SOPHOCLES: Antigone

SOPHOCLES: Antigone

  • “Antigone and her sister decide to return to Thebes with the intention of helping their brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, avoid a prophecy that predicts they will kill each other in a battle for the throne of Thebes.
  • Upon her arrival in Thebes, Antigone learns that both of her brothers are dead. Eteocles has been given a proper burial, but Creon, Antigone’s uncle who has inherited the throne, has issued a royal edict banning the burial of Polyneices, who he believes was a traitor. Antigone defies the law, buries her brother, and is caught. When Creon locks her away in prison, she kills herself.
  • Meanwhile, not realizing Antigone has taken her own life, the blind prophet Teiresias, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé Haemon, and the Chorus plead with Creon to release her. Creon finally relents, but in an instance of too-late-timing, finds her dead in her jail cell. Out of despair, Haemon and Creon’s wife have by now also killed themselves, and Creon is left in distress and sorrow.”
  • The punishment for burying Polyneices is death by stoning. Antigone asks her sister Ismene to help her bury their brother’s body in defiance of the edict. Anitgone believes it is her duty as his sister to give him a proper burial despite the law forbidding it. She believes Creon has no right to command Antigone not to bury her own brother.
  • Ismene will not defy the law. She will ask the dead for forgiveness since she is being compelled against her will by a law enforced by men much more powerful than she. She believes that one must obey those who possess power. It is not a woman’s place to fight with men.
  • Antigone says that she will bury Polyneices alone. She is content to die because she believes that she must honor the dead more than the living; for she will lie in the earth forever. She asks Ismene to proclaim what she intends to do to everyone in the city.
  • Ismene protests that Antigone is endeavoring in an impossible task, but Antigone only wishes not to die an ignoble death.
  • The chorus enters and recounts the recent war. They rejoice that Thebes was successfully defended from the invaders. They intend to dance and sing the livelong night in order to celebrate and forget the war.
  • Creon enters and addresses the chorus. He asserts that it is impossible to truly know a man’s soul, to know a man’s will, before witnessing him legislate and govern other men. The worst men do not heed the best advice given to them, and men who think more highly of their friends than their country are bad too. Anyone who acts against the state is an enemy of it. Because Polyneices intended to destroy Thebes, Creon has commanded that his corpse shall not be given proper funeral rites, but rather left unburied for birds and dogs to eat.
  • A guard enters the scene. After much thought and feelings of ambivalence, he decides to inform Creon that Polyneices has been buried by someone. He did not see who buried the corpse or who performed the funeral rites.
  • The chorus suggests that it may be an act of the gods, but Creon angrily rejects this notion. He suspects that the guards were bribed by someone because nothing is more powerful than money; it compels honorable men to undertake disgraceful tasks. Creon threatens the guard with punishment worse than death if he does not find the person who buried Polyneices. Creon exits into the palace and the guard exits.
  • The chorus sings about the wondrous skills and qualities of men. Mankind has confronted and subdued nature, but he cannot shun death.
  • The guard returns with Antigone in custody. He tells Creon that he captured her while she was performing funeral rites over the corpse of Polyneices. The guards had removed the dust from the body, and they watched as Antigone returned and again laid dust upon the body and poured libations. When the guards accosted her, she denied nothing. The guard is sad that he is bringing evil upon the girl, but his greatest concern is for his own safety.
  • Antigone admits to Creon that she disobeyed his edict. She knew of the proclamation forbidding the act, but believes that Zeus ordains superior and contrary laws. Mortals should not override the unwritten and immutable laws of the gods because Justice dwells with them. She believes that it is best for her to die because she lives among many evils. Death is a benefit to her.
  • Creon states that Antigone is haughty and arrogant like her father, but that the most obdurate wills are those most prone to break. He resolves to punish Antigone, though she is his sister’s daughter. He also sends guards to bring Ismene to him because he believes that she had a part in this crime too.
  • Antigone says that the chorus is pleased by Antigone’s act because she fulfilled her duty as a sister and upheld the laws of the gods, but that they won’t disclose this to Creon because they fear him and his power. Antigone asserts that there is nothing shameful in honoring her brother. She believes that even Eteocles would understand her act. Although Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other, they were brothers.
  • Creon says that a good man expects the gifts he receives to be greater and of an entirely different quality than the things received by an evil man. Antigone replies that we do not know what good and evil is. Perhaps the actions of Polyneices are not criminal according to the gods [then why is she so sure that burying Polyneices is her duty?].
  • Guards bring Ismene before Creon. She tells Creon that she helped Antigone. Antigone says that Ismene didn’t. Ismene feels guilty that she will live and Antigone will die.
  • Creon orders his guards to lead Ismene and Antigone into the palace. He reflects that some god is afflicting the family of Labdakos – the father of Laius and grandfather of Oedipus. He believes that he has become an instrument in this punishment, an instrument of Zeus’ will.
  • Creon’s son Haemon, who is the Antigone’s fiancé, enters the scene. Creon asserts that his son should remain loyal to him regardless of what he does. All men pray that their children will be obedient and revenge him upon his enemies, doing evil to those who do evil to the father. Creon exhorts Haemon not to throw away good sense for pleasure, for the sake of a woman. Creon believes that men should obey whatever man is in power, whether he be just or unjust, because there is no greater evil than lack of obedience, which is exactly the same as no leadership – essentially anarchy. Men succeed only when they are obedient. Creon also states that if he shall be defeated it will be by the hands of a man, not a woman. He will never suffer himself to be considered inferior to a woman.
  • Haemon explains that what Creon has said is just, but that other words can be just too. He informs Creon that the city is upset about Antigone’s punishment. They hold their tongue because they fear Creon. They actually consider Antigone’s act to be glorious. Haemon appeals to Creon’s reputation, which will suffer if he pursues his intent to its fulfillment. He says that it is not shameful for even a wise man to learn something new. The best for man is to be flexible and learn from those who speak well. But if a man is rigid in his conviction that he alone is wise, then he will break as the defiant trees that do not bend in a storm. The trees that are flexible survive the tempest.
  • Creon is flabbergasted. He doesn’t believe he can learn anything from men younger than himself. He accuses his son of honoring evil criminals who transgress the laws of the state. Creon says that he governs by his own will, not that of the people. He tells Haemon that he will never marry Antigone while she is alive.
  • Haemon insinuates that he will commit suicide if Antigone dies. He accuses his father of being unjust and unreasonable.
  • Creon is enraged at Haemon’s insults, and orders the guards to bring Antigone before him. He intends to kill her immediately. Haemon runs into the palace. He tells his father that he will never see him again.
  • Creon tells the chorus that he will have Antigone led to a cavern. He will provide her with as much provisions as piety requires so that the city does not incur a plague; for when a person murders a family member, the whole city becomes polluted. By providing Antigone with provisions, he removes the guilt of her inevitable death in the cavern.
  • Antigone is escorted from the palace by her executioners. The chorus comments that she controlled her own fate, she alone makes her way down into Hades while still alive.
  • Antigone is distressed at the thought of her impending death, but finds solace in the thought that her father, mother, and brothers will be waiting for her in death. She firmly believes that she did right by burying Polyneices.
  • The chorus comments that one cannot avoid fate.
  • Tiresias is led on stage by a boy. He tells Creon to obey him. Creon says that he will because T has always given prosperous advice to the city. T says that the gods will no longer accept sacrifices from the city because birds and dogs have defiled the altar with pieces of Polyneices dead body. T says that all men make mistakes, but that they are no longer subject to bad luck and foolishness if they try to fix the evil into which they have fallen. T says that the society is polluted because Of Creon’s policies. One should honor the dead because there is no glory, but only dishonor, in killing a man a second time.
  • Creon stubbornly refuses to bury Polyneices body, and accuses T of hurling abusive insults at him. He accuses all prophets of being fond of money, including T.
  • T prophesies that Haemon will soon die. Avengers from the underworld await Creon because he withholds from them the body of Polyneices. The city will rise against Creon. T exits.
  • Creon is distressed because T has never uttered a false prophecy. The chorus advises him to release Antigone from her rocky tomb and bury Polyneices. Creon does not wish to relent, but knows that resistance is dreadful too. At last, he gives in, reasoning that it is not wise to fight against necessity. Creon himself goes to the cavern in which Antigone was placed.
  • A messenger enters and claims that a man is merely a breathing corpse when he loses what gives him pleasure. A man can horde all the treasure in the world, but if it does not give him pleasure, then it isn’t worth anything. The messenger informs the chorus that Haemon committed suicide because he was angry at his father.
  • Eurydice, Creon’s wife, emerges from the palace, and asks the messenger to relate to her the news of what has transpired. The messenger says that he went with Creon to the rocky tomb of Antigone. Along the way they performed the funeral rites over Polyneices ravaged corpse. When they arrive at the rocky tomb, they hear a cry from within. It is the sound of Haemon. They opened the tomb and discovered Antigone hanging by a noose with Haemon clutching her waist and wailing for the loss of his bride. Creon pleads with Haemon to exit the cavern, but Haemon drew his sword and killed himself. As he was dying, he embraced Antigone and coughed blood onto her cheek. Upon hearing the news, Eurydice exits into the palace.
  • The messenger and chorus are concerned about her because she was ominously silent when she listened to the news. Thus the messenger follows her into the palace.
  • Creon enters the stage holding Haemon and lamenting over the corpse. He blames his own foolishness and stubbornness for Haemon’s death.
  • The messenger reemerges from the palace and informs Creon that Eurydice has committed suicide by stabbing herself with a sword. He tells Creon that she cursed Creon with her last breath. Creon wishes that someone would kill him; the grief is unbearable.

“My honor for the dead must last much longer than for those up here. Ill lie down there forever.”

“A vain attempt should not be made at all.”

“I won’t suffer anything as bad as a disgraceful death.”

“It’s impossible to really know a man, to know his soul, his mind and will, before one witnesses his skill in governing and making laws.”

“Men have often been destroyed because they hoped to profit some way.”

“There are many strange and wonderful things, but nothing more strangely wonderful than man. There’s no event his skill cannot confront- other than death – that alone he cannot shun.”

“Zeus did not announce those laws to me.”

“Whatever good sense people have no longer stays with them once their lives go wrong – it abandons them.”

“Don’t ever throw away good sense for pleasure, for some woman’s sake.”

“We must obey whatever man the city puts in charge, no matter what the issue – great or small, just or unjust; for there’s no greater evil than a lack of leadership. That destroys whole cities, turns households into ruins, and in war makes soldiers break and run away.”

“O Eros, the conqueror in every fight. Eros, who squanders all men’s wealth, no immortal god escapes from you, nor any man who lives but for a day, and the one whom you possess goes mad. Even in good men you twist their minds, perverting them to their own ruin.”

“The power of fate is full of mystery. There’s no evading it, not with wealth, nor war, nor walls, nor black sea-beaten ships.”

“The lucky and unlucky rise or fall by chance day after day – and how these things are fixed for men no once can prophesy.”

“When a man has lost what gives him pleasure, he’s a breathing corpse.”

“Boasts of arrogant men bring on great blows of punishment.”

Themes: Fate and Free Will, Rules and Order, Determination, Power, Women and Femininity, Mortality

  1. Do some characters seem to control their fates more than others? If so, how do they do it? One cannot control fate by the very definition of fate being something immutable and determined before one is even born. Thus, assuming fate does not exist, I will examine which characters seem to achieve what they desire. Antigone desires to bury her brother in spite of the prohibition proclaimed by Creon. She achieves this objective knowing with almost absolute certainty that she will be executed for doing it. I think that Antigone also wished to die rather than live in an unjust society. She even says as much when she appears defiantly before Creon.
  2. How does Oedipus’s fate impact the fates of other members of his family? The ancient Greeks believed that the sins of fathers are inherited by their children. Thus, the children of Oedipus must be punished for his sins of incest and patricide, which is exactly what transpires. His two sons kill one another in battle. His daughter Antigone hangs herself in a rocky cavern after being condemned to death for burying one of her brothers. Finally, his other daughter Ismene is witness to all these tragic events; she feels hopeless and miserable while watching her family meet with ruin and agony; she is even rejected by Antigone when she attempts to share in her fate.
  1. To what extent is adherence to the law of the state associated with virtue? Adherence to divine law? Creon holds the conviction that the worst evil that can befall mankind is disobedience to the laws of the state and lack of rule. Without a ruler and obedient subjects, cities are ruined and there is no happiness. Creon believes that even if a ruler is unjust, then the society over which he holds power is still better off than one that has no ruler. On the other hand, Antigone believes adherence to a superior divine law is required rather than observance of laws made by men. She reasons that she will be dead far longer than she will be alive, and therefore she owes a far greater duty to the dead and the laws of the gods than she owes to the laws of men.
  2. How compatible are divine and state law in Antigone? Where does conflict arise? The conflict between divine law and state law arises when Antigone interprets the divine law as requiring her to bury her brother Polyneices, an act explicitly prohibited on pain of death by the laws of the state. Every society has laws. Whether those laws conflict with “divine laws” depends entirely upon the interpretation each individual makes according to their own religious convictions. In that sense, I am inclined to favor Creon’s opinion that mankind should obey the laws of the state rather than arbitrary divine laws as determined by each individual. But I also am inclined to the sentiments of Locke expounded in his Second Treatise of Civil Government regarding his belief that there are certain unalienable rights; i.e. the right to life, liberty, and property. Are these unalienable rights decreed by a divine authority? Or are they simply an inevitable result of logic applied to the formation of well-functioning societies conducive to the safety and proliferation of mankind?
  1. To what extent is determination an asset to characters in Antigone? How is it a hindrance? The two most strong-willed individuals in the tragedy are Antigone and Creon. Antigone holds the conviction that it is her duty as ordained by the supreme laws of the gods to bury her brother. She therefore spurns the laws of men in order to fulfill this duty despite the punishment of death that awaits her. She achieves her objective of burying her brother and fulfilling her duties as his sister, but she also suffers death in the end of the tragedy, albeit an honorable one according to her and the other characters of the play. Creon is also a strong-willed character. He holds the conviction that the worst evil that can befall mankind is disobedience and lack of rule. Without a ruler and obedient subjects, cities are ruined and there is no happiness. Creon believes that even if a ruler is unjust, then the society over which he holds power is still better off than one that has no ruler. His determination is certainly a hindrance in his effort to rule the society well. Tiresias asserts that his edict forbidding the burial of Polyneices has cause the gods to hate the city because birds and dogs have defiled the altars of the gods with the meat of Polyneices. Creon also loses both his wife and son to suicide as a result of his stubbornness.
  2. What, if any, correlation exists between determination and self-deception in the play? Creon is so determined to adhere to the laws of the state that he dismisses the advice of the other characters in the play to be merciful to Antigone. In a way, he is deceiving himself as to the reasonableness of the law. He might know that the law is too severe, but he rigidly adheres to it merely because it is the law, and begins to fashion arguments which support his adherence to it.
  3. Are all of the determined characters in Antigone stubborn and arrogant, or do some exhibit a reasonable degree of determination? What might this suggest? I do not believe that any characters in Greek tragedies display a reasonable degree of any type of emotion or characteristic. Everything is done to the very extreme – mourning a death, self-punishment, revenge, etc. I think that this suggests that one must temper one’s emotions in order to avoid tragedy. It advocates a type of stoicism.
  1. How is Creon the Brother-in-Law from Oedipus the King different from Creon the King? In the Oedipus tragedy, Creon was much more respectful to the gods. At the end of the play, he insists upon waiting for the response of the oracle before deciding the fate of Oedipus. He does nothing without the express approval of the gods. In Antigone, he is head-strong and stubborn. He believes that he alone knows what is good for the state, and initially does not heed the demands of Tiresias to bury Polyneices. He, like Oedipus in Oedipus the King, believes that Tiresias has been bribed by someone to cast aspersions upon him.
  2. Do women have positions of power in Antigone trilogy? If so, how do they exercise their power? Women do not have positions of power related to legislation or government, but they do possess the ability to defy the laws, an ability which everyone possesses. Antigone exercises her right to civil disobedience and incurs the punishment for it.
  1. Discuss Ismene’s perception of her role as a woman in ancient Greek society. Does her behavior match the opinions she voices? Ismene believes that as a woman she must obey those who are more powerful than herself – i.e. men. She adheres to this conviction, and refuses to assist Antigone to bury Polyneices.
  2. Why does Creon feel so threatened by Antigone? Does this have anything to do with her womanhood? Creon feels threatened by Antigone because she is directly challenging his authority as king of the city. She disobeyed him, and does not apologize for doing so. If Creon allows this type of subordination, then the citizens might consider him to be a weak ruler and rebel against his rule. He also isn’t too fond about the idea of being challenged by a woman. He believes women should be seen and not heard. Creon would rather be overthrown by a man than disobeyed by a woman.
  3. Do Antigone and Ismene fulfill more stereotypically masculine roles than their brothers Eteocles and Polyneices? Antigone and Ismene certainly exhibited characteristics typical of males in ancient Greek society – valor, intelligence, determination – but Eteocles and Polyneices exhibit the highest quality of men in ancient Greek society – a lust for war and honor.
  1. Why do some characters, such as Antigone, look favorably on death? The characters who commit suicide in this play – Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice – consider death a favorable alternative to life because their life had become unbearable. The messenger in the play says that a man is a breathing corpse when he loses whatever it is that makes him happy. That man who has lost the ability to be happy is better off dead than alive to experience the misery he is beset with.
  2. Why do Haemon and Eurydice kill themselves? Haemon kills himself because he cannot endure an existence without Antigone. He deeply loves her and is grieved when he witnesses her hanging by a noose in the cavern. (It is interesting to note that at one point during the play the chorus comments upon Eros. They say that Eros conquers everyone, it perverts even good men, and leads them to their ruin.) Eurydice kills herself because she cannot bear the agony of living after witnessing her son’s own death, a suicide instigated by her own husband. I must say that I am a bit surprised that she did not kill Creon, or inflict some other type of torment and revenge upon him that is characteristic of Greek tragic characters. Perhaps she thought that allowing Creon to live is a torment in itself. Indeed Creon wishes that someone would kill him at the end of the play.

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus

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6 thoughts on “SOPHOCLES: Antigone”

    1. That is an excellent idea. I am very familiar with Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry. I will consider writing such a post in the near future.

      Thanks for the suggestion, and thanks for reading.

  1. I had to study this for my A Level drama theory side. I actually prefer the version by Sophocles rather than the modern version – which doesn’t happen very often! It also linked into my Psychology studies because of the Oedipal Complex and Freud! 🙂

  2. From the Ancient Greek perspective, Creos violates the laws of nature by forbidding Antigone to bury her brother. In the end, Creos is almost the only person left alive, but he does lose his wife to suicide. Real life works out pretty much that way as well: the bad guys always prevail, but they hurt and are unhappy because of the desolation they have caused. I also like the plot of this play, as it would have been much more straightforward to write a soap opera about Antigone trying to reconcile her two brothers while they still lived, and millions of writers would have (and have) taken that much simpler approach. The fact that Sophocles makes the plot take a sharp right turn at Albuquerque by having the brothers die before Antigone can reach them is one of the things that have enabled this play to survive for more than two thousand years.

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