Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
Eteocles (ee-TEE-oh-kleez), the son of Oedipus and grandson of Laius. Long ago, Laius, the king of Thebes, was warned by the oracle of Apollo that, should he beget a son, this act would bring ruin on his ancestral city. Laius disregarded the warning and became the father of Oedipus, thus bringing a curse upon his house. Oedipus, exposed by his parents on Mount Cithaeron, was rescued by a shepherd. Grown to manhood, Oedipus unknowingly slew his father and then solved the riddle of the Sphinx, thus rescuing Thebes from the monster. Made king of Thebes, he—again unknowingly—married Jocasta, his mother. Of this incestuous union were born four children. When Oedipus finally learned what he had done, he blinded himself, and Jocasta took her own life. It was agreed that Eteocles and Polynices, his sons, should rule Thebes in alternate years. They mistreated their blind father, who, dying, put on them the curse that they should die by each other’s hands. Eteocles refused to allow his brother his turn at ruling and drove him from Thebes, whereupon Polynices enlisted the aid of six warriors from Argos and, with himself at the head of their forces, besieged his native city. At the beginning of the play, Eteocles is informed by a scout that each Argive champion has been chosen by lot to attack one of the seven gates of Thebes. Having calmed the fears of the terrified Thebans, Eteocles sends a warrior to defend each of the gates, choosing to defend in his own person the gate that Polynices will attack. The chorus warns him of the mortal danger that he risks, but, driven almost insane by hatred of his brother, he takes his post. In the encounter, the brothers kill each other. The other Argive champions having been slain, Thebes is saved. The body of Eteocles is brought back to the city, and the senate declares honorable burial for it, because, although guilty of fratricide, Eteocles had saved his native city. The curse on the house of Laius is fulfilled.
Polynices (pol-ih-NI-seez), the twin of Eteocles and son of Oedipus. Deprived by his brother of his rightful term as king of Thebes and exiled, he goes to Argos, where he raises an army against his own city. The gate of Thebes that he has been chosen to attack is revealed to Eteocles by a scout, and brother fights against brother. In the struggle, they kill each other, and Polynices fulfills his grim name, which means “much strife.” His body is brought into Thebes with that of Eteocles. The senate decrees that because he fought against his own city, he cannot have honorable burial and that his body must be thrown to the dogs. His sister Antigone defies the decree of the senate and declares that she will give her brother a burial befitting his rank.
Antigone (an-TIHG-uh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus and sister of Eteocles and Polynices. After the brothers kill each other at the gate of Thebes and Polynices is denied burial by decree of the Theban senate, she defiantly announces that she will bury him herself with rites befitting a king of Thebes.
Ismene (ihs-MEE-nee), the sister of Eteocles, Polynices, and Antigone. She has a silent part in the tragedy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Antigone is a sister to Eteocles and Polyneices. She appears briefly at the end of the play to mourn the deaths of her brothers. When she learns that Polyneices is to be denied a proper burial, she vows to oppose the state and follow her own conscience. She is brave enough to argue with the Herald and to promise defiance of the council’s edict. Antigone exits at the play’s conclusion with Polyneices’ body, intent on burying him.
The chorus of Theban maidens sings sections of the play. Their purpose is to explain events or actions that occurred previously and to provide
commentary on the events that are occurring. As the play opens, the Chorus learns of the impending battle and attempt to seize the city. The Chorus is afraid that Eteocles will lose the battle and the city will be captured. Because they fear they will be made slaves, the Chorus is very loud in their lamentations. But finally, Eteocles manages to quiet them, but not without considerable effort and threats. When the Chorus learns of Eteocles’ plan to defend the seventh gate against his brother Polyneices, they warn Eteocles that brothers should not shed one another’s blood. They also worry that the brothers will have no family to attend to their burials. The Chorus functions to tell or remind the audience about the curse of Oedipus. They also serve to share in the sister’s grief at the brothers’ deaths.
Eteolcles, ruler of Thebes, is one of the surviving sons of Oedipus. As the play opens, he is preparing for battle. Eteocles is angered at the worries and fears displayed by the Chorus. He responds with threats to have them all killed if they cannot control their fear. When Eteocles learns that his brother will lead the attack at the seventh gate, Eteocles decides to lead the battle at that gate, himself. Eteocles ignores the warnings of the Chorus, pointing out that fate will determine his success. Eteocles is stubborn and unwilling to listen to the concerns of the Chorus. He dismisses their worries as the hysteria of women, who have little worth. When Eteocles is killed, the council rewards his bravery with an honorable burial.
The Herald appears at the play’s conclusion to bring word of the council’s decision regarding the funerals of Polyneices and Eteocles. When Antigone announces that she will bury her brother in violation of the council’s decree, the Herold argues with her. He leaves to tell the council of Antigone’s plans after it becomes apparent that she will defy their edict.
Ismene is another sister to Eteocles and Polyneices. She appears at the end of the play to mourn her brothers’ passing. She is not as strong at Antigone, nor as willing to defy the council’s edict.
Polyneices is the second of Oedipus’ sons. His body is seen at the end of the play, and he has no lines to speak, but his presence in leading the attack on the seventh gate is a significant cause of the deaths that follow.
The Scout (also called the Spy) has infiltrated the enemy camp, and it is he who brings news to Eteocles of the impending battle. The Scout’s return with news that Polyneices will lead the attack on the seventh gate leads to Eteocles’ decision to defend that gate. Without such precise information, Eteocles might have assigned another warrior to defend the seventh gate.
See The Scout