Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη) is a tragedy by Sophocles written before or in 442 BC. It is chronologically the third of the three Theban plays but was written first. The play expands on the Theban legend that predated it. It picks up where Aeschylus' play Seven Against Thebes leaves off.
Polynices and Eteocles, two brothers leading opposite sides in Thebes' civil war, both of them were fighting for the throne . Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has declared that Eteocles will be honored and Polynices disgraced. The rebel brother's body will not be sanctified by holy rites, and will lay unburied on the battlefield, prey for carrion animals. That was the harshest punishment given at the time. Antigone and Ismene are the sisters of the dead brothers, and they are now the last children of the ill-fated Oedipus. In the opening of the play, Antigone brings Ismene outside the city gates late at night for a secret meeting: Antigone wants to bury Polynices' body, in defiance of Creon's edict. Ismene refuses to help her, fearing the death penalty, but she is unable to dissuade Antigone from going to do the deed by herself.
Creon enters, along with the Chorus of Theban Elders. He seeks their support in the days to come, and in particular wants them to back his edict regarding the disposal of Polynices' body. The Chorus of Elders pledges their support. A Sentry enters, fearfully reporting that the body has been buried. A furious Creon orders the Sentry to find the culprit or face death himself. The Sentry leaves, but after a short absence he returns, bringing Antigone with him. Creon questions her, and she does not deny what she has done. She argues unflinchingly with Creon about the morality of the edict and the morality of her actions. Creon becomes livid, and, thinking Ismene must have helped her, summons the girl. Ismene tries to confess falsely to the crime, wishing to die alongside her sister, but Antigone would have not have it. Creon orders that the two women be temporarily locked up.
Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's fiancé, enters to pledge allegiance to his father. He initially seems willing to obey Creon, but when Haemon gently tries to persuade his father to spare Antigone, the discussion deteriorates and the two men are soon bitterly insulting each other. Haemon leaves, vowing never to see Creon again.
Creon decides to spare Ismene and to bury Antigone alive in a cave. She is brought out of the house, and she bewails her fate and defends her actions one last time. She is taken away to her living tomb, with the Chorus expressing great sorrow for what is going to happen to her.
Teiresias, the blind prophet, enters. He warns Creon that the gods side with Antigone. Creon accuses Teiresias of being corrupt, and Teiresias responds that because of Creon's mistakes, he will lose one child for the crimes of leaving Polyneices unburied and putting Antigone into the earth. All of Greece will despise him, and the sacrificial offerings of Thebes will not be accepted by the gods. The Chorus, terrified, asks Creon to take their advice. He assents, and they tell him that he should bury Polyneices and free Antigone. Creon, shaken, agrees to do it. He leaves with a retinue of men to help him right his previous mistakes. The Chorus delivers a choral ode to the god Dionysos, and then a Messenger enters to tell them that Haemon has killed himself. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, enters and asks the Messenger to tell her everything. The Messenger reports that Haemon and Antigone have both taken their own lives. Eurydice disappears into the palace.
Creon enters, carrying Haemon's body. He understands that his own actions have caused these events. A Second Messenger arrives to tell Creon and the Chorus that Eurydice has killed herself. With her last breath, she cursed her husband. Creon blames himself for everything that has happened, and, a broken man, he asks his servants to help him inside. The order he valued so much has been protected, and he is still the king, but he has acted against the gods and lost his child and his wife as a result. The Chorus closes by saying that although the gods punish the proud, punishment brings wisdom.
Antigone was written at a time of national fervor. In 440 BC, shortly after the play was released, Sophocles was appointed as one of the ten generals to lead a military expedition against Samos Island
. It is striking that a prominent play in a time of such imperialism contains no political propaganda, no impassioned apostrophe, makes not a single contemporary allusion or passing reference to Athens, and betrays no patriotic interests whatsoever. Rather than become sidetracked with the issues of the time, Antigone remains completely focused on the characters and themes within the play, and the presentation thus remains timeless.
The chorus in Antigone
is interesting as in several ways. It departs significantly from the chorus in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes
, the play of which Antigone
is a continuation. The chorus in Seven Against Thebes
is largely supportive of Antigone's decision to bury her brother. Here, the chorus is composed of old men who are largely unwilling to see civil disobedience in a positive light. The chorus also represents a typical difference in Sophocles' plays from those of both Aeschylus and Euripides. A chorus of Aeschylus almost always continues or intensifies the moral nature of the play, while one of Euripides frequently strays far from the main moral theme. The chorus in Antigone lies somewhere in between; it remains within the general moral and the immediate scene, but allows itself to be carried away from the occasion or the initial reason for speaking.
The character of the sentry is also unusual, as he speaks like a lower-class person, in more natural language, rather than the stylized poetry of the other characters. He has been compared with similar characters in the works of Shakespeare by Brown, Kitto, and others.
Significance and interpretation
deals with two main questions: 1) whether Polynices ought to be given burial rituals, and 2) whether someone who buried him in defiance of state ought to be punished. Antigone buries Polynices at the very beginning, and so the play is consumed mainly with the second question. Once Creon has discovered that Antigone buried her brother against his orders, the ensuing discussion of her fate is devoid of arguments for mercy because of youth or sisterly love from the Chorus, Haemon or Antigone herself. All of the arguments to save her center on a debate over which course adheres best to strict justice.
Once the initial premises behind the characters in Antigone
have been established, the action of the play moves steadily and inevitably towards the outcome. Because Creon is the person and king that he is, he will naturally decree that the body of the disloyal brother remain unburied, and will naturally demand absolute obedience to his decree. Antigone, being the person that she is and holding her views, will naturally defy the decree. Creon will naturally demand that the unknown criminal be arrested and brought before him, etc. Because the action is so self-sustained, most interpretation of the play centers around the text itself. Both Creon and Antigone show much pride which leads to their fates, Creon's wife and son being killed and Antigone herself dying.
The problem of the second burial
An important debate still discussed regarding Sophocles' Antigone
is the issue of the second burial. When she poured dust over her brother's body, Antigone completed the burial rites and thus fulfilled her duty to him. Having been properly buried, Polynices' soul could proceed to the underworld whether or not the dust was removed from his body. However, Antigone went back after his body was uncovered and performed the ritual again, an act that seems to be completely unmotivated by anything other than a plot necessity so that she could be caught in the act of disobedience, leaving no doubt of her guilt.
Several scholars have attempted to solve this problem. Sir Richard Jebb suggests that the only reason for Antigone's return to the burial site is that the first time she forgot the Choaí (libations), and "perhaps the rite was considered completed only if the Choaí were poured while the dust still covered the corpse. This argument is slightly tautological in that it explains Antigone's return to the body based on a presumption about a ritual that is based on Antigone's return to the body.
Gilbert Norwood explains Antigone's performance of the second burial in terms of her stubbornness. His argument says that had Antigone not been so obsessed with the idea of keeping her brother covered, none of the tragic deaths of the play would have happened. This argument has the property that it states that if nothing had happened, nothing would have happened, and doesn't take much of a stand in explaining why Antigone returned for the second burial when the first would have fulfilled her religious obligation, regardless of how stubborn she was.
Tycho von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff justifies the need for the second burial by comparing Sophocles' Antigone to a theoretical version where Antigone is apprehended during the first burial. In this situation, news of the illegal burial and Antigone's arrest would arrive at the same time and there would be no period of time in which Antigone's defiance and victory was to be appreciated.
J. L. Rose maintains that the solution to the problem of the second burial is solved by close examination of Antigone as a tragic character. Being a tragic character, she is completely obsessed by one idea, and for her this is giving her brother his due respect in death and demonstrating her love for him and for what is right. When she sees her brother's body uncovered, therefore, she is overcome by emotion and acts impulsively to cover him again, with no regards to the necessity of the action or its consequences for her safety. This argument is supported by the language of the text- when Antigone finds Polynices' body disgraced, she "cried aloud with the sharp cry of a bird in its bitterness,-even as when, within the empty nest, it sees the bed stripped of its nestlings."
A well established theme in Antigone is the right of the individual to reject society's infringement on her freedom to perform a personal obligation. This is seen through Antigone's refusal to let Creon dictate what she is allowed to do with her family members. She says to Ismene about Creon's edict, "It is not for him to keep me from my own. This theme brings up the issue of whether Antigone's will to bury her brother is based on rational thought or instinct, a debate whose contributors include greats like Goethe.
One important issue in the play is the clash of values between Creon and Antigone. Creon advocates obedience to man-made laws while Antigone stresses the higher laws of duty to the gods and one's family. The play is thus one of the most commonly cited supports in Greek tragedy for the supremacy of Natural Law
Creon, the dramatic hero, realizes only after he loses the lives of all his family that he was mistaken to place the law of the state above the law of the gods.
The contrasting views of Creon and Antigone with regards to laws higher than those of state inform their different conclusions about civil disobedience. Creon demands obedience to the law above all else, right or wrong. He says that "there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority" (An.
671). Antigone responds with the idea that state law is not absolute, and that it can be broken in civil disobedience in extreme cases, such as honoring the Gods, whose rule and authority outweighs Creon's.
The concept of citizenship appears most clearly in the values clash between Creon and Antigone. Creon defines citizenship as utmost obedience to the will of the state, and thus condemns Antigone to death when he feels that she has abandoned her citizenship by disobeying him. Antigone allows more room for individualism within the role of the citizen. The debate over citizenship, however, extends beyond just the argument between Creon and Antigone.
Creon's decree to leave Polynices unburied in itself makes a bold statement about what it means to be a citizen, and what constitutes abdication of citizenship. It was the firmly kept custom of the Greek that each city was responsible for the burial of its citizens. Herodotus discussed how members of each city would collect their own dead after a large battle to bury them. In contrast with the Persians who would leave their dead unburied, the Greeks considered burial a sign of recognition of citizenship and affiliation. In Antigone, it is therefore natural that the people of Thebes did not bury the Argives, but very striking that Creon prohibited the burial of Polynices. Since he is a citizen of Thebes, it would have been natural for the Thebans to bury him. It is important to note, for this reason, that Creon's edict is directed at the Thebans themselves. Creon is telling his people that Polynices has distanced himself from them, and that they are prohibited from treating him as a fellow-citizen and burying him as is the custom for citizens.
In prohibiting the people of Thebes from burying Polynices, Creon is essentially placing him on the level of the other attackers—the foreign Argives. For Creon, the fact that Polynices has attacked the city effectively revokes his citizenship and makes him a foreigner. As defined by this decree, citizenship is based on loyalty. It is revoked when Polynices commits what in Creon's eyes amounts to treason. When pitted against Antigone's view, this understanding of citizenship creates a new axis of conflict. Antigone does not deny that Polynices has betrayed the state, she simply acts as if this betrayal does not rob him of the connection that he would have otherwise had with the city. Creon, on the other hand, believes that citizenship is a contract; it is not absolute or inalienable, and can be lost in certain circumstances. These two opposing views- that citizenship is absolute and undeniable and alternatively that citizenship is based on certain behavior- are known respectively as citizenship 'by nature' and citizenship 'by law.'
Antigone's determination to bury Polynices arises from a desire to bring honor to her family, not just to the gods. She repeatedly declares that she must act to please "those that are dead" (An.
77), because they hold more weight than any ruler. In the opening scene, she makes an emotional appeal to her sister Ismene saying that they must protect their brother out of sisterly love, even if he did betray their state. Antigone makes very few references to the gods, and so it is very easy to interpret much of her reasoning for honoring higher laws as referencing laws of family honor, not divine laws.
While he rejects Antigone's actions based on family honor, Creon appears to value family heavily himself as well. This is one of the few areas where Creon and Antigone's values seem to align. When talking to Haemon, Creon demands of him not only obedience as a citizen, but also as a son. Creon even goes so far as to say "everything else shall be second to your father's decision" ("An." 640-641). This stance seems extreme, especially in light of the fact that Creon elsewhere advocates obedience to the state above all else. While it is not clear how he would handle these two values in conflict, it is clear that even for Creon, family occupies a place as high if not higher than the state.
Portrayal of the gods
as well as the other Theban Plays, there are very few references to the gods. Hades is the most commonly referenced god, but he is referenced more as a personification of Death
. Zeus is referenced a total of 5 times in the entire play, and Apollo is referenced only as a personification of prophecy. This lack of mention portrays the tragic events that occur as the result of human error, and not divine intervention. There also is no reference to Mount Olympus
in the entire play, and indeed the gods are portrayed as chthonic
, as near the beginning there is a reference to "Justice who dwells with the gods beneath the earth." This conflicts with the other Athenian tragedians, who reference Olympus often.
was adapted into modern form by the French playwright Anouilh
during the Second World War
. A version of this production with Genevieve Bujold
is available on DVD
The play was also adapted into a 1961 film starring Irene Papas.
Antigone has also been re-written by Spanish thinker María Zambrano in a play entitled La tumba de Antígona, Antígone's tomb (1967).
There was also an adaption of Antigone written by a German playwright, Bertolot Brecht.
- Edward H. Plumptre, 1865 - verse: full text
- Sir George Young, 1888 - verse
- G. H. Palmer, 1899 - verse
- Richard C. Jebb, 1904 - prose: full text
- F. Storr, 1912 - verse: full text
- Shaemas O'Sheel, 1931 - prose
- Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, 1938 - verse: full text
- Jean Anouilh, 1946 (modern French translation)
- E.F. Watling, 1947 - verse (Penguin classics)
- Theodore Howard Banks, 1950 - verse
- Elizabeth Wyckoff, 1954 - verse
- Paul Roche, 1958 - verse
- H. D. F. Kitto, 1962 - verse
- Michael Townsend, 1962
- Richard Emil Braun, 1973 - verse
- Robert Fagles, 1982 - verse with introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
- Marianne MacDonald, 2001
- Ian Johnston, 2005 - verse (modern English): full text
- Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal, 2003 - verse
- Seamus Heaney, 2004 The Burial at Thebes - verse
- George Theodoridis, 2006 - prose: full text
- David Grene, 1991 - verse
- Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1994 - verse
- George Judy, 1997 - verse
- Paul Woodruff, 2001 - verse with introduction and notes
- Heidegger, Martin, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried & Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
- Heidegger, Martin, Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister", trans. William McNeill & Julia Davis (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).
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- Segal, Charles, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, new edition).
- Steiner, George, Antigones (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984).