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The Analysis of the Conflicting Values in Antigone

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The story of “Antigone” begins after the death of Eteocles and Polynices, Antigone’s two brothers. Their father, Oedipus, had left the throne to Polynices, but Eteocles took the throne for himself and exiled his brother which resulted in a war that killed them both. Because Eteocles died as King of Thebes, Creon, their uncle and now the king, ordered for him to be buried but Polynices’s body was ordered to be left unburied because he was seen as a traitor. Creon was so serious about this that if anyone dared to disobey him they would be sentenced to death. In Greek culture being properly buried is seen as the only way to “enter the afterlife peacefully” ( Zink, 2014) so when Antigone hears this decree she is immediately outraged and compelled to action. The next series of events and its consequences exposes the tension between the “old” and “new” ways and results in a collision that was bound to end in tragedy.

Some time in Ancient Greece history there was a dark age that decreased the population drastically, resulting in people moving away from large settlements and into small communities consisting of their household and estate (Sakoulas, 2002-2019). During this time people created a new type of government system called the “Oikos”. The values and structure of the Oikos were quite simple, the men were considered the most important part of the family but the women ran the household and were in charge of things like weddings and funerals. In the Oikos loyalty to your family was very important and there was no notion of the public good but rather bringing honor and glory to your household.

Eventually, the Dark Ages of Greece ends and “formal political institutions [emerge]” (“Individual, Oikos & Polis”, n.d) because the governing style of the Oikos was no longer sufficient as tribal Greece developed into more of a city-state. The new social and political structure that emerged was called the “Polis” which did include some of the structure and values of the Oikos but there were still many differences. In the Polis, they developed civic law to preserve social order. Individuals were important for the whole system to work but were ultimately just subordinate parts and were required to put aside their personal needs and interests for the good of the whole community (Sheilds, 2007). In “Antigone”, Creon represents the values of Polis while Antigone represents the values of Oikos. Their conflict represents the chaos that is caused when these two distinct ideas are not properly integrated.

As stated earlier, when Antigone hears about Creon’s refusal to bury Polyneices she is outraged. When discussing the situation with her sister Ismene, Antigone asks her sister to join her in burying Polynices’s body anyways. Ismene refuses though, out of fear of Creon’s command that whoever disobeys him shall be killed. Antigone is angered by her sister’s response and storms off, banning her sister from joining in the glory of burying their brother. In this scene, we can get a clear look at Antigone’s personality. She is very defiant, outspoken, and passionate in her beliefs. Her actions are purely driven by her belief in the Oikos. To Antigone loyalty to her family is most important. She is not fazed by the fact that Polynices is seen as a traitor of the city but it is more important to her, that as his sister she maintains his honor in death. Another factor that contributes to her decision is the role that women play in burial rituals in the Oikos. One of the few responsibilities given to women in Ancient Greece was playing a major role in burial rituals. Burial rituals were such a sacred thing to the Greeks so of course, Antigone would feel compelled to perform them as one of the few remaining women in her Oikos.

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This part of the story also gives us a look into the personality and beliefs of Ismene who is more driven by the values of Polis. Just by reading Ismene’s response to Antigone’s preposition you can just tell that they are polar opposites. Ismene isn’t as rooted in the beliefs of the Oikos as Antigone is to justify risking her life to bury her brother. Ismene understands that there has been a shift in the structure of society and has adapted to that, realizing that as women they have no power in the polis, especially when going against the King. To avoid losing more of her family she just wants to give in to Creon’s law and obey. However, Antigone believes that the law of her gods reigns over the law of man.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Creon. Creon begins by giving his first speech as King of Thebes to the chorus and gives his decree forbidding the burial of Polyneices. His speech is interrupted however by the news that someone has broken his law and buried Polyneices. In Creon’s speech, we can see how much his actions are influenced by the values of the polis. As King, Creon decides who is and who isn’t allowed a proper burial based on their relationship to the city-state and not by their relationship to him. Because Polyneices was seen as a traitor to Thebes, Creon is compelled to deny him a burial. In the polis, preservation of the city-state is more important than any individual and whoever goes against this is to be punished which is a law Creon is trying to uphold.

Unfortunately, Creon and Antigone are too headstrong and set in their beliefs to come to a resolution, revealing that the melding of the old and new ways isn’t going to be harmonious as previously hoped. Because neither one of them was able to swallow their pride both of their fates end in tragedy. Creon loses his son and wife and is left alone in the world and Antigone loses her life. I believe, however, that both these tragedies could have been avoided but that would require each character to go against their beliefs.

Even though the courage and strong will of Antigone is often admired I do believe that if she was more docile like her sister Ismene and adapted to the structure of society at that time this whole situation wouldn’t have begun in the first place. But these distinct traits of Antigone is what makes her who she is so is she so it would be very difficult for her to change. Creon’s bad leadership and pride also played a major role in the escalation of the situation. For example, instead of staying calm and stoic in response to Antigone’s defiance Creon won’t let it go and vows to “break her stubbornness” not realizing that he is being just as stubborn. Creon is also unable to put the values of the Oikos into account to understand Antigone’s actions. If he would have just done that I believe that he would have been more understanding and merciful which ultimately wouldn’t set in motion the demise of his Oikos.

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