Sophocles's Antigone is the final play of his Oedipus cycle and portrays the fates of Oedipus's four children: his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
After the events of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus abdicates the throne of Thebes, and his sons agree to share the kingship, each taking command on alternating years. Eteocles refuses to give up the throne once he has control of it, however, and the city is plunged into civil war between the brothers. Antigone opens at the end of that war. Eteocles and Polyneices are both dead, and Oedipus's brother-in-law, Creon, has now ascended to the throne. Creon has ordered that Eteocles be buried with the honor due a dead king, while Polyneices must be left to rot outside the city walls as a warning to any dissident factions within Thebes.
Antigone learns of this decree before Ismene does and pulls Ismene aside to express her outrage that not only will Polyneices not receive a burial, anyone who attempts to bury him privately will be stoned to death in punishment.
Such, it is said, is the edict that the good Creon has laid down for you and for me—yes, for me— . . . This is how things stand for you, and so you will soon show your nature, whether you are noble-minded, or the corrupt daughter of a noble line.
She delivers this news to Ismene as both an invitation and a challenge, implying that surely Ismene is just as horrified as Antigone ("he is my brother, and yours too, even if you wish it otherwise") and must also feel compelled to defy Creon's order. If Ismene does not share Antigone's feelings, she is evidently "corrupt." Ismene asks whether Antigone truly intends to go against the king's command, to which Antigone replies,
[Creon] has no right to keep me from my own.
Antigone knows the risk she is asking her sister to accept but asserts that in the face of such rank injustice, no risk is too great. Her attitude from the very first line is aggressive, stubborn, and single-minded. The series of tragedies that has befallen her family in recent years has left her cold and hard, and she is determined that her brother Polyneices will not be subject to yet another indignity in death.
Ismene has suffered along with her sister; she, too, has lost everyone. Her reaction is very different:
And now we, in turn—we two who have been left all alone—consider how much more miserably we will be destroyed, if in defiance of the law we transgress against an autocrat's decree or his powers. No, we must remember . . . that we are ruled by the more powerful, so that we must obey in these things and in things even more stinging . . . It is foolish to do what is fruitless.
Ismene does not want to try to wrest some dignity back from the hands of Fate; she wants to survive whatever curse has been laid upon her family, and she is willing to bow her head to any number of "stinging" things if that is the price of survival. It is "fruitless" to fight against "those who have come to authority." Ismene argues that, as women, she and Antigone are essentially powerless in their society and should mold their characters to fit their social roles. Antigone rejects this stance and Ismene herself, disgusted by Ismene's acquiescence:
I would not encourage you—no, nor, even if you were willing later, would I welcome you as my partner in this action. No, be the sort that pleases you. I will bury him—it would honor me to die while doing that.
Ismene begs her not to bury Polyneices and incur Creon's punishment, but Antigone storms off the stage, determined to go through with her plan. The central conflict between the sisters here is neatly summed up by Shakespeare's Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, where he asks,
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Ismene believes it is her duty to suffer, while Antigone believes it is her duty to "take arms." In the end, Antigone's actions do not end her family's "sea of troubles" except insofar as her family is now utterly destroyed—only Ismene survives. But she contends throughout the play that she would rather die doing what she thinks is right than live "corruptly," purely for the sake of living.