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:

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

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

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

" Eurydice. had heard a confused murmur. But his father avoided the blow." says the chorus. Some evil power has smitten him and shattered all his joy. or if the gods deceive me. . He curses himself as the murderer of his child. this way so tells my heart. his marriage rites in Hades. her neck entwined by a linen band.'" "Following our lord's command. Quick. fierce. is proof of bitter woe. we saw the maiden's body hanging at the back of the vault. who slew his son and wife. the maiden's marriage chamber. he cried: 'Woe. All is lost and on my head is a doom too hard to bear. wailing the fate of Magareus. poor youth. and the chorus concludes with the words: Man's highest blessedness In wisdom chiefly stands. on my knees. and the king must lament the loss of both wife and son. slain by his own hand in wrath against his father's deed."Ye men of Cadmus. my child. Lead me then forth a thing of naught." Creon bids them slay him. deep in his side he thrust the blade. woe is me. and last of all she called a curse of bitter woe on thee. and laying his faint arm around the maid. having heard the tale departs. and the messenger full of wonder. and reared him in his native soil a lofty monument. where she wedded with death. and now of Haemon. beside his dead bride. 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. There a servant heard a low wailing. She. look through the narrow opening of the stone. and what was left we burnt with branches freshly cut. Yet she will hear the horror once again. and has held. groaned bitterly aloud.' He turned on his father his wild. The body lies close at hand. and called him wailing: 'Poor boy. The chorus are alarmed. seeing him. see. and Haemon was found embracing her. the day that ends my life. go. He. The messenger relates his tale: "I followed in attendance to the place where the body of Polynices lay." Without a word. too. My son's voice greets me. "pierced with wounds from her own hands beside the altar of the house. the murderer of thy sons. enters from the house. A servant comes to announce his wife's death. gasped out his life in streams of blood. we washed him with holy water. has heard the news. the wife of Creon. Would that the last blessing might come to me. I pray thee come." Creon enters with his son's body." He is lead away. is dreariest of all that I have ever trod. and in haste told this to Creon. and tell me if it be the voice of Haemon that I hear. Then in anger with himself. Eurydice. Now he lies dead. ye servants. Then Creon. glaring eyes. for Haemon lies dead. too. and ever silent drew his sword and rushed on him. And having prayed the goddess of the roads and the lord of Hades graciously to cease from wrath. what hast thou done? Art thou mad? Come out. "Deep silence. suddenly has passed the long good fortune of the king. mangled by the dogs. "She fell. and groaning. and weeping for the bride of whom his father's act had robbed him. as she hastened to pray in the temple of Pallas. too: "No one is guilty of the deed but I alone. Then we hastened to the stone-paved home." says the servant. "no less than loud cries. her youngest born.

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

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