Text: Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra. Oxford’s World Classics. Translated by H.D.F. Kitto. Edited with Introduction and notes by Edith Hall. Oxford University Press, 1962, 1994, 1998.
Summary of Lines 1-240
The scene is set in the Greek city of Thebes, before the palace, after the war between the two sons of Oedipus for the throne. Antigone and Ismene, the two surviving daughters of Oedipus, enter, from the palace. The action begins in medias res, in the middle of things, and the backstory is alluded to by the characters as the action unfolds.
Antigone has called her sister Ismene outside the gates of the palace at night for a secret council. Antigone laments their tragic family fate as the daughters of the late King Oedipus. Their parents are dead and their brothers have slain each other in an attempt to gain control of power. Their uncle, Creon, has taken over the rule of Thebes and declared an honorable burial for one brother, Eteocles, who defended Thebes, but he has decreed that the other brother, Polyneices, is not allowed any funeral rites because he and his army from Argos attacked the city. Polyneices is to be left unburied, prey to the animals as an example to traitors. Ismene has not heard this news, nor of Creon’s decree that anyone who tries to bury Polyneices will be put to death. Antigone challenges Ismene to show her worthiness.
Ismene asks what Antigone would have her do? Antigone asks her to join in giving burial to their brother Polyneices. Ismene declines, saying it is against the law. Antigone declares she will do it alone then. Ismene reminds Antigone of the family legacy. Their father, Oedipus, was the son who ignorantly married his own mother, Iocasta, and had four children by her (Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene). Iocasta hanged herself when she found out, and Oedipus blinded himself and died hated, Ismene says. Their brothers killed one another, and if they who are the last of the family commit a further crime by burying Polyneices, they will die an even more shameful death. Ismene reminds Antigone they are only women and cannot fight the law made by men stronger than they are.
Antigone says she will not urge Ismene, but she will bury her brother alone and take all the credit. She does not mind dying, for she will have a place with her brother. If Ismene wants to dishonor the sacred laws, that’s her business. Ismene denies she dishonors the burial laws, for she does not have a choice under Creon’s decree. She calls Antigone reckless and fears for her life, but she, Ismene, will keep the secret. She does not know how Antigone could even perform such a difficult task. They exit.
The Chorus of Theban citizens then sing an Ode to Victory, telling how the Theban army defeated the Argive army headed by Polyneices. Polyneices was like an eagle from the sky, but the Theban army was “the sons of a Dragon” (line 125). They describe the war, and the two brothers who share their territory now only through death. They call on everyone to thank the gods and dance before their shrines all night for the victory and peace. They see the new king Creon enter and wonder why he is calling the Counsellors together.
Creon, now King of Thebes, enters with the Counsellors. He makes his inaugural speech to the lords, reminding them of their loyalty to the throne, first to Laius, the father of Oedipus, then to Oedipus, and then to his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. Now with their polluted deaths, as brother killed brother, he, as nearest kin, will assume the throne, and he counts on their continued loyalty. He declares that a ruler cannot be known until he makes laws. He must be impartial and hold the country dearer than any friend. A ruler must be bold. His first decree is thus to give a hero’s funeral to Eteocles who defended the city, and to deny burial to Polyneices, the traitor.
The Chorus yields to the decree, admitting Creon is sovereign. Creon asks them to defend this law then. They decline saying they are old men, and it must fall to younger men. Creon says he has set a watch of guards over the body of Polyneices. The Chorus says no one will disobey when death is the price, but Creon reminds them that some will do anything for a bribe.
Just then a Guard comes with bad news. He is reluctant to tell it and explains to the king he almost did not come to report what happened for fear of punishment. Since he did not see the crime done and does not know who did it, he feels he will not come to harm.
Commentary on Lines 1-240
The first speech of Antigone introduces the tragic family history. The details about her father Oedipus is told in another play of Sophocles: Oedipus the King. As the baby son of King Laius and Queen Iocasta of Thebes, Oedipus was ordered killed because a prophecy proclaimed that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Instead, he was saved by a herdsman and given to the king and queen of Corinth, who raise Oedipus as their own. When Oedipus hears the prophecy on reaching manhood, he flees from his home to escape such a terrible fate. He does not know he was adopted, and on the road he meets and kills his real father, Laius, in a duel. After solving the riddle of the Sphynx, the monster who holds the town of Thebes in terror, Oedipus is viewed as a savior and given the vacant kingship and marries Iocasta the queen of the deceased Laius, not realizing she is his real mother. He has four children with Iocasta, including Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone and Ismene. Later there is a plague in Thebes and the oracle says the city is unclean because Laius’s murderer has not been punished. In searching for the murderer of Laius, Oedipus finds out he himself is the murderer, that Laius was his father, and Iocasta is his mother. Iocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself. The kingdom is ruled by Creon until the sons of Oedipus come of age.
But that is not an end of the terrible family fate. Antigone reminds Ismene, “How many miseries our father caused!” (line 2). She acknowledges that the legacy of Oedipus still ensnares them; first, because of the death of their brothers, who killed each other over the throne; secondly, because of this new edict of Creon’s refusing burial to Polyneices. Polyneices was the elder and believed the throne should be his, but Eteocles took over Thebes and exiled his elder brother. Polyneices raised an army at Argos and then made war on Thebes (see Aeschylus’s play, Seven Against Thebes). The war and its aftermath are described by the Chorus in the Ode to Victory in lines 100-161.
The Chorus sings of peace and the salvation of Thebes ironically just as fresh tragedy is in the making. There are still two members of the cursed family left: Antigone and Ismene. It seems there will be no peace, because Creon’s edict stirs things up again. He is in his sovereign right to levy such a penalty on Polyneices as a traitor, but it is a harsh and not a wise punishment, as is constantly pointed out in the play.
This opening of the play defines the motivations of the two main characters, Antigone and Creon. Antigone feels forced by Creon’s decree to break the law and bury her brother, as was her family duty. Burial rites were a sacred duty to the dead, because the dead person would not be accepted in the underworld without proper burial. Her brother’s spirit would wander forever, dishonored. Antigone feels more horror of that than of the certain death she will earn by rebelling against Creon. She says “I have to please the dead far longer than I need to please the living” (lines 74-76). The majority of Thebes is with her, agreeing that sacred law outweighs the king’s law.
Creon blocks the ancient customs and rituals that would bring peace to the land. Though he may have worried that the funeral of a traitor would breed more rebellion, his choice of punishment brands him as brash and unwise. He wants to impress the Counsellors that he is a decisive and bold ruler. He says that a ruler is only proved by his lawgiving, and he believes he shows his impartiality by choosing the good of Thebes over his kinship to Polyneices. The Chorus tells him since he is sovereign, he has the right to deny burial to his nephew.
The moral dilemma of which law should take precedence, sacred law or human law, is announced in the opening discussion between the sisters, Antigone and Ismene. Ismene says, “I yield to those who have authority” (line 67). She will not defy Creon’s edict. Antigone, however, thinks for herself. She denies Creon’s authority in this matter: “He has no right to keep me from my own!” (line 48). This tension permeates the play, and the outcome proves Creon wrong and Antigone right. Nevertheless, both characters are swept up in the tragic family fate.
Greek tragedy was a multi-media event with characters speaking, singing, and dancing. The Greek Chorus, usually 12-15 people, served several functions. They sang and danced the odes or lyric pieces that reminded the audience of familiar history, legend, and themes. They commented on the action. They were characters as well—in this case, the Chorus represents a group of Theban elders who have the memory of the past and can make important connections.
For instance, in telling the history of Thebes and of the war between the brothers, the Chorus brings up the story of Capaneus (line 131), an arrogant Argive who was struck down by Zeus for attacking Thebes. Thus, they bring out the moral that will apply to Creon as well: “For the arrogant boast of an impious man Zeus hateth exceedingly” (lines 127-8).
The talkative guard is introduced as a lighter touch in the tragic scene. He is humorous and of lower class, a slave who is afraid to tell bad news, worried only for his own skin.