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The Watchmen and Creon
A watchman (guard) enters. He has come unwillingly to meet Creon. He curses his fate and tells Creon of his reluctance to come to the palace. The watchman keeps babbling until Creon demands that he express himself clearly. The watchman tells Creon that the corpse of Polynices has been given a burial by some unknown person, who had crept up to it, even though it was guarded by soldiers, during the night. The next morning, the watchman and his companions discovered that the body had been covered with a fine layer of dust, and that certain religious rites had been performed over it. The sentinels then fought amongst themselves and accused each other of committing the deed. There were no signs that any animals had disturbed the body during the night. The sentinels had decided to draw lots to select someone to inform King Creon about the burial. The watchman now speaking is the unlucky one who was chosen to bring the bad news.
The Chorus tells Creon that some divine power may be at work; it has caused Polynices to be buried without leaving a trace of human involvement. Creon admonishes the Chorus of elders, describing them as foolish old men. Once again, Creon asserts that Polynices was a destroyer and traitor who came to lay waste to the land of Thebes and its temples. Creon believes that the gods cannot honor such villainy. Creon angrily accuses the watchman of accepting a bribe from some “malcontents of Thebes” to bury Polynices’ body. He rants against the evil influence of money. Money, according to Creon, brings cities to their doom and turns honest men into thieves and villains. It has taught mankind to be wicked. Creon asserts that whoever has buried Polynices’ body will surely be punished, and he threatens the watchman with death, unless he (the watchman) can manage to bring to the court the person who has buried Polynices. The watchman vehemently denies having anything to do with the burial and tells Creon that he (Creon) has erred in his judgment. Creon orders the watchman to leave. The watchman predicts that he will never again be seen in Creon’s presence. He thanks heaven for his escape this time and exits.
In this scene, the plot of the tragedy truly begins to unfold. A major event has occurred which will affect all further action in the play. True to the principles of Greek tragedy, the major event (the burial of Polynices’ body by Antigone) has taken place off-stage. Therefore, it needs to be reported by means of a messenger. Here, the messenger is the unhappy watchman. His reluctance to meet Creon is partly amusing and partly pathetic. His fears are quite reasonable. He knows that being the bearer of “unwelcome news,” he is likely to face Creon’s wrath, as indeed he does. The watchman gives the audience (or reader) a detailed, first-hand account of how he and his fellow sentinels had discovered that the body of Polynices was given a swift and incomplete burial. The person who committed this deed was obviously in a great hurry, as the corpse was only partly covered by dust.
Sophocles creates suspense by delaying the watchman’s description of the night burial until he (the watchman) has overcome his initial fears. Once again, the element of fate or destiny appears to play a part here: the watchman is selected by a draw of lots to convey the news to Creon. The superstitious nature of the Chorus is revealed when it states that the burial must be the work of a divine being, as there is no trace of the guilty person.
Creon, having no one else to turn his wrath upon, berates the watchman. Creon also deliberately mentions the gods in his speech. He wants the people of Thebes to believe that the gods support his (Creon’s) law. The Chorus has already suggested that the gods may be against Creon by stating that some divine power has been the cause of the burial.
Creon puts on a false show of being just and laments that people will do anything for money. He is aware that there are malcontents within Thebes who will not accept his rule and are turning restless. He believes that one of these malcontents has bribed the watchman with gold to bury the body. Creon seems to be well aware of weakness in others but does not realize that he, too, has his faults.