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Before the beginning of the play, two brothers leading opposite sides in Thebes' civil war died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has decided that Eteocles will be honored and Polyneices will be in public shame. The rebel brother's body will not be sanctified by holy rites, and will lie unburied on the battlefield, prey for carrion animals like worms and vultures, the harshest punishment at the time. Antigone and Ismene are the sisters of the dead Polyneices and Eteocles. In the opening of the play, Antigone brings Ismene outside the palace gates late at night for a secret meeting: Antigone wants to bury Polyneices' body, in defiance of Creon's edict. Ismene refuses to help her, fearing the death penalty, but she is unable to stop Antigone from going to bury her brother herself, causing Antigone to disown her.
Creon enters, along with the Chorus of Theban Elders. He seeks their support in the days to come, and in particular wants them to back his edict regarding the disposal of Polyneices' body. The Chorus of Elders pledges their support. A Sentry enters, fearfully reporting that the body has been buried. A furious Creon orders the Sentry to find the culprit or face death himself. The Sentry leaves and the Chorus sings about honouring the gods, but after a short absence he returns, bringing Antigone with him. The Sentry explains that the watchmen exhumed Polyneices' body and they caught Antigone as she buried him again. Creon questions her after sending the Sentry off, and she does not deny what she has done. She argues unflinchingly with Creon about the morality of the edict and the morality of her actions. Creon becomes furious, and, thinking Ismene must have known of Antigone's plan, seeing her upset, summons the girl. Ismene tries to confess falsely to the crime, wishing to die alongside her sister, but Antigone will not have it. Creon orders that the two women be temporarily imprisoned.
Haemon, Creon's son, enters to pledge allegiance to his father, even though he is engaged to Antigone. He initially seems willing to forsake Antigone, but when Haemon gently tries to persuade his father to spare Antigone, claiming that 'under cover of darkness the city mourns for the girl', the discussion deteriorates and the two men are soon bitterly insulting each other. Haemon leaves, vowing never to see Creon again.
Creon decides to spare Ismene and to bury Antigone alive in a cave. She is brought out of the house, and she bewails her fate and defends her actions one last time. She is taken away to her living tomb, with the Chorus expressing great sorrow for what is going to happen to her.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, enters. He warns Creon that Polyneices should now be urgently buried because the gods are displeased, refusing to accept any sacrifices or prayers from Thebes. Creon accuses Tiresias of being corrupt. Tiresias responds that because of Creon's mistakes, he will lose "a son of [his] own loins" for the crimes of leaving Polyneices unburied and putting Antigone into the earth (he does not say that Antigone should not be condemned to death, only that it is improper to keep a living body underneath the earth). All of Greece will despise him, and the sacrificial offerings of Thebes will not be accepted by the gods. The Chorus, terrified, asks Creon to take their advice. He assents, and they tell him that he should free Antigone and bury Polyneices. Creon, shaken, agrees to do it. He leaves with a retinue of men to help him right his previous mistakes. The Chorus delivers a choral ode to the god Dionysus (god of wine and of the theater; this part is the offering to their patron god), and then a Messenger enters to tell them that Haemon has killed himself. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, enters and asks the Messenger to tell her everything. The Messenger reports that Haemon and Antigone have both taken their own lives, Antigone by hanging herself, and Haemon by stabbing himself after finding the body, just after Polyneices was buried. Eurydice disappears into the palace.
Creon enters, carrying Haemon's body. He understands that his own actions have caused these events. A Second Messenger arrives to tell Creon and the Chorus that Eurydice has killed herself. With her last breath, she cursed her husband. Creon blames himself for everything that has happened, and, a broken man, he asks his servants to help him inside. The order he valued so much has been protected, and he is still the king, but he has acted against the gods and lost his child and his wife as a result. The Chorus closes by saying that although the gods punish the proud, punishment brings wisdom.
Antigone is the tragic heroine of the play. Compared to her beautiful and docile sister, Antigone is portrayed as the rebel of her family who seems withdrawn and refuses to play by the rules. The beginning of the play suggests Antigone’s rebellious side, the fact that Ismene seems terrified to disobey Creon for fear of his death penalty, while Antigone tells her Creon does not frighten her. Antigone rebels against the fundamental rules of her society that states that women must be afraid of the men who are considered dominant. Antigone proves to be noble and wise. She defies Creon’s decree despite the consequences she may face, because she feels she must commit acts of sisterly love towards her brother. She is shown to be kind hearted and courageous, for she bravely allows Creon to humiliate her in public and send her to the death chamber. Understanding she will soon be put to death, she insists she obeyed the gods and committed acts of honor, meaning she will be rewarded. Sophocles attempts to show how Antigone’s intelligence and wisdom may have led to her death, yet will reward her with a prosperous afterlife.
Ismene is portrayed as the “good girl” of the family. Considered the beautiful one, she is obedient and submissive. She refuses to bury Polyneices because she fears Creon and plays by the rules of her society which state that men are dominant. Despite her cowardice, later she begs to die with Antigone, showing her kindheartedness and sisterly love.
Creon is the current King of Thebes. His fatal flaw, pride, leads to the tragic death of Antigone, his niece. However the death of Antigone causes the death of both Haemon, his son, and Eurydice, his beloved wife. At the end he learns his lesson but is forced to live the rest of his life in shame.
Eurydice of Thebes is the Queen of Thebes and Creon’s wife. She is not portrayed much in the play except towards the end, after hearing of her only son Haimon’s death, she commits suicide due to her grief. She curses Creon and blames him for her son’s death, screaming that she hopes he dies and is punished by the gods. Eurydice is clearly unlike her husband, and is shown to be more reasonable and kindhearted than he is.
Haemon is the son of Creon and Eurydice who is betrothed to Antigone. He is unlike his ruthless and foolish father. Proven to be more kindhearted and quieter, he attempts to stand up to his father for the sake of Antigone; he begs him to listen to her and be reasonable. However, when Creon refuses to listen to him, Haimon runs off angrily and shouts he will never see him again, clearly showing his love for Antigone outweighs his fear of his father. He later commits suicide after finding Antigone dead, yet just before he does attempts to kill his father due to his anger.
Tiresias is the blind prophet; despite being physically blind, he is able to see the truth and predicts prophecies. Sophocles plays with the word blind in this case; he attempts to show how Tiresias can see despite being blind, whereas Creon cannot see despite having full eyesight. Creon cannot see the truth, which is far more important than physical sight as Sophocles presents. Portrayed as wise and full of reason, Tiresias attempts to warn Creon of his foolishness and tells him the gods are angry. He manages to convince Creon and has him bury Polyneices, yet he is too late to rescue Antigone.
The Chorus consists of a group of eldery Theban men. Their sole purpose is to comment on the action in the play and add to the suspense and emotions, as well as connecting the story to myths. In Antigone, the Chorus often take the side of Creon, because they respect him and also fear him. However, over time, they begin to urge him to be more moderate. Their pleading is what causes Creon not to sentence Ismene to death along with Antigone. They also advise Creon to take Tiresias's advice. In a way, the Chorus indirectly save Creon at numerous points throughout the play, clearly showing they are far more important than to just stand and comment on the action.[full citation needed]
- Historical context
- Notable features
- Significance and interpretation
- Modern adaptations
- Translations and adaptations
- Further reading