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The story of Antigone revolves around Oedipus' daughter, Antigone, and Creon, Oedipus' brother-in-law who has become king of Thebes. The opening of the story depicts in narrative a great battle that has just been fought. Although the city of Thebes has triumphed, it has lost its king in the fighting. Creon, the new king, decrees as his first official act that the body of Polyneices, the defeated invader, shall remain unburied as a symbol of corruption.
Creon's decree has barely been made public when he receives word that an attempt has been made to bury the corpse by the princess Antigone, sister of the dead Polyneices and niece of Creon. When Antigone is accused, she makes no attempt to conceal her deed and challenges Creon's right to make laws that are in conflict with the will of the gods, who have provided for religious burial and atonement for those killed in battle. Creon, however, refuses to pardon Antigone for breaking his law. He sentences her to be walled up in a cave to die of suffocation. When Creon's son, Haimon, hears of the sentence to kill Antigone, he rushes to his father and begs him to spare her because she and he are engaged to be married. Creon refuses, and Haimon curses his father as he exits.
Next enters the wise, old prophet Teiresias. At first he urges Creon to reconsider the decrees concerning Polyneices and Antigone. Then he describes to Creon the frightful consequences that will befall him if he doesn't compromise his law. Creon is terrified. He has learned to believe Teiresias. He hurries out to supervise the burial of Polyneices and the release of Antigone. Too late. Antigone has hanged herself. With her is his son, who stabs himself as his father watches in horror. Returning to the palace with Haimon's body, Creon is greeted with the news that his wife, Eurydice, on hearing of her son's death, has also stabbed herself. Stunned and broken in spirit, Creon is led away as the play ends.
Antigone was a popular play and was frequently staged at the festival of Dionysus. Much of the play's success was due to the characterizations of Creon and Antigone, two of the most fully drawn character portraits of Sophocles. Creon, a pathetic man more patriotic and sincere than intentionally harmful, is a fine example of the authority figure who is too rigid and inflexible to admit mistakes or errors in judgment until it is too late. Antigone, a headstrong and passionate young woman more stubborn than sensible, is a fine example of the youthful and energetic crusader for right who refuses to compromise her principles, even when her life is threatened.
There are also many fine minor characters in the play, especially the dashing and handsome Haimon and the long-suffering Eurydice. The play itself has won critical acclaim as Sophocles' best poetic tragedy, especially in the writing of the choral odes. But the popularity of the story is obviously due to its dramatization of human emotions and exploration of basic principles of truth and justice.
The play begins as Antigone and Ismene, daughters of Oedipus, enter from the palace to discuss King Creon's edict refusing burial to their brother, Polyneices, because he is considered a traitor to Thebes. Antigone begs her sister to help bury Polyneices as an act of conscience, but Ismene is afraid and refuses. The sisters depart after Antigone ridicules Ismene's weakness and timid assistance.
The Chorus enters to sing an ode of praise that peace has been restored to the city with the recent victory of the Theban army. It also describes the bloody battle, particularly the combat in which the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other in hand-to-hand combat.
Creon, the new king of Thebes, enters to thank the Chorus for its faith and loyalty. He promises to be a wise ruler and pledges to keep the interests of the city and its people foremost in his decisions. As the Chorus applauds Creon's wisdom, the king informs them that Polyneices will not be buried because he is a "traitor." Creon hopes that the sight of Polyneices' decaying body at the gates of the city will be an object lesson to others. Creon is interrupted by a frightened sentry, who reports that someone has attempted to bury Polyneices. Creon accuses the sentry of having accepted a bribe to permit this to happen and threatens to execute him if the rebel is not found immediately.
The Chorus chants a melodious ode proclaiming the beauty of nature and the wisdom of mankind. It concludes its song with an unexpected note of sadness as all are reminded that death visits even the greatest of men.
The sentry enters quickly with Antigone, who has been caught at the graveside of Polyneices. Antigone admits that she knew of Creon's edict but refused to obey it because it did not come from "God." Creon at first can't believe that his own niece would be the rebel who tried to bury the traitor Polyneices. He sends for Ismene to see what role she might have played in this treasonable act. Ismene tearfully confesses that she was a partner in the crime, but Antigone denies any help and insists that she acted alone. Creon decides that they are both insane and orders them taken away.
The Chorus sings a sad ode that recalls the tragic story of the ancient curse that afflicted the descendants of the house of Labdacus-including Laios, Oedipus, and now the children of Oedipus. The Chorus points out that the laws of Zeus are divine and that no one can oppose the will of the gods.Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version