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Creon, the brother of Jocasta, and Antigone’s uncle, was called upon to rule Thebes on three occasions: after the death of Laius (father of Oedipus), following the downfall of Oedipus, and again after the death of Oedipus’ two sons. At the start of Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon has just assumed full powers as king in his own right. (He was named regent during his previous terms as ruler of Thebes.)
Generally, Creon is viewed as the villain of this tragedy; the one who wields the repressive power of a dictator. As soon as Creon assumes the reins of the government, he is faced with a great political crisis: how to rescue the people of Thebes from the civil war and anarchy into which the murderous hatred of Polynices and Eteocles has plunged the state. He has the rather unenviable task of restoring the chaotic state of Thebes to normalcy, peace and justice. These were ideals that all the Greeks valued greatly in public life.
So, Creon is forced to formulate some rather unpleasant laws that are bound to come into conflict with the high ideals of a sensitive and deeply moral person like Antigone. Political necessity demands that Creon must adopt a firm stance on Polynices’ apparently treacherous action of attacking his home state. To an astute and pragmatic politician like Creon, it is no more than a question of practicality that he must make an example of Polynices’ rebellion and brand him a traitor. Creon is merely following established Greek political precedents in denying the rights of burial to one who had proved false to his homeland.
However, in doing so, Creon fails to understand that his brand of civil law transgresses and even negates the demands of a higher spiritual law. Ironically, in trying to prevent further chaos and anarchy from gripping the lives of the Theban population, Creon merely succeeds in creating an explosive situation. Resistance to his edict comes from the most unexpected quarter. He cannot comprehend what motivates Antigone to oppose his law. Creon holds the rather narrow view that all individuals living in a state must obey all its laws in order for human society to avoid disintegration into total anarchy. He is not too deeply concerned with how far morality and politics can work together for the good of the state. He is not averse to the idea that morality may sometimes be sacrificed in the interest of practical politics.
To retract from his own law would mean to accept defeat in his very first political maneuver. So Creon steers his steady course towards the catastrophic decision to have Antigone buried alive in the cave. He makes this rash decision in a fit of rage and on the spur of the moment. He refuses to heed the advice of his son, Haemon, and the warnings of the seer, Tiresias. Creon fears that he would lose face if he retracts his own (unjust) law.
Creon recognizes his error only after Tiresias’ fatal predictions and the Chorus’ subsequent admonishment. At last he yields to the voice of basic humanity and decides to reverse his earlier rigid stance. (This is known as “peripeteia.”) He knows he cannot “fight with destiny,” so he quickly buries Polynices and then hurries to Antigone’s cave. But his decision comes too late.
Creon falls into a state of dire panic in his last moments on stage. His wife, Eurydice, has taken her own life on hearing of Haemon’s death. Thus, Creon is left to brood alone over the tragic consequences of his own fatal decisions. He lives on as an infinitely sadder but wiser man (his “anagnorisis”).