The role of the king in the time of Greek tragedies was simultaneously desired and dreaded because of the kings responsibility to the people and because of the effects of the position on the kings character. Creon reveals such ambivalent thoughts towards the kingship in his speech defending himself from Oedipuss conspiracy accusation in Oedipus the King; these ambivalent thoughts reveal much about the nature of the kingship, especially in conjunction with Creons later actions in Antigone.
In attempting to refute Oedipuss assertion that Creon has taken part in a conspiracy to obtain the kingship, Creon evaluates the nature of the kingship and of his present role. First, he says, “Consider, first, if you think any one/ would choose to rule and fear rather than rule and sleep” (36. 584-585). By this, Creon means that the main difference between his position and the kings is that of the accompanying action to ruling. In both positions, one is a ruler who holds great power over the state.
However, the king is placed in a greater place of accountability to the people. This accountability is what Creon says inspires “fear” in the king, for if affairs of state or of the people fall into decline, the king is the first person whom the citizenry look to blame. This is analogous to executive leaders throughout history, as one can see in looking at American presidents and the correlation between the present conditions and events of the nation to the publics opinion of the president, regardless of the actual impact that his decisions may have made in these conditions.
Creon maintains that he has the same amount of power as the king but without the accountability that inevitably leads a king to distress. Creons reasoning concerning the equality between his power and Oedipuss leads him to state: I was not born with such a frantic yearning to be a king- but to do what kings do. And so it is with every one who has learned wisdom and self-control. (36. 587-590) He means that he has never desired the position of king, because he sees no advantage over his present position in the state.
Rather, he sees the disadvantage of the fear that accompanies the position of king. Creon has evaluated this situation for his circumstances and then goes further in stating that anyone with wisdom and self-control would come to such a conclusion as well. This could be interpreted as an insult to Oedipus in two different ways. Creon could mean that Oedipus and anyone else who desires and assumes the kingship are by nature not people of wisdom and self-control- or he could be saying that the position of the kingship is one that strips an individual of his wisdom and self-control.
In support of the assertion that the kingship changes ones character, one could point to the events of Antigone and Creons striking change in character in the play. In Oedipus the King, Creon reveals himself to be a reasonable ruler, who makes rational decisions and is not quick to anger, as is revealed by his calmness in his responses to Oedipuss heated accusations. However, in Antigone, Creon has become prideful and irrational. His dealings with Antigone and Teiresias and his stubbornness in the play indicate a change in his character.
In fact, his actions, especially in his dealings with Teiresias the prophet, are very similar to Oedipuss actions in Oedipus the King. Just as Oedipus had done before him, Creon refuses to completely believe Teiresiass prophecies for the state. Creon also emulates his predecessors actions in his accusation of bribery directed towards Teiresias: “Out with it-/ but only if your words are not for gain” (201. 1128-1129). Creons words and actions in Antigone indicate that he has taken on the negative characteristics of king that he describes in his speech in Oedipus the King.
He has same amount of power as king, but he now seems to have lost his wisdom and self-control. This indicates that perhaps his words to Oedipus are, in fact, mainly an insult to the position of king and to what it evokes from a persons character rather than an insult solely directed towards Oedipus. Creon also feels that the king is generally not responsive to the desires of the citizenry: “But if I were the king myself, I must/ do much that went against the grain” (36. 590-591). By this, Creon means that in his present position, he is more apt than the king to know the will of the people and to respond accordingly.
Again, this seems to be a flaw inherent in the kingship based on Creons actions in Antigone. As king Creon is blind to the fact that the people of Thebes are opposed to his actions concerning the punishment of Antigone. One who is not king, Creons son Haemon, senses the will of the people: But what I can hear, in the dark,are things like these: the city mourns for this girl; they think she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly of all womenkind, for the most glorious acts. (188. 746-749) Haemon has sensed that the people feel Creons actions are unjust, which is something that Creon is not aware of.
However, in his speech, Creon is also asserting that a king, even when aware of the will of the people, does not respond accordingly. He demonstrates this in Antigone when he says, “Should the city tell me how to rule them? ” (189. 794). Once again, Creons words in Oedipus the King and actions in Antigone correspond and indicate that his speech reveals characteristics that are inherent in the kingship and not just in Oedipuss rule. Creon finds these characteristics of a king to be despicable and prefers his own present position.
How should despotic rule seem sweeter to me/ than painless power and an assured authority? ” (36. 592-593). He is saying that his present power is less painful and even more effectual than that of a king. It is less painful in that he is not held directly accountable for the conditions of the state. It is more effectual both in that he has a better sense of the will of the people and in that he is less likely to allow selfish interest and pride to interfere with his execution of the will of the people.
Creons speech serves two purposes, both effectively. First, it is a convincing argument to prove that he is not involved a conspiracy to overthrow Oedipus, although Oedipuss pride does not allow him to be convinced by this argument. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Creons speech gives insight into the two-sided nature of the kingship, for although it is a position of great honor and power, it is also a position that often corrupts the man who holds it.
Creon believes that there is a certain type of man who desires such a position, a man who has not learned wisdom and self-control. He believes that he is a man who has learned these attributes; thus, he would not be susceptible to desire for the kingship and the corruption which would inevitably follow. However, his actions in Antigone show that there are very few men who will reject the kingship if presented with the opportunity and even fewer men who will not allow the kingship to corrupt them.