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Shadows and Sunshine: Imagery in Antigone

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon, the King of Thebes, is entrusted to care for Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of the deceased Theban King Oedipus. However, Creon and the strong-willed Antigone clash on the situation of the burial of Antigone and Ismene’s brother Polyneices. Polyneices and Eteocles, an additional brother, died in the battle that ensued when Polyneices invaded Thebes and his brother’s ruling celebration. Because Eteocles’ side won, and since Polyneices was the exiled invader, Eteocles was to be provided a hero’s funeral even though Polyneices was ordered to be abandoned in the open for the birds and insects to consume his corpse. Creon completely agrees with this assessment, because it aligns with the nomos, or the government’s law, but Antigone despairs more than the injustice of it-in her view, absolutely everyone need to be given a correct burial, according to the physis, or natural law. This conflict among Creon and Antigone, and the narrating Chorus’ opinions of both sides, is at the center of the events in the play. Sophocles tends to make use of contrasting light and dark imagery to portray the Chorus’ perception of not only the play’s characters and events but of the conflicting laws of nature and government that they represent as effectively.

At the starting of the play, the Chorus stands in favor of Creon and his representation of nomos therefore, descriptions of Creon and his brand of justice are bathed in sun and light. Even Creon himself invokes an image of light as he justifies his ruling, saying, “I would not count any enemy of my country as a pal-because of what I know, that she it is which provides us our safety. If she sails upright and we sail on her, friends will be ours for the making. In the light of guidelines like these, I will make her greater still” (202-210). Because, in his view, Polyneices is an enemy of Thebes, he must not be dignified as an ally, such as Eteocles, need to. The Chorus reacts very favorably to Creon’s reasoning, as shown in their 1st ode peppered with light imagery:

Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none/far more wonderful than man the storm gray sea/Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him higher/Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven/With shining furrows where his plows have gone/Year after year, the timeless labor of stallions (368-376).

When the Chorus mentions the “shining furrows where his plows have gone,” they are referencing the marks that Creon’s nomos has left on Thebes-clearly optimistic ones, due to the fact his rulings are referred to as “shining” on a “holy and inexhaustible” earth.

Eteocles, as nicely, is heavily favored by the Chorus and the gods given that he led his army to victory over the invader Polyneices-and this optimistic opinion is once again communicated by light imagery. Eteocles’ victory is described in literally glowing terms when the Chorus declares,

Sun’s beam, fairest of all/that ever till now shown/on seven-gated Thebes/O golden eye of day, you shone/coming over Dirce’s stream/You drove in headlong rout the whiteshielded man from Argos,/full in arms/his bits rang sharper/below your urging (118-127).

Eteocles’ victory is a scene portrayed in a wash of golden sunlight, warm and welcoming and overwhelmingly positive. By way of the use of this imagery, Sophocles conveys the Chorus’ perception that Eteocles, along with his supporter Creon, was their ambassador of light and their savior from the threatening Polyneices.

As the play progresses, the Chorus and the characters become unsure of which law should be followed-physis or nomos-so the light and dark imagery surrounding Creon and Antigone becomes increasingly scrambled. Haimon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, supports his father at 1st, saying “You make items clear for me, and I obey you. No marriage signifies more to me than your continuing wisdom” (688-691). He goes on to mention, even so, that “in the dark” he hears this rumor:

The city mourns for the girl they believe she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly… [she] would not leave her brother unburied…to meet his end by greedy dogs or by the bird that chanced that way. Certainly what she merits is golden honor, is not it? That’s the dark rumor that spreads in secret (744-755).

This is not the first mention of Antigone’s type motives-a number of scenes earlier, Ismene had remarked to her sister, “You have a warm heart for such chilly deeds” (102). It is only at this point, however, that Creon is hearing the full argument and is very first presented with the chance to adjust his mind. Rather of actually contemplating Haemon’s arguments, Creon elaborates on how he will punish Antigone. “I will bring her where the path is loneliest, and hide her alive in a rocky cavern there. I’ll give just adequate of meals as shall suffice for a bare expiation, that the city might avoid pollution” (840-843). He invokes images of darkness and pollution related with Antigone by saying that he will close her up in a dark cave, “sealed like a tomb” (904) to preserve her from polluting Thebes with her rebellion. Antigone herself laments at this ruling as she appears “…for the last time on this light of this sun-never again” (870-872). She asks, “What law of God have I broken?…for indeed since of piety I was known as impious. If this proceeding is good in the gods’ eyes I shall know my sin, once I have suffered” (978-983). As shown by the modifications in imagery, the other characters in the play are beginning to understand that probably Antigone does not represent darkness and that Creon is not necessarily the harbinger of light.

As Antigone and the Chorus lament, the blind prophet Teiresias enters ironically, this man who lives in literal darkness is the 1 who will bring the light of the true divine law to the sighted, but unenlightened Creon. Teiresias condemns Creon’s selection to imprison Antigone in the cave, warning him that “…you will not outlive many cycles a lot more of this swift sun prior to you give in exchange one particular of your own loins bred, a corpse for a corpse, for you have thrust a single that belongs above below the earth, and bitterly dishonored a living soul by lodging her in the grave…” (1132-1138). He also implies that Creon’s ruling has thrown him out of favor with the gods by telling a parable of a sacrifice that the gods would not burn-“instead of vibrant flame…the entrails dissolved in gray smoke, the bare bone burst from the welter. And no blaze!” (1063-1065). The imagery of the light getting snuffed out symbolizes that the light of Creon’s nomos has been snuffed out by his poor choice, and that now the gods are representing physis, the smoke that overtakes the flame. Antigone also believes that Creon’s punishment for her is harsh and unjust, telling him that “…all your words are bitter, and the really light of the sun is cold to me” (929-934). Indeed, Creon’s law has turned its cold, dark side to Antigone. He starts to realize, nonetheless, that maybe his judgment is not completely sound and that to stick to via on his actions could bring consequences. He admits, “My thoughts is all bewildered. To yield is terrible. But by opposition to destroy my very becoming with a self-destructive curse must also be reckoned in what is terrible” (1166-1171). The pictures of sun and darkness portrayed by Teiresias and Antigone convey the notion that, in the eyes of the people and the gods, Creon’s law might not be the most authoritative one particular following all.

Near the finish of the play, Creon finally realizes that it is physis that eventually dominates over nomos thus, Antigone was appropriate and his beliefs have been incorrect. He insists, in fact, on freeing her himself, declaring that “…since my intention is so changed, as I bound her myself, myself will free her. I am afraid it may possibly be greatest, in the end of life, to have kept the old accepted laws” (1189-1192). Antigone is now showered in pictures of light as the law she has been following is shown to be a lot more favorable in the eyes of the gods, such as Zeus, who “…in a rain of gold poured enjoy upon her” (1007). Creon is portrayed as a “blinded man”-that is, one particular whose sight is dark-and he calls his own laws “themselves rigid and laden with death…oh, the awful blindness of these plans of mine” (1340-1344). The curse of darkness has also fallen upon Creon’s household-when his wife Eurydice hears of their son Haemon’s suicide, she “suffers her darkening eyes to close” (1378) all the although cursing Creon. Upon learning of this, Creon wishes death upon himself as well, pleading, “Let it come, let it come! That I may in no way see one particular far more day’s light!” (1403-1404). Creon, as soon as regarded as a messenger of light and fairness to the Theban men and women, is now regarded a dark curse, and the seemingly underhanded Antigone is now the ambassador of physis. The transformations in imagery from light to dark surrounding Creon mirror the altering opinions of the men and women towards the superiority of nomos more than physis.

Creon’s journey, emphasized by the imagery of the Chorus’ descriptions, reveals that the organic law, or widespread law, is much more strong and enduring than artificial laws imposed on a country by its ruler. Even though his law was initially portrayed in a flattering light, by the end of the play, even he himself had realized that no mortal man’s law can even strategy, significantly less eclipse, the divine law. The light and dark pictures throughout the play emphasize the decline of nomos and the rise of physis at Creon’s expense. Sophocles communicates to his audience that interfering with the order of the gods is beyond the scope of mortal man-and the story of Antigone’s punishment and untimely death brings that to light.


Sophocles. Antigone. Second Edition. Ed. David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
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