The tragedy of Antigone is the culmination of Sophocles’ line of troubles for the Oedipan line, beginning with the unmasking of the King’s tragic secret. The last tale of the doomed Theban family, however, was different from the other two stories; here, the main theme was not the unfolding of tragedy as willed by fate, but a defiant challenge to mortal pride. Antigone faced Creon to challenge the dishonorable sentence to her brother, and also to unmask the pride by which the Theban King defied the gods.
Dante’s Divine Comedy follows a similar theme: driven by the despair of wrath and pride, the poet-pilgrim is led by the spirit of Virgil through the recesses of his soul to see first-hand the ugliness of sin and pride that moves his despair. Through analysis of the two stories, it will be revealed that they share similar devices in narrative, and a common theme: Mortal Pride blinds its owner, turns it against those he holds dear, and offends the Divine. The first recognizable similarity between the two stories lies in the role of the women in unmasking the folly of mortal pride.
Antigone begins in the aftermath of a great battle and the decision of the Theban King, Creon, to disgrace the dead of the besieged and withhold the honor of proper burial. Antigone represented divine admonition and retribution, in her defiance of the law forbidding the burial (Watling, 1959, p. 125). The purpose was two-fold: one was to give redeem the lost honor of her brother, who was one of the doomed, and the other to dare the King to do his worst and in so doing, and thus expose the extent of his folly.
The heroine of Dante’s Divine Comedy is Beatrice, who, seeing the despair and error that Dante found himself in, sent for the ancient writer Virgil to guide him through Inferno into the gates of Paradise (Ciardi, 1960, pp. 28-30). This journey through the bowels of Inferno represents the soul’s examination of self, revealing that at the center of the blackness of his despair was sin, and at the core of that was pride. Beatrice is fulfilling the same two-fold purpose that Antigone bore for herself: she wished to redeem Dante, by exposing the folly of his own pride.
The devices of both stories are also similar in their approach to curbing mortal pride: initially there is the advice of Reason, and then the chastisement by the Divine. King Creon is approached by his son, Haemon, in the hopes in him seeing the error of his ways (Watling, 1959, pp. 143-147). His careful admonition of speaking for Creon’s benefit and that he could still admit to his mistake, is similar in Virgil’s firm but gentle handling of Dante, as the latter is led through the depths of Hell and the scourges of Purgatory.
Mortal pride, in both stories, has blinded too much the protagonist; Creon would not heed to the warnings of his son, and would even trade barbs with the blind prophet Teiresias (Watling, 1959, p. 154). Similarly, throughout Dante’s journey through the nightmarish landscape of the Inferno, he could see tormented souls who are too blinded by their pride to realize the gravity of their sins and its consequences. One memorable scene is in Inferno’s Canto VII, where, in the dregs of a swamp, the souls who were wrathful in their lives continue to tear each apart even in Hell.
There is also Vanni Fucci’s defiant cry to God in Canto XXV of Inferno, in the midst of his torment from vipers (Ciardi, 1960, pp. 75, 213). Even Dante himself, later in Purgatorio’s Canto XIII, admits of continuing lapse to pride, despite the horrors he had to face in Inferno (Ciardi, 1960, pp. 143-144). Mortal pride, however, eventually shrinks before the glare of Divine wrath, the second and more effective narrative device used to quelling the former. Teiresias, having been rebuffed in his gentle words of advice to Creon, reveals the extent of Heaven’s curse.
His final barb at the King (“Let us leave him to vent his anger on younger ears/Or school his mind and tongue to a milder mood”) exposes Creon’s fury for what it is: nothing before the eyes of the Divine (Watling, 1959, pp. 154-155). Beatrice, in a similar office, released righteous fury upon a Dante that seemed to have gotten off easy in Hell and Purgatory—incidentally at the same time that Virgil finally leaves him. Dante, suddenly naked before Divine Wrath, swoons in grief and guilt (Ciardi, 1959, pp. 304-307, 310-313).
Thus, the two stories share the same lesson: Pride that is defiant before the Law of the Divine eventually is humbled against Righteous Wrath. Thus is Antigone the same with the Divine Comedy. Through the device of Reason (Haemon in the former, Virgil in the latter), the Divine sought to redeem the soul caught in the despair of pride. The act of pride is exposed for its absurdity, and the sinner shrinks before the realization of the extent of his error. Pride, that it may be scourged from its wielder, is then met with the punishment of the Divine. Creon faced it in the multiple tragedies of son, mother and would-be daughter-in-law.
Dante, though, could not yet suffer this burden as he was still alive (though Beatrice’s denunciations would have sufficed), but he could at least see it from the Proud preparing themselves in Purgatorio, as was illustrated in Canto X (Ciardi, 1960, p. 115-117). The sins of Mortal Pride are not thrust upon Man by fate, but it is taken up by choice. It is a grotesque thing that blinds its possessor and thus in turn possesses him. Only by seeing clearly how small, insignificant, and foolish it is and how it hurts those held dear, can it be overthrown and the soul thus redeemed.