Antigone Summary

Sophocles

Antigone

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Antigone Summary

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The plot of Antigone by Sophocles begins with all the characters onstage, with the prologue narrator walking among them, describing each of them in detail. He first walks up to Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and niece of Creon, a girl who was never regarded as a valuable member of her family. He then goes to Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé. He is talking with Ismene, Antigone’s more beautiful sister. The prologue tells a brief story about how Haemon had been smitten with Ismene, and all had expected they would get married, but one day he had surprised everyone by revealing that it was Antigone he wanted. He then describes Creon as a former courtier who enjoys pleasures more than power and avoids conflict when possible.

The narrator of the prologue says that sometimes, “he wonders whether it’s not pointless, being a leader of men. Whether it’s not a sordid business that ought to be left to others less… sensitive than himself” (Sophocles, 80). The Nurse is briefly introduced, as is the page, with little background. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, is shown as passive, calm, and dignified. The Messenger is introduced as an agent of foreshadowing. He already knows that Antigone and Haemon are going to die, and starts off the play looking rather sullen. The guards are shown as amoral agents of the plot, with no specific agenda for the fate of the other characters.

The prologue of Antigone then begins to tell the story that led up to the beginning of the play. After Oedipus died, his two sons, Antigone’s brothers, fought in a war to control Thebes. They ended up both dying in the war, so Oedipus’ brother Creon ended up King. Creon had been on the side of Eteocles during the war and thus gave him a proper burial. But the other brother, Polynices, was characterized by Creon as a traitor, and therefore was left out in the dirt to rot and be eaten by animals, a fate the Greeks regarded with the same dread that modern Christians regard damnation in Hell. In order to make an example of Polynices to any would-be traitors, Creon decreed that anyone who tried to give Polynices proper burial rites would be put to death.

 

Scene 1 Summary

Antigone enters her house, at a very early hour in the morning. The Nurse questions her and tries to figure out what Antigone has been up to. Antigone’s mind is far off, not really affected by the Nurse’s berating. The Nurse suspects that Antigone has a secret lover, and Antigone just decides to go with that story. The Nurse is shocked, as this is very out of character for Antigone. The Nurse had worried that she would be unable to marry, but now she had the opposite problem.  “All the time you were just like your sister- worse, you little hypocrite!” (83-84).

This track of argument becomes too much for Antigone and she dismisses the Nurse. Ismene enters, and Antigone’s true whereabouts the night before are revealed. She and Ismene had snuck out to conspire to bury Polynices. Ismene is still afraid that they would be caught and executed, but Antigone has accepted this as her fate, and does not appear bothered by it. Ismene exits, Haemon enters. Antigone looks to be comforted by Haemon for the last time. She then tells him she cannot marry him, and forbids him to ask why. She makes him leave, and Ismene enters again, still trying to talk Antigone out of burying Polynices. Ismene shows her fear for Antigone, telling her, “You like to hurl defiance at the whole world, but you’re only one small person” (97).

 

Scene 2 Summary

Creon and his Page enters, and then a guard, Jonas. Jonas is visibly frightened of bearing bad news to the king, although it is obvious that Creon is trying to get the news out of him. Finally, he confesses that someone had slipped in under their watch and covered Polynices’s body, presumably with a child’s toy shovel they found near the body. Creon is outraged. He fears that there is a rebellion afoot against his rule. He rants about “The leaders of the plebs, reeking of garlic, suddenly in alliance with the princess… The priests, trying to fish something for themselves out of these murky waters…” (100). As scenarios of rebellion swirl around in Creon’s stream of consciousness, Jonas grows more and more frightened for his own life. They set off to try and control the situation.

 

Choral Episode Summary

The Chorus enters. They, like Antigone, have a fatalistic view of the story. But they break the fourth wall and address the audience, talking about the play in third person. They talk about the beautiful simplicity of tragedy, how it is like clockwork. Once it has been set into motion, there is no altering its path. They say that with drama, there is hope, which they characterize as cruel, and guilt laid on the characters because they have freedom of choice. But in tragedy, “everybody’s on a par. All innocent! It doesn’t matter if one person kills and the other is killed- it’s just a matter of casting” (102).

 

Scene 3 Summary

Antigone is dragged onstage by the guards, including Jonas. She is resisting being dragged, and has apparently been resisting all the way. She says that as a dignified princess, she is capable of going quietly if they would unhand her, but the guards don’t believe her for a minute. Another guard mentions in passing that they had arrested another woman of similar temperament the other day. While dragging Antigone across the stage, the guards get into an involved discussion about how they will celebrate their anticipated reward. Creon enters, and realizes the prisoner that has been announced for questioning in his court is none other than his own niece and soon-to-be daughter-in-law. The guards tell him that they had caught her trying to re-bury Polynices, and Creon dismisses them.

An argument ensues between Antigone and Creon. Creon, always trying to avoid confrontation, starts out by being as patient as he can. He tries to play it off as a mistake and tells Antigone that if she stops, he will spare her. Antigone will not be moved. Creon tells her that she is being too lofty and proud, saying “The pride of Oedipus. You are its living image” (108). He goes on to say that she would be happier if she was like him, who claims to be humble and does only what will not cause trouble. “My name’s only Creon, thank God. I’ve got both feet on the ground and both hands in my pockets,” (109) he boasts. Antigone will not be moved.

At this point in the plot of Antigone, Creon makes his true feelings about important rituals of burial known and in front of Antigone, he trivializes the burial rites, saying that they mean nothing with the state of religious services these days. He tells Antigone that she is risking her life for nothing, but this argument does not sway Antigone; she will not be moved. Creon then tells Antigone about how when she was little, Polynices was nothing but a spoiled, irresponsible drunkard and gambler, who once struck his father out of spite. Finally, he tells her that one of the brothers had been given a proper funeral, yes, but neither one was recognizable after the battle and it could be either of them. Antigone is disillusioned, but still will not be moved. Ismene is brought in, having been arrested as well. She has now gathered her resolve to bury Polynices as well. They are both dragged offstage.

 

Scene 4 Summary

Haemon and the chorus enter, and the chorus is now interacting with Creon, playing his conscious. No longer fatalist, the chorus is now pleading with him for Antigone’s life along with Haemon. They go through different options that they could try in order to restore public confidence now that everyone knows what Antigone has done. But Creon absolutely cannot see a way out of it. Haemon laments Creon’s fall from the strong hero he once knew, now simply content to do whatever it takes to survive, without any principles. He asks Creon if all his heroism early in life was “to becoming a man, as you call it- a man who’s supposed to consider himself lucky just to be alive?” (127) Haemon exits in a fit of despair for both Antigone’s life and his father’s manhood. A guard enters and announces that an angry mob has entered the palace, enraged by Antigone’s burial of a supposed traitor. Creon exits.

 

Scene 5 Summary

Jonas enters with Antigone. She tries to make small talk with him, talking about his family and his ranks and career in the guard. The guard lets on that Antigone will likely be buried alive in the cave of Hades. Antigone bribes him with a ring to take down a letter for her. It is a letter to Haemon, apologizing for leaving him like she did, and confessing that she has now lost sight of what it is she was fighting dying for. Now at the precipice of death does she see Creon’s point, how easy it would have been to live and try to be happy. But she decides she doesn’t want to tell so much. In the end, the letter reads, “I’m sorry, my darling. It would have been nice and peaceful for you all without me. I love you” (133). Suddenly, the guards enter and Jonas stops writing. They exit, to Antigone’s execution.

 

Scene 6 Summary

The Chorus enters, and suddenly the Messenger runs onstage. He tells the story of how, as they were putting the last of the stones in place in front of the cave, they heard voices inside. Creon ordered them to dig them out again, and there he saw Haemon cradling Antigone in his arms, having hung herself. Creon went to try and console Haemon and take him out of the cave, but Haemon simply stood, spat in Creon’s face, and killed himself with his sword while looking Creon dead in the eye. Creon enters, a defeated man. He thinks it is over, but the messenger has more to tell. When Eurydice heard the news, she cut her own throat and is now dead. Creon is now completely alone. He calmly, if not happily, accepts this as the mechanics of fate and the burden for responsible adults to bear. “It’s best never to grow up” (136) he laments.

 

Epilogue Summary

The Chorus comes forward, and tells how the tragedy is complete. Things in Thebes are finally at peace, as if none of the troubled, worrisome characters had never existed to begin with. Those who remembered them are beginning to forget, and it all becomes immaterial. The guards, who had no interest in the story all along, go back to their games and their duties.

 

Antigone Literary Analysis

Antigone is another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing the Polis (public life) with the Oikos (private life). While religion was mandated by the government in ancient Greece, things like funerals were still seen as things to be handled within the sphere of the individual household. As stated in the play, ancient Greeks viewed the body of the deceased to still be important to that person in the next world. If they were not buried, their soul would be forced to live on earth, unable to get any peace by passing on to the underworld. It was seen as the worst possible punishment to leave someone out to rot when they had died, and by standards of Greek politics, it would have been viewed as unreasonably harsh even to make an out-and-out traitor to the state suffer such a fate, let alone simply a Greek noble who had simply taken the losing side in a civil war.

Shakespeare borrows many of these principles from Antigone in his work, Hamlet. Once again, the problem of how to treat the dead, and what sort of afterlife to sentence them to, becomes a matter of political intrigue. Polynices died politically unpopular, and therefore he was damned by his survivors. Because the victors write the history books, he was deemed to be unworthy of an afterlife, which was the cause of much religious outrage. The ancient Greeks would have seen Creon’s punishment as just for having flown in the face of the gods, using his government powers to violate religious law. This third sphere, the sphere of the divine, is one that was supposed to take precedent over both the Polis and the Oikos. The drowning of Ophelia turns the scenario on its side. In this case, because she is of noble and respected heritage, Ophelia is given a proper burial even though it is against religious law to do so because she is a suicide, and suicides are to be punished with damnation. But once again, the realm of divine law is infringed upon by political interests in controlling who goes where for the afterlife.

Another important theme in Antigone is the question of whether to make any sacrifices, including of all the nobility and pride that makes one themselves, in order to stay alive, or whether to die with one’s humanity intact (to be or not to be?). Antigone represents the epitome of the side that says one should be willing to stand by their principles even in the face of death, for those around her made the decision to retreat and live as easy as humanly possible. She could easily have had a comfortable life had she backed down. Haemon also represents this stance. He challenged his father to hold himself to a higher standard than to simply do what was necessary to hold on to his power and spare bloodshed. Bear in mind, ancient Greece was a civilization based on religion and military, two strong institutions that demand putting aside the interests of one’s own life.

Creon represents what the normative standards of the day would have regarded as cowardice. He is content to stay alive and stay comfortable, and has no regard for principles. He even goes so far as to let himself be swallowed up in fatalism if it meant allowing himself to let his family die so he could comfortably maintain his rule. Ismene is another example of this philosophy earlier on. She at least has some compassion and understanding for Polynices’ predicament, but she will not go so far as to risk her own life. Later, however, she has more resolve, but it is too late for anything to be done for her brother.

Fatalism and the role of fate comprises another major theme in Antigone. Several characters alternately embrace it and then reject it as it fits the plot and moves it forward. Even this, the fact that the plot must unfold in a certain direction regardless of inconsistency, can be viewed as a form of maintaining a fatalist course. The chorus in the beginning says that the entire story is laid out and cannot be changed due to the nature of tragedy. Later, they argue against Creon, as if there is hope (a concept they earlier despised). Creon, of course, is the other great convenient fatalist. He starts out as hopeful, thinking that he can reason Antigone out of going through with her plan. But as soon as he realizes she will not be moved, he decides that he cannot be moved either when Haemon tries to talk him out of killing Antigone. Only Antigone herself remains a consistent fatalist- from the beginning to end of the play she is constant in her acceptance of death.