Summary of Lines 241-525
This next section of the play brings Creon and Antigone into open conflict.
Creon urges the guard to quit stalling and tell his news. The guard informs Creon that the body of Polyneices has been given proper burial with all the rites. Creon asks what man did it, and the guard says he cannot tell because there was no sign of ax or digging. No wagon could be seen. The person left no trace. The body could not be seen because it was completely covered with dust, and no animals had touched it. The men blamed one another, but each was innocent. There was no clue. One of the guards said they must report the incident to Creon, and they drew lots. The one who tells the news says he was “the unlucky man” (line 275).
The Chorus remarks to Creon that it seems the hand of God can be seen here. The sacred rites have been performed despite human decree. Creon is angry at this comment, and says the gods don’t care about this dead body because Polyneices had come to burn the temples of Thebes. Creon sees the forbidden burial as rebellion against his authority and assumes someone did it for money. He threatens the guard that unless he finds and brings the culprit before him he will be tortured until he tells the truth. Creon assumes the guard has probably done it.
The guard tells Creon he has judged wrongly and “at random” (line 323). He says he will not be coming back and thanks the gods he is still alive. He quickly exits.
Creon leaves while the Chorus sings a hymn to the wonders of man. Humans can travel on the sea, hunt, sow crops, tame beasts. Through their inventions they become the lords of all. Speech especially is the measure of swift thought, and the cities show human resource. Only death is man’s foe, for even sickness can be cured. Human freedom brings man sometimes to evil, and sometimes to good. If man obeys the laws, he comes to good; but if he sins, such an impious man is not a welcome guest in any home.
The guard re-enters with Antigone. The Chorus is amazed to see the “unlucky daughter of an unlucky father” (line 379-380) as the culprit who defied the King’s decree. The King enters and the guard says he would not have come back but that he caught Antigone in the act of burying her brother’s body. The guard claims he is thus acquitted of the crime. He explains that the guards set a trap by clearing the dirt from the body and then hiding and watching it to see what would happen. In midday, suddenly there was a whirlwind from heaven that raised dust so they could not see. They had to shut their eyes, but when they opened them again, they saw Antigone near the body, crying out because her work had been undone. Again, she took dust and covered the body and with a bronze vase poured the funeral libation over her brother. The guard seized her but was sorry to bring a friend to ruin, though it will save his own reputation.
Creon questions Antigone if this story is the truth. She admits she broke his law. Creon says the guard is cleared of the crime. Creon asks Antigone if she knew the burial was forbidden. She says she did know, but it was not Zeus who made the decree. No decree of Creon’s can overrule the laws of heaven. She did what was right even if she has to die for it. Her own death will not cause her as much grief as seeing her brother lie unburied.
The Chorus comments that Antigone has her father’s fierce and defiant temper.
Creon says that a slave cannot have pride. Antigone has committed two crimes, the burial and boasting about it. He cannot allow a woman to defeat him. He will condemn Antigone, and Ismene too; Ismene must have had a part in it, for he saw her grieving in the palace.
Antigone continues to be defiant, telling him to go ahead and kill her; she will gain renown for burying her brother. Even the guards would agree, she says, except for their terror. Creon contradicts her, saying she is alone in her rebellion. Antigone again claims that others know she has done right to honor her brother, but they are afraid to show it. Creon merely responds to Antigone’s rebellion, instead of the issue she raises. He says, “While I am living, no woman shall have rule” (line 525).
Commentary on lines 241-525
Creon reveals himself in this section as a man who only understands worldly power. He thinks everyone can be corrupted by money, falsely accusing the guard of taking a bribe to bury the body. He holds his own power by threatening others, rather than through wisdom and moderation. Here he dangerously ignores the hints that the populace supports Antigone’s action. He can only respond to the idea of rebellion against his decree. He also is unimpressed by the religious consideration that a man, especially a kinsman, should have burial rites. Even enemies were allowed to bury the dead in normal circumstances. Creon’s decree is over the top, supposedly justified because Polyneices attacked his own family and his own city.
There is also the issue of Antigone’s being a woman. Creon gives that rather than a reasoned argument for not considering mercy. He will not be defeated by a woman, or told anything by a woman. Antigone’s defiance thus also carries a feminist message, for women were subject to the rule of men, and she claims Zeus is her sovereign, not a mortal man. It is dangerous and presumptuous for Creon to place his own rule against the rule of the gods, but he is provoked that a woman would appeal to authority over his own.
Creon pointedly refers to Antigone’s inferior position as a woman. Greek women had no separate status apart from the men of their family who protected them. Creon, who is the only male left in her family, her mother’s brother, ignores his religious duty both to his nephew, Polyneices, and to Antigone, his niece. He threatens to punish Ismene for the crime as well, though he has no proof of her guilt other than the fact that she is in mourning. The guards are fearful of Creon, for often slaves were punished for bringing bad news. Creon threatens to torture the guard (hanging him alive) until he gets the “truth” he suspects; namely, that the guard had taken a bribe. Creon is a bully, and one would call him “trigger happy” instead of calm and collected as a ruler should be. He makes rash decisions and then will not go back on them for fear of looking weak. He prophetically announces his own downfall by saying, “those that are most obstinate/ Suffer the greatest fall” (lines 473-74).
Antigone, though a woman, takes on heroic and leadership status in this scene. She defies the tyranny of Creon, and for this the Chorus likens her to her father Oedipus in his fierce temperament. They do not compliment her by likening her to her father, but refer rather to the tragic family fate. Though Creon only sees Antigone as rebellious, she gives a good reason for her actions. First, she brings up the point that no human may change the eternal laws of heaven which are “Unwritten and unchanging” (line 455). The burial rites are among those laws. Secondly, she allies herself to her brother, a dead male relative, rather than her uncle, the living male relative. She counts the loyalty to her brother greater, and more enduring, for they will be united in death in the underworld. She has the power to grant Polyneices peace in death, and honor among the dead, which was the greatest prize for a warrior. This enhances her fame and stature. Further, she elevates love over revenge by saying she loved both her brothers, and “Who knows? In death they may be reconciled” (line 521). Her final reason for not minding the punishment of death is that her life has been so full of misery that she thinks of death as a gain. She will be with her loved ones again, but without the misery, and with the knowledge that she has helped them.
The Chorus’s second ode, the famous “Ode to Man,” comes right after Creon has made a mistake in falsely accusing the guard of taking a bribe to bury the body. They sing of human glory in the interval while the guard is out catching the real criminal, as though to remind Creon and the audience of the alternative to mistakes and tragedy. It is still not too late for Creon to change his course. Their hymn points out the positive and negative sides of human life. This hymn was a famous statement of classical humanism that celebrated the human ability to shape the world. However, while human creativity can make cities and the language of poetry, human beings are still subject to death. Furthermore, they are subject to the law of the land, and to the laws of the gods. Those who are not righteous will find no shelter among the righteous, they conclude. The gist of the hymn is that though humans are limited by death and law; in other respects, they are the lords of life and can solve problems and find solutions. It is an optimistic statement that humans are largely responsible for their own fate.
The Chorus gives food for thought that reflects both forward and backward on the action. Their song comments on both Antigone’s situation and Creon’s. One has broken the law of the land (Antigone), and the other (Creon), divine law. Creon believes that he can be the arbiter of both divine and human law when he denies the statement of the Chorus that the gods have had a hand in the miraculous burial. He commits an act of hubris or pride in speaking for the gods by saying that they would not want to honor Polyneices. Antigone’s defense counters the Chorus’s Ode to Man by taking the side of the gods. She rejects human law when it comes into conflict with sacred duty.
Yet the point of the Ode to Man is that humans have free will to some extent, to make life glorious or miserable. Creon, in particular, comes under scrutiny because always he backs people into corners, instead of finding the optimal solution or the best way forward for his people. To set up the situation that one must choose between the law of the land and divine law, as Creon has done through his decree, guarantees some tragic outcome.