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Humanities Core 1A Essay

Henry Wu

Dr. Striedter

Hum 1A (29034)

10 October 2003

Clash between connotations

When was the last time you had an argument with a friend because the two of you had differing meanings over a particular word or phrase?  How much trouble did your opposing ideas in that definition cause?   In Sophocles’ Antigone, the conflict over the term “law” causes the deaths of multiple characters as well as a rift in the foundations of power in Thebes.  Clashing beliefs about what “law” means causes a schism between king and citizen.  Adding more to the confusion is the problem that both of these characters believe to have divine “law” on their side. What exactly does “law” mean to each of them?  Looking at three different meanings of “law” from the perspectives of the Merriam Webster dictionary, from Antigone, and from Creon can explain why the conflict in the term causes such mayhem in Thebes.

The definition of “law” from the Merriam Webster is a “rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.”  We generally obey “laws” because we trust the government to set rules and regulations that help us.  However, in Sophocles’ play, the characters use the word ambiguously.  Most people in Thebes obey “laws” out of fear and not because of what is considered just and unjust.  These citizens might not actually trust in the king to pass laws that are for the common good of the people, but follow them anyway because the king has the controlling authority to enforce his “laws.”  The “law” today is “a rule of conduct formally recognized as binding” because we the people give the government the power to pass laws.  We trust the government, but that is not the case in Thebes.

Antigone’s belief in god’s “law” directs the better part of her life.  The dilemma that forces her to choose between god’s “law” and Creon’s “law” eventually ends her life on Earth.  Creon’s law that restricts the burial of Polynices deeply affects Antigone because a refusal to bury the dead body of a family member would anger the gods.  Antigone feels that it is better to disobey Creon’s law rather than the divine law because her death on Earth would be quick and short compared to torture in the afterlife if the gods are displeased.  She says that “these laws- I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods” (509-511).  She implies that she is not concerned with how Creon feels with her disobedience rather than how the gods would deal with her if she left Polynices’ body to rot.  She argues with Ismene about which law to follow and retorts to Ismene, “do as you like, dishonor the laws the gods hold in honor” (91-92).  Her belief is that the gods’ laws come before any other law because the gods are the ones who created the Earth and hold the most power.  Burial rites are considered sacred to the gods and Antigone is determined not to let Creon’s law stop her.  Any disobedience of the god’s laws means punishment in the afterlife.  Antigone believes that “law” refers to god’s law and can’t fathom how a mere mortal- even one that is king, could override them.

King Creon’s beliefs in his power allow him to set down laws that are usually left unchallenged.  There is a conflict because in ancient Thebes, there is no mechanism that exists for a resolution when such arguments take place that deal with the law.  Creon exclaims to his son, “what? The city is the king’s- that’s the law!” (825). Creon is able to pass down “laws” uncontested because no legal system is there to put him in check. Creon, like most other kings, believes that he receives his power from the gods, and that all his actions are sanctioned by the gods.  He believes that “laws” that are upholding the polis are equally linked to the gods and make the city a better place to live.  Creon defines “law” as his ability to make whatever decree he chooses because he assumes that what he’s doing is right, and he receives approval by the gods.

It is obvious that the term “law” has changed over time.  The refusal to follow “laws” made by Kings that citizens felt were unjust gradually led to the need to establish a proper legal system to handle such cases.  In Creon’s eyes, “law” may mean any decree he chooses to pass, whereas in Antigone’s case it means god’s “law” is superior to that of man’s “law.”  Citizens for the first time have to think and choose between the King’s “law” and god’s “law.”  It is obvious that such discrepancies in a word as powerful as “law” causes many complications and has been shown to cause havoc.




“Law.”    Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. 10 Oct 2003. <>.

Sophocles. “Antigone.” The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York:

                   Penguin, 1984.  




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