Sunday, 19 July 2015

Antigone by Sophocles.

Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices by Nikiforos Lytras (1865).
Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη) is the third of Sophocles' Theban plays in terms of the play's chronology, following Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, however it was written first, and first performed in 441 B.C. Even so, it is a conclusion to the Oedipus plays: in Oedipus Rex we learn how King Oedipus kills his own father King Laius (without knowing that King Laius is his father) and marries Jocasta, his mother (inadvertently once more), and, on discovering these facts, deliberately blinds himself and begs to be exiled. In Oedpius in Colonus he travels to Colonus with his daughter Antigone where he dies, according to another prophecy, on sacred ground bringing Colonus good fortune and protecting them from Thebes and also his sons, with whom Colonus are on the brink of war.

Antigone opens with a discussion between Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene. Antigone has learned that both of their brothers have been killed and the king, King Creon, Oedipus' brother-in-law, wishes only one of the brothers to be given funeral honours - Eteocles - and Polynices, who was banished, will not be buried:
...not to be buried, not to be mourned;
To be left unburied, unwept, a feast of flesh
For the keen-eyed carrion birds...
Antigone plans to bury her brother despite King Creon's strict orders, but Ismene is too frightened to go against him:
O sister, sister, do you forget how our father
Perished in shame and misery, his awful sin
Self-proved, blinded by his own self-mutilation?
And then his mother, his wife - for she was both -
Destroyed herself in a noose of her own making.
And now our brothers, both in a single day
Fallen in an awful execution of death for death,
Blood for blood, each slain by the other's hand.
Now we two left; and what will be the end of us,
If we transgress the law and defy our king?
O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us
To fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we,
And we must obey in this, or in worse than this.
May the dead forgive me, I can do no other
But as I am commanded; to do more is madness.
Nevertheless, Ismene agrees to keep Antigone's plans a secret, however Creon soon finds out Polynices has been buried and orders that the perpetrator be found and brought to him:
... Upon my oath, I swear,
As Zeus is my god above: either you find
The perpetrator of this burial
And bring him here into my sight, or death -
No, not your mere death shall pay the reckoning,
But, for a living lesson against such infamy,
You shall be racked and tortured till you tell
The whole truth of this outrage; so may you learn
To seek your gain where gain is yours to get,
Not try to grasp it everywhere. In wickedness
You'll find more loss than profit.
Quickly after this speech Antigone is brought to Creon and her grief and distress as she buried him is described to Creon by the Sentry. She is condemned to be buried alive in a cave:
I'll have her taken to a desert place
Where no man has ever walked, and there walled up
Inside a cave, alive, with food enough
To acquit ourselves of the blood-guiltiness
That else would lie upon our commonwealth.
There she may pray to Death, the god she loves,
And ask release from death: or to learn at last
What hope there is for those who worship death.
As the Chorus mourn her, Teiresias, a blind prophet, enters and tells Creon that the gods are displeased with his actions. If Polynices is not properly buried and if Antigone is left to her fate, Teiresias warns that Creon will lose a son of his own:
.... Ere the chariot of the sun
Has rounded once or twice his wheeling way,
You shall have given a son of your own loins
To death, in payment for death - two debts to pay:
One for the life that you have sent to death,
The life you have abominably entombed;
One for the dead still lying above ground
Unburied, unhonoured, unblest by the gods below.
You cannot alter this. The gods themselves
Cannot undo it. Even now the avenging Furies.
The hunters of Hell that you follow and destroy,
Are lying in wait for you, and will have their prey....
Teiresias leaves and the Chorus beg Creon to see reason. Creon agrees, but it is too late: Antigone is found having hung herself, and Haemon (the son of Creon, betrothed to Antigone) stabs himself. Soon after, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother Eurydice kills herself, cursing Creon with her dying breath.

And there ends Antigone. It is a play that mixes drama and philosophy (I found Oedipus Rex heavy on the drama, Oedipus at Colonus heavy on the philosophy). It asks questions of the state and religion or higher powers. Creon did not act unlawfully by refusing to bury Polynices, however as Antigone argued he acted immorally, a claim which Creon rejected. Was Antigone's disobedience the right thing to do or not? Who to obey? Antigone honoured her brother and the gods, though by obeying the law Creon believed he was honouring the gods by honouring the state, and he too honoured his family believing Polynices betrayed him. As for me, I favour Antigone's arguments, but it is an interesting debate. Antigone, and indeed the Theban plays, are certainly firm favourites of mine now.

← Previously: Oedipus at Colonus

~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)


  1. There is certainly lots to dig into with Antigone. I have a very strong feeling that Sophocles' questions echoed the questions of the times and it would be highly advantageous to do an in-depth study of Greek history around this time. But as I'm sure neither of us have time for that, I will simply say, I agree with Antigone too. To follow man, who is flawed, or to follow a intrinsic moral code that must come from somewhere ........ that is the question.

    1. Completely agree, and I'm hoping that over the coming years I'll know a little more of the history of the time and perhaps have new insights. Like you, time is a bit short at present to go delving in now, but as I read some more 5th Century Greek I hope things will start to become a little clearer! :)

    2. I recommend Dorothy Mills The Book of the Ancient Greeks. It was originally meant for high school students but I like how she balances the characters with the history (often authors can be heavy on one or the other), it's well written, and gives you a good base to further expand your knowledge. In fact, I might just read it again myself this summer, now that you inadvertently reminded me of it! :-)

    3. Thanks Cleo, I'll look it up. I need a good introduction so I should really try and get a hold of it :)

  2. I follow your blog very regularly even if I do not comment. But on this, there is a "modern" rewriting by Jean Giraudoux, in French (I do not know if it has been translated into English) which is very interesting and points out to the conflicts of Stae, religion, familial piety, etc. There is as well the excellent book by George Steiner called "The Antigones" which talks about the various interpretations given to the myth and the play until the middle or late 20th century. Definitely relevant today. Thanks for this blog and your blog, your writign, in general.

    1. Thank you very much for those suggestions, I'll certainly look out for them, or at least just look up the reviews online! I really appreciate that :)

      And thanks for your comment :D

  3. Isn't Antigone a great play? I am completely on Antigone's side too. I never much liked Creon anyway. He pops up again in other Greek tragedies and he always seems to be so black-and-white in how he sees things, no flexibility an very little compassion.

    1. It is, I love it! I thought Chaucer's interpretation of Creon was quite telling too (in The Knight's Tale) - full of anger and spite, not burying dead bodies but insulting them by letting dogs eat them:

      "Fulfild of ire and of iniquitee,
      He, for despit and for his tirannye,
      To do the dede bodyes vileynye
      Of alle oure lordes whiche that been yslawe,
      Hath alle the bodyes on an heep ydrawe,
      And wol nat suffren hem, by noon assent,
      Neither to been yburyed nor ybrent,
      But maketh houndes ete them in despit"

      Really enjoying Sophocles at the moment, wish more plays had have survived!


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