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The Death of Antigone Author(s): Joseph S. Margon Source: California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 3 (1970), pp.

177-183 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25010605 Accessed: 11/08/2009 03:53
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JOSEPH S.MARGON

The Death of Antigone


Since Antigone's death is a fact of obvious importance to the meaning and outcome of Sophocles' play, it seems important to know whether Creon could have saved her if he had not chosen to bury Polyneices first.Yet scholars have shown surprisingly little concern for this question. A few believe her death could have been averted.1 Some think it inevitable no matter what Creon did first.2Most, however, have either neglected the problem or, by their silence, perhaps indicate a tacit agreement with Jebb, who believes that there is no way of ascertaining whether Antigone could have been saved.3 Scholars who think Creon capable of saving Antigone support their stand with nothing more than an outright assumption that he could have rescued her had he proceeded to the cave first.4 It is beyond question, of course, that Creon and his attendants spend considerable time in giving a full burial to Polyneices: they offer prayers,
1 C. Greene, Moira: Fate, Good, andEvil inGreekThought (NewYork and W. Evanston 1963) 92; 147. S. M. Adams, SophoclesthePlaywright (Toronto 1957) 57. Calder, "Sophokles' Political Tragedy, Antigone,"GRBS 9 (1968) 402. 2Linforth, "Antigone and Creon," Universityof California Publications in Classical Philology 15 (1961) 240. MacKay, "Antigone, Coriolanus, and Hegel," TAPA 93 (1962) 169. 3R. C. Jebb, Sophocles:The Plays and Fragments,"Antigone," Part III3 (Amsterdam 1962) xix. 4Greene claims (p. 92): "Antigone... could have been saved at the last minute but forCreon's misguided bungling." He adds (p. 147): "Even now Creon could save Antigone if he hastened to the tomb.... But in his new good intention Creon delays to perform the rites of Polyneices, and arrives at the tomb too late." Cf. Adams, 57; Calder, 402.

Joseph S. Margon wash what is left of the body, gather firewood, and finally, after burning Polyneices' remains, raise a burial mound (1198-1204). We do not know, however, exactly how much time these rites consumed, nor the precise moment when Antigone committed suicide. In her despair she may even have killed herself immediately upon being immured.5 Also, though Haemon is at the cave when Creon arrives, there is no way of estimating at what moment Haemon started for the cave, nor by how much his arrival preceded his father's, nor how longAntigone was dead when Haemon reached the cave. Clearly, these factors point to a lack of evidence for the assumption that Creon could have saved Antigone. Those who believe in the inevitability of Antigone's death also base their view on nothing more than an assumption that Creon could not have saved her even if he had gone to the cave first.6But the impossibility of establishing the time of Antigone's suicide likewise leaves this assumption without support. It would seem that this lack of factual evidence for either view must compel agreement with Jebb's claim that we cannot determine whether Antigone could have been rescued. Yet two pieces of dramatic evidence earlier in the play have not been brought to bear on this question; and they definitely suggest that Creon could not have saved Antigone, regardless of the sequence of his actions: Teiresias' warning (996) on appearing before Creon, and his prophecy of Haemon's death (1064-1067). The exegesis itself of verse 996 178
opvet pePfs a;t vv CrtlSpoV Vt)vxs

poses serious difficulties, for the words seem to intimate that if Creon will heed the seer's counsel, he still has the opportunity to avoid com mitting irreparable damage. Certainly, Creon and the Chorus put this interpretation on the warning. The animation and assurance with which he instructs his attendants for the burial of Polyneices and the freeing of Antigone (1108-1112) give no indication of his having any fear of failing to accomplish his two tasks successfully. The Chorus' song of joy and exultation in the fifth stasimon (1115-1154) shows no
5Cf. Linforth, 240. 6Linforth (p. 240) in stating that Antigone could probably not have been savedwrites: "The only mischance was that she acted too quickly, not that Creon acted too slowly."MacKay (p. 169) agrees with Linforth: "Sophocles gives us no reason to suppose that any haste on Creon's part would have sufficed to saveAntigone. Haemon had not waited,
and he came too late."

The Death of Antigone 179 misgivings that all will not end well. Yet the fact that Creon fails to save Antigone, despite his yielding to Teiresias, leads one to wonder if the warning really offered him the chance to setmatters right or if his failure had not already been determined even at the moment when Teiresias delivered the warning. If the latter, what, then, does the warning mean ? Ivan Linforth thinks that the opportunity Teiresias gave Creon in his warning ismerely the chance to improve his character or spirit: "If he will yield he will be a better man, saved from himself, though not from the consequences of what he has done."7 But does Creon become a "better man" at the moment when he yields to Teiresias' demands to bury Polyneices and free Antigone (1029-1030, 1068-1071) or only laterwhen he has been punished by the suicide of Haemon? Even when the seer threatens him with the prophecy that before long one born of Creon's loinswill die (1064-1067), Creon yields only with great reluctance:
-oXts /Lev, KapS&as 8' etlaCraUaL oitot' To Spav CavdyKj 8' ovlj 8vauJLaxre'ov.

(1105-1106)

As he leaves the stage he grudgingly admits:


8oEOLKa y&p FLr, TOVSS KaGeaTrasTas v6dOou

aptLarov j aovra

Trv

pflov TrEAEL. (1113-1114)

These words hardly disclose a contrite, repentant, or wiser Creon. He acts from expediency and necessity. Only on his return from the cave, bearing the body of his son, does he appear different: C(0OtL avoAfla fovAEvu&drwv. (1265) ELCtv
EaEavES, aTreAXv4GS,

ovs craaZla SvaflovAlazs. (1268-1269) ,EaZs

Eo tka&lv 8EAmosExw av 8C
7Linforth, 236.

(1271-1272) (1271-1272)

180

JosephS.Margon

He even assumes the blame for Eurydice's suicide:


Tra8 OV3K(CX wOICot pOt C / aTraO. ce -S E(&Sl apOoLrC& L VOT ( r07) EyL yap ' ua Ey EYKaVOV, Aov IS. d LE'AEos, flpo-r6v

EycO,f4t' Crvwov. (1317-1320) These expressions in Creon's kommos reveal genuine feelings of contri tion, repentance, and recognition of his folly. Thus Creon's own words suggest that he does not become a better man, as Linforth thinks, at the moment of his yielding to Teiresias, but only when he has been punished. Therefore the interpretation that Teiresias' warning merely offered Creon the chance to improve his character cannot be accepted. C. M. Bowra believes that the warning signifies the possi of Creon's still rescuing Antigone and that only Creon's initial bility obduracy is responsible for his failure.8 This interpretation seems to rest upon the supposition that in some way the gods had informed Teiresias that ifCreon yielded to him at once, Antigone could be saved, but if he opposed Teiresias, even for a short while, she would die. Bowra's view leaves much to be desired, inasmuch as it is entirely supposititious, requiring a supply of conjectures about the gods and Teiresias forwhich there is absolutely no evidence. The play, moreover, as we shall see, provides evidence to substantiate a different interpretation. The suicides of Haemon and Eurydice constitute Creon's punishment. Since he is punished so terribly, even though he yields to Teiresias, one may well ask, in pursuing themeaning of thewarning, to what greater extent he would have been penalized if he had not yielded. Death is no greater penalty, for in his kommos he expresses a longing for someone to strike him dead (1306-1311). He suffers as a father and a husband, and, by the conclusion of the play, the only thing he has salvaged is his position as ruler of the state. It is, therefore, in his role as king that one must look to understand thewarning and to see ifCreon has escaped additional disaster by obeying Teiresias. Teiresias comes to Creon in the interests of the welfare of the state with reference to its relationship to the gods. The fact that his first speech (998-1032) does not mention Antigone but only the sickness that Creon's refusal to bury Polyneices has brought upon the state (1015) indicates that this is his foremost concern. The nature of this
8C. M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford 1965) 108.

181 The Death of Antigone sickness is that birds and dogs, by tainting the altars and hearths with the flesh of Polyneices, have occluded the city's ability to communicate with the gods (1016-1022).9 If Creon had continued to refuse burial to Polyneices, the sickness would have persisted. Otherwise, why would Teiresias have bothered to come to Creon? Obeying Teiresias and burying Polyneices, Creon restores communion with the gods. There fore, the warning means that if Creon yields, he will escape the re sponsibility and guilt for the continuance of the state's sickness. To a man such as Creon, who has been so concerned for the welfare of the state, this indeed represents release from additional punishment. Since Teiresias' warning that Creon stands on the razor's edge of fortune (996) offers the choice of a better or worse fate only to Creon as ruler, at least the possibility exists that the punishment of the father by the death of the son had already been determined whether Creon obeyed Teiresias or not. It is, however, no more than a possibility, for to assert, from verse 996, the inevitability of Haemon's death would be to argue from silence. So far as Haemon is concerned, the warning neither affirms nor denies the certainty of his death. Teiresias makes the prophecy of Haemon's death (1064 when Creon's mounting insults (1045-1047, 1053, 1055, 1067) only 1059, 1061) have driven him to a peak of anger. Even though he retorts that Creon is to be punished with Haemon's death, because he has incarcerated Antigone and failed to bury Polyneices, in no sense does Teiresias deliver the prophecy in order to punish Creon.10 At this moment in the play Polyneices' burial and Antigone's fate are not the issues of their quarrel. The verses (1045-1063) immediately preceding the prophecy deal with Creon's attack on the honesty and veracity of the seer and Teiresias' defense of himself. It is in this context that he utters the prophecy, so that Creon will realize, when Haemon has died, that Teiresias is an honest seer and his predictions are accurate. Teiresias' prophecy clearly suggests the certainty of Hae mon's death no matter what Creon does. Frightened by these words, Creon relents and, misinterpreting the warning (996), still thinks he has the chance to save the entire situation (see p. 178 above). But the
9 See Jebb, ad 1044, for the effect of a tainted altar on communion with the gods. 10 It isnot within Teiresias' function as a seer to administer punishment but only to interpret thewill of the gods and see the hidden past and future. Cf. his role in Oedipis Rex. Cf. Linforth, 236.

Joseph S. Margon warning does not stand in contradiction to the prophecy and, without affirming or denying it, allows for the preordination ofHaemon's death. Since he is destined to die and his suicide comes only as a direct result of Antigone's,11 her death must also be inevitable whether Creon goes to the cave before or after burying Polyneices. Ascertaining the inevitability of Antigone's death would be an idle exercise unless it supported and contributed to themeaning of the play. If certainty or, for that matter, even the possibility existed that Creon could have saved her by going to the cave first, one could regard her as an innocent victim whose death sets off a chain of suicides that represent Creon's punishment. It is true that the innocent lives of Haemon and Eurydice are sacrificed to punish Creon. But isAntigone innocent or does the inevitability of her death denote that she has merited punishment? Though Antigone is proven right on religious grounds to have buried her brother, nowhere does the play assert that she is right to defy the state. The Chorus reverences her deed (872), but at the same time they disapprove of her defiance of Creon's edict (873-875). Teiresias, too, though he states that Creon iswrong to forbid Polyneices' burial and to bury Antigone alive (1069-1071), never condones her action. In fact, he disregards this aspect of the question entirely, making no mention of it.12 It is clear that the burial of Polyneices turns out to be the correct and expedient action for the state to take, but it is equally clear that if it had not been, Antigone would still have tried to bury her brother. Her concern is solely for the family and the precepts of religious faith.With regard to the polis she is completely apolitical.13 On the other hand, the Chorus says that it is for Creon to ordain for the living and the dead (210-214), and this statement, whether one likes it or not, represents the traditional view of the ruler's prerogatives in a tyranny. Accordingly, as the evidence offered by the play discloses, Creon's edict iswrong with respect to religion, but he is 182
11 During his quarrel with his father Haemon had said: i'
KaOl avova' oAeZ rva' (751), but the meaning of his "someone else" had not

otv OcaveTZra
been clear to

Creon who had misunderstood thewords as a son's threat against his father's life.Teiresias' prophecy of Haemon's death (1064-1067), however, had clarified the ambiguity, as Creon's apprehension indicates (1206-1230) when he hears cries of wailing on his approach to the cave inwhich Antigone is immured. Cf. Jebb, ad 751; Adams, 57. For further verification of themeaning of verse 751, cf. Antigone 763f. 12See Linforth, 256. 13 Bernard Knox, The Heroic Temper (Berkeley 1964) 114. Cf.

The Death of Antigone 183 within his political rights to issue such an edict;14 Antigone's motives for burying her brother are in agreement with the will of the gods, but her defiance of the edict is an unlawful act against the state.15 The inevitability of her death is in keeping with the play's attitude toward her transgression of the edict and, as evidence of her punishment, it opposes the view held by many scholars that Antigone is entirely in the right and Creon entirely in the wrong.16 University of California Santa Barbara

14Cf. Calder, 403. 15 Hegel saw Creon's and Antigone's actions in this light: "In the view of the Eternal Justice, both were wrong, because theywere one-sided; but at the same time both were right" (quoted in Jebb, xxi; the passage towhich Jebb refers may be found inG. W. Werke [Leipzig 1884] 13.56.). Hegel, Vorlesungen iiberdie Philosophieder Religion, Sdmtliche Schadewaldt, "Sophocles, Aias und Antigone," Neue Weg zurAntike 8 (1929) 93-97, concurs in the view thatAntigone is both right and wrong. Cf. G. M. Kirkwood, A Studyof Sophoclean Drama (Ithaca 1958) 53; Knox, 114-115. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to investigate the resolution of the theme of the individual versus the state, itwould be unfair to the play to imply that this theme is left totally unresolved. Its resolution depends upon the theme of tyranny, which as a form of government was, of course, anathema to the play's original audience. With an audience already so disposed, the play need not say much to discredit tyranny.Antigone's situation discredits it enough. Nevertheless, the play does openly denigrate tyranny in the quarrel between Haemon and Creon (733-739). One can conclude from the play's view of tyranny that under this form of government the individual has no rights, but under a democratic government Creon's voice alone would not have represented the state's will, and individuals of the same mind as Antigone (688-699, 733) would have shared in the expression of thatwill. Under such conditions it is quite possible thatAntigone would not have been punished so severely for defying the edict. 16 Jebb (pp. xxi-xxii) believes thatAntigone is totally right and Creon totally wrong, andmany scholars, even today, still hold to this opinion: Bowra, 66-67; D. W. Lucas, A The GreekTragic Poets2 (New York 1964) 139; Cedric Whitman, Sophocles: Studyof Heroic Humanism (CambridgeMass. 1951) 88-90; Albin Lesky, Greek Tragedy (London and New York 1965) 108; Max Pohlenz, Die Griechische Tragodie (Leipzig and Berlin 1930) 197; Gerhard Muller, Sophokles: Antigone (Heidelberg 1967) 11.