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Antigone

You may have heard of the story of Oedipus Rex, but did you know it was part of a triad known as the Theban plays? Oedipus Rex is the first play, and in the third play, we are introduced to Antigone (442 BCE). Antigone was written by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles for the Great Dionysias competition of 442 BCE, where Sophocles competed against other playwrights such as Euripides and Aeschylus. Keep reading for a summary of Antigone, an analysis, and more.

Antigone, theatre, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Antigone was performed at the Dionysias competition in 442 BCE.

The Dionysias was a celebration held in Ancient Greece for the god Dionysus. Competitions were held to see who had the best Tragedy and the best Comedy. A jury would rank the plays they saw to see who had the best one. The first Dionysias is thought to have been held sometime between 535 and 532 BCE. Antigone won Sophocles first place in 442 BCE.

Summary of Antigone

The play begins with the chorus providing a background on the tragedy of Antigone. Oedipus had four children: Polynices, Eteocles, Ismene, and Antigone. When Oedipus dies, an agreement is made that each son will hold power on the throne for a period of one year. However, Eteocles overstays his time on the throne, and that's when the story begins.

Antigone, Ancient cty, StudysmarterFig. 2 - Polynices tries to siege Thebes and take power from his brother Eteocles.

Thebes has been brutally sieged by Polynices and his troops. A battle breaks out between Polynices and his brother Eteocles, who is defending Thebes. Polynices and Eteocles both die, and Thebes remains unconquered. The brothers had acted out a curse that was placed on their father, Oedipus. Antigone, the sister of Polynices and Eteocles, enters the scene. She is speaking with Ismene, and she is in a rage. King Creon of Thebes, Antigone's uncle, has ordered a funeral of honor for Eteocles, but the body of Polynices is left rotting outside the city walls. King Creon decrees that anyone who tries to bury the invading man will be stoned.

Antigone is upset as she wants a proper burial for both of her brothers. She tells Ismene, her sister, she will secretly bury Polynices's body, but Ismene is too afraid. Ismene warns Antigone that it is better to follow the decrees of King Creon. Word reaches King Creon that an attempt to bury Polynices has occurred when a guard notices a layer of dirt on Polynices's body. King Creon wants the guilty person to confess and hears that someone saw Antigone digging a grave. After King Creon learns it was his niece, Antigone, he orders that Antigone and Ismene be put to death by public stoning.

Antigone, sad woman and skull, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Antigone is in despair over her brother's death and wishes to give him a proper burial, despite King Creon's orders.

Haemon, the son of King Creon and Antigone's proposed fiancé, speaks with King Creon in an attempt to change his mind. They argue at length, and Haemon storms out angrily, telling King Creon he will never return. King Creon begins to see a point in his son's argument and decides that Ismene will be allowed to live. Antigone, on the other hand, will be placed into a sealed tomb where she will starve to death.

Tiresias, a blind prophet, tells King Creon that by leaving Polynices's body to rot without a proper burial, King Creon has angered the gods. The gods will punish King Creon by causing Haemon to die. Although King Creon protests the words of Tiresias, King Creon decides he will bury Polynices and let Antigone go.

However, tragedy strikes. Antigone hangs herself, and in his grief, Haemon kills himself. Queen Eurydice, the wife of King Creon and the mother of Haemon, kills herself in anguish over her son's death. King Creon is suddenly alone and enters a state of deep despair. The play ends with King Creon lamenting over the death of his wife and son while the chorus reflects on the rule, cruelty, and actions of King Creon as words of wisdom.

Characters in Antigone

There are many crucial characters in Antigone. Each character plays a specific role and often represents a character type related to the nature and behavior of humankind.

When analyzing characters in a literary work, it is essential to clearly define the character's traits, values, and actions and their relationship to other characters.

Antigone

Antigone is the protagonist and the heroine of the play. Antigone is stubborn, prideful, and difficult. Antigone also believes in justice and doing what's right. Antigone plays the role of a tragic heroine and represents rebellion against authority.

The tragic heroine/hero is the character in a tragedy that, despite having sympathetic and righteous character traits, will always have tragic endings. The tragic hero/heroine typically has extraordinary or special qualities that make them stand out.

The only authority Antigone fears is the gods.

Ismene

Ismene is the sister of Antigone and her complete opposite. She is beautiful and dutiful. She tries to persuade Antigone not to disobey King Creon's orders. Ismene plays the role of a character foil to Antigone.

A character foil is a character in a literary piece that contrasts another character, usually the protagonist, to emphasize the other character's traits.

While Antigone is rebellious and headstrong, Ismene is dutiful and obeys the rules. She emphasizes Antigone's character traits.

King Creon

The King of Thebes and Antigone's uncle. He is practical, set in his ways, and enjoys order. King Creon plays the role of authority and the law. Whatever King Creon demands is the law of the land. However, not even King Creon can escape the power of the gods, showing his mortality.

Haemon

The son of King Creon and Antigone's fiancé. After hearing King Creon's death sentence on Antigone, he stands up to his father, for his love is stronger than his father's authority. He would rather die than live without Antigone. Haemon, wise and well-spoken, slowly changes the stubborn King Creon's mind about killing Antigone. He acts as a voice of reason to King Creon's black-and-white thinking.

Queen Eurydice

The wife of King Creon and mother to Haemon. She falls into deep anguish over the death of her son and kills herself. Her death leaves King Creon all alone.

Chorus

The chorus traditionally represents the narrators and commentators in the play who appear at important plot points. They often provide instruction to the audience on behalf of Thebes. The chorus's role is to provide commentary on the nature of the tragedy, introduce characters, background, and plot points, as well as intercede in certain points of the play. Sophocles chose to use the chorus less as the commentary on plot points as traditionally was done and more as a means to display the inner emotional worlds of the characters.

Tiresias

Tiresias is a blind prophet that can see into the future of the Theban people and advise them. He advises King Creon that he should bury Polynices as it is angering the gods. Tiresias represents a warning sign. When he appears in the plays of Sophocles, he has come to warn a character about impending doom caused by their actions.

Analysis of Antigone

Antigone was written over 2,000 years ago and is representative of a shift in the literary tradition genre. Let's take a closer look at Antigone and analyze some key aspects of the text.

Genre

Antigone belongs to a genre of drama known as Athenian Tragedy.

An Athenian Tragedy is a type of theater from Ancient Greece that became popular in the 5th century BCE. Athenian Tragedies typically contain elements of lyric poetry and focus on a tragic hero/heroine and the unfortunate life circumstances they must face, often due to things they cannot control.

Sophocles, the author of Antigone, brought many changes to Athenian Tragedy, such as adding a third actor and a chorus of fifteen people. He also implemented the use of scenery in his work.

Antigone, Theatre mask, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Antigone is an example of an Athenian Tragedy.

In addition, Antigone represents a shift away from the chorus and to the actual characters. Rather than use the chorus to explain plot points, Sophocles chose to show character development, conflict, and relationships through action and dialogue.

Setting

Antigone is set in Thebes, an Ancient Greek city located in modern-day Central Greece. In the play, the city of Thebes is ruled by King Creon and Queen Eurydice. King Creon has ultimate authority over the land and over religion, thereby making him the absolute ruler of the land.

King Creon becomes the King of Thebes when he banishes his brother, Oedipus, the former ruler, from the kingdom. In the story of Oedipus, Oedipus accidentally marries his mother and kills his father. For this, King Creon banishes him and establishes himself on the throne until Oedipus's sons are old enough to rule.

Thebes traditionally is a city used in drama to represent a town that sees a lot of tragedy. In the case of Antigone, Thebes once more faces tragedy due to Antigone's defiance and King Creon's pride. It shows that the city of Thebes is not cursed; rather, the people in the city are flawed and represent the worst aspects of human nature as they act with disregard to the gods.

Writing Style

Antigone is written originally in Ancient Greek and uses iambic pentameter to create a clear, smooth, and melodic rhythm in the dialogue of the text.

Iambic pentameter is a line of verse that consists of five metrical feet made of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Because the text has been translated from Ancient Greek to English, it may be difficult to find examples of iambic pentameter in the text. However, it is still clearly the rhythmic style of the text.

For what his own search brought to light, his eyes

Ripped out by his own hand; and Iocaste died,

His mother and wife at once: she twisted the cords

That strangled her life; and our two brothers died,

Each killed by the other’s sword," (Lines 38-43).

Read this excerpt out loud by unstressing and stressing the syllables. There is a rhythmic quality to the text that allows it to flow smoothly and clearly. Here Ismene is speaking to Antigone to warn her against burying Polynices. She is pleading that the two sisters have no one left. Their father, mother, and two brothers are now dead.

Literary Devices and Techniques

There are many examples of literary devices and techniques used by Sophocles in Antigone that help create the dynamic and engaging story, namely foreshadowing and dramatic irony.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is when future plot points or conflicts are hinted at prior to them actually occurring. Foreshadowing creates suspense and engages the reader in the text by adding a sense of anticipation.

An example can be found in the prologue of the text where Antigone hints to her sister Ismene that she will die and that she is not afraid of death, as honor is more important.

Many plot points are revealed throughout Antigone before they actually occur and can be found in the Prologue, Creon's speech, and the Chorus.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony plays a critical role in Tragedy, as seen in Antigone.

Dramatic irony is a literary technique in which the importance or significance of a character's actions or worlds is known to the audience but is unknown to the character.

Dramatic irony is mainly found in the character of Tiresias. Tiresias is blind, yet this blindness does not prevent him from seeing into the future of the Theban people, in particular King Creon's fate. He is often not taken seriously because of his blindness, but it is his blindness that allows him to see with his mind's eye. King Creon listens to the words of Tiresias too late, and before King Creon can release Antigone, she hangs herself.

Themes in Antigone

Antigone contains many important themes, such as blindness/ human error, fate, and power. Each character in Antigone struggles with non-physical blindness that does not allow them to understand their human flaws and errors. This blindness is what leads each character to a tragic death. Antigone is defiant, King Creon is proud, and Haemon is blinded by love and loyalty. The non-physical blindness, therefore, will lead to conflicts with fate.

Antigone, Blindness, StudySmarter

Fig. 5 - Non-physical blindness is a key theme in Antigone.

Fate comes into play quite evidently in the story. King Creon believes himself to be an absolute ruler and authority figure. He does not believe he is subject to the laws of the gods, who are the ultimate deciders of fate. Antigone, on the other hand, does not care for state law and fears the gods' law. Antigone believes she must bury Polynices honorably, not simply out of familial obligation but also in accordance with the expectations of the divine. King Creon decides his power, another important theme, is more significant and therefore decides to punish her. This decision, made under the influence of wanting to keep power, leads to the deaths of everyone in King Creon's household.

Quotes in Antigone

Antigone is a prime example of the height of Athenian Tragedy, and it is worth taking a closer look at some quotes from Antigone to better understand the text.

They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,

Operative forever, beyond man utterly.

I knew I must die, even without your decree:

I am only mortal. And if I must die

Now, before it is my time to die,

Surely, this is no hardship…" (Lines 363-368).

In this speech spoken by Antigone to King Creon, readers can find an example of foreshadowing and Antigone's acceptance of her fate. Antigone knows she must die, hinting at her impending death, and she is not afraid of death. Rather, she has accepted death as her tragic fate.

O tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock, Soon I shall be with my own again

Where Persephone welcome the thin ghost underground:

And I shall see my father again, and you, mother,

And dearest Polynices––" (Lines 714-718)

Upon her impending imprisonment in the tomb, Antigone alludes to the story of Persephone, who Hades kidnaped to be his bride in the underworld. However, rather than reject death, Antigone sees it as a comfort because she can be reunited with her family in death. Like Persephone, Antigone will be sent to the underworld, but unlike Persephone, Antigone sees she has a choice in the matter.

Then take this, and take it to heart!

The time is not far off when you shall pay back

Corpse for corpse, flesh of your own flesh.

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," (Lines 841-849).

In this excerpt, Tiresias warns King Creon that if he disobeys natural laws, he will be punished. A "Corpse for corpse, flesh of your own flesh" (Line 843), signifies that if he does not bury Polynices and release Antigone, two more of King Creon's family will die. King Creon listens to this warning too late, and both Haemon and Queen Eurydice have tragic endings.

Antigone - Key takeaways

  • Antigone was written by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles and performed at the Dionysias of 442 BCE.
  • Antigone follows the tragedy of Antigone, who defies the orders of King Creon and wishes to bury the body of her brother, Polynices.
  • Antigone is an example of an Athenian Tragedy and contains literary devices such as foreshadowing and dramatic irony.
  • Antigone contains many themes, such as blindness, fate, and power and the interaction between all three.
  • Antigone is the second play in the three-piece cycle of Theban plays, which begins with the tragic story of Oedipus Rex.

Frequently Asked Questions about Antigone

Sophocles, an Ancient Greek playwright, wrote Antigone.

Antigone was written and first performed in 442 BCE. 

Antigone disobeys the orders of King Creon and tries to bury the body of her brother Polynices, but she is caught and many meet their tragic end. 

Polynices was not buried or allowed to have a burial with honor under King Creon's decree. 

Antigone is the tragic heroine in Antigone

Final Antigone Quiz

Question

Who wrote Antigone?

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Answer

Sophocles


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When was Antigone written?

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Answer

442 BCE

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Where was Antigone originally performed?

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Answer

The Dionysias

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Why does Polynices plan a siege on Thebes?

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Answer

Eteocles overstays his time on the throne and won't relinquish power to his brother, Polynices. 

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Why won't King Creon let Polynices have a proper burial?

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Answer

King Creon declared Polynices as an invader. 

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Why does King Creon change his mind and choose to bury Antigone alive in a tomb rather than publicly stone her?

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Answer

Haemon and King Creon get into a fight and after Haemon threatens to leave and never return, King Creon changes his mind.  

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Who ultimately changes King Creon's mind about burying Polynices and setting Antigone free?

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Answer

Tiresias

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How does Antigone meet her tragic end?

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Antigone hangs herself


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Who is the tragic heroine in Antigone?

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Answer

Antigone

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Who is Antigone's character foil?

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Answer

Ismene


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What genre does Antigone  belong to?

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Answer

Athenian Tragedy

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Where is Antigone set?

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Answer

The Ancient Greek city of Thebes

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What metrical verse is Antigone written in?

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Answer

Iambic Pentameter

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What literary devices are used in Antigone?

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Answer

 foreshadowing and dramatic irony

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What are the main themes of Antigone?

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Answer

blindness/ human error, fate, and power

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