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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide


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Episode 1

Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 1 of Sophocles's play Antigone.

Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Episode 1 | Summary



Creon emerges from the palace to address a crowd of assembled Theban elders. He invokes the will of the gods first, noting that even though their city has been shaken, "the gods have safely set things right again." He says that he has gathered these elders specifically because they have shown so much loyalty, particularly to his brother, the former king, Oedipus. Now that both of Oedipus's sons have been killed, Creon has inherited the throne. He tells the elders that he realizes it is impossible to know him before they have seen him govern and make laws, and that he believes it is important to take the advice of those who are smarter than he. Creon wants the god Zeus to be aware that as a ruler, he will always protect his citizens before all else. He compares his city to a ship that must sail "its proper course."

Creon's words serve to rationalize his proclamation that he will give Eteocles an honorable burial and funeral but that he will leave Polyneices unburied and without funeral rites. He believes that by setting this example he will demonstrate that he is a leader who will never reward traitors. The Chorus leader steps in to confirm that Creon now makes all laws for both the living and dead, and Creon tells him that it is now their duty as elders to be guardians of these laws. The Chorus requests that the task of guardians be given to younger men, but Creon denies their request, insisting that they see to it no one disobeys his orders.

A guard enters, upset. He tells Creon that he has information for him that he hesitates in giving because he fears he will be punished for it. At Creon's urging the guard confesses to Creon that someone buried Polyneices's corpse and gave him funeral rites. Creon wonders aloud who would dare to disobey him in this way. The guard notes that whoever did it left no trace, and that the guards fought over who would be sent to tell Creon, fearing punishment. The Chorus leader wonders if it might be an act of the gods, a question that infuriates Creon. Why would the gods care about a traitor's corpse? Creon believes that there are people in Thebes already conspiring against him and that these people paid the guards to carry out the burial. He notes that "nothing is as powerful as money" and that it corrupts otherwise good men. Creon threatens the guard with a fate worse than death if he can't produce the person who carried out the burial. Creon then retreats to the palace, and the guard leaves as well.


Creon, the newly established king of Thebes, uses his first speech to the elders to establish his views on leadership. His platform is that the safety of the city ranks above any individual citizen, and that anyone who acts against the greater good of the city will be punished. But his ruling to leave Polyneices unburied—a grave offense in ancient Greece, which prided itself on honoring the gods through proper burial—also shows that Creon is sending a message to anyone who would dare to rebel against Thebes. The image of Polyneices's unburied body is meant to remind citizens what can happen if they challenge him.

Creon's introduction also places him in sharp contrast to Antigone, who believes that the individual is more important than citywide proclamations. Creon is someone who sees himself as an absolute, uncompromising ruler, as demonstrated in the way he treats both the elders and the guard. Yet even as he sees himself as calm and capable he is easily emotional and upset, insulting the Chorus leader as "old but stupid, too" and accusing the guard of taking money in order to cover up who buried the corpse.

An important motif of the play is introduced in this episode: the ship-of-state metaphor. Creon notes that "after much tossing of our ship of state, the gods have safely set things right again." One interpretation of the metaphor is that, just like sailors, those who are in government must give everything over to the "ship," or state. Before the play opens Thebes suffered a battle that resulted in the deaths of both of Oedipus's sons, who fought on opposing sides. Creon has become king at this difficult moment in Thebes's history, and his metaphor reveals that he sees himself as the person to keep the ship-of-state on course.

Dramatic irony is another literary technique apart from metaphor in which the audience knows something that the characters do not. There is an effect of dramatic irony in this scene, since the audience already knows before Creon does who has disobeyed him—Antigone. In this way too the audience sees Creon's authority immediately undercut: he's not the intimidating ruler he believes himself to be. The Chorus, which is able to offer broad insights, provides the audience with a moral compass by which to interpret the play. Here the audience sees the Chorus begin to doubt Creon's capability as a leader.

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