The Nature of the Conflict in Antigone
In “Sophocles’ Praise of Man and the Conflicts of the Antigone,” Charles Paul Segal explains the nature of the conflict between Antigone and Creon:
The conflict between Creon and Antigone has its starting point in the problems of law and justice. At any rate, the difference is most explicitly formulated in these terms in Antigone’s great speech on the divine laws. . . . Against the limited and relative “decrees” of men she sets the eternal laws of Zeus, the “unwritten laws of the gods.” She couples her assertion of these absolute “laws” with her own resolute acceptance of death (460) (64).
In Antigone the protagonist, is humble and pious before the gods and would not tempt the gods by leaving the corpse of her brother unburied. She is not humble before her uncle, Creon, because she prioritizes the laws of the gods higher than those of men; and because she feels closer to her brother, Polynices, than she does to her uncle. The drama begins with Antigone inviting Ismene outside the palace doors to tell her privately: “What, hath not Creon destined our brothers, the one to honoured burial, the other to unburied shame?” Antigone’s offer to Ismene (“Wilt thou aid this hand to lift the dead?) is quickly rejected, so that Antigone must bury Polynices by herself. The protagonist, Antigone, is quickly developing into a rounded character, while Ismene interacts with her as a foil, demurring in the face of Creon’s threat of stoning to death as punishment for violators of his decree regarding Polynices. The main conflict thusfar observed is that which the reader sees taking shape between Antigone and the king.
Antigone is a religious person who is not afraid of death, and who respects the laws of the gods more than those of men:
Nay, be what thou wilt; but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing that. I
shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide for ever. But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have established in honour.
Ismene is unmoved by the reasoning and sentiments of her sister: “I do them no dishonour; but to defy the State,-I have no strength for that.” Her conflict with her sister over the unlawful interment is not a serious conflict for either of the sisters. Ismene, in parting, accuses Antigone of foolishness in her bold plans: “Go, then, if thou must; and of this be sure,-that though thine errand is foolish, to thy dear ones thou art truly dear.” Ismene, one might say, is “humble and pious” to the king first and to the gods secondly.
Creon is introduced into the drama, the antithesis of humility and piety; he replaces Eteocles as ruler in Thebes: “I now possess the throne and all its powers, by nearness of kinship to the dead.” Creon explains to the elderly Thebans of the chorus the rationale behind the new edict...