, more beautiful by far than any which before bathed Thebai of the seven gates, you eye that opens to the golden day, you blazed then, rising high above the Dirce's streams, and saw the men, white shielded, who had come from Argos, and their armour and their bridles glittered as they ran routed home in headlong flight... For Zeus detests the boasts of men, loudmouthed, and when he saw them pouring down in mighty torrent, in their great arrogance exalting in their clashing gold, he struck the Argive with the lightning flash , he wielded in his hand, then as he scaled the walls of Thebes, already raising high the shout of victory. " So Creon's decree suits the mood of the city at the time, and it is noticeable that after the chorus have heard it, they accept the decree with no argument and no warning whatsoever: "Son of Menoeceus, Creon, such is your pleasure in respect to both our city's enemy and its protector. You have the power to use the full force of the law against the dead and us, who live." This is admittedly a rather neutral statement, but the chorus could not be signing up to the decree in the terms in which Creon has put it forward, as it will be proved wrong in the end. But this neutral statement of acceptance shows that the chorus, representing the city, see that there is nothing exceptionable in the decree. The third mitigating factor is that it is not normal to be punished for such decrees. Achilles is not particularly punished for his treatment of Hector. He loses our respect for a while and maybe his heroic status, but he is not punished in any serious way as Creon is. Equally, Agamemnon and Menelaus in Ajax may look rather bad, but they too are not punished. Odysseus persuades them in time that Ajax should be buried. Even here, Creon is given a second chance. This is an interesting feature that sometimes comes up it tragedy. It is very common for a tragic hero to get a second chance. The gods don't just zap you right away. They give you

a second chance and then they zap you if you don't take it. Creon gets a second chance when the gods send Teiresias with the warning that there is pollution besetting the city. But although the decree is pardonable and should not really be held seriously against Creon, wrong though it is, there are other more worrying follies that appear early on in the play. This is where Creon goes wrong. The first one comes in the first of the scenes with the guard, who comes in to announce that the body has been buried. After his announcement, the chorus express a slight doubt about what Creon has done and say: "Sir! I have been wondering for some time, debating hard this matter in my mind. I wonder, could this be the work of gods?" Creon then attacks the chorus and makes some unjustifiable assumptions about the attitude to the gods, which contrasts with what he has said earlier when he was so complimentary to the chorus and pious to the gods. Here he makes assumptions about the gods, which is always a dangerous thing to do: "Stop! before your words have made me brim and boil with anger, before you are yourself found witless, senile. For if you say the gods show some concern about this corpse, you're say what cannot be endured! Do you think they've covered him because they honour his good deeds, who came here meaning utterly to devastate with fire the temples with their colonnades, the shrines, the offerings, the very land that's sacred to the gods, meaning when he came to blast apart the very laws and fabric of the state? Or do you think gods honour criminals? No, no: it cannot be. " He also in this scene begins to indulge a little obsession of his with bribery and corruption. What was originally a good quality that he is going to run an uncorrupt city and not favour his own family over anyone else, and not be interested in profit over good government these good qualities begin now to get overdone: "I have sure knowledge that it was by them these guards were bribed and led astray to do these things. There is no evil burgeons among men like money. For money can sack cities and can drive men from their homes. It can indoctrinate, seduce a good man's mind, and turn him so he sets his face to wickedness. It shows men how to be promiscuous in crime, and how to find the worst, most base potential in all that they can do. But now, these mercenaries, whoever they may be who've done this thing, have seen to it that, soon or late, they'll meet with justice." This obsession of Creon's with gain and money is something which keeps coming up as a theme throughout the play. He actually suspects and threatens the obviously innocent guard and, against the simple honesty of the guard, it is Creon who is beginning to resemble the tyrant figure that he is often described as being. He says to the guard at the end of the speech: "You'll all hang alive, suspended, showing to the world your impious crimes, that you might know in future, when you grasp for gain, just what that gain might be, and learn to be discerning where you look for profit. And you, you'll see that grubbing, grasping and ignoring decency sees more men end in suffering than redemption. " He is very much obsessed with the idea of bribery, corruption, profit and people taking money to thwart him.

His second obsession appears later in the play in his argument with Antigone. This is his reluctance to give in to women. What he says here is that he will yield up his manliness to Antigone if she gets away with her crime. The point then goes on to feature in much of the rest of the play, notably in the Haemon scene: "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. Of course, it is in that scene that other aspects of Creon's tyranny also reach their peak. We have seen before how he seems to be a rather democratic ruler, but he loses that quality here too. Haemon says the city of Thebes disagrees with Creon. Creon replies: "So, does the city now desire that it dictate to me what I should do?" Haemon accuses him of being rather childish in saying that, to which Creon responds that he is king and responsible only to himself. This too is rather different from the Periclean vision of good government that he was putting forward earlier. To go back to the women theme, one of his obsessions, the basic point that he is making would have been acceptable enough to a Greek audience although it strikes us as rather odd today. Antigone might argue from her point of view that Creon's decision is a domestic one in which case the role of women might be rather different, but for a political decision, the Greek audience would agree that this was not the province of women. It is something rather similar to this that Ismene puts in a rather reasonable way to Antigone near the beginning of the play: "But you you must remember first that we are women and that we must not fight with men; and then that we are ruled by those who are much stronger than we are, and that we then must listen to them in these matters and in matters yet more grievous. " It is at that point that Ismene is actually putting forward the reasonable argument and Antigone is beginning to seem unreasonable. But as with the bribery and corruption theme, Creon takes this basically reasonable argument too far. It is the theme of "too much" again. The Greeks do not like excess. Tragedy comes from excess. Success in life comes from steering the middle way. Creon takes his arguments too far and turns them into obsession, and that is the mark of tragedy. But everything that we have seen wrong with Creon so far do not condemn him to the fate that he ultimately suffers. What we have seen so far are simply symptoms of the big error, the Aristotelian term for what creates the tragic hero, which place it when it comes in context and show that it is not just an isolated thing, something that Creon is doing out of character. The real turning point of the play as far as this is concerned, and it is a turning point for Antigone as well as Creon, is the Teiresias scene towards the end of the play at its climax. Teiresias plays a similar role in Oedipus, but there the argument between Teiresias and Oedipus comes right at the beginning of the series. As far as Antigone is concerned, Teiresias shows that the gods have been taking care of Creon's decree, his pardonable error, right from the start in their own way and that Antigone's intervention in the matter has been useless and needless. The gods don't need Antigone to tell Creon who to bury or to ensure that the body is buried. They will take care of it. It is interesting, too, that the Teiresias scene comes immediately after the Antigonedeparture scene. It is almost as if Antigone goes off to be put in her tomb, and in comes Teiresias to put the matter right.

Antigone has wasted her time in all of this. She has got herself killed, got all sorts of other people killed, but the gods take care of what they need to take care of. But we have no time to examine Antigone in any great detail and must return to Creon. As far as Creon is concerned, Teiresias is the second chance he has been given by the gods, the second chance he fails to take; and he will not get a third after it. The scene actually begins well for Creon, because he acknowledges Teiresias' past services. Creon: Teiresias Creon: Teiresias Creon: What is your news, Teiresias, most reverend? I shall tell you, and you must trust my divination. I've never shunned your prophecies before. And so you piloted your city straight. I testify indeed that I've experienced the benefits of heeding you.

We are reminded here of Creon's earlier piety towards the gods, and it raises our hopes that Creon can be saves, even at this stage, that Teiresias is such a respected figure that Creon will see the light. But of course, this being tragedy, it will not happen. Creon is now beyond good advice, by contrast with his manifesto speech, and, after Teiresias has explained to him what the problem is, he picks up Teiresias' very innocent closing reference to profit: "I'm thinking of your good. I'm speaking for your good. It is the best thing in the world to learn from one who speaks for good, especially if what he says brings profit too. " Creon picks this up to indulge once again his obsession with bribery: "Prophets by profession all love money." And then: Creon: Speak out! Only, don't let your words be prompted by the hope of gain. Teiresias: As far as you're concerned, there's no gain to be had. Creon: Know that you cannot barter with my resolution. Again the metaphors are of selling and profit, which is the way in which Creon sees the world. Creon's attack on this revered representative of the gods and on his art which brings him close to the gods is in itself close to hubris, insult towards the gods. The point of this argument, which brings irony into the situation, is that it wastes time, the time in which Antigone could be saved. The gods have warned Creon in time, but only just in time. No delay is possible. There is a final irony in the order of events that take place after that. When Teiresias has departed and Creon at last sees the threat which hangs over himself and his family, he goes off to bury Polyneices first as being the source of the pollution. In a way that is probably the right thing to do, because that is primarily what Teiresias has come about. There is pollution hanging over the city, and in order to get rid of it, the body must be buried. So he buries the body first in spite of Teiresias' further hint when he mentions Antigone first: "You will not live for many days through many of the sun's swift circuits, before you give one of your sons, begotten of your very loins, a dead man, given as a payment for the dead. For you have sent one living down beneath the earth, imprisoned her lifespirit plunged in shame

there in the tomb; and you confine on earth a corpse, claimed by the gods beneath the earth, kept him from their communion, without the honours that you owe him, sacrilegious. " When the chorus pick this up afterwards, now Creon is prepared at last to take their advice, they say: "Go, free the girl out of her prison in the rocks, and bury the corpse." Again the order is the same. Even at this stage it appears possible for Creon to get it right if he goes immediately to the tomb and releases Antigone. But perhaps he thinks that he is appeasing the gods by dealing with Polyneices first. I suspect, however, that the gods have already passed the limits of their patience and Creon is doomed.

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