Antigone is one of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles. It describes how a corrupt king punishes a woman for burying her brother.
- After King Oedipus’ death, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, start a civil war against each other.
- When both brothers are killed, their sisters, Antigone and Ismene, are in mourning.
- Their uncle and new king, Creon, orders Polynices’ body be left to rot as punishment. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother. Creon sentences her to death.
- When the prophet Tiresias convinces Creon to release her, they discover that she has committed suicide.
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.
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, leading to civil war, and in the end both brothers are dead, each by the other’s hand. Creon, their uncle, assumes the role of king. He gives a state funeral to Eteocles but orders that the body of Polynices be left to rot in the sun as an example to his supporters.
(The entire section is 1,164 words.)