The ancient Greek play Antigone examines the conflict between the corrupt King Creon and Antigone, who wishes to honor her brother.
- After King Oedipus’s death, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, begin a civil war. The brothers kill each other.
- Creon, the brothers’ uncle and the new king of Thebes, orders that Polynices’s body be left to rot as punishment for his treason.
- Antigone, Polynices’s sister, defies Creon and performs burial rites for her brother. Creon sentences her to death.
- When the prophet Tiresias convinces Creon to let Antigone live, he relents, only to discover that she has committed suicide.
Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
The play begins outside the palace of Thebes, not long after invading forces from Argos have successfully been repelled. Polynices, who sought to overthrow his brother, Eteocles, led the unsuccessful army. During combat, the two brothers—both sons of Oedipus—killed one another, and their uncle, Creon, is now king of Thebes. Antigone and Ismene, sisters of Polynices and Eteocles, are meeting in secret.
Antigone has called her sister to meet outside the palace gates for an urgent purpose. Creon is about to issue a decree that will ensure a hero’s burial for Eteocles but leave Polynices, seen as a traitor, unburied and unmourned. Worse still, Creon is to decree that anyone caught giving Polynices a burial will be sentenced to death. However, Polynices is still Antigone’s brother. She believes it is his right to receive a proper burial and intends to give him one herself. She asks Ismene to assist her in the work. Ismene, fearful of a death sentence, refuses. Antigone, who is headstrong and severe, tells Ismene she hates her and leaves to perform the burial on her own.
The chorus sings an ode, describing the battle that recently took place.
Creon appears before the chorus—the elders of Thebes—to declare that the city is safe and that, under his leadership, it will stay on the right course. As such, he makes his decree that Polynices, a traitor who took up arms against the city and killed the former king, Eteocles, must be left to rot without burial. Creon further insists that anyone who is caught attempting to bury the traitor will be sentenced to death by public stoning.
At this moment, a sentry enters, informing the king that someone has already given Polynices his burial rites. As if they were in a rush, they have only performed the minimal requirements, covering the body with dust and pouring out libations. Creon, enraged, orders his guards to find the culprit.
The chorus then sings a hymn about the wonders that human beings are capable of—while also lacking the ability to avoid death’s inevitable grasp.
The guards clean the dust from Polynices’s corpse and move the body elsewhere, and Antigone is subsequently caught trying to rebury the body. The sentry returns to Creon with Antigone as his prisoner. She makes no effort to hide or deny her actions and, when asked, tells the king that she does not care if the penalty is death, because she was only doing what was right in the eyes of the gods.
Ismene is summoned, and she tells Creon that she was involved in the plan, but Antigone denies her involvement. Furious at being undermined, Creon sentences Antigone to death.
The chorus sings of the inevitability of the will of Zeus. The gods’ power led to the tragedy of Oedipus and now leads to tragedy for his offspring.
Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, enters. Having heard that his love is sentenced to death, he tries to reason with his father. Although the discussion begins respectfully, Haemon and Creon become increasingly agitated. Haemon informs his father that the public sentiment in Thebes is sympathetic towards Antigone: most people agree that she was only being pious and does not deserve a death sentence.
This infuriates Creon, who feels as though he is being undermined, and he threatens to have Antigone killed in front of Haemon’s eyes. Fearing that his father is falling into tyranny and madness, Haemon warns Creon that Antigone’s execution will produce two corpses, and he exits. Creon then decides that he will no longer execute Antigone by stoning but will instead bury her alive in a tomb until she dies by either starvation or suicide.
The chorus sings an ode to the depth and powers of Eros and Aphrodite.
Antigone is led towards the tomb in which she is to be buried alive. As this happens, she and the chorus sing responses to one another. The chorus, representing the people of Thebes, expresses sympathy for Antigone and says that they might have done the same thing in her position. They are sorrowful that Antigone is condemned to death. Antigone is also sorrowful, bemoaning the grief and torment suffered by her family, and she admits that she does not want to die.
Creon enters the scene and tells the guards to hurry up and seal Antigone in the tomb that is to be her macabre wedding chamber. Before being sealed inside, Antigone expresses her piety toward the gods and curses those who have punished her unjustly.
The chorus sings, comparing Antigone to various mythological and historical figures who have also suffered greatly at the hands of fate.
Back in the king’s chambers, the blind prophet Tiresias comes before Creon to inform him that he has foreseen misery and death in the future unless the king reverses his decision. Creon, feeling as though the whole city is against him, insists that he will do as he sees fit. Tiresias, however, tells Creon that he is a fool for punishing Antigone in this way, and that he has offended the gods for denying Polynices a proper burial. The Furies will come to exact vengeance, Tiresias warns, if Creon does not bury Polynices and release Antigone.
Finally seeing his error in judgment, Creon admits that although it hurts his pride to do so, he must heed Tiresias’s warning. He exits with his men to bury Polynices and free Antigone from her tomb.
The chorus celebrates the king’s decision with a song to Dionysus.
When the chorus finishes singing, however, a messenger appears bringing grave news. After finally burying Polynices, Creon and his men go to the tomb of Antigone and find that she is already dead, having hanged herself. Haemon, already inside the tomb, spits at Creon and swings his sword, just missing his father. In the depths of his grief, Haemon instead turns the sword on himself; in death, he embraces Antigone forever, “body enfolding body” (line 1369). The messenger gives this news to Eurydice, the queen and Haemon’s mother, and Eurydice kills herself, stabbing herself in the chest at the palace altar and blaming Creon with her last breath.
Creon, now grieving the loss of his family, sees the error of his ways and bemoans his tyranny and folly. Having lost all he holds dear, Creon asserts that he has been reduced to nothing and become nonexistent. He is taken away by his men, praying to the gods for his own death.
The chorus delivers a few final words reminding the audience that there is wisdom to be found in tragedy: they sing that the “mighty blows of fate . . . will teach us wisdom” (lines 1469–1470).