Lines 1–416 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,402 words.)