DATE: probably 443 or 442, although a case can be made for 438
COMPETITION: won first prize
CHARACTERS: Antigone, Ismene, Kreon, Guard, Haimon, Teiresias, First Messenger, Eurydike, Second Messenger
CHORUS: elders of Thebes
SETTING: the palace at Thebes
It is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteokles and Polyneikes, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has decreed that Eteokles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polyneikes is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone fails to persuade her sister Ismene to defy the edict, and leaves to bury her brother’s body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. The guard will return later with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the gods’ unwritten laws (as opposed to his “edicts”) and the rights of one’s philoi. Haimon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone, to whom he is betrothed, but Kreon pronounces her death sentence: to be walled up in a cave. In a very moving kommos with the chorus, a much subdued Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Teiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and to release Antigone, but arrives at the cave to find Antigone dead by hanging in the arms of Haimon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. On hearing the news, Kreon’s wife Eurydike hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize that he has got it all wrong.
One of the greatest of Greek dramas, and not easy to appreciate fully. Is this a play about Antigone, or Kreon? Is there a “tragic hero” in this play? In Kreon we seem to have a typical tragic hero, who collaborates in his own downfall, but in Antigone an innocent who also perishes. Hegel saw the play as dramatizing two “rights,” the claim of family and the claim of the state; others see her as right and Kreon as obviously wrong – but Teiresias never says she was right. Is this then a play of two unsympathetic characters who are fated to collide? What would an ancient audience have made of Antigone? We see her as the sympathetic and lonely martyr, but to the fifth-century male audience she was a dangerous woman meddling in men’s affairs and upsetting the order of the polis. The play responds well to a structuralist approach, as the sides can be divided neatly into male/female, state/family, logical order/emotion, light/dark, life/death, with even the physical staging playing a role here, the visible palace representing order and civilization and unseen off-stage the world of the dead, where all the characters come and go.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005