Greek audiences may not have been familiar with the particulars of Antigone's story, but they would have recognized the setting of the play and the initial context of its plot - namely, the city of Thebes and the seeming curse that afflicts all members of the royal family. Before we begin to explore the details of this particular story, let's review everything that's happened before the beginning of the action.
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, Greek drama's most infamous figure. Oedipus was a king who married his own mother after killing his own father - not knowing that either were his parents. The story of Oedipus The King, Sophocles' most renowned work, is useful for giving us insight into Antigone's doomed lineage and should be understood prior to reading Antigone.
Oedipus is born of Laius and Jocasta, rulers of Thebes. Warned in a prophecy that Oedipus will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother, Laius and Jocasta arrange for his death - instructing a herdsman to kill the child. But the herdsman pities little Oedipus, and instead of killing him, passes him on to another herdsman from a neighboring kingdom, where Oedipus is raised by the king and queen as their own.
Later in his life, Oedipus himself hears the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. He flees the new kingdom, thinking he can avoid his fate. Along the way, however, he kills a stranger, who turns out to be his father Laius, and also solves the riddle of the Sphinx, saving Thebes and becoming her king (as well as Jocasta's new husband). The terms of the prophecy are thus fulfilled. Oedipus learns this only after he has been in power in Thebes for some time. A plague begins to kill the Theban citizens, and an oracle informs the king that Thebes is being punished because Laius' murderer dwells among them. Oedipus sets out to learn the culprit's identity, and soon discovers that Laius was the stranger he killed, and worse, that Jocasta and Laius were his true parents. Jocasta is able to put the pieces of the puzzle together some time before her husband-son, and in despair she hangs herself. Oedipus, upon discovering her body, blinds himself with her broaches and leaves the city, entrusting his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, to the care of Creon (Jocasta's brother).
In the days preceding the start of the action of Antigone, Thebes has been torn apart by war. When Oedipus fell from grace, his sons Polyneices and Eteocles were too young to ascend to rule, and so the kingdom was entrusted to Creon, the brother of Jocasta. The brothers soon reach the suitable age to take over, but they continue to entrust rule to Creon, knowing that a curse seems to follow their family. But soon enough, they begin fighting over who will rule Thebes - Polyneices, as the older brother, believes he has the birthright, but Eteocles ousts him, which sends Polyneices looking for refuge in Argos. There he raises a powerful army, which he uses to invade Thebes -- leading to his own death and that of Eteocles. Creon ascends to the throne once more. It is at this point that the play begins.
Antigone and Ismene meet at night in front of the city gates. Antigone has called her sister out for a secret meeting: she bewails their fate as daughters of a doomed mother and father and sisters of two men who have slain each other. She then informs Ismene that Creon has declared that Eteocles shall be given a full and honorable funeral, while the body of Polyneices will be left to the vultures. Anyone who tries to perform the proper funeral rites for Polyneices will be killed by public stoning.
Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury Polyneices, even though to do so would ensure both their deaths. Creon has "no right to keep me from my own" (I. 47). Ismene refuses because she says that they are women and must not fight with men - men are stronger and therefore must be obeyed. It is not her responsibility as a woman to "aim too high, too far" (I. 67). Antigone is furious with her sister and says she would no longer welcome her help even if Ismene granted it. She also says that she will die willingly for her brother and ensure he is given a proper burial.
Ismene cannot dissuade Antigone, and she leaves to perform the burial. Antigone encourages Ismene to proclaim her flouting of Creon's action to the world - she is not afraid of death, and believes she will die with nobility. Ismene is afraid for her sister, and cannot condone her actions...but she also understands that there is something to what Antigone wants to do: "Know this; that though you are wrong to go, your friends / are right to love you" (ll. 116-7).
The Chorus of Theban Elders celebrates the Theban victory over Polynecies, praising Zeus for destroying the arrogant Polyneices and ensuring that the "savage pair" dies so that the "sacred precincts" of Thebes can be free. Creon enters and addresses the Chorus, announcing that the city is safe once again. He tells the elders that they were loyal to Laius, loyal to Oedipus, and loyal to Oedipus' sons, and that he can only hope they will be loyal to him as well.
Creon says that a ruler must not be afraid to say what's right - no matter how unpopular his views may make him. He says he will never call a man a friend who is hostile to Thebes, and that the city is their lifeboat. Thebes has no friends, but he will make sure that the city is raised high. He further explains his edict that Polyneices is not to be buried or mourned, and rather left for the birds and dogs as a spectacle of shame. Creon orders the Chorus not to side with anyone who disobeys him. The Chorus believes that no one is foolish enough to ask for death, but Creon says that hope - and bribery - have often led men to destruction.
In her very first speech, Antigone only briefly alludes to her and her sister's circumstances, but a Greek audience would have quickly filled in the gaps created by this 'in media res' device (meaning that Sophocles begins the story 'in the middle of things'). Antigone believes that they are the final victims of the curse that follows all the members of Oedipus' family. Oedipus, Jocasta, Laius, Polyneices and Eteocles have all paid their price - and now they suffer with shame and dishonor. Sophocles, then, sets up Antigone as an 'Oedipal' hero - meaning that she is structurally the protagonist, but cursed with a tragic fate. The question, of course, is whether we as readers can determine her tragic flaw - that element of her character that will send her to her doom - and whether we can successfully identify her antagonist.
Antigone is different from other Greek dramas in that it more a play of competing philosophies than a drama of 'action' or plot. Indeed, Antigone isn't allowed to just plunge headlong into her decision to bury Polyneices - instead, she must repeatedly explain herself in the face of philosophical objection. First in line is her sister Ismene, who argues that their family has suffered enough - their father died in hatred and disgrace after gouging out his eyes, their mother hanged herself, and their brothers killed each other - but now they're alone and must submit to the law. In Ismene's eyes, they are now women alone - and women must not fight with men, because men are stronger and control the law. Because Antigone refuses to kowtow to Ismene's reasoning, she has often been held up as literature's first feminist.
At the same time, there is the question of nature. Ismene, when pressed, argues that it is not in her nature to act - that she cannot possibly take up arms against the city. Antigone sees this as an excuse, but the converse can be argued - that it is in her nature to disobey, to bury her brother without confronting Creon first. Ultimately the sisters' argument comes down to a fundamental difference between the two: Ismene believes that her duty is to the men who make the law, while Antigone believes that "those who matter most" are the Gods, and that Zeus would want her to bury her brother.
The Chorus in Greek drama can serve a number of purposes, but here it is referenced specifically as the 'council of elders in Thebes,' meaning that it is a politically-minded group. They have lived through all the cursed relatives of Oedipus, and thus when battle against Polyneices ends, they see a time of rejoicing and the end of pain. The Chorus is not only civil, but also serves as the conscience of reason here. Indeed, when Creon appears, his first words praise them for having shown respect to all the members of Oedipus' family and to express his hope that they will accede to his rule (I. 165-170). In turn, he announces his latest edict, and the Chorus responds simply that they will do what he thinks is right.
As the play continues, however, we will note a growing involvement on the part of the Chorus as they begin to see that Creon is leading their city astray. For now, they are content to stay uninvolved because they believe that no one is foolish enough to risk death by burying Polyneices, suggesting that they assume the entire city is as tired of death, destruction, and misery as they are. It is too early to suggest that Creon is Antigone's direct opponent, but Sophocles has already hinted at Creon's tragic flaw. He believes in revenge - the idea that Polyneices must be 'shamed' in death in order to right his wrong - an act that seems directly antithetical to the Chorus' wish to relegate the pain to the past (I. 206). Creon is thus perpetuating the legacy of Oedipus' curse, and we begin to see that as long as Polyneices remains unburied, the plague on Thebes will continue.