English and Language Arts Department
HIGH SCHOOL OF FASHION INDUSTRIES
Table of Contents:Essay
Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the last play in the Theban Trilogy, Antigone, around 442 B.C. The Theban Trilogy consists of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, but the play considered the last of the three was, ironically, written first. Only seven of Sophocles's one hundred-twenty-three tragedies have survived to the modern era—with the trilogy surviving the ages intact. These three plays are perhaps the most famous of the seven, with Antigone performed most often.
Antigone tells the story of the title character, daughter of Oedipus (the former king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, and who renounced his kingdom upon discovering his actions), and her fight to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebes. It is a story that pits the law of the gods—"unwritten law"—against the laws of humankind, family ties against civic duty, and man against woman.
Many playwrights in Ancient Greece used mythological stories to comment on social and political concerns of their time. This is what Sophocles may have intended when he wrote Antigone. Based on the legends of Oedipus, Sophocles may have been trying to send a message to the Athenian general, Pericles, about the dangers of authoritarian rule.
These tragedies were written to be performed at the Great Dionysia (a festival in honor of the god Dionysus, the god of fertility, theater, and wine) in Athens. Attending these plays was considered a civic duty, and even criminals were let out of jail to attend. Antigone won Sophocles first prize at the festival and was an enormous success. It is still performed today, and has been adapted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, who set the play during World War II.
Antigone opens shortly before dawn outside of the palace at Thebes, where Antigone meets her sister Ismene. Together they grieve over the losses their family has suffered. First, their father, Oedipus, had unknowingly murdered his own father, ascended the throne, and married his mother. When Oedipus discovered this, he put out his eyes and wandered as an exile from Thebes until his death. Then their brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had killed each other in a battle between Thebes and the city of Argos. Now, because Polyneices fought against Thebes, Creon, the new king of Thebes, has ordered that his corpse remain unburied, thus condemning his spirit to roam the earth for one hundred years.
Grieved, Antigone calls on Ismene to join her in carrying out their duty to their brother in spite of the edict. Antigone appeals to her sister's familial duty. Ismene, on the other hand, argues that, as women, they should not question the decisions of men—especially an edict from the king. Each fails to persuade the other and the sisters exit as the chorus of elders approaches.
Because Thebes has stood victorious in the battle against Argos, the chorus calls for a celebration. Then, as they begin to wonder why they have been summoned to the palace, Creon, newly crowned as king over the city-state, comes from the palace. He asks the elders to show him the same loyalty they had previously awarded Oedipus. He restates his edict that Polyneices shall not be buried, vowing that no foe of the city shall be his friend. The chorus seems uncertain about administering Creon's edict and ask that younger men perform the task. One of the young men guarding the body of Polyneices comes forward.
The sentry guard tells Creon that someone has sprinkled dust on the body of Polyneices—an attempt at burial that violates Creon's decree. An elder suggests that the act is the work of a god. Creon disagrees and warns the old man against such foolish proclamations. It is base, he argues, to defy the state, not the glorious act of a god. The king suspects that money has provoked someone to attempt Polynieces's burial. Creon tells the sentry that he will be held responsible for the crime until the guard finds the actual perpetrator. He sends the sentry back to his post, commanding that he find the lawbreaker.
The chorus praises the wonder that is man and the cunning by which he can capture all of nature, or, conversely, escape nature's snares, all, that is, except death. Then the guard returns bringing Antigone as his captive. The guard reports that just after they had removed the dust from Polyneices, Antigone was caught trying to bury her brother a second time. When questioned by Creon, Antigone admits to both attempts at burial. Creon condemns her; Antigone asserts that she has done a noble deed by honoring her family and following the "unwritten law."
Creon suspects that, due to her odd behavior earlier, Ismene may be an accomplice in her sister's crimes. When she comes forth, the chorus of elders recognizes that Ismene is innocent; her tears are not of guilt but sorrow for her sister. Yet Creon demands her confession, and she gives it. Upon hearing this, Antigone states that she acted alone, absolving her sister of guilt. Ismene pleads for Antigone's life, reminding the king that not only is his prisoner family (Antigone is Creon's niece), she is also betrothed to his son, Haemon. Despite this, Creon will not reverse his judgement.
As Antigone and Ismene are led away, Haemon appears. He appeals to his father's ego, asking that he let Antigone go free to show the people that he is a kind and forgiving ruler. Though Creon briefly considers his son's advice, when Haemon notes that citizens are concerned for Antigone's welfare, the king sees that the argument is only made to free Antigone. He rejects his son's proposal, stating that he will not have his laws questioned by a woman, nor will he accede to the desires of his son. He vows to execute Antigone in Haemon's presence, but his son leaves, vowing that his father will never see him again. Creon decides to bury Antigone alive with enough food and water so that the city itself is not held to blame for her death.
Antigone is led to a cavern where she will be sealed inside of a tomb. The chorus of elders mourn for her, speaking of comparisons to Persephone, who also died young and without a husband. The chorus also seems to mock Antigone, however.
After Antigone has been led away, Teiresias, a blind seer, is brought before Creon. The prophet warns Creon that he is responsible for a sickness that has descended on Thebes. Polynieces's unburied body has polluted the city and the gods will hear no more prayers. The body is also polluting the cities close to Thebes, causing ill will toward Creon's city-state. Creon accuses the old man of trickery, stating that some enemy must have paid the seer to come and upset him. Teiresias accuses Creon of tyranny and selfishness, warning the king that he will lose his son and great grief will befall his house.
After Teiresias exits, Creon becomes fearful. He decides to heed the advice of the elders, allow Polynieces to be buried, and set Antigone free. When he exits the elders pray to Bacchus for the safe-keeping of the city.
A messenger enters and reports that Haemon has taken his own life. Eurydice, Creon's wife, comes from the palace to receive this information. She learns how Creon and his men first gave Polyneices an honorable burial, and how, when they came to Antigone's crypt, they found that she had hanged herself. Haemon, in grief, tried to stab his father and, failing this, impaled himself. Eurydice bears this news in silence, returning to the palace.
Creon returns to the palace bearing the body of his son. He is grief-stricken over the results of his own stubbornness. He then learns that Eurydice has also taken her own life. Creon begins to rave, calling himself a rash, foolish man whose life has been overwhelmed by death.
Antigone: Antigone, the daughter of Jocasta (sister of Creon) and daughter/half-sister of Oedipus (Jocasta's son/husband, King of Thebes), is a strong-willed young woman who decides to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle Creon, the new king. Following what she calls "unwritten law," Antigone buries her brother and performs the rituals of the dead. Creon, upon discovering her guilt, sentences her to die by being buried alive. When Creon goes to free Antigone from her early grave on the advice of Teiresias, he finds she's already hung herself, and his son, Haemon, her fiance, commits suicide to join her in death. Antigone is a representative of allegiance to family and tradition. By defying Creon's edict, she is showing her faith and sense of duty to her family. She personifies the belief that family and human relations should be placed above politics.
Antigone is committed to her ideals. When her sister Ismene refuses to help her bury their brother, she ends their relationship, and, when caught, she refuses to let Ismene share the punishment. When Creon tells her that she dishonors her dead brother Eteocles, she replies that he is dishonoring the gods by refusing to obey the unwritten laws of Zeus. Though she laments her fate, she later faces it defiantly. Antigone also represents contradictions, first defying her role as a woman, which is to remain silent and follow Creon's edict, and then lamenting that she will never be Haemon's bride. Yet her complex emotions and strength of conviction makes her unique as a Greek woman and have rendered her a compelling heroine for centuries.
Creon: Creon is Antigone's uncle, brother of her mother, Jocasta. He was proclaimed regent (or ruler) after Oedipus's tragic fall from power. He has raised his sister's children as his own following her descent into madness. He was to rule Thebes until Eteocles and Polyneices could rule together as adults. After their deaths he was proclaimed king in his own right.
Holding on to power and suppressing rebellion of any kind are Creon's main objectives when he orders Polyneices to remain unburied. When notified by a sentry that someone has defied his order, he holds the sentry responsible until the culprit is caught. Creon is unbending and will not listen to the advice of his elders (the Chorus) or Teiresias, the prophet. He is an autocrat, an absolute ruler.
Creon's refusal to obey what Antigone calls the "unwritten laws" regarding honoring the dead leads to his downfall. As the body of Polyneices "pollutes" the altars of Thebes and its neighboring kingdoms, Creon refuses to listen to advice and further angers the gods by sentencing Antigone to be buried alive as punishment for her betrayal of his edict. Even the pleas of his own son Haemon, Antigone's fiance, go unheard as he disowns his son for being less of a man for defending his love. Teiresias, the respected prophet, is branded a liar by Creon for predicting that this unbending stance will bring death to those he loves. Despite evidence that Teiresias has been right in the past, and is an honest man, Creon refuses to yield. It is only at the urging of the chorus leader that he relents but by then it is too late. Both Antigone and Haemon are dead by suicide, and their deaths are followed closely by the suicide of Creon's wife Eurydice. Creon's refusal to listen and to compromise lead to the loss of everything he loves, including power. He becomes a grief-stricken, broken man.
Ismene: Antigone's sister Ismene loves her sister and brothers, but she refuses to help Antigone bury Polyneices. She reminds her sister that according to their role as women, it is not for them to decide what is right or wrong. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is willing to share the punishment, but Antigone denies her sister's involvement. Ismene is devastated by the loss of her siblings, but because of her belief in her lack of status, she feels powerless to act on their behalf. Ismene acts as a foil for Antigone; while she demonstrates a woman living according to the traditional rules governing the behavior and status of Athenian women, Antigone represents a pioneering woman who governs herself according to a sense of personal empowerment and self-reliance.
Haemon: Haemon is the son of Creon and Eurydice and is engaged to be married to Antigone. He tries desperately to persuade his father to see reason by allowing Polyneices's burial and the release of Antigone, but Creon refuses and accuses his son of being a "slave" to Antigone. Disowned by his father, Haemon breaks into Antigone's tomb and, upon finding her dead, kills himself in front of his father. Haemon responds to Antigone's moral courage by sacrificing himself for her; his love and admiration for Antigone are so great that he cannot bear to live without her.
Teiresias: A respected prophet, the blind Teiresias was well known to ancient Greek audiences from the Theban legends. He is led by his boy assistant to Creon's palace to tell the king that he must reverse his edicts, bury Polyneices, and free Antigone. Using a ritual sacrifice, Teiresias determines that the "state is sick" and its altars "polluted" because Polyneices's body has been left to be eaten by animals. The live burial of Antigone only adds to the anger of the gods.
Creon accuses the prophet of lying for money, calling him a "prophetic profiteer." Teiresias counters by predicting the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice. He also predicts that the other nearby kingdoms will attack because of the pollution of their altars. Greek audiences of Sophocles's time would have readily accepted and believed Teiresias and his predictions. Oracles, fortune telling, and ritual sacrifices and offerings to the gods were part of everyday life in Greece at the time. His predictions serve to heighten the tension in the play and to set up the events for catharsis, the purging of fear and pity brought about by the events in the play.
Eurydice: Eurydice is Creon's wife and Haemon's mother. She appears late in the play, when she senses something is wrong with her family, and is then informed of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon by a messenger. She takes refuge inside the palace, and, as the messenger tells Creon: "She stabbed herself at the altar, then her eyes went dark . . . then with her dying breath she called down torments on your head—you killed her sons."
Sentry Guard: The sentry informs Creon at the beginning of the play that someone has buried and performed death rituals for Polyneices; he is held accountable for the crime until he goes back to the scene and catches Antigone in the act. The sentry then proudly brings Antigone to Creon, glad to have cleared himself of any wrongdoing. He claims to be concerned solely with his own welfare, though expresses regret at having implicated such a young woman.
Messenger: The messenger brings the news of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to Eurydice and the news of Eurydice's death to Creon. Greek tragedy demanded that the violence take place offstage; so a messenger served to inform the audience, and the other characters, of the action that has taken place offstage. The messenger in Antigone asserts to Eurydice that "Truth is always best," sparing her—and any other character to whom he brings news—no details and providing the simple truth. Pointing to the Haemon's body, and hinting at the death of the queen, the messenger tells Creon: "The grief that lies at hand you've brought yourself—the rest, in the house, you'll see it all too soon."
Koryphaios, also known as Chorus Leader, Leader: The Koryphaios is the chorus leader, who functions as an advisor to Creon. He expresses concern for Antigone, tries to support Haemon, and advises Creon to listen to Teiresias. He does, however, agree with both Creon and Antigone on some points, and support wavers between the two characters throughout the play.
Chorus: The Chorus is another convention of Greek drama. They, in Antigone, act as older Theban nobles who comment on the actions of the characters in the play and underline moral points. They also fill in the background of the civil war that pitted brothers Eteocles and Polyneices against each other. One of the choral passages in the play is called the "Ode to Man," which glorifies humankind's accomplishments but warns against ignoring the gods. The Chorus, however, supports Creon's decisions until it becomes evident that his rule has resulted in tragedy. Creon reminds the Chorus that they too signed Antigone's death warrant by supporting his policies.
Thomson Gale Document Number: EJ2101300096
Plot Summary: Antigone