The main characters in Antigone are Antigone, Creon, Haemon, Ismene, and Tiresias.
- Antigone defies Creon by giving her brother, Polynices, a proper burial. She commits suicide after being sentenced to death.
- Creon, the king of Thebes, is a tyrant who abuses his power and loses his family.
- Haemon is Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé. He commits suicide after losing Antigone.
- Ismene is Antigone’s sister. She refuses to help Antigone with the burial rites but tries to share the blame afterward.
- Tiresias is a blind prophet who interprets the gods’ will.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646
Antigone is the protagonist of the play. She is Oedipus’s daughter and Creon’s niece. She is pious, brave, and loyal to her family. Upon returning to Thebes and learning that Creon has forbidden anyone from giving her brother, Polynices, a proper burial, Antigone decides to bury him herself. Rather than doing so in secret, Antigone is proud of her actions and readily claims responsibility. She accuses Creon of impiety and asserts the superiority of the so-called unwritten laws of the gods over the laws of men. Faced with execution, Antigone exclaims that she can die happily knowing that she preserved Polynices’s dignity in death. (Read extended character analysis on Antigone.)
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Creon is the King of Thebes and a recurring character throughout the Oedipus Trilogy. He rose to power after the deaths of Eteocles and Polynices, who inherited the throne from their father, Oedipus. Creon is a practiced statesman who has assisted the rulers of Thebes for many years. At the start of Antigone, he is well respected for his rational, level-headed approach to leadership. However, his cold rationality fails to account for the familial bonds that lead Antigone to bury her brother. He also disregards the gods’ demands that the dead be treated with dignity. (Read extended character analysis on Creon.)
Ismene is Antigone’s prudent and timid sister. Antigone asks her to help bury Polynices, but Ismene refuses. Though she believes that Antigone is doing the right thing, she is not brave enough to risk the consequences of disobeying Creon. She tells Antigone that their family has suffered enough and that breaking the law will only bring misfortune. In Ismene’s eyes, women are not meant to contend with men, because men hold almost all of the power in Theban society. However, when Antigone is sentenced to death, Ismene asks to die alongside her sister. Antigone angrily rebuffs her, telling Ismene that she has no right to claim the punishment for a deed she refused to commit.
Ismene’s character can be read in different ways. By one interpretation, timid, meek Ismene acts as a foil for brave, headstrong Antigone. Though they both love their brother and believe that he deserves a proper burial, only Antigone has the courage to defy Creon. By this reading, Ismene is a coward who lacks the conviction to act on her principles; she worries more about the ramifications of defying Creon than about her brother Polynices’s dignity in death. Her retroactive claim that she abetted Polynices’s burial reveals her guilt and fear over having failed her family in the name of obedience.
However, Ismene can also be read as a rational and sensible character. Unlike bold, rash Antigone, Ismene worries about the consequences of her sister’s actions. She councils Antigone to be prudent and to avoid unnecessary suffering. As the daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene have already watched their father, mother, and brothers fall victim to fate and hubris. By this interpretation, Ismene is trying to protect her sister from the deadly consequences of defying Creon. Rather than being cowardly, Ismene simply wants to move past the wretched legacy of Oedipus and live in peace.
Haemon is Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed. At the start of the play, he is a dutiful son who loves and respects his father. However, after Antigone is sentenced to death, Haemon entreats his father to spare her. Haemon believes that Antigone’s actions were righteous and believes that Creon will see reason. In retaliation, Creon accuses Haemon of being a “woman’s slave” and of betraying his father in favor of defending his betrothed. Haemon argues that he is not defending Antigone so much as he is trying to protect his father from folly. He councils his father to be wise and to listen to the Theban people—who largely support Antigone—lest he be “a monarch of a desert.” Haemon tells his father that refusing to listen to the opinions of others is foolish and irrational.
Though Haemon loves Creon, he refuses to enable Creon’s prideful attempt to uphold the laws of men over the laws of the gods. When Creon disowns him for speaking out, Haemon remarks that his father has become a “madman.” Creon’s stubbornness has tragic results. When he opens Antigone’s tomb, he finds a grieving Haemon weeping over her body. Haemon, distraught over Antigone’s death, takes his own life, cursing his father in the process.
Chorus of Theban Elders
The chorus is a fixture of Greek tragedies. A character in its own right, the chorus offers context about the setting and story, provides the audience with a model for how to react to the events of the play, and introduces important themes. The chorus in Antigone is made up of the same Theban elders who formed the chorus in Oedipus Rex, drawing another link between the two texts.
In Antigone, the chorus is initially loyal to Creon, encouraging him to do as he wishes since he is the king. However, after Antigone is sentenced to death, the chorus grows increasingly critical of Creon’s actions. Though the Theban elders respect Creon’s desire to maintain law and order, the arguments of Antigone, Haemon, and Teiresias convince them that Creon is in the wrong.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sophocles often gave his choruses active roles in his plays. Rather than simply observing and commenting on the action, the chorus in Antigone directly influences the plot and characters by cautioning Creon against defying the gods and encouraging him to listen to Haemon and Tiresias. It is the chorus that ultimately convinces Creon to bury Polynices and free Antigone, though the decision comes too late. At the end of the play, the chorus laments Creon’s misfortune and caution the audience against believing that man’s laws are more important than those of the gods.
Teiresias is a blind prophet of Apollo who appears in both Antigone and Oedipus Rex. He plays roughly the same role in both plays, and his presence emphasizes the similarities between Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone. After Antigone is entombed, Teiresias arrives at the palace and councils Creon. He tells Creon to observe the will of the gods by freeing Antigone and burying Polynices. Otherwise, he warns Creon, the gods will punish Thebes for impiety. He tells Creon that it is a sign of wisdom, not weakness, to admit to having made a mistake. Just as Oedipus did, Creon initially refuses to believe Teiresias and instead insults him. Offended, Teiresias departs, warning Creon that his stubborn attitude towards Antigone will result in Haemon’s death and Thebes’s suffering. Though Creon is disrespectful to Teiresias, the prophet’s warnings unsettle him enough that he asks the chorus for advice.
Teiresias is a well known figure in Greek mythology and often appears in stories set in Thebes. As a prophet of Apollo, Teiresias has the power of prophecy and access to divine knowledge. The chorus informs Creon that they have never known Teiresias to be wrong before. Teiresias’s presence signals to the audience that the gods are indeed angry with Creon. Teiresias ultimately reinforces Antigone’s belief that the gods’ laws should be upheld over man’s laws.
Polynices and Eteocles
Polynices and Eteocles are Antigone’s brothers. Though their story takes place prior to the events of Antigone, it animates the central conflict of the play. After Oedipus’s death, his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, became the joint rulers of Thebes, agreeing to take year-long turns as ruler. However, Eteocles refused to step down after his first year in power, leading to a civil war between the brothers. Polynices raised an army and attacked Thebes in an effort to win back his rightful title. Polynices and Eteocles ultimately killed one another in battle, allowing Creon, their uncle, to assume the kingship at the beginning of Antigone. Eteocles is given a hero’s burial, because the people of Thebes view him as their rightful king. The central conflict of Antigone surrounds Creon’s edict that Polynices is not to be given a proper burial, because he is viewed as a traitor. Antigone refuses to follow Creon’s orders and buries Polynices.
Eurydice is Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother. After hearing of Haemon’s death, she takes her own life. She accuses Creon of being responsible for both Haemon’s death and her own. Eurydice’s suicide mirrors Jocasta’s suicide in Oedipus Rex, strengthening the connection between Creon and Oedipus. Both men defy the will of the gods and are punished with the loss of their loved ones.
The sentry is one of the guards responsible for keeping watch over Polynices’s body so that no one can bury him. After Antigone throws dust over Polynices’s body as part of a symbolic burial rite, the sentry reports the incident to Creon. However, since the sentry does not know who enacted the burial, Creon accuses him of being complicit and threatens to have him tortured and killed. In an effort to clear his own name, the sentry cleans the dust off of Polynices and accuses Antigone when she returns to rebury her brother.
The sentry’s presence in the story makes Creon seem tyrannical and paranoid. Rather than trusting that no one will bury Polynices on his decree alone, he posts guards to ensure that it won’t happen. The sentry’s comment that it is “sad when reasoners reason wrong” suggests that while Creon’s logical approach to leadership can be a virtue, it can also be a vice.
The messenger reports to the chorus what happened after Creon left to bury Polynices and free Antigone. He then repeats the story to Eurydice at her behest.