In Antigone, what role do the gods play in the story?
The role of the gods in Antigone is important, not so much in terms of direct involvement, but more in relation to the indirect influencing of events. The central act of the play is Antigone's fateful decision to defy Creon's ordinance and bury her brother's body. In doing so, she is not simply honoring Polynices's memory—she is honoring the gods; she is assenting to a higher law, a divine law:
“I know I am pleasing those I should please most.”
Pleasing the gods means more to Antigone than pleasing Creon. Divine law must always take precedence over mere human law. Antigone isn't simply hiding behind the gods to justify willful disobedience to Creon; from the start she's anxious to honor the gods in the correct way:
“The time in which I must please those that are dead / is much longer than I must please those of this world.”
Antigone is looking at the bigger picture; the gods will always be much more important than mortals. They provide the background against which the action of the drama develops. Yet, at various points in the play, the Chorus hints at more direct divine intervention:
"With wisdom had someone declared
a word of distinction:
that evil seems good to one whose mind
the gods leads to ruin,
and but for the briefest moment of time
is his life outside of calamity."
The implication is that everything that happens in the play was set in train by the gods. But, for the most part, the gods keep their distance from the unfolding action. Their absence adds to the profoundly human drama before us, one in which individual choices have significant, as well as deeply tragic, repercussions.
References to the gods occur throughout the play, and the behavior of the characters is often assessed in terms of what the gods would approve or disapprove. Early in the play, Antigone draws a sharp distinction between the laws of the gods and the laws of men. When Ismene protests that the laws of Creon are strong and must not be ignored, Antigone replies:
You may do as you like,
Since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you.
Antigone also declares that if she must die for burying her brother, then hers will be a holy crime. She believes that Creon's cruel edict is his own, not one from the gods, and she reminds him that their will supersedes his:
Your edict, King, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative forever, beyond man utterly.
Antigone's views are borne out by the play's conclusion. Teiresias warns Creon that the gods will punish his sins against Antigone and Polyneices in a swift and terrible way. Creon's punishment is delivered with the deaths of both his wife Eurydice and son Haimon; after their loss, Creon wishes only for the comfort of his own death.
The gods' role in the play, then, is one of moral judgment and punishment for those who defy their will in favor of their own. This theme is stated by Coragos in the play's end:
There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Antigone understood this truth; Creon did not, to his sorrow.