Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593
Antigone (an-TIH-guh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, engaged to marry Haemon, son of King Creon and Queen Eurydice of Thebes. After Oedipus’ death, Oedipus’ son Eteocles ascended to the throne, but after one year he broke an agreement with his brother Polynices to share power with him. This action provoked a civil war in which both brothers were killed. Creon then became king. He ordered that the body of Polynices not be buried in order to discourage further rebellion. Antigone realized that Creon’s decree violated Greek religious law, which required that a body be buried before a soul could cross the River Styx. Were she to obey Creon’s arbitrary law, Antigone would violate her religious beliefs. She risks her life to observe a higher moral code. Creon offers to spare her life if she promises not to try again to bury Polynices. Antigone refuses, however, to compromise her moral principles. Creon then condemns her to death. Antigone’s death provokes the suicides of both Haemon and Eurydice.
Creon, Oedipus’ brother, an uncle to both Antigone and Ismène. He is a cynical dictator who demands blind obedience to his laws from others but grants absolute powers to himself. He affirms that social order has nothing to do with moral and political freedom. He treats Antigone condescendingly and does not want to understand Antigone’s refusal to compromise her moral beliefs. Antigone correctly predicts that his abuse of power will alienate Creon from his family and his subjects. After the suicides of his son, Haemon, and his wife, Eurydice, Creon is alone, but no one feels pity for him.
The Nurse, a middle-aged woman who has cared for Antigone for many years. She wants Antigone to be happy. She relates that Antigone left home very early in the morning, but she does not imagine that it was to bury Polynices. Like all the other characters, she cannot predict that the serious but vulnerable Antigone will risk her life to remain faithful to her religious beliefs.
Ismène (ihs-MEE-nee), Antigone’s older sister, a vain and unsympathetic character. Ismène is excessively concerned with clothing and her physical appearance; only marriage and social success are important to her. She tells Antigone that young women should be indifferent to political and moral problems. Although Ismène claims to love her sister, she, like Creon, treats Antigone condescendingly. Ismène’s superficial arguments have no effect on Antigone.
Haemon, the son of Creon and Eurydice, a young adult. He and Antigone share a profound love for each other, and they look forward to having children together. When Haemon learns that Creon has condemned Antigone to death, he confronts his father. He rejects Creon’s specious assertion that maturity requires Haemon to accept unjust and amoral laws. Like Antigone, Haemon adheres to a higher moral code. Near the end of this play, both Haemon and his mother, Eurydice, commit suicide offstage.
The chorus and
The prologue, roles traditionally interpreted by the same actor. Both comment regularly on the moral and psychological significance of the actions in this tragedy. The chorus and the prologue express ethical reactions to Antigone’s self-sacrifice and to the suffering caused by Creon’s abuse of power.
The three guards
The three guards, decent people exploited by their military and political superiors. They do not understand why Creon so adamantly opposes burying Polynices. The guards carry out their orders to watch over Polynices’ body out of their fear of Creon.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476
Antigone, the protagonist, is driven by her fate, compelled even before the play begins, to act out her part till the end. Thus she is really two characters: an actress playing a role, and Antigone, the character she plays. This duality, however, disappears as the events of the play proceed, and it is with the thin and unbeautiful girl that the audience identi- fies. Antigone is a child-woman, too young, too thin for adulthood, yet too hard-headed to be treated as a child. She repeatedly proclaims that she is far too young for an early death, and the other characters frequently remark on her youth or her thinness, a characteristic of an undeveloped woman. Her childlike qualities also appear in her clumsy attempt at rivaling her sister Ismene’s beauty and sophistication by wearing makeup and a dress, and in her use of a child’s toy shovel to bury her brother. Antigone stands for the idealism of youth, which cannot survive in a corrupt world. Survival in such a world demands compromising one’s values. She is a woman in the sense of her firm stand against the world, and in her integrity. Like her father Oedipus, she pursues truth to the end, no matter the consequence. She carries her integrity to the point of breaking off her engagement to Hamon, to save him from pain. Unfortunately, she cannot save him from pain, since he refuses to return to the world of the living as she dictates. Antigone is such a purist that she refuses her sister’s assistance in burying their brother, because Ismene expresses a desire to abide by the law. When Ismene later tries to join her in condemnation, having committed no crime at all, Antigone refuses to accept her companionship. Antigone is too much of an idealist to function in the world. Her foil is Creon, a paragon of such compromise. They debate over what Antigone should do with her life- Creon prescribes getting fatter and producing children with Hamon, which Antigone disdains-in the pivotal scene of the play. In fact, Antigone’s role is so central to this play that every other character’s moral fiber has to be considered in relation to hers, the standard or ideal. Ultimately, she stands for personal integrity as opposed to the expediency of personal compromise, such as those Creon makes in his efforts to maintain the state. Against Creon’s compromises, Antigone emphatically states that it is her role to ‘‘say no and to die.’’ In her idealistic sacrifice Antigone became a heroic figure in occupied France, providing inspiration to the resistance movement as it fought against the German occupiers.
The Choir includes the Prologue, who initially introduces the characters as players in a play, thus deflating the illusion of theater because the ending is revealed from the first. The Chorus represents the ‘‘character’’ of the playwright, perhaps Jean Anouilh himself. The Prologue exaplins that Antigone is forced to play her role ‘‘till the end.’’ This statement suggests that the characters, just as real persons, cannot escape themselves, even within the made up world of the theater, the world of fantasy and assumed identities. The Chorus appears in the beginning and end of the play, creating a framework that draws attention to the theatricality of the play. Also, in the middle of the play, the Chorus presents a digression on tragedy, another jolt to those who may succumb to the illusion of reality. In their digression the Chorus defines tragedy as ‘‘tranquil,’’ since the end is known and inevitable. Its presence and tone add a sardonic twist to the play’s events. When Creon deliberates over what to do with Antigone, and nearly convinces himself that she really wants to die, the Choir calls Creon a fool and reminds him that his niece is only a child. In this role, the choir acts like the traditional Greek chorus, as a group of moraling elders.
Tired and careworn with the heavy affairs of state, Creon issues an edict against burying Polynices merely as a way of cementing his authority and restoring public order after the war. He hopes by this edict to discourage dissenters from rallying around the warrior, while giving a proper burial to the brother challenging his authority. He does not dream of encountering dissent from Antigone, essentially a family member and fellow ruler, so when he discovers her guilt, he tries to talk her out of repeating ‘‘ce geste absurde’’ of the ritual burial. Her stubborn piety (to her brother instead of to the state) exasperates him. For himself, Creon has chosen the path of saying ‘‘yes’’ to duty, ‘‘yes’’ to the world, ‘‘yes’’ to being king, and thus ‘‘yes’’ to compromise. He can see no other way to rule. In his attempt to convince Antigone not to persist with her burials, he discredits Polynices’ character, stripping away her last vestige of faith in fellow humans. In return, she forces him to face his own lost hope, reminding him of the idealistic boy he had once been, before he began his lifetime of compromise. At the end of the play, Creon must continue, now without the illusion of doing good, now he merely does.
The guard and his two cohorts, the other guards, fail in their vigilance over the dead body of Polynices, and while their attention wanders, Antigone dusts ritual dirt onto her brother’s body, completing a ritual burial in defiance of Creon’s law. Creon warns the guards that they will be killed if another oversight occurs. Therefore, when the guard catches Antigone and brings her to Creon, he cares nothing for her, but rather feels relieved at having redeemed himself. He and the other guards look no further than their own skins. The arresting guard is thirtynine, with two children—an average family man. He has seventeen years of service and wants nothing to stand in the way of his promotion, due in June. Thus, it takes some convincing from Antigone to bribe him (with a ring) to write a final letter to Hamon, which he botches so badly that Antigone realizes the futility of any final words. At the end of the play, the guards simply go on playing cards, immune to the tragedy around them, because their eyes are focused only on their own dim lives.
Hamon, son of Creon, loves Antigone, though he had dallied with Ismene before asking Antigone to marry him. Yet, it is Antigone he loves, most truly. He is so loyal and trusting that he at first keeps his promise not to speak after her announcement that they will never marry. When he fails to avert his father from fulfilling the law to punish his fiancee, he chooses to be buried with her in her cave, and when he finds she has hung herself, he plunges his sword into his own chest and dies.
Ismene is Antigone’s very feminine and beautiful sister, the woman with whom Hamon danced a whole evening the night before he suddenly and unexpectedly proposed to Antigone. Ismene is cautious, a rule-follower who counsels Antigone to leave their brother unburied and to leave to men the job of dying for one’s ideas. In this, Ismene disgusts her sister. When Ismene finally wants to join with Antigone and begs to be punished alongside her for the burial of their brother, Antigone scornfully refuses her company.
The Messenger’s role is revealed at the beginning of the play by the Prologue. He will announce the death of Hamon, and the gravity of his message preoccupies him as he awaits the start of the play. At the end, the Messenger tells a chilling tale of Hamon’s agonized death, and then departs.
Antigone affectionately calls this simple woman her old, ‘‘wrinkled apple.’’ The Nurse loves and remains loyal to Antigone throughout her ordeals, demonstrating Antigone’s humanity and her place in a traditional family. The Nurse adds comic relief from an otherwise rather dismal play. She concerns herself with Antigone’s rest and meals, completely unaware of and unable to understand the intricacies and import of Antigone’s defiance. The Nurse serves to emphasize the sacrifices that must be made for the sake of honor.
The Page is a young assistant to Creon, someone who accepts Creon as king and never questions his decisions, and who mindlessly keeps track of the king’s duties. The Page stays with Creon after the deaths of all of his immediate family. Even though he has ostensibly witnessed all of the events of the play, at the end he tells Creon that he wants to grow up. The Page represents the bureaucratic machine, ever performing the minor duties that keep the regime running, no matter how corrupt, inept, or misguided.