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 two sides that may be taken toward any issue of great importance. Antigone defends the will of the gods, emphasizing the bond that she has to her family more than that which she has toward the state. Creon defends the need for law and order in a community, viewing civil law as more important than the will of the individual.
While these two points of view come into conflict in the Antigone, Sophocles does not regard them both as equally correct. Every character in the play, including the chorus and even Creon himself in the end, declares that Antigone was right and that Creon was wrong. Yet the justice of Antigone’s cause is not sufficient to save her. Many characters in Sophoclean tragedy suffer, not despite being right, but because they were right.
The Antigone illustrates, therefore, that there is a price to be paid for heroic inflexibility. It is unthinkable that Antigone, as Sophocles has drawn the character, would choose compromise rather than death. Her destruction follows inevitably from her unswerving devotion to the cause in which she believes. Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of the Antigone that Creon also suffers because of his inflexibility and confidence. The very quality that made Antigone seem admirable makes Creon seem stubborn and petty. In the end, their fates are determined less by the nature of the cause that they defend than by the manner in which they defend it.
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 wonder of humanity, but for the city to be safe, humanity should both honor civil law and revere the gods.
The guards brush the dirt off Polynices’ body and then hide, looking to ambush whoever tries to rebury him. Antigone soon arrives and tries to bury Polynices again, but is caught by the guards. She is brought before Creon, where she readily confesses. They argue over her actions and his decree. Creon tries to reason with Antigone, urging her to renounce her crime and assuring her of total indemnity so that she can go on to marry Haemon as planned and, presumably, to lead a happy life. Antigone, however, will have none of Creon’s proffered happiness, preferring to die rather than to take part in her uncle’s political scheme. Creon decrees that she must die. Ismene is brought in and questioned. She demands that she share the guilt. Antigone argues with her.
Creon’s son Haemon argues with his father, trying to convince him to relent. Creon remains stubborn and Haemon threatens to die with Antigone. Creon decrees Antigone to be entombed alive. Antigone mourns her fate and the curse on her family. The Chorus is divided in loyalty between Antigone and Creon. Antigone defends her actions and asks the gods to punish Creon. The Chorus reminds the audience of others who suffered because they tried to subvert the gods’ will.
The blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that he has angered the gods and that Creon is to blame for the people’s prayers going unanswered. A sickness plagues Thebes, and neighboring cities bear Thebes ill will. Creon accuses the prophet of being paid to upset him. Tiresias calls Creon a tyrant and warns him that he will lose his son. This troubles Creon, and he asks the Chorus for council. They advise him to yield and release Antigone. Creon agrees and leaves. The Chorus then asks Dionysus to help Thebes.
A messenger arrives and relates to the Chorus what happened at the tomb. The messenger says that Creon and his men went to bury Polynices and to release Antigone, only to discover that she had killed herself. Haemon, weeping over her body, then kills himself before their eyes. Eurydice overhears the messenger. Creon arrives and openly accepts responsibility for the deaths of Antigone and Haemon. A second messenger arrives and tells him that his wife, too, has committed suicide. Creon prays for death. The Chorus delivers one of the moral lessons of the tragedy: Obedience to the laws of the gods comes first.