At the centre of The Burial at Thebes is the contest between the belief that the gods should form the basis of moral behaviour in the state, presented by Antigone and Creon’s case that the king can define what is correct behaviour. I shall go through the text and pick out passages that are relevant to the cases presented. My conclusion will be based on which case has the most support throughout the text, remains the most consistent and also the desire of the protagonists to see their views through to the end.
Antigone presents her case during the play’s prologue. She believes Creon’s general order forbidding the burial of Polyneices is morally wrong and states clearly that she is ‘going to bury his body’ (Heaney, 2004, p5  ). It is important to note that women played a central role in the ‘religious conventions of funeral rites and practices’ (Hardwirck, 2008, p195), and these events contrasted with the usual exclusion of women from Greek public life. This issue is raised by Ismene who describers herself and Antigone as ‘two women on our own’ who ‘we must do as we’re told’ (p5).
It is made clear in this passage that Antigone knows she will be sentenced to death for defying Creon, something she has not intention of covering up. For Antigone burying her brother is a matter of showing honour to the dead (‘the ones you’ll be with the longest’) and her belief that the gods ‘will be proud of me’ (p6). The importance of reverence to the gods is a central theme in the play and Antigone’s case is strengthened by her invocation to them and the importance of giving the dead an appropriate burial.
Before Creon has stated his case he has it strengthened by the Chorus who describe him as ‘right for this city at this time’ (p9) at the end of the parados. Given that one function of the Chorus is to provide moral comment this is notable backing. Creon case, that Polyneices, ‘a traitor, an anti- Theban Theban’ (p10), should not be buried is stated during his first rhesis. By giving this order Creon is not only willing to sacrifice family ties but emphasising loyalty to the state.
The security of, and loyalty to, the state is the at the heart of Creon’s case. His opening speech is an extended metaphor in which the state is a ship that he led to ‘calmer waters’ (p8), and those that stood by him a loyal crew. Creon emphasises the words ‘friend’ and ‘family’ (p9) to strengthen his belief that ‘personal loyalty must always give way to patriotic duty’ (p9). After the war with Argos it makes sense that Creon would want to install a sense of unity by honouring those that stood up for Thebes and highlight the importance of patriotic duty.
Creon uses the gods to back up his case. For him they kept Thebes safe during the war with Argos and later on describes as ‘preposterous’ the idea that the ‘gods have had a hand'(p14) in the burial of the traitor Polyneices. Creon believes his case here is strong for it would be illogical that the gods would side with Polyneices given that the ‘city [is] under their protection’ (p14). If Creon’s view of the gods is correct, then is case his strengthened but if, as the Chorus suggests, the gods have sided with Antigone than her belief that they will be proud of her appears to be true.
Another theme Creon raises is his belief that dissent to his rule is money orientated. It ‘warps minds and generally corrupts’ (p15) and is, in Creon’s mind, the reason why the guard has not apprehended the burier of Polyneices. When the guard suggests that ‘the judge has misjudged everything’ (p16) he emphasises ‘judge’ and ‘mis’ when he speaks, giving an added sense of foreboding to his words. This is added to when he describes waiting for ‘whatever plague.. the gods were sending’ (p19) when capturing Antigone. The theme of money and plague are later returned to and help destroy not only Creon’s case, but also himself.
Antigone’s acceptance of death is highlighted when the guard describes how she ‘showed no signs of panic’ (p20) and admitted breaking Creon’s law. The following agon gives each protagonist the opportunity to strengthen their cases. Antigone does this by emphasising the edict is not ‘the law of Zeus’ and that she follows ‘original, god-given laws’ (p20). By invoking the gods again Antigone gives her case the backing of those that all in Thebes will worship long after Creon ceases to rule.
Creon challenges Antigone when he asks if religion ‘dictates the same for loyal and disloyal’ (p24). Here he is supporting his belief that the gods value the security of Thebes and would not want to be joined by a traitor. When he would states he would ‘know his enemy in the underworld’ (p24) Creon appears to be stating that the afterlife is a a continuation of this life, and the battles he has fought; whereas for Antigone the next world is a place where past sins matter not and all are equal and thus that the gods are less concerned with mortal actions than Creon. With such differing views on the will of the gods the case that is the strongest will be the case that pleases the gods the most.
The third episode sticmythia with Haemon gives Creon the opportunity to restate and strengthen his case which he does with his opening speech. Here he restates the importance of discipline and obedience to the state; when those go ‘cities, homes and armies collapse’ (p15). Again Creon is stating the importance of stability as he did with his first speech and again he states that he expects his family to ‘observe the discipline I expect from every citizen’ (p30). It is hard to not respect Creon’s views here and the Chorus does just this when they state the he ‘seems to make good sense’ (p31).
By the end of the third episode the case laid out in Creon’s opening speech is brought to the fore. He has sacrificed his son for what he perceives to be the security of the state and has proven that ‘patriotic duty’ has triumphed over ‘personal loyalty’ (p10). By relenting now Creon would destroy his case; Antigone has to die for Creon’s case to remain strong and Creon shows that he is willing to accept the consequences of his actions when he tells the Chorus that Haemon ‘can do his worst then ‘ (p35). Creon should have remembered the Chorus’s warning that anyone who ‘overstep[s] what the city allows’ risks being put ‘beyond the pale’ (p16). Haemon tells Creon that ‘People here in Thebes don’t seem to think’ that Antigone is a danger. Creons response that ‘rulers…[are] meant to be in charge’ should strengthen his case but it doesn’t the Chorus also warned of the dangers of treating ‘the law…as his own word’ (p33).
The grace with which Antigone accepts her fate throughout the fourth episode strengthens her case. The Chorus believes that Antigone goes ‘with her head held high’ and ‘because you were noble’ (p37 & 39). It is difficult to not be moved when she says ‘I close my eye on the sun. I turn my back on the light’ (p39) with emphasises on close, eye, sun, turn, back and light. Antigone remains consistent and sees her case through to the end. In her final speech she reminds the reader that she has been punished for ‘a reverence that was right’ (p41), that is a reverence to Hades, to the dead, even if they are enemies of the state and the duty of families to mourn their loved ones.
By this point Creon can present his case as being successful. The state has won, and someone that has shown a lack of loyalty has been punished as the law demanded. Despite this his case isn’t as strong as it should be. The Chorus who who at first supported Creon and who he relied upon to be ‘agents of the law’ (p11) have turned against him, and the warnings put to him earlier have still not been dealt with.
The entry of Tiresias brings the end of Creon’s case. The plague the guard alluded too has become tangible, and the corpse of Polyneices is ‘where the contagion starts’ (p44). The king has been warned that ‘the gods are revolted’ (p44) but when told that he can undo his mistake his first response is to accuse Tiresias of being bribed and his ‘second sight.. well warped’ (p45). When Creon does relent it is because he has taken Antigone’s view that ‘we should keep the established law’ (p48). This is a complete u-turn that sees Creon accept Antigone’s case and proves beyond doubt that her case is the stronger of the two. It is too little too late, Antigone is dead in her wedding dress with her beloved Haemon by her side, his mother and Creon’s wife Eurydice soon joins them in the underworld. Creon is destroyed; he ‘want(s) to hurry death’ (p55) but can not. Antigone accepted the consequences of her actions but Creon has ‘courted calamity’ (p56) and must accept the unknown to come.
Using the criteria stated above I can only conclude that Antigone has been given the stronger case. If the play finished at the end of fourth episode it would be a hard decision but I would have sided with Antigone following her heartbreaking speeches. I would, as a modern reader, also be swayed by the belief that the state should not interfere