Antigone Summary
by Sophocles

Antigone book cover
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Antigone Summary

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.

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Summary

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...

(The entire section is 1,124 words.)