Creon plays an important part in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. But he is a different man in each of them. In Oedipus Rex Creon is human and humane. He had a sense of dignity and knew how to record his protest against unjust strictures. In deference to the wishes of Oedipus, he gladly went to Delphi to know the truth about the polluter of the city of Thebes. Oedipus charged him with conspiracy, and he protested his innocence with quiet dignity. After Oedipus had gouged his eyes, he appealed to Creon in utter helplessness to hound him out of the city of his father to enable him to hide himself forever from the sight of men. With incredible nobility he acceded to his request. He did not cast scorn on the fallen greatness.
In Oedipus at Colonus Creon was a completely changed man. Gone was his nobility and dignity. He was cruel and inhuman, and behaved shabbily with Oedipus. He came to Athens, where the blind Oedipus was living the life of an exile. He sought to seize and carry him off with his armed force. He blew hot and cold in the same breath. At first he played the part of a sanctimonious hypocrite and condoled with the blind king. He appeared to have unbounded pity and sympathy for the unfortunate daughters of Oedipus. But Oedipus had little faith in the glozing words of Creon and strongly refused to walk into the trap. He could see through his game. He knew that Creon was “goodly in show, but mischievous in act.”
It was then that Creon threw off his mask. He was deferential and heartless by turns. When persuasive eloquence failed, he must have recourse to brutal force. In spite of the frantic appeals of the Chorus, the Athenian citizens and the two helpless maidens, Creon ordered his soldiers to carry of the girls as hostages for their father. He went so far as to suggest that he would not hesitate even to manhandle Oedipus. It was then that Oedipus cursed Creon. And we know how the curse was fulfilled.
In his confrontation with Theseus, the king of Athens, Creon was unbelievably disrespectful.
In the Antigone Creon is a tyrant. Power corrupts, and absolute power absolutely corrupts. In the Oedipus Rex, he was calm and dignified; in The Oedipus at Colonus, he was deferential and inhuman by turn. In The Antigone he was a despot, whose wish was a law, whose word was a command.
Creon as the symbol of authority accorded different treatment of the bodies of two brothers-Eteocles and Polynices. Eteocles was given a decent burial, while Polynices was left on the plains at the mercy of rain and the sun, the fowls of the air and the wild beasts of prey. Anybody seeking to bury Polynices would defy the royal edict and be severely punished. He assumed to be a patriot, and pretended that the welfare of the country and the people was his supreme concern.
Creon was an excellent actor. As he addressed the Thebans he was majestic and seemed to command authority. In order to inspire their awe he had recourse to grandiloquence, although we know that Sophocles avoids a high-falutin style.
Sedition against the State is criminal offence. Creon seemed to be quite within his rights to promulgate his order. But as he declared his stern decision, he could not retain the disinterestedness and impersonality, expected of a judge. His passion and prejudice, his dark design were manifest even to a superficial observer.
The chorus reached to the speech, and could not retain their dispassionateness. They seemed to suggest that Creon was being a tyrant. Law, when promulgated, has to be obeyed. But it is desirable that the law-maker must think twice before making a law that may have undesirable repercussions. The Greeks believed in the principle of Sophrosyne, i.e. moderation. Creon transgressed it, and did something contrary to the fundamental principles of Greek ethics.
Creon was too vain-glorious to realize that he by his insistence on the man-made law was defying the divine law. He, thus, afforded a foil to Antigone. ‘In the Oedipus Rex he was more sinned against that sinning. In the Oedipus at Colonus he was mean and odious. But in the Antigone he was still more odious His egotism, cruelty, rant, and bombast, his self-will, and a proud defiance of the divine laws made him a despicable figure.’ His personal spite against Polynices was pursued beyond all proportions. It was because of his inherent weakness that he grew more and more suspicious- suspicious about everybody around him. He suspected Ismene. He suspected Haemon. He even suspected the blind prophet Tiresias, for whom he had the highest regard in the Oedipus Rex.
Modern commentators on the play have tried to justify the conduct of Creon, who was the symbol of political authority. Hegel in a penetrating analysis of the play pointed out that the conflict between Creon and Antigone was not a conflict between evil and good, but a conflict between right and right. “In the view of eternal justice both were wrong, because they were one-sided; but at the same time both were right.”
By defying the laws of the gods Creon had shown impiety and irreverence. And that was his tragic flaw or hamartia. And with impiety was coupled excessive pride. Oedipus had his fall for his pride. Creon had a similar fall for the same reason. As soon as Creon was not a king, he himself did not know his own mental furniture. But as he ascended the throne he became swell-headed. He demanded undivided loyalty not to the State, but to himself as an individual. For like Louis XIV of France he wrongly thought he was the State.
Creon was a tyrant. And the Athenians had a poor opinion about a tyrant. He behaved like a tyrant with all the characters in the play. The Chorus, with no ill feelings, hesitatingly suggested that the light coating of the dust on the corpse of Polynices was the feed of the gods.
Creon refused to understand the other man’s point of view. He did not try to understand why Antigone even at the risk of her life, defied his order. He charged Antigone with pride and obstinacy, and, because of the scales in his eyes, he could not see that his pride and obstinacy were beyond all proportions.
He was cruel to his sister’s child. In fact, he was cruel to his son-his only son, who was “even nearer, nearest and dearest. He demanded explicit obedience from his son. He chastised him:
“Do not be food, my son,
By last and the wiles of a woman. You’ll have bought
Cold comfort if your wife’s a warthless one.”
He had no patience to listen to the words of counsel from his son.
When Haemon said that Antigone’s action was considered sufficiently honourable by the people of Thebes, Creon flared up:
“The people of Thebes?
Since when do I take orders from the people of Thebes?”
Creon did not believe in the democracy or in the voice of the people.
But blinded by pride and egoism, Creon could not see the truth. He was not, however, an unmitigated villain. Antigone protested against his action and vindicated truth. So did Haemon. The shell of complacency was being battered. Haemon represented the popular voice, the popular conscience. Initially Creon wanted to punish both Antigone and Ismene. But after his encounter with Haemon he was being softened. He decided not to kill Ismene. His conscience, so long atrophied, was stirred.
Tiresias also played a dominant part in bringing about a change in the heart of Creon. He counselled the king to the voice of the gods and not reverse the existing laws of humanity. Creon, for the time being, was deaf to the good counsel. He even insulted and reproached the prophet.
With his brain still besotted, Creon did not care to listen to Tiresias. In a Greek tragedy a crime must be followed by Nemesis. After Tiresias had left, Creon was smitten with remorse. He must make whatever atonement he could. No longer torn between pride and good sense, he must undo the evil. Antigone should be released; and the corpse of Polynices buried. But it was too late, and this heightened the tragic irony. Antigone had already hanged herself. Haemon also killed himself in the presence of his father. To add to his suffering his wife Eurydice also committed suicide. The Messenger relentlessly told Creon that his wife had blamed him for the entire tragedy.
A completely changed man, Creon was humbled down.
“There is no man can bear this guilt but I.
It is true, I killed him.
Lead me away, away. I live no longer.”
And yet Creon did not die. In fact, he could not die. The faces of his accusing son and wife were haunting him. If he could die, his punishment would have been incomplete. For the rest of his life, he would all the while think that he was the slayer of his son and wife. He could not, for obvious reasons, blame Fate for his tragedy. He was wholly responsible, and the penalty of a conscious crime and no less conscious sin had to be borne. The tragic deaths of Haemon and Eurydice are the punishment of Creon; whose conscience, so long dormant, has been roused, just as the death of Cordelia is the punishment of King Lear. Creon was spiritually redeemed but we wonder if he was vouchsafed a beatific vision of heaven.