Essay on Haemon in 'Antigone'

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In Sophocles’ Antigone, the two characters of Creon and Antigone represent unreflective and polarising moments of Greek life, highlighting the conflict and divide between male and female, and “polis” and “Oikos”.

Throughout the drama, Creon displays a near-existential fear of female transgression. He first introduces the theme of a male-female conflict when he says.

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Indeed, now I am no man, but she is a man if she is to enjoy such power as this with impunity.

By debating in the “polis” with Creon, Antigone has transgressed the conventional Ancient Greek framework for female behavior, laid out early in the drama by her sister Ismene.

Why, we must remember that we are women, who cannot fight against men, and then that we are ruled by those whose power is greater, so that we must consent to this and other things even more painful!

It is this transgression that affirms the existence of the conflict between male and female, a dichotomy that is continuously engendered by Creon, who even calls his son Haemon.

Contemptible character, inferior to a woman!

Sophocles not only presents a conflicting dynamic, then, but also a conflict of unbalanced power between men and women. Ismene’s statement above points to the inferior position of women in Theban society and the gendered assumptions that informed civil obedience, whilst Creon insists not to be thought of as weaker than a woman.

If we must perish, it is better to do so by the hand of a man, and then we cannot be called inferior to women.

This reveals a Theban male superiority complex, one which aligns masculinity with strength and dominance, and femininity with weakness and subordination, in clear conflict with each other. Even the Chorus of Theban elders, assumed to hold a neutral perspective, to advise Creon on matters of society, consists entirely of old Theban men, excluding female perspectives from the political arena.

Creon enforces this gender ideology so rigidly that he forcibly interprets Haemon’s, Antigone’s, and Ismene’s actions within an ancient gendered lens. His tyranny has undermined even the ability of Haemon to act outside the bounds of his regime. For example, Creon uses gender-based insults to progressively relegate Haemon to a feminine inferiority. First, Creon criticizes Haemon for being “on the woman’s side”.

This man, it seems, is fighting on the woman’s side.

Furthermore, he additionally insults him for being a “woman’s slave”.

Slave of a woman that you are, do not try to cajole me!

With each subsequent barb, Creon further associates Haemon with subordination and weakness. This seems ironic, given that Haemon is acting courageously in standing up to his father and refusing Creon’s subjection, thus suggesting that Creon persists in viewing events through a gendered lens, despite contradictory evidence. Furthermore, Creon evokes the gendered nature of gossip to accuse Haemon’s mind of having been poisoned or corrupted by Antigone, whom he accuses of being sick with disease.

Is not she afflicted with this malady?

Underlying Creon’s accusation lurks the traditional association of femininity with verbal persuasion and trickery, as when Creon accuses Ismene of being a viper.

You, whom I never noticed as like a viper hiding in the house sucked my blood

Such animalistic imagery aligns femininity with nature and even barbarity, or the absence of civilization, as in Euripdes’ Medea. Thus, Creon’s treatment of Haemon, Antigone, and Ismene further reveals the essentialist gender notions which inform his judgments, and the male vs female conflict that Sophocles positions as a central theme.

The second theme central to the tragedy—the second set of values which the two protagonists represent—is the conflict between the “polis” and “oikos”, the city-state and its man-made laws, and the customs, duties, and divine laws of the family and household.

Creon, on the one hand, advocates a relentless duty to the “polis”. The ruler of Thebes, he has succeeded the throne from his nephews, Polynices and Eteocles, who killed each other in a dispute over who would succeed Oedipus on the throne since we two were robbed of two brothers, who perished on one day each at the other’s hand.

Importantly, it is clear from the beginning that the Theban chorus recognizes Creon as the legitimate ruler of the city.

But here comes the new king of the land, . . . Creon, under the new conditions given by the gods

As the new king, Creon finds Thebes in disarray, shaken by the disasters that have fallen upon the city and its ruling house—from Laius’s death, the ensuing plague, Oedipus’ incestuous marriage and tragic downfall to the shared demise of Eteocles and Polynices except for the unhappy two, who sprung of one father and one mother, set their strong spears against each other and both shared a common death.

In his speech as he enters the stage, Creon presents himself as the champion of a civilized order, a “polis”, which protects its subjects against the imminent dangers of nature. Steering the “vessel of the state” to safer waters, Creon demands absolute priority of the common good above private interests; only in that way will the “polis” withstand the troubles which constantly threaten to overthrow it. Additionally, he is aware that life can only prosper in a prosperous city, saying that this is the ship that preserves us and that this is the ship on which we sail and only while she prospers can we make our friends.

As the city’s king, Creon decrees that Eteocles, who died fighting for the city, be entombed and crowned with every rite. About Polynices, however, he proclaims that none shall conceal it in a grave or lament for it, but that they should leave it unwept for, unburied, a rich treasure house for birds as they look out for food.

Such is Creon’s way of thinking, that reason requires him to govern the city in disregard of, and conflict with the very “oikos” which first led him to the throne. As the city’s ruler, Creon forfeits loyalty to his friends and family—that is, his “oikos”— in favor of the public order, thus, perhaps, avoiding suspicions of partiality and nepotism. As he proudly proclaims: “Never, by deed of mine, shall the wicked stand in honor before the just”, whether they are close to him or not. He will punish whomever, regardless of familial tie, takes up arms against his city—such as his nephew Polynices

But his brother, I mean Polynices, who came back from exile meaning to burn to the ground his native city and the gods of his race and meaning to drink the people’s blood and to enslave its people

Antigone, on the other hand, displays an enduring concern for her “oikos” in the tragedy. It is the divine, duty-bound custom of families that tells her that she must bury her brother. Together with a belief in life after death, this sense of duty is so strong that she cannot live with herself when confronted with the concept of her unburied brother—the necessity to bury the dead is immediately obvious to her, and it seems that she finds it disgusting and crippling to leave her brother’s corpse exposed. but I shall bury him! It is honorable for me to do this and die. I am his own and I shall lie with him who is my own, having committed a holy crime

Notably, she considers the crime of burying her brother as “ὅσια πανουργήσασ”, which reveals her commitment to family and divinity and validates her decision. Indeed, Antigone’s idea of responsibility to the “Oikos” dictates that she is willing to face the consequences of her actions, as she tells Ismene.

I shall suffer nothing so dire that my death will not be one of honor.

The conflict between the “polis” and “oikos” is highlighted by Creon’s failure to reconcile political duty with familial obligation. While he may appear to be a wrong-headed tyrant who does not heed advice from Teiresias and Haemon, it is also his casting aside of the ritual observance of the divine laws about burials that culminate in the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice. Creon’s awareness of this shortfall comes too late as he laments.

Lead me out of the way, useless man that I am, who killed you, my son, not by my own will, and you here too, ah, miserable one

Throughout Sophocles’ Antigone the dichotomy between male and female, “polis” and “oikos” is evident as a central theme. The eponymous heroine possesses an air of masculinity when she confronts Creon at a time when women were silenced in public discourse, excluded from political institutions, and remained under male guardianship. Moreover, she repudiates her assigned gender role when she performs the funeral rites for her brother, both in the absence of a suitable male figure and, more importantly, in clear defiance of Creon’s mandate.

As Edith Hall points out, patriarchal cultures often use symbolic females to help them imagine abstractions and think about their social order. Women were regarded as lacking moral autonomy and Athenian men were obsessed with what happened behind their backs, thus all transgressive women in tragedy are temporarily or permanently husbandless, as is the case with Antigone. The fact that Antigone is not bound by male relatives marks her as potentially dangerous but her actions (or outrageousness) are arguably more poignant when juxtaposed against Creon’s typical male attitude and the male-dominated “polis” that he inhabits and perpetuates. This contention between male and female, “polis” and “oikos” concludes in disaster, and, ultimately, Antigone gains glory in the only way she can, as the chorus affirms.

Is it not with glory and with praise that you depart to this cavern of the dead?

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