Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide

Sophocles

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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

The guard returns to the palace with Antigone in tow. She is compliant and unresisting. The Chorus leader recognizes her and offers pity for the tragedies that have befallen her family. The guard reveals that it is Antigone who buried Polyneices and that they caught her in the act. Creon enters, and the guard tells Creon that they discovered Antigone at the burial site. He tells Creon he doesn't care what happens to her now as long as he is free to go. Creon asks the guard to explain how they came to find her, and the guard tells of how they dug up Polyneices's corpse in an attempt to lure the perpetrator back to the grave. A storm passed overhead, and then they heard the sound of a girl crying and swearing; they saw her pouring out a funeral tribute to Polyneices. They seized her, and she didn't resist capture or deny what she had done.

Creon finally addresses Antigone, asking her to confirm or deny what the guard is accusing. She admits her guilt freely, and Creon dismisses the guard without punishment. Creon asks Antigone if she was aware of his proclamation against burying the body, and she says that she was. She defends herself by saying that she is following the laws of the gods, who override the laws of mortals. She tells Creon that she is not afraid to die for this fact, and that, in a way, she welcomes death for all she has suffered. She believes she would suffer more knowing that her brother's corpse remained unburied. She accuses Creon of being a fool, and the Chorus leader observes that she is as passionate and stubborn as her father, Oedipus. Creon agrees that she is stubborn and contemptuous. Even though he recognizes that she is his niece, she will not escape punishment—and neither will Ismene, whom he has his attendants summon.

Antigone encourages Creon to kill her. Creon tries to shame her for what she's done, but Antigone reiterates that she would feel more shame in leaving her brother unburied. She claims that whether Polyneices was a traitor or not is beside the point—that the gods demand funeral rites for everyone who dies. Creon threatens that "no woman [will] govern me," and Ismene arrives, crying, at the palace. Creon asks her to admit that she was an accomplice in the burial or to swear an oath that she played no part. Surprisingly Ismene admits to a part in the burial—even though she wasn't an accomplice. Antigone corrects her, telling her it is unjust to lie. Ismene says that if Antigone is going to suffer for her crime then she will too—if she is left alive she will have no one left alive to love. She asks Antigone to let her die with her. This sacrifice angers Antigone because it stems from a lie. Ismene also reveals that Antigone is engaged to Creon's son, Haemon, and asks how Creon can put his future daughter-in-law to death. Creon cruelly replies that there are other women his son can marry. Creon declares the matter closed and orders his attendants to take Antigone and Ismene to the palace.

Analysis

Since the beginning of the play Antigone has claimed outright that she hopes to be caught for her disobedience—she even tells Ismene she'll be disappointed in Ismene if she doesn't tell everybody. In this light it's not unusual that Antigone returns to Polyneices's grave the next day—it's almost as if she knows she will be caught when she returns. The guard tells Creon that when he found Antigone over Polyneices's grave, "She was shrieking—a distressing painful cry, just like a bird who's seen an empty nest." The bird imagery repeats throughout the play, symbolizing fierce scavengers, protectors, and agents of prophecy. Here Sophocles uses the image to convey Antigone's dedication to the protection of her family's relationship with the gods at all costs.

The clash between Antigone and Creon, and their opposing but equal stubbornness, brings to light a crucial tension in the play: is it better to obey a law that is unjust or to fight it? Who has the ultimate authority on this issue—gods or men? Neither Antigone nor Creon seems to be able to understand the other's point of view, leading them to an ethical stalemate. In some ways though, Creon seems unable to debate Antigone on this issue in a rational way; his only resolution is to get rid of her rather than prove her wrong.

Antigone's reaction to Ismene's false confession is surprising. She's not upset with her for offering to be punished but because she lies to earn it. It's almost as though Antigone feels that Ismene is stealing her thunder through false pretenses. Creon remains resolute even when Ismene brings up the fact that Antigone is his soon-to-be daughter-in-law—showing that for Creon there really is no gray area of the law.

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