What happens in Antigone?

  • King Oedipus' sons Eteocles and Polynices agree to share the throne of Thebes after their father's death. Initially, the brothers plan to alternate years, but after Eteocles' first year in power he refuses to give up the throne. This causes a civil war.
  • When Act I begins, the civil war is already over. Both brothers are dead, and their sisters, Antigone and Ismene, are in mourning. Their uncle Creon has assumed control of Thebes.
  • Creon orders that Polynices' body be left out in the sun to rot as punishment for his treason. Antigone defies Creon and gives her brother a proper burial. When she refuses to renounce her crime, Creon sentences her to death.
  • While Antigone is awaiting execution, the blind prophet Tiresias informs Creon that he has angered the gods. Creon decides to release Antigone, only to discover that she has committed suicide. 

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Antigone, Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), and Oedipus at Colonus are not a trilogy in the true sense. That is to say, they were not originally written to be performed on a single occasion. Rather, these three plays represent Sophocles’ return to the same body of myths several times during his long career as a dramatist. Nevertheless, the Theban plays, as they are called, together tell the complete story of Oedipus from the height of his power as king of Thebes to the execution of his daughter for the burial of his son, Polyneices.

Antigone, although it concerns the last events in the mythic history of this family, was the first of the three plays to be written. In it, certain elements of plot seem to indicate that Sophocles, in this early period of his career, was still imitating the works of his predecessor Aeschylus. For instance, both Antigone and Creon find themselves caught in a “double bind,” a situation in which they are doomed no matter which course of action they choose. Although Antigone suffers because she violates the law of Creon by burying her brother Polyneices, she would have neglected her religious duty had she left him unburied. Creon suffers because he regards his will as more important than the demands of the gods, although political pressures compelled him to punish the traitor of his city.

Antigone and Creon thus represent the two sides that may be taken toward any issue of great importance. Antigone defends the will of the gods, emphasizing the bond that she has to her family more than that which she has toward the state. Creon defends the need for law and order in a community, viewing civil law as more important than the will of the individual.

While these two points of view come into conflict in the Antigone, Sophocles does not regard them both as equally correct. Every character in the play, including the chorus and even Creon himself in the end, declares that Antigone was right and that Creon was wrong. Yet the justice of Antigone’s cause is not sufficient to save her. Many characters in Sophoclean tragedy suffer, not despite being right, but because they were right.

The Antigone illustrates, therefore, that there is a price to be paid for heroic inflexibility. It is unthinkable that Antigone, as Sophocles has drawn the character, would choose compromise rather than death. Her destruction follows inevitably from her unswerving devotion to the cause in which she believes. Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of the Antigone that Creon also suffers because of his inflexibility and confidence. The very quality that made Antigone seem admirable makes Creon seem stubborn and petty. In the end, their fates are determined less by the nature of the cause that they defend than by the manner in which they defend it.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

King Oedipus has died in exile, leaving the Kingdom of Thebes to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. The king had decreed that his two sons are supposed to take turns as rulers; they agree, initially. After Eteocles refuses to step down after one year, the two brothers fight over the prize. Polynices attacks Thebes,...

(The entire section is 1,164 words.)