Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1402
Before the action of the play begins, Thebes has recently repelled an invading force, led by Polynices, who was attempting to take control of the throne of Thebes from his brother, Eteocles. The two brothers kill one another in combat, in fulfillment of a curse placed upon them by Oedipus, their father. As a result, Creon, the brothers’ uncle and Oedipus’s brother-in-law, is now king of Thebes.
The first scene takes place outside the palace gates. Antigone speaks with her sister, Ismene, about the death of their two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles. She bemoans the tragedies that have befallen their family and informs her sister of Creon’s impending order to leave Polynices unburied, which deprives him of rights in the afterlife, under pain of death by public stoning. Antigone, who finds the denial of divine rights for her brother repugnant, asks Ismene to assist her in defying the king’s order. Her plan is to bury Polynices under cover of darkness, before the order is made known and before the body is guarded. She believes that the bond of blood and the will of the gods is far more important than any law created by people, and she is willing to bear the penalty of death in order to bury her brother properly.
Ismene, however, is keenly aware of the constant tragedy that befalls their family and wants to avoid a situation that would cause even more death. She therefore refuses to help Antigone bury Polynices, arguing that the plan is pointless and tantamount to suicide, and suggesting further that women have no power or place in these political matters.
Antigone responds with contempt, saying that she will bury Polynices herself and insisting that she would rather die gloriously by doing what is right by the gods than to live dishonorably.
Antigone and Ismene exit, and the chorus enters to recount the battle that has just occurred for the throne of Thebes and that culminated in the deaths of Polynices and Eteocles. The song attributes the Theban victory to fate, directed by Zeus’s will.
Creon, the newly crowned king, then enters and speaks of Thebes as a righted ship having just come out of a storm. He asserts that the good of the state is fundamental and must never be placed above the good of individuals—even one’s own blood. He decrees that Eteocles is to be buried with the full honors of a Theban hero. Polynices, however, who fought amongst the enemies of Thebes, will be left unburied to rot in the sun and be picked apart by dogs and birds, as a public spectacle illustrating what happens to traitors.
A sentry, one of the men ordered to guard Polynices’s body, then appears before Creon. He describes his reluctance to bring bad news to the king, but eventually divulges that the body of Polynices had been given minimal burial rites sometime during the night, before the guards arrived. Dust had been placed on the body and libations had been poured out, which goes directly against Creon’s order.
The leader of the chorus, made up of the elders of Thebes, interjects, asking if the burial rites could have been the work of the gods themselves, an act ensuring that their divine will be done.
Enraged, Creon rejects the idea that the gods would ever honor traitors. He asserts that one or several of the guards must have been bribed to defy the orders of a new king. Money, argues Creon, is the source of corruption. He then orders the sentry to find out who performed the rites and whose money funded the bribe, so that all those responsible may be subject to severe punishment.
Creon re-enters the palace, and the sentry leaves. The chorus sings a song about the various wonders of the world, of which human beings are the greatest of all. They recount the ways in which humans come to greatness and mastery over the natural world, but warn that death is the one province over which human beings hold no power, as no one can ever become so great as to overcome the inevitability of death.
These first scenes set up the main conflict of the play, as well as the two main characters who will embody this conflict. Having won the battle and repelled their enemies, Thebes was finally at peace. Creon’s first order as king, however, is the source of the play’s tragedy.
At its heart, Antigone is a play about the way a state ought—or, indeed, ought not—to function in relation to the political and the divine. On one end of the conflict is the natural order, or the divine law, that governs family, blood, fate, and death; on the other end is political order, which governs the laws of human beings and the structures by which human beings assert power. A successful state balances these two forms of power, the human and the divine, in a way that pleases the gods and leads to human flourishing. The tragedy of Antigone occurs as the natural result of these two forms of power coming into conflict.
Creon’s decree that Polynices not be buried is meant to be a punishment that is worse than mere death. Being deprived of his death rites, Polynices will be punished for eternity and unable to transition into the afterlife. By ordering such a punishment for treason—a fundamentally political crime—Creon takes his first step towards tyranny by attempting to assert power not only over the state, but also over death itself. In this way, Creon oversteps the power of a king and encroaches on the natural order of the afterlife, which is the province of the gods.
Furthermore, Creon’s prescribed punishment for disobeying the order not to bury Polynices is to bring the offender before the public, who would perform the execution as a group effort. Similarly, when told of the clandestine burial of Polynices, Creon is quick to dismiss any notion of the gods’ will and blames money instead, which has value only by virtue of the state. These decisions show Creon’s single-minded pursuit of the state’s interests and his symbolic role as the public rather than the private, the political rather than the familial, the human rather than the divine.
Conversely, Antigone is motivated by the bonds of blood—indeed, by the prescribed role of a woman in ancient Greek society to ensure the rights of dead family members—and by piety to the gods. This is clear even from the very first line of the play, “My own flesh and blood,” spoken by Antigone herself. Her opening speech explicitly concerns family, blood, fate, and death, which are Antigone’s primary motivating factors.
Antigone’s first act in the play is to consult her sister and last remaining blood relative, Ismene, to ask for assistance in the act of burying Polynices. Ismene’s reaction, one of fear and caution, is perhaps the more level-headed approach, and this contrasts pointedly with Antigone’s single-minded pursuit of the gods’ justice. Indeed, just as with Creon, Antigone is entirely willing to step over family members in order to enact what she feels is right, practically disowning Ismene when she refuses to help. There is irony in this approach for Creon and Antigone alike, because the thing both characters lack is deference to the other’s point of view. Just as Creon attempts to extend his power from the political to the divine, so Antigone attempts to wield divine power over the political.
Indeed, it is important to note that Antigone is decidedly disrespecting the power of a Theban king, which extends from the will of Zeus, in her drive to respect the gods’ will by carrying out Polynices’s burial rites. Both Antigone and Creon invoke Zeus’s will as the justification for their actions, and this fundamental conflict is what sets in motion a pathway fated to end in tragedy.
Put simply, Zeus’s true will lies somewhere between Antigone’s and Creon’s viewpoints, as does the balance of the ideal city-state. Zeus’s justice occurs when the political and the divine coexist with due respect and without overlap. This is foreshadowed by the chorus’s second song, which warns that the one thing beyond the control of human beings is the realm of the dead.
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