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While it is likely that Oedipus Rex is the only character who completely embodies Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero, there are many characters who possess enough of his defined characteristics to qualify as the tragic hero of their respective drama. Creon, the King of Thebes in Sophocles’ Antigone, is one such character. A noble and relatively virtuous man who loses everything he has as a result of his excessive pride, Creon experiences a revelatory manifestation moments too late to undo his wrongdoing, thus making him the Aristotelian tragic hero of the drama.
As is required of an Aristotelian tragic hero, Creon is of high social status, for at the beginning of the play it is made known that he is the King of Thebes. In addition, Creon’s high moral character, as seen through his love for the state, the just decision to punish Polyneices, and his good leadership, further makes him worthy to possess the label of tragic hero. When speaking to the chorus, Creon states:
. . . if any[one] makes a friend of more account than his fatherland, that man has no place in my regard. For I . . . would not be silent if I saw ruin, instead of safety, coming to the citizens . . . remembering this, that our country is the ship that bears us safe, and that only while she prospers in our voyage can we make true friends. (86)
Creon believes that the state is of the utmost importance, and thus the fact that he would stop at nothing to protect his subjects shows that despite his actions, he has the best of intentions. Creon’s good nature is also seen in the manner in which he buries Eteocles, who “with due observance of right and custom he has laid in the earth, for his honor among the dead below” (82). The fact that he refuses to show Polyneices the same respect further testifies to his virtue, for he values the state above all else and thus would never “deem the country’s foes a friend to [him]self” (86). By refusing Polyneices an honorable burial, Creon is justly retaliating against the man who attacked his country. Furthermore, his subjects, including his son, Haemon, view him as a good leader. Haemon puts such faith in his father that in Creon’s “wisdom [he] trace[s] the rules which [he] shall follow” (96). Creon is a wise leader, and thus his son vows to follow the rules that he sees fit to set.
However, despite his inherently good nature, Creon possesses a tragic character flaw that leads to his downfall. Creon’s flaw comes in the form of an excessive amount of pride, as is seen in the manner in which he speaks to Ismene. When Antigone is sentenced to death and Ismene asks how she will live without her presence, Creon states: “Do not speak of her ‘presence’; she lives no more” (94). His reply is a definite indication of power, for he states that Antigone no longer lives, when in fact she is standing beside him; he believes to have the power over her life and death. Creon equates himself to the stature and power of the gods, who give and take life as they please. In addition, Creon refuses to listen to the wisdom of another, especially if it contradicts with his own views. When Haemon attempts to convince Creon to spare Antigone’s life with an argument deemed “wise” by the chorus, Creon responds by posing a question of condescending nature: “[are] men of my age . . . to be schooled by men of [your’s]?” (97). He is too egotistical and thus unwilling to learn something from the wisdom of another. Furthermore, throughout the course of the same conversation, Creon’s pride overtakes his justness, and Haemon rightly accuses his father of “offending against justice” (98). When Haemon reveals to Creon that the “Theban folk with one voice” disagree with the execution of Antigone, he replies arrogantly: “Shall Thebes prescribe to me how I must rule? . . . Am I to rule this land by other judgement that my own?” (98). He is appalled at the idea that anyone, especially those beneath him, can tell him how to rule his state. Creon’s excessive pride prevents him from gaining the realization that his judgement on the matter, despite its good intentions, is incorrect. While the fact that Creon punishes Polyneice can lead to him being seen as a virtuous man, the manner in which he punishes him largely contradicts this view of his character. Creon fails to see that when the state and the gods are in conflict, the gods must be obeyed, for they are of the highest authority. It is his excessive pride – his tragic flaw – that causes him to “dishonor . . . laws which the gods have established in honor” (84). Furthermore, Creon refuses to listen to the prophecies of Teiresias. Before Antigone is killed, Teiresias warns him that
. . . it is [his] counsel that has brought [the] sickness on [the] state. For the altars of [the] city and of [the people’s] hearths have been tainted one and all by birds and dogs with carrion from the hapless corpse, son of Oedipus. Therefore the gods no more accept prayer and sacrifice at [the people’s] hands. (103)
Creon is blatantly told that the gods have been angered because their laws were broken when Polyneices was denied an honorable burial. However, he refuses to acknowledge that his actions were wrong, and accuses of Teiresias of “cloth[ing] shameful thoughts in fair words for lucre’s sake” (104). His pride, and his belief that it is “dire to yield,” blinds him against rational thought. (105). At this point it is too late for Creon to save the state, for his arrogance, which led to errors in judgement, has already determined his bleak fate.
Even though it is too late to prevent his own downfall, Creon still experiences a revelatory manifestation. After Teiresias leaves him alone to contemplate the situation in light of his prophecy, Creon’s pride and arrogance retreats, and his just judgement surfaces. When the chorus states that Teiresias has “never been a false prophet to [the] city,” Creon realizes that what the man said must be true, and thus it is useless to challenge it: “by resistance to smite my pride with ruin – this… is a dire choice” (105). He is now able to admit that the laws of the gods are above his laws – the laws of the state – and that “it is best to keep the established laws [of the gods], even to life’s end” (106). His enlightenment is most noticeable when he blatantly admits his judgement was wrong and that his son died as a result:
“Woe is me for the wretched blindness of my counsels! Alas, my son, you have died in your youth, by a timeless doom, woe is me! Your spirit has fled not by your folly but by my own!” (109).
Creon now views himself as a man blinded by arrogance and excessive pride. He realizes that he has done wrong, and thus excepts his punishment, asking of the people to “lead [him] away,” for he is “a rash [and] foolish man” (110).
Due to Creon’s good intentions and innately good nature, one does not view him as a villain, but rather feels sympathetic toward him. His downfall is caused by a tragic character flaw – pride. It is this pride that has led to the death of his wife, his son, and of Antigone; it is this pride that causes him to lose his beloved country and to live a lonely life in which he is looked unfavorably upon by his own people. While at the end Creon recognizes the wrong in his judgement, it is too late to do anything about it. It is for these reasons that Creon is the Aristotelian tragic hero of Sophocles’ Antigone.
Sophocles. “Antigone.” Greek Drama. New York: Bantam Classics, 1982. pp 82-110.
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