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SCENE SUMMARIES AND NOTES
Note: Since this particular play has no divisions into acts and scenes, sections have been created and are designated by line numbers. Breaks have been inserted at the points when an important character enters or exits.
The Prologos or Expository Scene
The play begins with Antigone’s words addressed to her sister, Ismene. Antigone tells Ismene that their uncle, King Creon, has decreed that Polynices, their older brother, not be given a proper burial. Eteocles, their younger brother, has been buried with great honor as a hero, but Polynices’ body has been left to rot in the open, so that carrion and dogs can feed on it. Creon has ordered that no one should mourn for Polynices, and anyone who tries to bury him will be stoned to death.
Asserting that she will not betray the memory of her dead brother, Antigone invites Ismene to join her in the dangerous task of burying Polynices. Ismene advises her against breaking Creon’s law. She reminds Antigone about the ruin that has fallen upon their family. Creon, Ismene believes, will order their deaths if they decide to bury Polynices. Ismene holds the conventional belief that being a woman, she cannot challenge Creon’s decree.
Antigone does not force Ismene to help her. She decides to perform this task alone, and she thinks that it is a great honor to do so. She believes that she has a “duty towards the dead,” and she accuses Ismene of making weak excuses. She tells Ismene not to fear for her (Antigone’s) life.
When Ismene promises to keep Antigone’s plan a secret, Antigone asks her not to do so. Antigone would much rather have her deed made known to the world. She expresses her wish to die a noble death. Ismene admits that Antigone, though unwise, is unmatched in “faithful love.”
In the opening scene of the tragedy, the audience is introduced to the protagonist, Antigone. She is busy planning a proper burial for her dead brother. She appears strong-willed and is determined to break Creon’s law, even on penalty of death. In contrast, Ismene lacks the will to defy Creon. She is concerned only about her own survival and Antigone’s life. She considers Antigone’s plan to bury Polynices to be “fool-hardy.” While Ismene wants to live within the bounds of the laws of the state, Antigone is willing to break them in order to do what she thinks is morally right. She believes that she owes a duty to her brother. She describes her action as a “holy crime,” emphasizing that the law of the gods must take precedence over the law of the king. Antigone believes that she owes obedience to the divine law that demands a ritual burial for any human being.
The reader (or audience) is also given information regarding Creon’s proclamation when Antigone informs Ismene of the edict. Sophocles thus draws the audience (who, like Ismene, is ignorant of the situation) immediately into the center of things. Events are revealed naturally and chronologically.
Antigone plays the part of a messenger in this first scene as she informs her sister about recent happenings in Thebes. One also gets an insight into the contrast between the two sisters when Ismene speaks the following lines: “We need must bear in mind we are but women,/ Never created to contend with men.”
For Ismene, womanhood is weakness, and she submissively subscribes to the conventional view that women must obey men. Antigone, on the other hand, does not wish to please any man, least of all Creon. She is not the “hapless maiden” that Ismene describes her to be in this scene. Ismene realizes that despite her sister’s apparent lack of wisdom, there is in her (Antigone) a devotion to duty and a strong bond of familial love that remains faithful to the very end.
Towards the end of the scene, the sisters are still at odds with each other. Antigone cannot force Ismene to join her in breaking Creon’s law, nor can Ismene coerce Antigone into altering her decision regarding the burial of Polynices. In a way, Antigone’s desire to bury her dead brother is almost a death-wish. So that she can die an honorable death, she does not want her action to be kept secret. Here again, the two sisters are polar opposites of each other. While Antigone wishes to die heroically, Ismene chooses to live a meaningless and cowardly life, in conformity to Creon’s law. This fact is made more evident in a later scene when Antigone tells Ismene that she (Ismene) has, in fact, chosen life over death. However, Antigone prefers to die nobly rather than live a life of timidity and subjugation to conventional authority.