A boy leads in Tiresias, the blind soothsayer of Thebes. Creon swears that he will obey whatever advice Tiresias gives him, since he owes so much to his past advice. Tiresias tells him that his refusal to bury Polynices and his punishment of Antigone for the burial will bring the curses of the gods down on Thebes. Hearing this, Creon curses Tiresias, calling him a false prophet who traffics in poor advice and rhetoric. Creon accuses all prophets of being power-hungry fools, but Tiresias turns the insult back on tyrants like Creon. The old prophet argues that the rites for the dead are the concern of the gods—mortals can rule only in this world. Unwilling to hear any more abuse, Tiresias has his boy lead him away. The Chorus is terrified by Tiresias’s prophecy. Creon admits that he too is worried and will do whatever the citizens recommend. They call for him to free Antigone, and he reluctantly leaves to do so. Once he is gone, the Chorus prays to Dionysus to protect Thebes.
A messenger enters and tells the Chorus that a catastrophic event has taken place offstage: Haemon is dead by his own hand. As the messenger is leaving, Eurydice, Creon’s wife, enters from the palace. She has overheard the commotion caused by the messenger’s announcement and asks the messenger to tell her what has happened. He reports that just as Creon and his entourage had finished their burial of Polynices, they heard what sounded like Haemon’s voice wailing from Antigone’s tomb. They went in and saw Antigone hanging from a noose and Haemon raving. Creon’s son then took a sword and thrust it at his father. Missing, he turned the sword against himself, and died embracing Antigone’s body.
Hearing that Haemon is dead, Eurydice rushes back into the palace, followed by the messenger. Creon then enters, carrying Haemon’s body and wailing against his own tyranny, which caused his son’s death. Just then the messenger emerges and tells the king that the queen has committed suicide, brought to unbearable misery by her son’s death. Creon weeps and raves wildly as Eurydice’s body is brought forth from the palace. The messenger tells Creon that Eurydice called down curses on her husband for the misery his pride had caused just before she stabbed herself. Creon kneels and prays for death. His guards lead him back into the palace. The Chorus sings a final ode about how the proud are brought low by the gods.
Throughout the play, Creon has emphasized the importance of “healthy” practical judgment over a sick, twisted mind, but Tiresias informs Creon that practical judgment is precisely what he lacks—only Creon has a sick and twisted mind. When the catastrophes occur, the messenger directly points to the moral that the worst ill afflicting mortals is a lack of judgment (1373). We may well wonder what use judgment is given the limitations of human beings and the inescapable will of the gods. Perhaps the best explanation is that possessing wisdom and judgment means acknowledging human limitations and behaving piously so as not to actually call down the gods’ wrath. Humans must take a humble, reverential attitude toward fate, the gods, and the limits of human intelligence. At the end of the play, Creon shows he has learned this lesson at last when, instead of mocking death as he has throughout the play, he speaks respectfully of “death” heaping blows upon him (1413–1419).
Even though Antigone exhibits a blamable pride and a hunger for glory, her transgressions are less serious than those of Creon. Antigone’s crime harms no one directly, whereas Creon’s mistakes affect an entire city. We learn from Tiresias that new armies are rising up in anger against Thebes because of Creon’s treatment of their dead (1201–1205). More important, Creon’s refusal to bury Polynices represents a more radical affront to human values than Antigone’s refusal to heed Creon’s edict. Creon says at the beginning of the play that the sight of Polynices’ unburied corpse is an obscenity (231), but he clearly doesn’t understand the implications of his own words. Whereas Antigone breaks a law made by a particular ruler in a particular instance, a law that he could have made differently, Creon violates an unwritten law, a cultural custom.
The Chorus’s final speech is a remarkably terse list of possible lessons that can be learned from the play’s events: wisdom is good, reverence for the gods is necessary, pride is bad, and fate is inevitable (1466–1470). The Chorus claims that the punishing blows of fate will teach men wisdom, but it is hard to feel convinced by their words: Creon’s “wisdom”—his understanding of his crimes—seems, much like Oedipus’s, only to have brought him more pain. And Haemon, Antigone, and Eurydice can learn nothing more, now that they are dead. The Chorus, like the audience, struggles to find purpose in violence, though it is not clear that there is any purpose to be found.
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