King Creon, as monarch of Thebes, is perfect example of the autocratic power-player. Similarly to many other kings in literature, he is self-righteous, proud and somewhat blind to the true goings-on of his household, as well as those of his kingdom; unlike Shakespeare’s Claudius, for example, Creon cares deeply about the welfare of his state as he sees it as dependent upon his own way of living.
Creon is challenged by Antigone for his refusal to allow the burial of one of Antigone’s brothers; he believes that Polyneices is a traitor and thus deserves to be left to rot, and remain “unsepulchred, unwept.” Startlingly, this decision stems from no personal feud between himself and Polyneices; in fact, Creon considers it nothing less than his duty to ensure that his private life reflects the principles he embodies publicly.
Unlike her uncle, Antigone sets personal and moral allegiance over Theban politics and determinedly buries her brother in a haunting series of burial rites. Creon detests the tenacity of this act (as it is in direct contrast with his own ideas about obedience and authority) and thusly sets in motion a harrowing cycle of destruction. The audience will perceive him as the villain of the play, yet can also sympathise with his motives if not his methods; Creon’s troubled lineage is indeed likely to have had a seriously damaging effect on his psyche. Oedipus, Creon’s incestuous brother-in-law and also his nephew, is mentioned often in the play and cursed by Creon for his previous actions. One of Creon’s motivating forces is to escape from the sinful, anarchic reputation of Oedipus, and he does so by strictly following policies of simplicity with a desired outcome of banal satisfaction. The fervency of his desire to reshape the public opinion of the Theban monarchy leads him to extremes of behaviour, which results not only in the destruction of those around him but of himself.
The stereotypical autarchic desire to first acquire and then retain absolute power is, as one would expect, entirely corrupting. Creon’s obdurate belief that the letter of the law must be upheld, even at the cost of moral dignity, is a theme which Sophocles handles subtly, though he doesn’t shy away from the horrific consequences of Creon’s demands. As multiple bodies collect upon the stage Creon descends further into tyrannical madness, refusing to accept the idea that he can alter his righteous standpoint.
Though his intention was to purify the family name, Creon fails dismally and triggers a tragic sequence of events. He may have begun as a man experimenting with newfound authority and attempting to honour the course of justice, but by the end of the play he confesses himself to have lost everything, to have become “more crushed to nothing than the dead unborn.” The play ends with the chorus reflecting that Creon has finally attained wisdom, but the price he has payed is worth less than the attribute.
Words by Annabelle Fuller