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In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon, the King of Thebes, is entrusted to care for Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of the deceased Theban King Oedipus. However, Creon and the strong-willed Antigone clash on the issue of the burial of Antigone and Ismene’s brother Polyneices. Polyneices and Eteocles, another brother, died in the battle that ensued when Polyneices invaded Thebes and his brother’s ruling party. Because Eteocles’ side won, and because Polyneices was the exiled invader, Eteocles was to be given a hero’s funeral while Polyneices was ordered to be abandoned in the open for the birds and insects to eat his corpse. Creon fully agrees with this assessment, because it aligns with the nomos, or the government’s law, but Antigone despairs over the injustice of it-in her view, everyone should be given a proper burial, according to the physis, or natural law. This conflict between Creon and Antigone, and the narrating Chorus’ opinions of both sides, is at the center of the events in the play. Sophocles makes use of contrasting light and dark imagery to portray the Chorus’ perception of not only the play’s characters and events but of the conflicting laws of nature and government that they represent as well.
At the beginning of the play, the Chorus stands in favor of Creon and his representation of nomos; therefore, descriptions of Creon and his brand of justice are bathed in sun and light. Even Creon himself invokes an image of light as he justifies his ruling, saying, “I would not count any enemy of my country as a friend-because of what I know, that she it is which gives us our security. If she sails upright and we sail on her, friends will be ours for the making. In the light of rules like these, I will make her greater still” (202-210). Since, in his view, Polyneices is an enemy of Thebes, he should not be dignified as an ally, such as Eteocles, should. The Chorus reacts very favorably to Creon’s reasoning, as shown in their first ode peppered with light imagery:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none/more wonderful than man; the storm gray sea/Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;/Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven/With shining furrows where his plows have gone/Year after year, the timeless labor of stallions (368-376).
When the Chorus mentions the “shining furrows where his plows have gone,” they are referencing the marks that Creon’s nomos has left on Thebes-obviously positive ones, because his rulings are called “shining” on a “holy and inexhaustible” earth.
Eteocles, as well, is heavily favored by the Chorus and the gods; since he led his army to victory over the invader Polyneices-and this positive opinion is again communicated by light imagery. Eteocles’ victory is described in literally glowing terms when the Chorus declares,
Sun’s beam, fairest of all/that ever till now shown/on seven-gated Thebes;/O golden eye of day, you shone/coming over Dirce’s stream;/You drove in headlong rout the whiteshielded man from Argos,/complete in arms;/his bits rang sharper/under your urging (118-127).
Eteocles’ victory is a scene portrayed in a wash of golden sunlight, warm and welcoming and overwhelmingly positive. Through the use of this imagery, Sophocles conveys the Chorus’ perception that Eteocles, along with his supporter Creon, was their ambassador of light and their savior from the threatening Polyneices.
As the play progresses, the Chorus and the characters become unsure of which law should be followed-physis or nomos-so the light and dark imagery surrounding Creon and Antigone becomes increasingly scrambled. Haimon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancÃ©, supports his father at first, saying “You make things clear for me, and I obey you. No marriage means more to me than your continuing wisdom” (688-691). He goes on to mention, however, that “in the dark” he hears this rumor:
The city mourns for the girl; they think she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly… [she] would not leave her brother unburied…to meet his end by greedy dogs or by the bird that chanced that way. Surely what she merits is golden honor, isn’t it? That’s the dark rumor that spreads in secret (744-755).
This is not the first mention of Antigone’s kind motives-several scenes earlier, Ismene had remarked to her sister, “You have a warm heart for such chilly deeds” (102). It is only at this point, however, that Creon is hearing the complete argument and is first presented with the opportunity to change his mind. Instead of truly considering Haemon’s arguments, Creon elaborates on how he will punish Antigone. “I will bring her where the path is loneliest, and hide her alive in a rocky cavern there. I’ll give just enough of food as shall suffice for a bare expiation, that the city may avoid pollution” (840-843). He invokes images of darkness and pollution associated with Antigone by saying that he will close her up in a dark cave, “sealed like a tomb” (904) to keep her from polluting Thebes with her rebellion. Antigone herself laments at this ruling as she looks “…for the last time on this light of this sun-never again” (870-872). She asks, “What law of God have I broken?…for indeed because of piety I was called impious. If this proceeding is good in the gods’ eyes I shall know my sin, once I have suffered” (978-983). As shown by the changes in imagery, the other characters in the play are beginning to realize that perhaps Antigone does not represent darkness and that Creon is not necessarily the harbinger of light.
As Antigone and the Chorus lament, the blind prophet Teiresias enters; ironically, this man who lives in literal darkness is the one who will bring the light of the true divine law to the sighted, but unenlightened Creon. Teiresias condemns Creon’s decision to imprison Antigone in the cave, warning him that “…you will not outlive many cycles more of this swift sun before you give in exchange one of your own loins bred, a corpse for a corpse, for you have thrust one that belongs above below the earth, and bitterly dishonored a living soul by lodging her in the grave…” (1132-1138). He also implies that Creon’s ruling has thrown him out of favor with the gods by telling a parable of a sacrifice that the gods would not burn-“instead of bright flame…the entrails dissolved in gray smoke, the bare bone burst from the welter. And no blaze!” (1063-1065). The imagery of the light being snuffed out symbolizes that the light of Creon’s nomos has been snuffed out by his poor decision, and that now the gods are representing physis, the smoke that overtakes the flame. Antigone also believes that Creon’s punishment for her is harsh and unjust, telling him that “…all your words are bitter, and the very light of the sun is cold to me” (929-934). Indeed, Creon’s law has turned its cold, dark side to Antigone. He begins to realize, however, that perhaps his judgment is not completely sound and that to follow through on his actions could bring consequences. He admits, “My mind is all bewildered. To yield is terrible. But by opposition to destroy my very being with a self-destructive curse must also be reckoned in what is terrible” (1166-1171). The images of sun and darkness portrayed by Teiresias and Antigone convey the notion that, in the eyes of the people and the gods, Creon’s law may not be the most authoritative one after all.
Near the end of the play, Creon finally realizes that it is physis that ultimately dominates over nomos; thus, Antigone was correct and his beliefs were wrong. He insists, in fact, on freeing her himself, declaring that “…since my intention is so changed, as I bound her myself, myself will free her. I am afraid it may be best, in the end of life, to have kept the old accepted laws” (1189-1192). Antigone is now showered in images of light as the law she has been following is shown to be more favorable in the eyes of the gods, such as Zeus, who “…in a rain of gold poured love upon her” (1007). Creon is portrayed as a “blinded man”-that is, one whose sight is dark-and he calls his own laws “themselves rigid and laden with death…oh, the awful blindness of those plans of mine” (1340-1344). The curse of darkness has also fallen upon Creon’s family-when his wife Eurydice hears of their son Haemon’s suicide, she “suffers her darkening eyes to close” (1378) all the while cursing Creon. Upon learning of this, Creon wishes death upon himself as well, pleading, “Let it come, let it come! That I may never see one more day’s light!” (1403-1404). Creon, once regarded as a messenger of light and fairness to the Theban people, is now considered a dark curse, and the seemingly underhanded Antigone is now the ambassador of physis. The transformations in imagery from light to dark surrounding Creon mirror the changing opinions of the people towards the superiority of nomos over physis.
Creon’s journey, emphasized by the imagery of the Chorus’ descriptions, reveals that the natural law, or common law, is more powerful and enduring than artificial laws imposed on a country by its ruler. Though his law was initially portrayed in a flattering light, by the end of the play, even he himself had realized that no mortal man’s law can even approach, much less eclipse, the divine law. The light and dark images throughout the play emphasize the decline of nomos and the rise of physis at Creon’s expense. Sophocles communicates to his audience that interfering with the order of the gods is beyond the scope of mortal man-and the story of Antigone’s punishment and untimely death brings that to light.
Sophocles. Antigone. Second Edition. Ed. David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
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