Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

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Main Characters in Antigone

The main characters of Antigone by Sophocles are Antigone (daughter of Oedipus), Ismene (Antigone’s sister), Creon (Antigone’s uncle), Haemon (Antigone’s fiancée), Eurydice (Creon’s wife), Tiresias (the prophet), and the Chorus that consists of a group of elderly men.

Antigone: Summary of the Plot

The play begins with the sisters Antigone and Ismene meeting outside of the palace of Thebes. The two young women are the daughters of the mythical king of Thebes Oedipus and his mother, Iocaste. But what do we know about this family from ancient Greek mythology?

Antigone’s Background

Oedipus and Iocaste married each other without knowing that they are mother and son. This unorthodox marriage was their punishment from the gods for the serious hybris the father of the family had committed. Laius, father of Oedipus and first husband of Iocaste, had abused a young boy, which enraged the gods and goddesses. Since then, countless misfortunes and tragedies hit the family.

The royal family of Thebes could be compared to the cursed families we often talk about today, such as the Kennedys. Some of these misfortunes resulted by their own despicable actions. For example, Oedipus was once so enraged by his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that he cursed them. He said that they would kill each other one day – which came true after Oedipus’ self-exile.

Eteocles and Polynices fought over the throne of Thebes, after their father left the city-state in a state of shock. He had just learned that he is related to his wife. Polynices then decided to also leave Thebes and go to the city of Argos. There, he married the princess of Argos and ordered the local army to attack his hometown. He wanted to punish his brother and take over the city. Both Eteocles and Polynices died during the battle.

The throne was then overtaken by their uncle, Creon. Creon immediately turned into a tyrant. He wanted to make clear that he wouldn’t allow anyone to overthrow him or question his power. He honored Eteocles for trying to protect Thebes and shamed Polynices publicly for turning against his hometown. He refused to offer a burial ceremony for him and left his body laying on the battleground. Citizens of Thebes were not allowed to touch it. And this is the exact timeline of Antigone’s storyline.

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Main Storyline: Antigone

Antigone and Ismene were the sisters of Polynices and Eteocles. Antigone, the eldest and most rebellious sister, tries to conspire against Creon and bury Polynices. Burying the dead following the rites of the time was an unwritten rule that, according to Antigone, was more important than the rule Creon came up with. Ismene is skeptical. She does want to honor her brother, but she doesn’t want to defy the state either.

“I will not urge thee,-no nor, if thou yet shouldst have the mind, wouldst thou be welcome as a worker with me. Nay, be what thou wilt; but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing that. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide forever. But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonoring laws which the gods have stablished in honor.”, Antigone says.

The two women leave the stage and the Chorus, consisting of elder men, starts narrating the events before the death of Polynices and Eteocles. How Polynices left Thebes and managed to influence the ruler of Argos to attack his hometown.

Then, Creon enters the scene and converses with the Chorus. Is he in the wrong? The elders of Thebes reassure him that he has the power to make decisions for the living and the dead of Thebes. But everything changes when a guard who was supposed to monitor the battleground, enters the scene to announce that the body has been buried.

“Well, this is it.-The corpse-some one hath just given it burial, and gone away,-after sprinkling thirsty dust on the flesh, with such other rites as piety enjoins.”, the guard says.

Creon leaves the stage frantically and the Chorus starts highlighting the importance of laws and state power.

Antigone’s Punishment

Creon comes back on stage, along with Antigone. The young woman confesses to the crime, saying that the law of god was more important to her than the law of the state ruler.

“Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”, she says.

Creon orders the arrest of Antigone and Ismene. He speculates that the younger sister knew about her sister’s actions but did nothing to alert him nor the guards. Then, another character enters the scene. A young man named Haemon. He is the son of Creon and fiancée of Antigone. He tries to persuade his father to spare the two women, but a fight ensued. Haemon leaves and the Chorus starts talking about the power of love and compares Antigone to Niobe, whose children were killed and were not given a proper burial after an act of hybris.

Creon then decides to free Ismene and punish Antigone by burying her into a cave. The young woman is led into her eternal prison, while mourning her youth and the wedding she was planning all this time.

“Tomb, bridal-chamber, eternal prison in the caverned rock, whither go to find mine own, those many who have perished, and whom Persephone hath received among the dead! Last of all shall I pass thither, and far most miserably of all, before the term of my life is spent. (…)”

Creon’s Punishment

Once Antigone is led and abandoned into the cave, a prophet named Teiresias enters the scene. He warns Creon of the hybris he is about to commit: leaving the dead unburied and burying the living. Not only that, but everyone in Greece will despise the ruler of Thebes. The Chorus asks Creon to listen to prophet Teiresias but he leaves angrily.

What follows is the discovery of Antigone’s body in the cave. She ended her own life. Haemon, just like Romeo, then stabbed himself, ending his own life. Once Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother hears the news, she proceeds to do the same. The play ends with Creon holding the body of his son, acknowledging his mistakes.

“Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness; and reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise.”, the leader of the Chorus concludes.

Antigone in a Nutshell:

  • “Antigone” is a tragedy that was first presented by Sophocles in 441 BC.
  • The play is set in Thebes, Greece.
  • Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, is the main heroine.
  • She defies the written laws of the state and follows the unwritten laws of the gods.
  • Creon, her uncle and ruler of Thebes, commits hybris by punishing Antigone – he ends up being punished by fate.
  • “Catharsis” is achieved when Creon sees the consequences of his actions and acknowledges his mistakes.

Main Theme in Antigone: Written vs Unwritten Rules

Just like in most ancient Greek tragedies, the main theme of Antigone is hybris – the consequences of pride, arrogance, and overconfidence. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, treated the death of Polynices with a lack of compassion. He needed to reestablish order after the battle with Argos, but he got blinded by the absolute power. Yes, Polynices betrayed his city-state, but Creon decided to continue his punishment, after his death. He came up with an inflexible and strict rule and then punished Antigone for disobeying him. He didn’t listen to anyone who tried to warn him – not even prophet Teiresias.

Another theme in Antigone that differentiates it from other plays, is about status quo, moral/ divine law versus human law. Antigone is an archetypical rebel: a young, fearless female against a powerful older male. Antigone chose the unwritten rules over the rules of the state. She even ends up sacrificing her own life for her beliefs.

Were her actions worth it? Could there be another solution to this problem, such as debating with Creon? Did Creon turn into a tyrant before or after the rebellious act? How is a tyrant born? And what if everyone started disobeying the law to follow their moral standards? These are the questions that viewers are called to answer after watching the play. Feel free to share your opinions in the comment section.