Sophocles’ Antigone is a seminal work of classic Greek literature. This sample political essay explores the themes of loyalty and betrayal in the work, and how the concepts are intertwined.
Tyranny, loyalty, and betrayal explored in Sophocles’ Antigone
In Antigone, the last of the Three Theban Plays, Sophocles appropriates the domineering leadership style of Creon in order to highlight the manner in which tyrannical ruling practices reveal or provoke expressions of loyalty and betrayal; fundamental traits with regard to monarchical order.
In so doing, Sophocles illustrates the confounding nature of these pivotal characteristics in that it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other until the party most affected by them is so affected. For Creon, the failure to successfully navigate this difficulty is not only instructive but also destructive.
The King of Thebes as the tyrannical leader
The King of Thebes, Creon, determines that of the two brothers who rebelled against him, one must be shamed, deciding that deceased Polyneices will not be honored with a ritualistic burial or, indeed, any burial whatsoever. We are presented with Polyneices’ sisters, Antigone and Ismene, who discuss the relative dishonor bestowed upon their brother by Creon.
Antigone and Ismene engage in this dialogue in what is presented as a kind of clandestine meeting, with Antigone strongly advocating for violation of Creon’s order. To bury her brother would be to demonstrate a familial loyalty at the expense of a political one (MacKay 169). In other words, Antigone proposes that she betray one order so as to express her loyalty to what she views as a superior cause, or so it appears.
As Sophocles furthers this elucidation of the paradoxical relationship between betrayal and loyalty, Antigone is eventually captured for attempting to bury her brother. She is brought before Creon and asked to explain her actions, which she does in such a way as expresses both the familial loyalty to which she is committed and a kind of loyalty to Creon’s monarchy.
Anitgone as the heroine who betrays the tyrant
Anitgone does so by first forcefully taking ownership of her decision to bury her brother, in betrayal of Creon’s directive, but then by imploring Creon to recognize the immorality of the directive itself. As such, Sophocles seems to suggest that loyalty and betrayal are here so inextricably linked as to be indistinguishable in that Antigone’s expression of familial loyalty functions to the same effect with regard to safeguarding the institutional integrity of her ruler’s kingdom, despite that Creon identifies Antigone as having betrayed him in this regard.
We next see Haemon embody this juxtaposition of loyalty and betrayal in approaching Creon, his father, for purposes of liberating Antigone from an untimely fate. Haemon delicately attempts to walk the fine line between betraying his father’s rule and remaining loyal to his lover, Antigone, on whose behalf he expresses not merely his own support, but also that of Creon’s subjects.
As such, in arguing a personal cause just as Antigone did, Haemon illustrates that his own loyalty in this regard is not at odds with the best interests of Creon’s kingdom. Nevertheless, just as Creon is unwilling to accept this juxtaposed expression of loyalty from Antigone, he identifies in Haemon a kind of betrayal that ultimately provokes Haemon’s suicide.
Sophocles’ tyrant unable to win loyalty
Ultimately, Creon is severely punished for his failure to distinguish between genuine expressions of betrayal and personal expressions of loyalty that do not conflict with his rule; indeed, the expressions of the heroine Antigone and Haemon are fundamentally loyal in that they implore Creon towards decisions that would effectively ensure his kingdom’s moral order and cohesiveness.
These expressions of loyalty are nuanced, to be sure, but they are of the kind typically expressed by one’s child in that they seek to evoke sympathy for their personal misfortunes, while suggesting that a lack thereof would amount to a familial betrayal on the part of Creon in that he would deny his own children that which he believes he must deny them in order to maintain his allegiance to his own kingdom’s social order.
And yet, Creon does nothing more than betray his own citizens in attempting to secure the socio-political order designed to safeguard them (Shklar 181). Creon’s punishment is the loss of not only his biological son but also the daughter to whom he would have been made father-in-law through marriage to Haemon: Antigone. It is as though Sophocles intends for the suicide of Eurydice to function as an indictment of Creon, both as a father and a ruler.
Indeed, Honig suggests Eurydice as the embodiment of this family-kingdom dichotomy: “Like Antigone, Eurydice curses and calls for vengeance; unlike Antigone, Eurydice wails indoors” (Honig 23).
The death of Eurydice thus symbolizes the death of an order in which familial and political loyalty can co-exist. As such, one wonders whether a kingdom in which these two factors cannot simultaneously operate is one that will be able to sustain itself for the long-term.
The tyrant’s punishment
The symbolic death in the literature represents the death of an order in which familial and political loyalty can co-exist. As such, one wonders whether a kingdom in which these two factors cannot simultaneously operate is one that will be able to sustain itself for the long-term.
For failing to recognize the manner in which loyalty and betrayal might overlap and interweave with one another, and thus the fashion in which personal interests so often interact with concerns for the greater good, Creon loses all that is personally valuable to him, though he does retain order within his kingdom.
As a broken Creon is led off the stage, however, one is left to wonder whether expressions of loyalty towards those whom he loved would not have better safeguarded his kingdom from the risks of betrayal. In extolling the virtues of familial loyalty, Haemon and Antigone were merely advocating for support of the foundations underlying monarchical loyalty. In failing to process this, it is Creon who not only betrays his family’s loyalty but also risks betraying his kingdom’s future.
Honig, Bonnie. “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception.” Political Theory. 3.1. February 2009. 5-43.
MacKay, L.A. “Antigone, Coriolanus, and Hegel.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 93.1962. 166-174.
Shklar, Judith N. “Obligation, Loyalty, Exile.” Political Theory. 21.2. May, 1993. 181-197.