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Creon has twice served as regent in Thebes -- once at Laius' death and again after Oedipus' fall from grace. He has tasted the fruits of power and seems to relish it. Reduced to second-in-command when Eteocles begins to rule Thebes, he is perhaps dissatisfied and attempts by force to intimidate Oedipus into returning to Thebes as a kind of divine mascot. He relishes humiliating Oedipus, for it gives him a greater sense of his own limited power. The long civil strife in Thebes has made him cynical, authoritarian, and power- crazy. He is purely materialistic in his outlook and rather unimaginative. He resorts to force at the least provocation.
Creon's hypocrisy, crudity, and amorality are in sharp contrast to Theseus' integrity, grace, and ethical nature as king. While Theseus is obviously the ideal statesman, Creon is the power-hungry and brutal politician, who is more or less a petty tyrant. He is concerned only with the political advantage he and his city can enjoy if Oedipus joins them. He thinks little of violating the sacred grove or even of dragging Ismene off when she is offering the propitiatory rites on behalf of her father. In fact, he succeeds in abducting the two girls to act as hostages in order to ensure Oedipus' return to Thebes. He is quite like the modern terrorist using innocent victims as pawns in his power games. This bully is easily cowed and adopts a stance of diplomatic hypocrisy when he confronts the inner dignity and strength of Theseus. Modern society abounds with vulgar men like Creon who overestimate themselves and terrorize others though they remain cowards at heart.
While Creon represents both Eteocles' interests and his own in the Theban civil war, Polyneices appears to intercede with his father to support his just cause in trying to oust Eteocles. The appearance of Polyneices in the play stresses the nature of Oedipus' destructive relationship with his sons. His efforts to win Oedipus' sympathy are doomed from the start. His penitence for his shabby treatment of his father is insincere and equivocal. He does feel guilty of neglect on seeing his father's present condition, but there is not much real compassion for him, for he has failed to seek out his father earlier.
Polyneices seems weak, egotistical, brash, and bent on destroying both himself and his relations. When he tempts Oedipus to join him in destroying Eteocles, he invites the full wrath of Oedipus' notorious temper and his terrible curse. He is, indeed, a totally despicable character and hardly deserves the fine sympathy that Antigone shows him in the end. Through her, the audience may find sympathy for this prodigal son who leaves to encounter his prophesied death.
Ismene is best understood as a contrast to the character of Antigone. Though both sisters share a deep love for their father, there are some clear differences between them. Antigone walks barefoot, bareheaded, and in rags, while Ismene rides an Aethenian horse and wears a broad-brimmed Thessalian hat to protect her from the sun. Antigone caters to her father's day-to-day needs by being constantly by his side; Ismene occasionally stirs out of Thebes to bring him political news from home. Even in their reunion with Oedipus after Theseus rescues them from the clutches of Creon's men, Ismene is more restrained and silent in her rejoicing than the loyal Antigone. When death finally comes to Oedipus, Antigone grieves more passionately than Ismene, and it is Ismene who reminds her that their father's tomb must not be disturbed. Thus while Antigone seems rebellious and impetuous, Ismene is conventional and restrained. In the end, it is Ismene who remains the only survivor of this family tragedy.