Sophocles' Antigone *

The play opens with the daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene, in conversation before the palace at Thebes. Their two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have recently killed each other in a battle over the rule of the city; Polynices had returned from exile to try to regain the throne. Because Eteocles was the legitimate heir and Polynices the aggressor, the king, Creon, has decided to punish the corpse of Polynices by denying it burial.

Antigone announces her intention to defy the order of the king and bury her brother, in accordance with divine law (1-38). She asks Ismene to help her, but Ismene refuses, listing the misfortunes of the family. They are only women, and cannot defy the king (39-68). Antigone rejects the timidity of her sister, saying that she is prepared to die in this cause, and they exit (69-99). The chorus (old men of Thebes) sings an ode recounting the events of the battle in which the brothers died (100-153). Creon enters and gives a long speech about the importance of loyalty to one's country and the government. He announces his decision to outlaw the burial of Polynices on the grounds that he was a public enemy (154-210). The chorus agrees to obey, but hints that it does not approve (211-222). A sentry, one of those Creon posted over the corpse, arrives and reports that some unknown person has sprinkled the body with dirt in a symbolic burial. The chorus wonders if a god has done it (223-279). Creon is furious at the news, and at the suggestion that his action is impious. He argues that the gods hate a traitor, and theorizes that his sentries have been bribed, which leads to a 'money, the root of all evil' speech. He orders the sentry to find the person responsible and they exit, the sentry glad to be still alive (280-331). The chorus sings an ode about the nature of mankind, its accomplishments and its greatest failing: mortality (332-372). The sentry returns with Antigone under guard, and describes for Creon how he and the other sentries caught Antigone in the act of pouring libations over her brother's corpse. His description of a dust storm around the unburied Polynices suggests the displeasure of the gods (373-440). Antigone confronts Creon, says that she chose to obey divine law rather than his law, and repeats her willingness to die (441-470). Creon accuses her of hubris and of acting like a man; he suspects Ismene too (471-496). While Ismene is fetched from the palace, Creon and Antigone restate their points of view in a tense stichomythy (497-525). Over Antigone's protests, Ismene claims to have been her partner in the deed. Creon decides to execute them both, even though Antigone is engaged to his son, Haemon (526-581). The chorus sings an ode touching on familiar themes: disaster lingers through the generations; Zeus brings the mighty low, and human fortune is unstable (582-623). Haemon enters, and pledges his support for his father's decision. Creon gives a long speech about the importance of obedience and the rule of law, and about keeping women in their place (624-680). Haemon tactfully suggests that public opinion is against Creon, and hints that there could be a rebellion. He also cites the importance of being flexible, and asks Creon to change his mind (681-723). Father and son have an angry stichomythy, with Haemon urging the importance of public opinion and divine law. When Creon threatens to kill Antigone before his eyes, Haemon leaves (724-763). Creon announces that he will spare Ismene, but will confine Antigone to a cave to starve to death (764-780). The chorus sings of the power of love (781-800).

Antigone is brought out, and together she and the chorus sing of her lost marriage, her ancestor Niobe, and the previous troubles of her family (801-881). Creon appears briefly to order her dragged away. Before she goes, Antigone laments her gloomy future, picturing her meeting with her family in the underworld, and wondering why the gods are not coming to her defense. She is led away to the cave, calling on Thebes and the gods to witness her doom (882-943). The chorus sings an ode touching on three separate myths: Danaë, Lycurgus, and Clytaemnestra were all persons of high birth who came to bad ends; Fate is inescapable (944-987). Teiresias, the blind seer, enters and tells Creon about sinister omens recently seen, and about other signs indicating that the gods are angry with Thebes. Teiresias advises Creon to change his mind about burying Polynices (998-1033). Creon rejects Teiresias' advice, accusing him of having been bribed to say these things. Angered, Teiresias condemns Creon's decision as an act of grave impiety, and predicts that he will be punished by the loss of his own child (1034-1090). After Teiresias has gone, Creon becomes frightened, and at the urging of the chorus finally changes his mind. He sends attendants to free Antigone (1091-1117). The chorus sings an ode in the form of a hymn to Dionysus, asking his help for troubled Thebes (1118-1151). A messenger enters. His gloomy words, blaming chance for the fragility of human happiness, suggest that he has bad news. He reports that Haemon has killed himself (1152-1179). Haemon's mother Eurydice enters and asks to hear how it happened. The messenger tells how, after burying what was left of Polynices' body, Creon and his men found Haemon lamenting over Antigone, who had hanged herself. Haemon lunged at Creon with his sword, but missed, then ran himself through and died in Antigone's arms (1178-1243). Eurydice exits, and the chorus worries that she may do something extreme (1244-1256). Creon returns, cursing his folly and blaming it on the gods. The messenger comes out of the palace and reports that Eurydice has become the day's third suicide (1257-1318). Creon cries out his guilt and prays for death. The chorus ends the play with an observation on wisdom achieved through suffering (1319-1352).

* Line numbers for Antigone are slightly off for Grene's translation, keyed to Wyckoff's translation and to the standard enumeration.

©1995 David L. Silverman, all rights reserved.