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Antigone as a Republican Parable

October 16, 2009

Teaching Sophocles’ Antigone is difficult with undergrads. They have a tendency to favor Antigone over Creon and make the latter into some sort of vile character. Add a few conspiracy theories and Creon becomes quite a demonic character. My job often turns into making sure Creon gets a fair shake.

It’s not that undergrads fail to understand the motives of the play. Antigone’s first commitment is to her family, Creon’s is to the city and society as a whole. Antigone has broken the law, but is the law just to begin with?

The underlying problem for many students is the bifurcated world in which we live. The Coke-vs.-Pepsi false dichotomy of our society so often tries to force us to make decisions, especially political ones. In the primaries last year, if you voted for Obama over Clinton you were sexist; the other way around and you were racist. The two candidates were very close ideologically (centrist Democrats), but a dichotomy had to be drawn, the political zeitgeist in the States demanded it.

Under these assumptions, it becomes easy to turn Creon vs. Antigone into something akin to McCain vs. Obama. Creon is older. He puts country first, etc. etc. Antigone is younger. She’s not from the patriarchal power structure. She represents change, etc. etc.

However, in truth Creon and Antigone are represented better in our political world by the Republican ticket in ’08. Creon is McCain, and Antigone is Palin. They are both conservative. Creon’s slogan could easily have been “Country First,” but Antigone is running on a pro-family, highly religious platform. The fact they don’t get along points to their inherent similarities. They are both “maverick-y.”

Of course, this metaphor breaks down when we ask who Obama would be in Sophocles’ play. But that is in some way the point. Sophocles is not giving us a simple dichotomy where we are to root for one of the protagonists over the other. Both are so intertwined that they bring about the other’s defeat.

  1. November 8, 2009 12:15 am

    I just talked about “Antigone” with students, too. No one sided with poor Creon. Everyone thought he was a tyrant. No one had a problem with Antigone appealing to the gods over Creon’s law. No one even considered whether Anigone was in the wrong or if she had over-reacted. Everyone thought Creon’s decree was unjust and Antigone was self-lessly doing what she thought best (and paid the consequences for it). When I asked about the implications of Antigone’s actions for society, they didn’t see any problems. When I compared her individualism and vigilantism to what we read in Locke’s essay about majority rule and the social contract, they still didn’t have a problem with Antigone “taking the higher ground.” When I asked about putting god’s law above human law, they seemed to acquiesce. When I tried to contemporize the situation and draw out the implications of Antigone’s kind of behavior (potentially leading to a theocracy today), they refused all parallels. It was as if they believed what happened in the play couldn’t happen today. But Antigone, appealing as she did to god’s law for her civil disobedience, did the right thing. I cited instances, created hypotheticals, etc. They denied them. It was very frustrating. Sometimes I think we take separation of church and state so much for granted that we forget the reasons for erecting the separation in the first place!

    • November 9, 2009 10:37 am

      In my class it helps that The Trial and Death of Socrates follows Antigone. We can see very different configurations of the relationship between family, religion and state in the two texts.

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