Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices by Nikiforos Lytras 1865
Leader of the Chorus
|Date premiered||c. 441 BC|
|Original language||Ancient Greek|
Of the three Theban plays Antigone is the third in order of the events depicted in the plays, but it is the first that was written. The play expands on the Theban legend that predates it, and it picks up where Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes ends.
Prior to the beginning of the play, brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, leading opposite sides in Thebes' civil war, died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and brother of the former Queen Jocasta, has decided that Eteocles will be honored and Polyneices will be in public shame. The rebel brother's body will not be sanctified by holy rites and will lie unburied on the battlefield, prey for carrion animals like worms and vultures, the harshest punishment at the time. Antigone and Ismene are the sisters of the dead Polyneices and Eteocles. In the opening of the play, Antigone brings Ismene outside the palace gates late at night for a secret meeting: Antigone wants to bury Polyneices' body, in defiance of Creon's edict. Ismene refuses to help her, not believing that it will actually be possible to bury their brother, who is under guard, but she is unable to stop Antigone from going to bury her brother herself.
Creon enters, along with the chorus of Theban elders. He seeks their support in the days to come and in particular, wants them to back his edict regarding the disposal of Polyneices' body. The leader of the chorus pledges his support out of deference to Creon. A sentry enters, fearfully reporting that the body has been given funeral rites and a symbolic burial with a thin covering of earth, though no one sees who actually committed the crime. Creon, furious, orders the sentry to find the culprit or face death himself. The sentry leaves, and the chorus sings about honouring the gods, but after a short absence, he returns, bringing Antigone with him. The sentry explains that the watchmen uncovered Polyneices' body and then caught Antigone as she did the funeral rituals. Creon questions her after sending the sentry away, and she does not deny what she has done. She argues unflinchingly with Creon about the immorality of the edict and the morality of her actions. Creon becomes furious, and seeing Ismene upset, thinks she must have known of Antigone's plan. He summons her. Ismene tries to confess falsely to the crime, wishing to die alongside her sister, but Antigone will not have it. Creon orders that the two women be temporarily imprisoned.
Haemon, Creon's son, enters to pledge allegiance to his father, even though he is engaged to Antigone. He initially seems willing to forsake Antigone, but when Haemon gently tries to persuade his father to spare Antigone, claiming that "under cover of darkness the city mourns for the girl", the discussion deteriorates, and the two men are soon bitterly insulting each other. When Creon threatens to execute Antigone in front of his son, Haemon leaves, vowing never to see Creon again.
Creon decides to spare Ismene and to bury Antigone alive in a cave. By not killing her directly, he hopes to pay the minimal respects to the gods. She is brought out of the house, and this time, she is sorrowful instead of defiant. She expresses her regrets at not having married and dying for following the laws of the gods. She is taken away to her living tomb, with the Leader of the Chorus expressing great sorrow for what is going to happen to her.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, enters. Tiresias warns Creon that Polyneices should now be urgently buried because the gods are displeased, refusing to accept any sacrifices or prayers from Thebes. Creon accuses Tiresias of being corrupt. Tiresias responds that because of Creon's mistakes, he will lose "a son of [his] own loins" for the crimes of leaving Polyneices unburied and putting Antigone into the earth (he does not say that Antigone should not be condemned to death, only that it is improper to keep a living body underneath the earth). All of Greece will despise Creon, and the sacrificial offerings of Thebes will not be accepted by the gods. The leader of the chorus, terrified, asks Creon to take Tiresias' advice to free Antigone and bury Polyneices. Creon assents, leaving with a retinue of men. The chorus delivers a choral ode to the god Dionysus (god of wine and of the theater; this part is the offering to their patron god). A messenger enters to tell the leader of the chorus that Antigone has killed herself. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, enters and asks the messenger to tell her everything. The messenger reports that Creon saw to the burial of Polyneices. When Creon arrived at Antigone's cave, he found Haemon lamenting over Antigone, who had hanged herself. After unsuccessfully attempting to stab Creon, Haemon stabbed himself. Having listened to the messenger's account, Eurydice disappears into the palace.
Creon enters, carrying Haemon's body. He understands that his own actions have caused these events and blames himself. A second messenger arrives to tell Creon and the chorus that Eurydice has killed herself. With her last breath, she cursed her husband. Creon blames himself for everything that has happened, and, a broken man, he asks his servants to help him inside. The order he valued so much has been protected, and he is still the king, but he has acted against the gods and lost his children and his wife as a result. After Creon condemns himself, the leader of the chorus closes by saying that although the gods punish the proud, punishment brings wisdom.
Antigone was written at a time of national fervor. In 441 BC, shortly after the play was performed, Sophocles was appointed as one of the ten generals to lead a military expion against Samos. It is striking that a prominent play in a time of such imperialism contains little political propaganda, no impassioned apostrophe, and, with the exception of the epiklerate (the right of the daughter to continue her dead father's lineage), and arguments against anarchy, makes no contemporary allusion or passing reference to Athens. Rather than become sidetracked with the issues of the time, Antigone remains focused on the characters and themes within the play. It does, however, expose the dangers of the absolute ruler, or tyrant, in the person of Creon, a king to whom few will speak freely and openly their true opinions, and who therefore makes the grievous error of condemning Antigone, an act which he pitifully regrets in the play's final lines. Athenians, proud of their democratic tradition, would have identified his error in the many lines of dialogue which emphasize that the people of Thebes believe he is wrong, but have no voice to tell him so. Athenians would identify the folly of tyranny.
The Chorus in Antigone departs significantly from the chorus in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, the play of which Antigone is a continuation. The chorus in Seven Against Thebes is largely supportive of Antigone's decision to bury her brother. Here, the chorus is composed of old men who are largely unwilling to see civil disobedience in a positive light. The chorus also represents a typical difference in Sophocles' plays from those of both Aeschylus and Euripides. A chorus of Aeschylus' almost always continues or intensifies the moral nature of the play, while one of Euripides' frequently strays far from the main moral theme. The chorus in Antigone lies somewhere in between; it remains within the general moral and the immediate scene, but allows itself to be carried away from the occasion or the initial reason for speaking.
In this play Sophocles raises a number of questions: Should Polyneices, who committed a serious crime that threatened the city, be given burial rituals, or should his body be left unburied as prey for scavenging animals? Should someone who attempts to bury him in defiance of Creon be punished in an especially cruel and horrible way? Are Creon’s actions justified? Are Antigone’s actions justified? In this play, Creon is not presented as a monster, but as a leader who is doing what he considers right and justified by the state. The chorus is presented as a group of citizens who, though they may feel uneasy about the treatment of the corpse, respect Creon and what he is doing. The chorus is sympathetic to Antigone only when she is led off to her death. But when the chorus learns that the Gods are offended by what Creon has done, and that Creon’s actions will result in the destruction of their city, then they ask Creon to change course. The city is of primary importance to the chorus. Once the initial premises behind the characters in Antigone have been established, the action of the play moves steadily and inevitably towards the outcome. Once Creon has discovered that Antigone buried her brother against his orders, the ensuing discussion of her fate is devoid of arguments for mercy because of youth or sisterly love from the Chorus, Haemon or Antigone herself. Most of the arguments to save her center on a debate over which course adheres best to strict justice.
Both Antigone and Creon claim divine sanction for their actions; but Tiresias the prophet supports Antigone's claim that the gods demand Polyneices' burial. It is not until the interview with Tiresias that Creon transgresses and is guilty of sin. He had no divine intimation that his edict would be displeasing to the Gods and against their will. He is here warned that it is, but he defends it and insults the prophet of the Gods. This is his sin, and it is this which leads to his punishment. The terrible calamities that overtake Creon are not the result of his exalting the law of the state over the unwritten and divine law which Antigone vindicates, but are his intemperance which led him to disregard the warnings of Tiresias until it was too late. This is emphasized by the Chorus in the lines that conclude the play.
The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, whose translation had a strong impact on the philosopher Martin Heidegger, brings out a more subtle reading of the play: he focuses on Antigone's legal and political status within the palace, her privilege to be the hearth (according to the legal instrument of the epiklerate) and thus protected by Zeus. According to the legal practice of classical Athens, Creon is obliged to marry his closest relative (Haemon) to the late king's daughter in an inverted marriage rite, which would oblige Haemon to produce a son and heir for his dead father in law. Creon would be deprived of grandchildren and heirs to his lineage – a fact which provides a strong realistic motive for his hatred against Antigone. This modern perspective has remained submerged for a long time.
Martin Heidegger, in his essay, The Ode on Man in Sophocles’ Antigone, focusses on the chorus’ sequence of stophe and antistrophe that begins on line 278. His interpretation is in three phases: first to consider the essential meaning of the verse, and then to move through the sequence with that understanding, and finally to discern what was nature of humankind that Sophocles was expressing in this poem. In the first two lines of the first strophe, in the translation Heidegger used, the chorus says that there are many strange things on earth, but there is nothing stranger than man. Beginnings are important to Heidegger, and he considered those two lines to describe primary trait of the essence of humanity within which all other aspects must find their essence. Those two lines are so fundamental that the rest of the verse is spent catching up with them. The authentic Greek definition of humankind is the one who is strangest of all. Heidegger’s interpretation of the text describes humankind in one word that captures the extremes — deinotaton. Man is deinon in the sense that he is the terrible, violent one, and also in the sense that he uses violence against the overpowering. Man is twice deinon. In a series of lectures in 1942, Hölderlin’s Hymn, The Ister, Heidegger goes further in interpreting this play, and considers that Antigone takes on the destiny she has been given, but does not follow a path that is opposed to that of the humankind described in the choral ode. When Antigone opposes Creon, her suffering the uncanny, is her supreme action.
An important issue still debated regarding Sophocles' Antigone is the problem of the second burial. When she poured dust over her brother's body, Antigone completed the burial rituals and thus fulfilled her duty to him. Having been properly buried, Polyneices' soul could proceed to the underworld whether or not the dust was removed from his body. However, Antigone went back after his body was uncovered and performed the ritual again, an act that seems to be completely unmotivated by anything other than a plot necessity so that she could be caught in the act of disobedience, leaving no doubt of her guilt. More than one commentator has suggested that it was the gods, not Antigone, who performed the first burial, citing both the guard's description of the scene and the chorus's observation.
Richard Jebb suggests that the only reason for Antigone's return to the burial site is that the first time she forgot the Choaí (libations), and "perhaps the rite was considered completed only if the Choaí were poured while the dust still covered the corpse."
Gilbert Norwood explains Antigone's performance of the second burial in terms of her stubbornness. His argument says that had Antigone not been so obsessed with the idea of keeping her brother covered, none of the deaths of the play would have happened. This argument states that if nothing had happened, nothing would have happened, and doesn't take much of a stand in explaining why Antigone returned for the second burial when the first would have fulfilled her religious obligation, regardless of how stubborn she was. This leaves that she acted only in passionate defiance of Creon and respect to her brother's earthly vessel.
Tycho von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff justifies the need for the second burial by comparing Sophocles' Antigone to a theoretical version where Antigone is apprehended during the first burial. In this situation, news of the illegal burial and Antigone's arrest would arrive at the same time and there would be no period of time in which Antigone's defiance and victory could be appreciated.
J. L. Rose maintains that the solution to the problem of the second burial is solved by close examination of Antigone as a tragic character. Being a tragic character, she is completely obsessed by one idea, and for her this is giving her brother his due respect in death and demonstrating her love for him and for what is right. When she sees her brother's body uncovered, therefore, she is overcome by emotion and acts impulsively to cover him again, with no regards to the necessity of the action or its consequences for her safety.
Bonnie Honig uses the problem of the second burial as the basis for her claim that Ismene performs the first burial, and that her pseudo-confession before Creon is actually an honest admission of guilt.
A well established theme in Antigone is the right of the individual to reject society's infringement on her freedom to perform a personal obligation. Antigone comments to Ismene, regarding Creon's edict, that "He has no right to keep me from my own." Related to this theme is the question of whether Antigone's will to bury her brother is based on rational thought or instinct, a debate whose contributors include Goethe.
The contrasting views of Creon and Antigone with regard to laws higher than those of state inform their different conclusions about civil disobedience. Creon demands obedience to the law above all else, right or wrong. He says that "there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority" (An. 671). Antigone responds with the idea that state law is not absolute, and that it can be broken in civil disobedience in extreme cases, such as honoring the gods, whose rule and authority outweigh Creon's.
In Antigone, Sophocles asks the question, which law is greater: the gods' or man's. Sophocles votes for the law of the gods. He does this in order to save Athens from the moral destruction which seems imminent. Sophocles wants to warn his countrymen about hubris, or arrogance, because he believes this will be their downfall. In Antigone, the hubris of Creon is on display.
Creon's decree to leave Polyneices unburied in itself makes a bold statement about what it means to be a citizen, and what constitutes abdication of citizenship. It was the firmly kept custom of the Greeks that each city was responsible for the burial of its citizens. Herodotus discussed how members of each city would collect their own dead after a large battle to bury them. In Antigone, it is therefore natural that the people of Thebes did not bury the Argives, but very striking that Creon prohibited the burial of Polyneices. Since he is a citizen of Thebes, it would have been natural for the Thebans to bury him. Creon is telling his people that Polyneices has distanced himself from them, and that they are prohibited from treating him as a fellow-citizen and burying him as is the custom for citizens.
In prohibiting the people of Thebes from burying Polyneices, Creon is essentially placing him on the level of the other attackers—the foreign Argives. For Creon, the fact that Polyneices has attacked the city effectively revokes his citizenship and makes him a foreigner. As defined by this decree, citizenship is based on loyalty. It is revoked when Polyneices commits what in Creon's eyes amounts to treason. When pitted against Antigone's view, this understanding of citizenship creates a new axis of conflict. Antigone does not deny that Polyneices has betrayed the state, she simply acts as if this betrayal does not rob him of the connection that he would have otherwise had with the city. Creon, on the other hand, believes that citizenship is a contract; it is not absolute or inalienable, and can be lost in certain circumstances. These two opposing views – that citizenship is absolute and undeniable and alternatively that citizenship is based on certain behavior – are known respectively as citizenship 'by nature' and citizenship 'by law.'
Antigone's determination to bury Polyneices arises from a desire to bring honor to her family, and to honor the higher law of the gods. She repeatedly declares that she must act to please "those that are dead" (An. 77), because they hold more weight than any ruler, that is the weight of divine law. In the opening scene, she makes an emotional appeal to her sister Ismene saying that they must protect their brother out of sisterly love, even if he did betray their state. Antigone believes that there are rights that are inalienable because they come from the highest authority, or authority itself, that is the divine law.
While he rejects Antigone's actions based on family honor, Creon appears to value family himself. When talking to Haemon, Creon demands of him not only obedience as a citizen, but also as a son. Creon says "everything else shall be second to your father's decision" ("An." 640–641). His emphasis on being Haemon's father rather than his king may seem odd, especially in light of the fact that Creon elsewhere advocates obedience to the state above all else. It is not clear how he would personally handle these two values in conflict, but it is a moot point in the play, for, as absolute ruler of Thebes, Creon is the state, and the state is Creon. It is clear how he feels about these two values in conflict when encountered in another person, Antigone: loyalty to the state comes before family fealty, and he sentences her to death.
In Antigone as well as the other Theban Plays, there are very few references to the gods. Hades is the god who is most commonly referred to, but he is referred to more as a personification of Death. Zeus is referenced a total of 13 times by name in the entire play, and Apollo is referenced only as a personification of prophecy. This lack of mention portrays the tragic events that occur as the result of human error, and not divine intervention. The gods are portrayed as chthonic, as near the beginning there is a reference to "Justice who dwells with the gods beneath the earth." Sophocles references Olympus twice in Antigone. This contrasts with the other Athenian tragedians, who reference Olympus often.
Antigone's love for family is shown when she buries her brother, Polyneices. Haemon was deeply in love with his cousin and fiancée Antigone, and he killed himself in grief when he found out that his beloved Antigone had hanged herself.
Japanese drama, Sora kara furu ichi oku no hoshi has the similar theme.
In 2017 Kamila Shamsie published Home Fire, which transposés some of the moral and political questions in Antigone into the context of Islam, ISIS and modern-day Britain.
The 1978 omnibus film Germany in Autumn features a segment by Heinrich Böll entitled “The Deferred Antigone” where a fictional production of Antigone is presented to television executives who reject it as ”too topical”.
A 2011 Hungarian film version starred Kamilla Fátyol as Antigone, Zoltán Mucsi as Creon and Emil Keres as Tiresias.
Antigone at the Barbican was a 2015 filmed-for-TV version of a production at the Barbican directed by Ivo van Hove; the translation was by Anne Carson and the film starred Juliette Binoche as Antigone and Patrick O'Kane as Kreon.
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