Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Antigone, Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), and Oedipus at Colonus are not a trilogy in the true sense. That is to say, they were not originally written to be performed on a single occasion. Rather, these three plays represent Sophocles’ return to the same body of myths several times during his long career as a dramatist. Nevertheless, the Theban plays, as they are called, together tell the complete story of Oedipus from the height of his power as king of Thebes to the execution of his daughter for the burial of his son, Polyneices.
Antigone, although it concerns the last events in the mythic history of this family, was the first of the three plays to be written. In it, certain elements of plot seem to indicate that Sophocles, in this early period of his career, was still imitating the works of his predecessor Aeschylus. For instance, both Antigone and Creon find themselves caught in a “double bind,” a situation in which they are doomed no matter which course of action they choose. Although Antigone suffers because she violates the law of Creon by burying her brother Polyneices, she would have neglected her religious duty had she left him unburied. Creon suffers because he regards his will as more important than the demands of the gods, although political pressures compelled him to punish the traitor of his city.
Antigone and Creon thus represent...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
King Oedipus has died in exile, leaving the Kingdom of Thebes to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. The king had decreed that his two sons are supposed to take turns as rulers; they agree, initially. After Eteocles refuses to step down after one year, the two brothers fight over the prize. Polynices attacks Thebes, leading to civil war, and in the end both brothers are dead, each by the other’s hand. Creon, their uncle, assumes the role of king. He gives a state funeral to Eteocles but orders that the body of Polynices be left to rot in the sun as an example to his supporters.
Antigone, Oedipus’s daughter, meets her sister Ismene at the gates to Creon’s palace in Thebes. Antigone feels duty bound to bury her brother Polynices despite Creon’s edict and asks her sister for help. Ismene refuses, arguing that as women they should not go against the decisions of men, especially those of the king.
The Chorus is summoned to the palace. Creon informs the Chorus that he claims the throne and that Polynices is to be left unburied. However, Antigone has stealthily sprinkled Polynices’ body with a layer of dirt, giving her brother a symbolic burial. A guard runs to Creon and reports the attempted burial. Creon is furious and accuses the guard of being involved. One of the elders says it is the work of a god, but Creon disagrees. He threatens to torture and kill the guard unless he captures the real perpetrator. The Chorus sings about the...
(The entire section is 686 words.)
Scene I Summary
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.
(The entire section is 181 words.)
Scene II Summary
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 Polyneices'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 entire section is 214 words.)
Scene III Summary
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 judgment.
(The entire section is 194 words.)
Scenes IV-V Summary
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.
(The entire section is 182 words.)
Scene VI Summary
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. Polyneices'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 Polyneices to be buried, and set Antigone free. When he exits the elders pray to Bacchus for the safe-keeping of the city.
(The entire section is 143 words.)
Scenes VII-VIII Summary
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.
(The entire section is 127 words.)