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A: Sophocles Pf:c.441 bc, Athens Tr: 1729 G: Greek trag. in verse S: Thebes, mythical past C: 4m, 3f, extras, chorus (m)The sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other in a battle over their inheritance. Since Eteocles died defending the city of Thebes, the new ruler Creon orders that he alone shall be accorded an honourable burial, while Polyneices' corpse is left to rot outside the walls of the city. Their mourning sisters Antigone and Ismene discuss this decree, Antigone resolving to defy Creon and bury Polyneices, while Ismene advises caution. Creon arrives with the chorus and justifies his decision. A guard comes with the news that Polyneices' body has been buried, and when he returns to the body, catches Antigone in the act of reburying her brother. Creon condemns her to death for disobeying the law, but she protests that she is obeying a higher law of religious observance and familial duty. Antigone is led away to be buried alive. Creon's son Haemon, who was to marry Antigone, threatens that he will commit suicide if she should die. When the prophet Tiresias warns Creon that his tyranny will be punished, Creon rushes off to free Antigone. He arrives to find that Antigone has already hanged herself, and the desperate Haemon threatens his father then plunges his sword into himself. When Creon's wife hears the news of the death of her son, she too commits suicide. Creon remains mourning and alone, the chorus hoping only that one may become wiser with age.

A: Sophocles Pf:c.441 bc, Athens Tr: 1729 G: Greek trag. in verse S: Thebes, mythical past C: 4m, 3f, extras, chorus (m)

Antigone continues the curse of the house of Laius, which is depicted in Oedipus the King, and Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes and finds its resolution in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. It shares with many Greek tragedies the distinction of having a courageous woman as the central figure. While Antigone's defiant action would have been justified to an Athenian audience by the contemporary religious duty to bury the dead, one does not need to be a believer in Greek ritual to share her outrage at the inhumanity of Creon's decree. She chooses the path of righteousness, and, though meeting her death, is morally triumphant. By contrast, Creon's role is more complex and more interesting. Occupying the stage for most of the play, we see a man who attempts to act according to the law, and who is terribly punished for his incautious and inflexible decision. A typical Sophoclean figure, he is, like Oedipus, in no sense wicked, but must nevertheless undergo extreme suffering for his actions. Indeed, he is the truly tragic figure of the piece. The clash of two just viewpoints, of civil law versus religious law, of political expediency versus humanity, has encouraged later writers to revisit the theme, notably Hasenclever (1917), Anouilh, and Brecht (1948).

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

Sophocles (496—406 bc)