The main source for the story of Antigone is the homonymous tragedy by Sophocles, one of the three famous Greek playwrights, the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides.
Sophocle’s Antigone continues the tragic trajectory set by Oedipus in his attempts to subvert his fate. With Oedipus exiled from Thebes, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, initially agreed to share the throne, alternating rule each year. Yet when Eteocles’ first year ended, he refused to hand over the rule to Polynices. Polynices responded by raising an army with the support of the king of Argos. Although Antigone attempted to plead with her brother Polynices to call off the attack, he would not listen to her.
Led by the Seven champions against Thebes, the Argive army disastrously assaulted the walls of Thebes. They were soundly defeated, and the two brothers killed one another in the battle as foretold by Oedipus. Oedipus’s former brother-in-law and uncle, Creon, became the new king of Thebes. He buried Eteocles honorably, but decreed that Polynices’ body was to rot on the battlefield – the most horrific punishment possible.
Antigone and her sister Ismene were the final surviving members of their family. They had lost both parents and brothers to tragic fates. Sophocles’ Antigone opens when Antigone asks Ismene to meet her in secret, where she told her of the ruling by Creon that Polynices body must remain unburied. Such callousness would leave his spirit languishing in limbo, unable to descend to the underworld as he should. Infuriated on behalf of their brother, Antigone explained that “Creon has sworn no one shall bury him, no one mourn for him, but this body must lie in the fields, a sweet treasure For carrion birds to find as they search for food… and the penalty –– Stoning to death in the public square.” She added the blunt conclusion: “you can prove what you are: a true sister, or a traitor to your family.”
Ismene Refuses Aid
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Ismene, however, was the opposite of her strong-willed, stubborn sister. Quiet and demure, she feared Creon’s wrath, and refused to help Antigone with her intended burial of their brother. Despite her desperate attempts to scare and dissuade Antigone from her mission, her words only irritated her sister even more. Antigone eventually sent her sister from her in anger, in saying
“Go away, Ismene: I shall be hating you soon, and the dead will too, for your words are hateful. Leave me my foolish plan: I am not afraid of the danger; if it means death, it will not be the worst of deaths –– death without honor.”
The following morning, the sun rose and Polynices’ body lay under a thin covering of dirt. It may not have been fully buried, but it was enough to allow his soul to proceed to the underworld. A terrified sentry ran to inform Creon just as the new king was declaring his commitment to justice and the rule of law before a group of supportive Theban elders. The men on watch the night before had seen nothing and could not hand over the guilty party. The reporting sentry further enraged the king with his suggestion that perhaps it was the work of the gods. Creon dismissed him with a curt order to find the culprit immediately.
The Capture of Antigone
Though the sentry went away frightened, he soon devised a plan. By uncovering the body of Polynices and lying in wait out of sight, he caught Antigone in the act of reburying it. He brought her before King Creon. Shocked to be confronted with his niece, Creon initially could not believe it. However, Antigone confessed her deeds with no hesitation, insisting that while she had broken his laws, she had upheld the far more powerful laws of the gods. Creon commanded Ismene to be brought before him, accusing her of having an equal share in the crime. Ismene tried to confess and join her sister in her death sentence, but according to Sophocles, Antigone refused to let her take blame.
Haimon Pleads for his Future Bride
Creon ordered the girls taken away to prison, determined to execute Antigone but not yet decided as to Ismene’s fate. Later, Creon’s son Haimon, who was betrothed to Antigone, came before his father. Initially feigning sympathy to his father’s decision, Haimon tried first to argue for Antigone’s life with impassioned reason, but in Sophocles’ Antigone, he soon fell to an ugly shouting match with his father. Creon swore that he would kill Antigone there while Haimon watched, but Haimon stormed from the palace.
Sentenced to Death
Reminded of Ismene’s innocence, Creon released her. Rather than have blood on his hands directly, he sentenced Antigone to be trapped alive in a cave out in the desert. “She shall have food, as the custom is, to absolve the State of her death. And there let her pray to the gods of hell: they are her only gods: perhaps they will show her an escape from death, or she may learn, though late, that piety shown the dead is pity in vain.” Antigone took her place in the cave bravely, but sorrowfully. The Thebans who earlier had supported Creon’s firm decision, who formed the chorus of Sophocles’ Antigone, were moved to pity and sympathy with her.
Creon only began to waver of his sentence when confronted by the blind oracle Teiresias, who insisted that the gods disapproved of his treatment of Polynices’ corpse. Creon quickly flamed to anger once again, accusing Teiresias of taking a bribe to say so. Teiresias argued sternly back, and doubled down on his message. He told Creon,
“you have thrust the child of this world into living night, you have kept from the gods below the child that is theirs: the one on a grave before her death, the other, dead, denied the grave. This is your crime: and the Furies and the dark gods of Hell are swift with terrible punishment for you.”
Finally moved by the old prophet’s long history of truth telling, Creon relented. He gathered some of his men and hurried to build a tomb for Polynices and free Antigone.
They first tended to Polynices’ body. As he and his men approached the cave where he had imprisoned Antigone, they heard the grieving voice of Haimon coming from within. They hastened to the entrance, to see that Antigone had hanged herself. “Haimon lay beside her, his arms about her waist, lamenting her, his love lost underground, crying out that his father has stolen her away from him.” Though Creon attempted to plead for forgiveness, Haimon spat in his father’s face. He lunged at Creon with his sword, but having missed, turned it upon himself and died with Antigone.
The Final Tragedy of Sophocles’ Antigone
By the time Creon returned to the city, carrying his only son in his arms, a messenger had already born the news to Thebes. Creon entered to the news that his wife too lay dead, having killed herself upon learning of Haimon’s suicide. Utterly broken, Creon went to go see his wife’s body, blaming himself utterly for the loss of both her and his son.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, the tale ends with Creon’s main advisor speaking the lesson of the play to the audience.
“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods. big words are always punished, and proud men in old age learn to be wise.”