Catharsis in Antigone
The word ‘catharsis’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘kathairein’, which means ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to purge’ - it stems from an Ancient Greek story about a Phoenix rising from ashes, with the ashes representing catastrophe and the rise of the bird representing purification. In Greek Tragedy, this term is used to describe the suffering a character faces because of a flaw in his nature, followed by a transformation or purification as a result of enduring the pain. One of the best examples of catharsis is shown in Sophocles’ Antigone.


Antigone is a play that deals with the conflict between divine and secular law, as represented by Antigone and Creon, respectively. The conflict begins when King Creon delivers an order to the public stating that Polyneices body, whom he regards as a traitor to the country, should not be buried. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister and Creon’s niece, objects to this order because she believes that depriving someone of a burial is being disrespectful to the gods. As a new king, Creon finds that he must be assertive in order to be respected. He believes that giving in to a woman’s demands when she goes against his own decree is unbecoming, and therefore rejects Antigone’s plea by sending her off to a dungeon. Even when his own son, Haemon, and a respected prophet ask Creon to reconsider his decision, he dismisses them as foolish and remains firm. For example, he calls his son a “woman’s plaything” and claims that he is a weak person for protecting a woman’s interests. Even while Teiresias is the most trusted prophet in his city-state, Creon claims that “you (Teiresias) and the whole breed of seers are mad for money”.


Creon’s obstinacy and his lack of reverence for the gods are his ultimate flaws, and soon lead to the loss of everyone most dear to him – his niece, son and wife. Above all, he loses his dignity and self-respect, which are the very things he sought to protect with his tenacious policies. In the end, Creon is reduced to someone who, instead of being followed, is pitied by others.


Even while the pain and suffering he brings upon himself is unbearable, Creon does a heroic deed when he accepts his harsh fate and understands that he alone is responsible for the deaths of his loved ones as well as his tarnished pride. By comparing Creon’s behavior before and after the ‘catharsis’, we see that he does in fact change. In the beginning, he is so power-hungry that he refuses to listen to any advice that goes against his ruling, saying “The city is the King’s – that’s the law” and “Am I to rule this land for others – or myself?” After enduring all the grief, however, we understand that Creon accepts his poor judgment and is willing to work to correct himself. For example, he says “…And the guilt is all mine – can never be fixed on another man, no escape for me. I killed you… I admit it all…” While he is more egocentric before the catharsis, he becomes much more humble afterwards, saying, “I don’t exist – I am no one. Nothing” and “…everything I touch goes wrong…” In the end, while the other characters give up and take the easy way out, Creon lives, suffers, faces his flaws, and accepts his guilt, which ultimately transforms and purifies him.