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Let us first trace the outline of the action.
Analysis of the play. I. Prologue: 1-99.
The scene is laid before the palace of Creon,—once that of Oedipus,—at Thebes. The city has just been delivered from a great peril. It had been besieged by an Argive army, the allies of the exile Polyneices, whom his brother Eteocles had driven out of Thebes, that he himself might be sole king. But on the day before that with which the play begins, the two brothers had slain each other in single fight. Besides Polyneices, six other leaders of the besiegers had been killed by as many Theban chiefs. Thus deprived of its commanders, the besieging host had fled, panic-stricken, in the night.

It is the moment of dawn. Antigone has asked her sister Ismene to come forth with her from the house, in order that they may converse alone. Creon, their uncle, is now king. He has put forth an edict,—that Eteocles, the champion of Thebes, shall be honourably buried; but the body of Polyneices, the country's foe, shall be left on the plain outside the walls of Thebes, for dogs and birds to mangle at their will. If any citizen dares to disobey, he shall be stoned to death. Antigone tells her sister that she is resolved to defy this edict, and to bury their brother Polyneices. Ismene vainly seeks to dissuade her; and Antigone goes forth, alone, to do the deed.

The Chorus of fifteen Theban elders now enters. Creon has

Parodos: 100-161.
summoned them to meet him,—they do not yet know wherefore. They greet the rising sun, and, in a splendid ode, describe the danger from which Thebes has been saved. The dramatic effect of the ode is to make us feel how grievous, from a Theban point of view, has been the act of Polyneices.

Creon comes forth. Declaring his resolve that patriotism and

II. First episode: 162-331.
treason shall never miss their due rewards, he acquaints the Chorus with the purport of his edict,—that Eteocles shall be honoured, and Polyneices dishonoured. The elders receive the decision with unquestioning respect; though their words are more suggestive of acquiescence than of approval.

A guard arrives, with the startling news that unknown hands have already paid burial rites to Polyneices, by the symbolical act of sprinkling dust on the corpse. Creon dismisses the man with threats of a terrible death, which the other guards shall share, if they fail to discover the men who have thus broken the edict.

The choral ode which follows

First stasimon: 332-375. Anapaests, 376-383.
is a beautiful treatment of a theme which this mysterious deed suggests,—human inventiveness,—its audacity and its almost infinite resource, save for the limits set by fate. As these strains cease, anapaests spoken by the leader of the Chorus express sudden amazement and pain.—Antigone, the royal maiden, the niece of the king, is led in, a prisoner, in the hands of the guard.

Questioned by Creon,

III. Second episode: 384-581.
Antigone replies that she knew the edict, but nevertheless paid funeral rites to her brother because she held that no human law could supersede the higher law of the gods. She is ready to die.

Creon, still more incensed by her demeanour, vows that she shall indeed perish by a shameful death. He suspects Ismene also; and she is presently brought in. Agonised by grief for her sister's impending doom, Ismene entreats that she may be considered as sharing the responsibility of the deed; she wishes to die with her sister. Antigone firmly and even sternly, though not bitterly, rejects this claim, which ‘justice will not allow’; the deed has been hers only. Ismene vainly seeks to move Creon; he is not touched by her despair, or by the thought—to which Ismene also appeals—that his son Haemon is betrothed to Antigone. He orders that both sisters shall be taken into the house, and closely guarded; for his present purpose is that both shall die.

Second stasimon: 582-625. Anapaests, 626-630.
Moved by the sentence which has just been passed, the Chorus speaks of the destiny which has pursued the royal line of Thebes: ‘When a house hath once been shaken from heaven, there the curse fails nevermore.’ The sisters were the last hope of the race; and now they too must perish. The ode closes with a strain of general reflection on the power of Zeus and the impotence of human self-will. There is no conscious reference to Creon; but, for the spectators, the words are suggestive and ominous.

IV. Third episode: 631-780.
Haemon enters. He has come to plead with his father for the life of his betrothed Antigone. This scene is one of the finest in the play. A lesser dramatist would have been apt to depict Haemon as passionately agitated. The Haemon of Sophocles maintains an entire calm and self-control so long as a ray of hope remains; his pleading is faultless in tone and in tact; he knows Creon, and he does not intercede with him as a lover for his betrothed; he speaks as a son solicitous for his father's reputation, and as a subject concerned for the authority of his king; he keeps his temper under stinging taunts; it is only when Creon is found to be inexorable that the pent-up fire at last flashes out. Then, when Haemon rushes forth,—resolved, as his latest words hint, not to survive his beloved,—he leaves with the spectators a profound sense of the supreme effort which he has made in a cause dearer to him than life, and has made without success.

Haemon having quitted the scene, Creon announces, in reply to a question of the Chorus, the mode of death which he designs for Antigone. As for Ismene, he will spare her; her entire innocence has been proved, to his calmer thoughts, by the words which passed between the sisters in his presence. Antigone is to be immured in a sepulchral chamber,—one of the rock-tombs in the low hills that fringe the plain of Thebes,—and there she is to be left, with only the formal dole of food which religion prescribes, in order to avert the pollution which the State would otherwise incur through the infliction of death by starvation.

A choral song celebrates the power of Love,—as seen in

Third stasimon: 781-800. Anapaests 801-805.
Haemon, who has not feared to confront a father's anger in pleading for one who has broken the law. While implying that Haemon has acted amiss, the ode also palliates his action by suggesting that the deity who swayed him is irresistible. At the same time this reference to Haemon's passion serves to deepen the pathos of Antigone's fate.

She is now brought out of the house by Creon's servants,

V. Fourth episode: 806-943.
who are to conduct her to her living tomb. At that sight, the Theban elders cry that pity constrains them, even as love constrained Haemon, to deplore the sentence. Antigone speaks to them of her fate, and they answer not unkindly; yet they say plainly that the blame for her doom rests with herself alone; the king could not grant impunity to a breach of his edict. Creon enters, and reproves the guards for their delay. In her latest words, Antigone expresses her confidence in the love which awaits her beyond the grave; and also the trouble which overclouds her trust in the gods, who knew her deed, and yet have permitted her to suffer this doom. Then she is led forth, and is seen no more.

Fourth stasimon: 944-987.
The rocky tomb to which she is passing suggests the theme of a choral ode, commemorating three other sufferers of a cruel imprisonment,—Danaë, Lycurgus, and Cleopatra.

VI. Fifth episode: 988-1114.
As the choral strains cease, the blind and aged prophet Teiresias is led in by a boy. He comes with an urgent warning for the king. The gods are wroth with Thebes; they will no longer give their prophet any sign by the voice of birds, or through the omens of sacrifice. The king is himself the cause, by his edict. Carrion-creatures have defiled the altars of Thebes with the taint of the unburied dead. Let burial rites be at once paid to Polyneices. He speaks for Creon's own good.

Here we pause for a moment to answer a question which naturally occurs to the modern reader. Why is Polyneices said to be still unburied? Has not Antigone already rendered burial rites to him; is it not precisely for that action that she is dying? Antigone had, indeed, given symbolical sepulture to Polyneices by sprinkling dust upon the corpse, and pouring libations. The performance of that act discharged her personal duty towards the dead and the gods below; it also saved her dead brother from the dishonour (which would else have been a reproach to him in the other world) of having been neglected by his nearest kinsfolk on earth. But Antigone's act did not clear Creon. Creon's duty to the dead and to the gods below was still unperformed. So far as Creon was concerned, Polyneices was still unburied. And Creon's obligation could not be discharged, as Antigone's had been, merely by the symbolical act, which religion accepted only when a person was unavoidably hindered from performing regular rites. There was nothing to hinder Creon from performing such rites. These were still claimed from him. After Antigone's tribute had been rendered, birds and dogs had been busy with the corpse. Creon's duty to the dead and to the gods below was now also a duty towards the polluted State, from which his impiety had alienated the gods above.

In reply to the friendly and earnest warning of Teiresias, Creon angrily accuses the seer of mercenary complicity in a disloyal plot; malcontent Thebans wish to gain a triumph over their king by frightening him into a surrender. Never will be grant burial rites to Polyneices.

Teiresias, angered in his turn, then declares the penalty which the gods reserve for such obduracy. With the life of his own son shall Creon atone for his twofold sin,—the detention of the dead among the living, and the imprisonment of the living in the abode of the dead. The seer then departs.

Creon is deeply moved. In the course of long and eventful years he has learned a lesson which is present also to the minds of the Theban elders. The word of Teiresias has never failed to come true.

After a hurried consultation with the Chorus, Creon's resolve is taken. He will yield. He immediately starts, with his servants, for the upper part of the Theban plain, where the body of Polyneices is still lying,—not very far, it would seem, from the place of Antigone's prison.

At this point an objection might suggest itself to the spectator. Is there not something a little improbable in the celerity with which Creon,—hitherto inflexible,—is converted by the threats of a seer whom he has just been denouncing as a venal impostor? Granting that experience had attested the seer's infallibility when speaking in the name of the gods, has not Creon professed to believe that, in this instance, Teiresias is merely the mouthpiece of disloyal Thebans? The answer will be found by attentively observing the state of mind which, up to this point, has been portrayed in Creon. He has, indeed, been inflexible; he has even been vehement in asserting his inflexibility. But, under this vehemence, we have been permitted to see occasional glimpses of an uneasy conscience. One such glimpse is at vv. 889 f., where he protests that his hands are clean in regard to Antigone;—he had given her full warning, and he has not shed her blood,—‘but at any rate’ (“δ᾽ οὖν”,—i.e., wherever the guilt rests)—‘she shall die.’ Another such trait occurs at v. 1040, where he says that he will not bury Polyneices, though the throne of Zeus in heaven should be defiled,—quickly adding, ‘for I know that no mortal can pollute the gods.’1 It may further be remarked that a latent self-mistrust is suggested by the very violence of his rejoinder to the Chorus, when they venture, with timid respect, to hint the possibility that some divine agency may have been at work in the mysterious tribute paid to Polyneices (278 f.). A like remark applies to the fury which breaks out at moments in his interviews with Haemon and with Teiresias. The delicacy of the dramatic tact which forbids these touches to be obtrusive is such as Sophocles, alone of the Attic masters, knew how to use. But they suffice to indicate the secret trembling of the balance behind those protestations of an unconquerable resolve; the terrible prophecy of Teiresias only turns the scale.

Hyporcheme (taking the place of the fifth stasimon): 1115-1154.
The Chorus is now gladdened by the hope that Creon's repentance, late though it is, may avail to avert the doom threatened by Teiresias. This feeling is expressed in a short and joyous ode, which invokes the bright presence of Dionysus. May the joyous god come with healing virtue to his favourite Thebes! The substitution of this lively dance-song (‘hyporcheme’) for a choral ode of a graver cast here serves the same purpose of contrast as in the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Ajax, and the Trachiniae. The catastrophe is approaching2.

VII. Exodos: 1155-1352.
A Messenger now enters,—one of the servants who had accompanied Creon to the plain. The words in which he briefly intimates the nature of his tidings (v. 1173) are overheard, within the house, by Eurydicè, then in the act of going forth with offerings to Pallas; and she swoons. On recovering consciousness, she comes forth, and hears the full account from the Messenger. He says that, when they reached the plain, Creon's first care was for the funeral rites due to Polyneices. After prayer to Pluto and Hecatè, the remains—lacerated by birds and dogs— were washed, and solemnly burned; a high funeral-mound was then raised on the spot. Creon and his followers then repaired to the tomb of Antigone. They found her already dead; she had used her veil to hang herself. Haemon, in a frenzied state, was embracing her corpse. He drew his sword upon his father, who fled. Then, in a swift agony of remorse, the son slew himself.

Having heard this news, Eurydicè silently retires into the house.

She has hardly withdrawn, when Creon enters, with attendants, carrying Haemon's shrouded corpse3 upon a bier. He bewails his own folly as the cause of his son's death. Amid his laments, a Messenger from the house announces that Eurydicè has stabbed herself at the household altar, with imprecations on the husband. Wholly desolate and wretched, Creon prays for death; nor has the Chorus any gentler comfort for him than the stern precept of resignation,—‘Pray thou no more; mortals have no escape from destined woe.’ As he is conducted into the house, the closing words of the drama are spoken by the leader of the Chorus: ‘Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness, and reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and in old age teach the chastened to be wise.’

1 See note on v. 1044.

2 See note on v. 1115.

3 i.e., an effigy. The deuteragonist, who had acted Haemon, had been on the stage, as Messenger, up to v. 1256, and had still to come on as Second Messenger at v. 1278.

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hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1040
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1173
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 889
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 1278
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