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Sophocles’ plays often deal with the specific struggle of a strong- willed individual against fate. In Antigone he depicts a resolute and heroic female protagonist, who pits her individual free will against the intractable forces of fate and against the irrational and unjust laws of tyrannical men, like Creon. Basically, the play centers on the conflict between the steadfast protagonist and an equally resolute antagonist.
Sophocles’ two main characters are placed in peculiar circumstances that force them to act the way they do. There are fatal consequences for themselves and others. Their very personalities seem to initiate the play’s central action, and a conflict of interests soon erupts between these two people of almost equal heroic stature. One is committed to serving the public, and the other is led by the demands of her conscience.
As the central conflict unfolds, Sophocles makes it known that both Creon’s and Antigone’s firm stances stem from the two great imperatives that underlie all political action: the needs of the individual versus the rights of the state. Creon is constrained to act the way he does for reasons of political expediency. He is a newly appointed ruler who has to rescue his people from the chaotic state of civil war and anarchy brought on by the bitter rivalry of Polynices and Eteocles. Creon is forced to formulate unpleasant laws so that political trouble-makers will think twice before attempting to start another revolt.
Yet Creon’s noble intentions in trying to bring stability back to Thebes ironically backfires on him. Antigone’s protest against Creon’s decree merely underscores the fundamental truth that conscience is very often above the law.
The action takes place in the period of uneasy calm following the civil war in Thebes. In this time of tentative peace, Creon’s new edict introduces a note of harsh repression and punitive malevolence. A mood of uncertainty prevails in Thebes. The Chorus reacts typically to the flux of public events in these disturbed times. At times, the singers of the Chorus express a kind of empathy for Antigone’s unhappy situation; there are other moments when they display silent sympathy for Creon.
As the great debate between the two central figures advances, the elements of foreboding and impending doom predominate in the atmosphere. Creon’s mounting rage is matched by Antigone’s willful obstinacy. Finally, as the catastrophe unfolds, a somber mood prevails as one tragic death follows another. From the pity and terror the audience feels at the deaths of Antigone, Haemon and Eurydice, it is moved at the play’s end to sympathize with Creon in his silent, solitary grief. The pathos of human suffering against the tragic backdrop of death leaves a final impression of catharsis, an emptying of all emotion after the catastrophic storm. As John Milton says at the close of his Samson Agonistes, the audience here experiences the same “calm of mind, all passions spent.”