Merriam Webster defines justice as the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action. Humans believe that they should have the right to justice, fairness and proper treatment. A common theme found in much of the Greek literature we’ve read over the course of this semester is the seeking of justice by many characters in an attempt to procure the vengeance they believe they deserve. When these characters feel wronged, they believe that it is up to them to acquire their own justice by any means necessary. However, this attempt to achieve their justice ultimately results in much more tragedy and bloodshed.
Both Antigone and The Odyssey contain plots driven by justice and revenge and both of these stories uniquely display that the cycle of revenge cannot be stopped. These classics also reveal that a journey of revenge will ultimately end without justice being achieved; instead, the actions of those who seek justice will result in misfortune. Great books often strive to explore baffling intricacies of life; thus, these classic texts often feature complex themes that assist in understanding what drives human behavior.
Two themes that are consistently found in classical and modern literature are justice and revenge. Each book tackles these ideas differently as different characters have their own ideals; however, a commonality between these themes can be seen in how the desire for justice is usually fulfilled through means of revenge. William Shakespeare once wrote, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? ” in an attempt to explain the nature of revenge.
This description serves to show how typical and characteristically human it is to seek revenge to avenge one’s honor. The reason the themes of justice and revenge are so profound across all literature and particularly the Greek classics is because these themes belong to human nature; not to one culture or group of people. These themes are universal and can be employed in various different structures and plots to shape the character dynamics and set up intense conflicts and relationships amongst different characters.
The concept of justice is a tricky one and thus it comes as no surprise that the differing views on what is morally right between Antigone and Creon result in the tragedies of Antigone. In Antigone, Antigone and her sister Ismene return to Thebes after they discover that their brothers were waging war against one another to determine who would rule Thebes after the death of their father, Oedipus. When Antigone returns, she discovers that her brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, already killed each other. These deaths result in Creon becoming the king of Thebes.
Upon his rise to the throne, Creon declares a law which holds that those who oppose the state cannot receive a proper burial with formal rites. King Creon specifically notes the importance of keeping the city honorable and thus enforcing this new law, “Such are the rulers by which I will guard this city’s greatness; and in keeping with them is the edict I have published touching the sons of Oedipus. For Eteocles, who fell like a true soldier defending his native land, there shall be such funeral as we give the noblest dead” (Sophocles, 93).
He determines that while Eteocles deserves a proper burial, Polyneicies was a deterrent to the state and thus should not be buried honorably; he also announces that anyone who attempts to bury Polyneices will be punished with death. Antigone is dismayed by this announcement as she believes that her dead brother was honorable warrior and deserved a burial; thus, Antigone decides to disobey Creon’s law and bury Poleyneices regardless. Creon however has a differing view on what is morally right in this situation and feels that justice is derived from the state.
Creon is determined to punish Antigone when he is informed that Antigone buried Polyneices and ignored the law he set. Creon clearly states that he does not care for familial relations and will punish anyone, even if she is a “sister’s child or closer in blood”(Sophocles 784). Creon’s ideals of justice are formed by keeping control over the state as he now believes that his purpose is to serve the people of Thebes and honor all of the laws of the state. He realizes that if he avoids punishing Antigone, he will come across as a weak ruler who does not the laws of the state.
When Antigone decides to disobey Creon, she does this because she has an opposing belief on what is honorable and just. Her varying ideals depict that Antigone has a sense of moral righteousness. Antigone defends her actions and ideals by invoking divine law when arguing with Creon, “Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus, And she who sits enthroned with gods below, Justice, enacted not these human laws. Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man, Could’st by a breath annul and override the immutable unwritten laws of Heaven. ” (Sophocles 449-454).
She clearly states that Creon is a simple moral and his law cannot compare to the laws written by heaven. Antigone consistently shows that her own personal sense of justice overrides Creon’s power and authority as king. This is best illustrated when Antigone informs Ismene of her plans, “I know I please where I must please the most” (Sophocles 64). This establishes that Antigone thinks that burying her brother is a more honorable form of justice than the new law created by Creon as Antigone is defending her family and maintaining respect for the deceased.
Antigone believes her ideals of right and wrong override Creon’s law which declares that her brother does not deserve to be buried. In taking action and burying her brother by herself, Antigone acts to satisfy her own idea of justice and her sense of morality; an idea that she believes is more closely connected to divine law than Creon’s law. Although Antigone knows she face death as a result of transgressing Creon’s law, but she is content to know that she will die having lived up to her own moral code. As she tells
Ismene, “I will suffer nothing as great as death without glory” (Sophocles 64). Both Antigone and Creon are stubborn in their views of what is morally right and refuse to deviate from their ideals; their unwavering determination to acquire their individual justice results in a situation where no compromise can be reached and immense tragedy occurs due to their personal vendettas against one another. As Antigone strongly opposes Creon and his authority, she decides to take action for what she believes is right regardless of Creon’s disapproval.
Although Ismene tries to plead with Antigone in order to change her mind, urging Antigone to consider the fact that she will leave her alone in the world if she is punished by death, she is unsuccessful. Antigone is distraught with her sister for refusing to take part in this action to bury their brother and disobey the law of Creon and thus disregards her sister’s sadness when deciding to carry through with her plan to ritually bury her bother, Polyneices.
Antigone is aware of part of the tragedy her revenge will cost, she knows it will result in the loss of her own life and the sadness of her sister, Ismene; however, Antigone still refuses to compromise and put away her sense of righteousness. Instead, Antigone enacts her plot of revenge against Creon for his harmful actions against her brother, wholeheartedly knowing it will cause some destruction. However, this determination for revenge against Creon and justice for her brother caused more tragedy than Antigone could have imagined.
The major conflict between Creon and Antigone drives the rest of the tragedy in the play. Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son, Haemon, and therefore her conflict with Creon leads to an intense argument between Creon and Haemon in which Haemon states that Creon’s sense of justice is flawed. The argument escalates with harmful claims by both Creon and Haemon against one another. Ultimately, this argument results in Haemon killing himself due to the anguish he feels over situation he’s in.
At the end of the play, Creon’s wife and the mother of Haemon, Eurydice, is informed of Hameon’s suicide; as a result, Eurydice decides to take her own life in despair over her lost son and disgust with Creon’s actions. Creon is a perfect example of a figure who obtains some form of authority and thus becomes too inflexible to admit his own errors in judgment until it is too late to take proper action to prevent distress. Creon created his law believing that he had the divine power to do so as the ruler of Thebes.
His pride clouds his judgment and leads him to believing that his declarations are above or equal to divine law in Thebian society although that is not the case. As a result, when Tiresias comes to Thebes to warn Creon about his immoral actions; Creon realizes that he made a horrible mistake; however, he remains in denial and only bends to the prophet’s message in order to save his own life, not be understands that he went too far. Thus, he must suffer the loss of his family. His pride and sense of justice results in him being too stubborn to prevent the tragedies of the play as he does not want to be seen as weak.
This results in him being unable to get over his need to punish Antigone for disobeying him and it ultimately causes the death of his own family. In the end, the conflict between Creon and Antigone results in the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice; it also results in the grave sadness of Ismene, who longs for her sister, and Creon, who regrets his stubbornness and feels to blame for all of this tragedy. Antigone flawlessly depicts how varying ideas of justice can drive plots of revenge which in turn cause conflicts that result in more harm for everyone.