THE ANTIGONE A summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles This document was originally published in The Drama

: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 112123. In the Antigone contempt of death enables a weak maiden to conquer a powerful ruler, who, proud of his wisdom, ventures in his unbounded insolence to pit his royal word against divine law and human sentiment, and learns all too late, by the destruction of his house, that Fate in due course brings fit punishment on outrage. The play takes up the story of the Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, but with some changes in the situation. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have fallen, as will be remembered, at one of the gates of Thebes. King Creon allows Eteocles to be buried at once, that he might receive due honor among the shades; but he orders a herald to forbid any funeral rites or burial to the corpse of Polynices. "Let him lie unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and whoso touches him shall perish by the cruel death of stoning." Antigone tells these gloomy tidings to her sister Ismene, and informs her of what she has resolved to do: "In spite of the orders, I shall give my brother burial, whether thou, Ismene, wilt join with me or not." In vain her sister bids her keep in mind the ruin of their house: "We twain are left alone, and if we brave the king's decree, an unhappy death awaits us. Weak women such as we cannot strive with men; rather were it seemly to bow to those that are stronger than ourselves. The dead, who lie below, will deal leniently with us, as forced to yield." Pathetically noble is the response of Antigone: "Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me; nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains." The sisters retire, and the chorus of Theban elders enter. They greet the sun's bright beams, the fairest light that ever shone on seven-gated Thebes. "For the warrior-host from Argos sent, which Polynices brought, is dispersed in headlong flight, ere it was sated with Cadmean blood, and ere the fire of Hephaestus had consumed our towering battlements. Presumptuous insolence has Zeus laid low, and he who boldly rushed high on our towers with cries of victory is hurled headlong by his lightning flash. If round the seven gates of Thebes Ares roused mutual strife, yet there the foreign leaders left their armies as tribute to victorious Zeus; yea, even the two unhappy brothers, who, with victorious spears, dealt with each other like doom. Wherefore let there be no more thought of war; in stately dance we will surround the temple of the gods, with joyous Bacchus at our head." Creon enters, as ruler of the State, to tell the elders of the city why he bade the herald call them to assemble. He announces his decree:

Gifted with wondrous skill to plan. he knows how to frame controlling laws. Speech and thought are his. "in the very act. thanking the gods that he has come off so well. only from Death he will never find escape. It is the citizens. cleaving the water in his foaming coarse. but Polynices. destruction to their sanctuaries and laws. who long since have murmured at my rule. now to evil. Far may he be from us who dares such deeds. The winged race of birds. They fear that in her folly she has proved a rebel to the king's decree. and do ye watch yourselves that no one disobey. and so shall learn that from base profit comes more loss than gain. "be the work of the gods. the State's destruction." he says. Shield of the State. cursed the man who had undone her deed. when in his pride he gives himself up to the base." A guard approaches reluctantly and with fear. she let us seize her. the missiles of the air. pouring three times libations from a vase of brass. yet each will by ordeal of fire and sacred oath maintain his innocence. Yet there is no sign whose hand it was. we quickly hastened to the spot. he turns him. and lay in wait near it upon the hill." But Creon rebukes the suggestion as impious. the beasts of the forest." The chorus of Theban elders sings the woes of the house of Oedipus. The chorus sings an ode in praise of man as the mightiest of all mighty things on earth: "Through the sea's dark waves he steers his ship. And she quickly brought in her hands fine dust. ye shall pay for your neglect by a death of torture." "Well might this deed. and suddenly a whirlwind raised all the dust of the plain. nor denied what she had done. and when at last it was at rest." But the elders see the guards dragging with them Antigone. "But just now." he says. who died fighting for the fatherland. The sun stood in mid-heaven. The guard confirms their fears. and given it funeral rites. as a feast to dogs and birds."Honoring the good and punishing the vile. At last we made resolve that we would tell the king of this thing and the lot fell that I should be the bearer of this unwelcome message. "some one has sprinkled the corpse with dust. now to good. and the divine anger by which it is pursued: High is their happiness whose life stands clear From touch or tasts of Ill. who sought to make desolate with fire his native city and its gods. when he holds fast his country's laws and the gods' sacred right. and the denizens of the deep he takes. we saw the maiden. snaring them in his network mesh. "Never would they honor him who threatened their shrines with fire. no less than how to escape frost and rain. glowing hot. The guard hastens away. who. Therefore have I appointed watchers over his corpse." says the chorus. Therefore I swear. One guard accused another. Year by year with his deep-furrowing plough he wears the earth. and spread it on the corpse a second time. Naught that may come finds him unprepared. with loud wailing. Greed has often led men to their death. as well beseems a ruler. On beholding this. the puissant earth. Let the body lie mutilated. I have assigned due funeral rites to Eteocles." "We watchers swept away the dust above the corpse. and who sought to glut himself with kindred blood and lead our citizens to slavery--to him shall no man give a tomb. he brings to the yoke the maned horse and tameless mountain ox. "She was taken. They have bribed them to let the deed be done. unless ye guards track out the guilty one and bring him here before me." The king passes into the palace. . through the surging storm. Even from fell disease he has contrived to flee.

out of the way. From the dim gulf it stirs the dark and storm-vext sand. on woes of old time rolled. deems right the wrongful deed: And brief his date is. O house of Oedipus! But the fell sickle of the gods below-Wild words and frenzy of the mind distraught-Hews all away to naught. .For them whose roof-tree rocks beneath the wrath divine. Sees and is blind. or tireless months of time! Ageless in power. Till on the scorching fire his foot treads unawares. Thou couchest thee softly at night on the cheeks of a maid. to oppress them. thou turnest astray The souls of the just. For all the line of Labdacus! No generation's blight Can sate the curse nor give back light Where some dark power impends. their generations pine. For the next hour and for all time stands fast-Who gaineth bliss or wealth too great. The following ode to love is also sung by the chorus: O love. that preys on all. And wave-worn headland and confronting shore Reverberate the roar. To thee immortal. for many. to thee the ephemeral yields. But foils. Restless beguiling hope For many men holds gladness in its scope. in gleaming halls of the sky! This law of days long past. Over the deep-sea darkness drives the surge. For him lurks evil fate. Thou passest the bounds of the sea. thy living royalty Dwells in Olympian sheen. But curse on curse comes crowding on them still-Birth after birth. Thou maddenest them that possess thee. thou art victor in fight. As when. beneath the North Wind's stormy scourge Of bitter blasts that blow from Thracian land. with ruin fraught! Awhile. ordained of old-Woes of the living race. Not minished is thy strength sublime By sleep. Zeus! by no sin of man the overbold Is thy high rule controlled. Wisely one spake this immemorial word-The man whom God unto ill doom doth lead. and the folds of the fields. thou makest all things afraid. light seemed to grow O'er thy last root. No respite is from fear. all they craved and sought In giddy pride of thought. Man knows not Fate's approach. and his doom assured. but onward fares. So see I woe on woe.

Polynices. I. for. Therefore. Who sports with invincible might. and feed myself with hopes That I shall meet them. To sin in boldest daring. with mockery. and thus bewails her fate: O tomb. and warns Creon of an evil fate impending. And yet I go. which follows swiftly on the menace. according to the ideas of the Greeks.Thou hast kindled amongst us pride. yet must they. Thou darling brother. threatening vengeance. Ill'starréd one. Wherefore do what my good counsel bids. Aphrodite divine. or to call On any friends for aid? For holiest deed I bear this charge of rank unholiness. O king. Thou art lord. vaulted home. I seemed to Creon's eyes. of whom the greater part Among the dead doth Persephassa hold. and the love-light therein. "Bethink thee well." Creon answers. There is no prowess in slaying the slain. and the seer retires. taught by pain shall own that we have sinned. Cut off from marriage-bed and marriage-song. it is ordered that Antigone be led to the dungeon. Bereaved of friends." Soon afterwards enters the seer. where she is to die of starvation. We. for the gods are wroth with him. having taken me by force. and her lover. where I go To join mine own. Thy body. by my father loved. turn their minds to better things. and the vain intercession of her sister. I gain this recompense. Alive I tread the chambers of the dead. to sprinkle dust thrice over the body of the dead was equivalent to burial. honoring. And I. the son of Creon. Ismene. Thou sittest assessor with Right. and the quarrel of kin. but all forlorn. by the eyes of a bride. to look To any god for succor. giving thee the foremost place. of all the last and saddest. Washed each dear corpse. life's little span unfilled. I pray they suffer not Worse evils than the wrongs they do to me. Tiresias. arrayed you. taught wisdom. Untasting wife's true joy or mother's bliss With infant at her breast. that all men may err. now He leads me. and in care of thee. but now was entitled to the home appointed for it in Hades. And therefore. Haemon. wend My way below. O brother dear. Dear to my mother. while fulfilling the laws of the gods. well-beloved of thee. Antigone has broken the laws of the king. After some contest of words with Creon. Guarded right well for ever. poured libations. her kingdom thine. In rites of burial. What law of Heaven have I transgressed against? What use for me. A messenger arrives and says: . with these my hands. Until this rite was performed his spirit must wander through space. But if these sin. If acts like these the gods on high approve. my bridal chamber. interspersed with choral hymns. in utter misery.

deep in his side he thrust the blade. where she wedded with death. and the messenger full of wonder. Yet she will hear the horror once again. Quick. ye servants." Eurydice. mangled by the dogs. beside his dead bride. and tell me if it be the voice of Haemon that I hear." says the servant. woe is me. enters from the house. the wife of Creon. we saw the maiden's body hanging at the back of the vault. the murderer of thy sons. Lead me then forth a thing of naught. slain by his own hand in wrath against his father's deed. the maiden's marriage chamber. and now of Haemon. and last of all she called a curse of bitter woe on thee." says the chorus. The messenger relates his tale: "I followed in attendance to the place where the body of Polynices lay. we washed him with holy water. She. as she hastened to pray in the temple of Pallas. and the king must lament the loss of both wife and son. and groaning. too. The chorus are alarmed. her youngest born. who slew his son and wife. this way so tells my heart. too: "No one is guilty of the deed but I alone. had heard a confused murmur. having heard the tale departs. for Haemon lies dead." Creon bids them slay him. Then we hastened to the stone-paved home. go." He is lead away. All is lost and on my head is a doom too hard to bear. is dreariest of all that I have ever trod. My son's voice greets me. But his father avoided the blow. poor youth. on my knees. Some evil power has smitten him and shattered all his joy. and reared him in his native soil a lofty monument." Without a word. suddenly has passed the long good fortune of the king. Then in anger with himself. is proof of bitter woe. Then Creon. "no less than loud cries. his marriage rites in Hades. yet he comforts himself with the hope that she did not wish to show her mourning to the common gaze but to bewail her woe at home. And having prayed the goddess of the roads and the lord of Hades graciously to cease from wrath. too." Creon enters with his son's body.'" "Following our lord's command. and in haste told this to Creon. the day that ends my life. "She fell. and what was left we burnt with branches freshly cut. seeing him. wailing the fate of Magareus. my child. Eurydice. groaned bitterly aloud. There a servant heard a low wailing. He curses himself as the murderer of his child. see. and the chorus concludes with the words: Man's highest blessedness In wisdom chiefly stands. and has held. and called him wailing: 'Poor boy. "pierced with wounds from her own hands beside the altar of the house.' He turned on his father his wild. what hast thou done? Art thou mad? Come out. or if the gods deceive me. and Haemon was found embracing her. her neck entwined by a linen band. He. look through the narrow opening of the stone. has heard the news. and laying his faint arm around the maid. The body lies close at hand. "Deep silence. I pray thee come. . A servant comes to announce his wife's death. and ever silent drew his sword and rushed on him. gasped out his life in streams of blood. glaring eyes. he cried: 'Woe. Would that the last blessing might come to me. and weeping for the bride of whom his father's act had robbed him. Now he lies dead. fierce."Ye men of Cadmus.

in word or deed. offers to accompany her heroic sister to death. Great words of boasting bring great punishments. or in harmony of artistic development. After a determination so heroic. "The Antigone. nay. accommodating itself. At first sight the chorus in the Antigone may seem weak. most modern critics rank it above Oedipus the King. To shun unholy pride. After the completion of the deed. whereby she provokes him to execute his tyrannous resolution. that she may appear in all her dignity. its true and living characters--qualities brought to perfection by the splendor of its dialogue and odes. in not a syllable does she betray any inclination for Haemon. Therefore the king's wife. that she may drain the full cup of earthly sorrows. Her indignation at Ismene's refusal to take a part in her daring resolution. repenting of her weakness. Neither does she restrain the outbreak of her feelings when it will no longer make the firmness of her purpose appear equivocal. untimely end. and his own despair can be a worthy death-offering for the sacrifice of a life so costly. she nowhere mentions this amiable youth. On the contrary. as it does. she pours herself forth in the tenderest and most touching wailing over her bitter. The submissiveness of the chorus also increases the impression of the irresistible nature of the king's commands. indeed. without contradiction. past recall. no tragedy of antiquity that we possess approaches it in pure idealism. . and not once attempting a favorable representation in behalf of the young heroine. and to make away with herself. she must find no stay. language and technique. must appear quite toward the conclusion of the piece merely to hear the misfortune. But it is necessary that she should stand all alone in her resolution and its accomplishment. The Antigone indisputably belongs to the best works of Sophocles. there yet remains the chastisement of insolence. and the unenjoyed blessings of marriage. of all the extant works of Sophocles it is the most perfect." says Bernhardy. no other exhibits such a striking combination of subject. and the suffering endured for it. To Grecian feelings it would have been impossible to look upon the poem as properly closed by the death of Antigone. without any atoning retribution. hitherto not even mentioned. Its greatness lies in its perfect regularity of action. It is the first poem produced by the union of the whole strength of the resources of which tragedy was capable. no hold. and does not disdain--she the modest virgin--to bewail the loss of nuptials. While they are leading her off to death. there must be a mixture of painful recollections. So even in their last addresses to Antigone. when the latter. the manner in which she afterwards rejects Ismene.And in the things that touch upon the gods 'Tis best. her silence and her speeches against Creon. to be still fettered to life by love for an individual would have been weakness." The ideal of the female character in Antigone is boldly and severely outlined. are a proof of unshaken courage. and retribution for the destruction of Antigone: nothing less than the utter ruin of Creon's whole family. borders on harshness. And so to the gray-haired age Teach wisdom at last. to leave without repining those universal gifts with which the gods make life happy would not accord with the devout sanctity of her mind. its richness of ideas. "must be received as the canon of ancient tragedy. to the tyrannous commands of Creon.