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Summary of the Greek Classic: Antigone

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

This summary of Antigone includes a look at the plot, an analysis of each scene, and major conflicts. Review the play here after reading to better understand the drama.

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    The Plot

    Antigone is a tragedy. It contains the following elements:

    1. A tragic character is of noble birth and endures a mighty fall on account of pride. The play's title indicates that Antigone is the tragic character; the plot of Antigone, however, indicates that Creon is the tragic character. They are both of noble birth; they are both proud; they both endure a mighty fall. Creon gets the edge as tragic character insomuch that he recognizes his foolishness too late. Antigone understands her fate from the beginning.
    2. Fate plays a major role in Greek Tragedy. Fate plays a major role in Antigone. This is not a coincidence.
    3. The gods intervene, usually to punish the tragic character. In Antigone, the gods punish Creon for enacting unjust laws.
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    Major Conflicts

    Understanding the major conflicts in Antigone is necessary for understanding the play.

    1. Individual vs. Society - Antigone fights the establishment in order to expose an unjust law (an ancient appeal to Natural Rights). Not only is she battling Creon, who decrees Polyneices should not be buried, she battles the social customs of the time that assumed women were the weaker gender and, therefore, unfit for politics.
    2. Person vs. Person - Antigone battles Creon, insomuch that he represents the state. She also battles her sister Ismene, who attempts to persuade Antigone not to bury her brother. Creon also argues with his son Haimon and Teiresias.
    3. Person vs. The Supernatural - Antigone's family (and the city of Thebes) has been cursed by the gods. Their fate wills them to destruction.
    4. Person vs. Self - Ismene initially decides to not help her sister, yet claims responsibility afterward. She is torn between following her conscience or following the law. Creon also must relent in scene 5 although he does not want to.
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    The Prologue

    Antigone by Frederic Leighton, 1882 The Prologue: Eteocles and Polyneices (Antigone's brothers) have killed each other in battle. Antigone and Ismene discuss Creon's decree that their brother Polyneices will not receive a proper burial and anyone who tries to bury him will be put to death.

    Antigone informs Ismene that she will defy the law and give Polyneices burial rights the dead deserve. Ismene attempts to talk her out of it. Antigone insults her.

    Prologue Analysis: Upon the death of Oedipus the King, his sons Eteocles and Polyneices are to rule in alternating years. Eteocles rules first. When his year is up, he decides he likes being king (with a little influence from Uncle Creon) and does not abdicate the throne.

    A Civil War ensues. Although it's possible Antigone recognizes Creon's political treachery, she probably helps Polyneices for the reason she gives: it's the right thing to do. The fact that Antigone acts alone against the wishes of the king and against the social customs that considered women inferior, makes her more heroic.

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    Scene 1

    Scene 1: Creon, the uncle of Antigone, has claimed the throne on account of Eteocles' death. Scene 1 begins with Creon's statement of political philosophy, that he does not expect complete loyalty from his subjects until he has been tested in office. His speech contains an extended metaphor calling Thebes a ship of state and that a king and his citizens must put the state above all. His test comes immediately as a sentry informs him that Polyneices has been buried. Creon storms away in anger and orders the sentry to "find me the man!"

    Scene 1 Analysis: Creon must establish the legitimacy of his rule and does so by establishing a no tolerance policy regarding the burial of Polyneices. Creon cannot comprehend the crime could be done by a woman, hence the ironic statement to bring him the man. There seems to be an underlying current of rebellion as evidenced by the sentry's comment about the king's conscience and Choragos' suggestion that perhaps the gods are punishing him.

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    Scenes 2 and 3

    Scene 2: The sentry returns with Antigone who returned to the site of her crime to rebury her brother after the layer of dirt had been removed. Antigone readily admits the crime. An argument ensues with Antigone claiming she was merely obeying the laws of the gods and that Creon will be punished. Ismene attempts to take credit for the crime as well, but Antigone won't let her.

    Scene 2 Analysis: Creon is startled to see his niece brought forward for burying Polyneices. He gives her an out by asking if she had heard the decree. She confesses that she had heard.

    Scene 3: Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's fianceé, arrives. He pleads with Creon to listen to reason and that citizens of Thebes are secretly discussing the unfairness of his law. Haemon claims his father will never see him again.

    Scene 3 Analysis: In scene 2, Creon thwarts Antigone's argument by claiming women are stupid. He thwarts Haemon's argument by claiming young people are stupid. At no point does he respond to the claim that he has disobeyed the laws of the gods. We receive further evidence that not all citizens of Thebes are pleased with the new king.

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    Scenes 4 and 5

    Sophocles from Wikimedia Commons 

    Scene 4: Antigone is taken to the place where she is to die. Antigone and the Chorus discuss the curse that has been placed on her family. Antigone blames the curse for her fate. The chorus claims it's Antigone's actions that have caused it.

    Scene 4 Analysis: I love how Thebean rulers absolve themselves from her death. Instead of stoning her to death, as was the decree, they simply lock Antigone in an underground tomb fortified by bricks without giving her any food and water so she can die on her own. Something tells me the Greek gods are not fooled so easily. Scene 4 brings up a philosphical topic that has incited debate for centuries: Is one's life determined by fate or by free will? Antigone claims her fate is brought about by the curse of her father Oedipus. The chorus claims it is Antigone's choice to break the law and willfully get caught that determines her fate. Perhaps it's a combination of the two? Because Antigone believed in the curse, she consciously or subconsciously makes choices to see it fulfilled (psychiatrists call this a self-fulfilling prophecy).

    Scene 5: Teiresias, the paradoxical blind seer, shows up at Creon's house to inform him of the stupidity of his law. Creon accuses him of accepting bribes. An argument ensues. Teiresias curses Creon and leaves. Creon, with a little help from Choragos, admits his folly...too late. He goes to the tomb to free Antigone. When he gets there he discovers her dead. Haimon tries to kill Creon and then kills himself. Creon's wife finds out about Haimon's death and kills herself. Enemy armies can be heard at Thebes' gates. Creon expresses his desire to die soon. They all live happily ever after (just kidding).

    Scene 5 Analysis: Creon proves himself a complete ass by arguing with Teiresias and accusing him of accepting bribes. Creon is so full of pride that he would assume an honorable counselor would accept a bribe before admitting that he may have made a mistake. The choragos explicitly states the play's theme: "There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; / No wisdom but in submission to the gods." (Scene 5, lines 139-40).

References

  • Sophocles. "Antigone." Glencoe Literature, Course 5. New York: Glencoe, 2002. 729-68.