Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide

Sophocles

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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Exodus | Summary

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Summary

A messenger enters and speaks of how he once viewed Creon as a man to be looked up to but he no longer does. He goes so far as to call Creon "a breathing corpse" because he's lost all pleasure in being a ruler. The Chorus leader asks what news he has brought, and the messenger simply replies, "They're dead." He's referring to Haemon, who has committed suicide over his anger at Creon. The Chorus leader marvels at how Teiresias's prophecy has come true.

Creon's wife, Eurydice, emerges from the palace and addresses the Chorus, asking them to tell her the news. The messenger interjects to tell her what he saw since he accompanied Creon to help bury Polyneices. Polyneices's corpse was being eaten by dogs, but they managed to scare them off and wash the body and burn it according to ritual funeral rites. Then they journeyed to Antigone's cave. Before they could reach it Creon heard a scream from inside the cave, which he recognized as the voice of Haemon. He instructed the servants to hurry to unblock the entrance to see if it was indeed Haemon. After unblocking the entrance the servants found Antigone hanging by a noose in the corner, and Haemon with his arms around her, crying out. Creon tried to coax Haemon out, but Haemon drew his sword and attempted to stab his father. He missed and instead threw himself onto his sword. He died embracing Antigone.

After hearing this news Eurydice returns to the palace without saying anything, and the Chorus leader worries that this is a foretelling of something ominous to come. The messenger decides to follow her to make sure she is all right, and Creon enters, carrying Haemon's corpse. The Chorus leader notes that this is the result of Creon's own mistakes. Creon admits that he had a "foolish mind" and wails at the gravity of what his decisions have wrought. The Chorus leader observes that Creon has finally "learned to see what's right—but far too late."

The messenger reemerges, sees the corpse of Haemon, and tells Creon that he'll find more of the same in his house. He tells Creon that Eurydice is now also dead, having killed herself as well. Creon continues to lament and wail, wondering what he has done to deserve so much suffering. He wishes aloud that someone could put him out of his misery. Creon's final lament is that "everything I touch goes wrong, and on my head fate climbs up with its overwhelming load." He disappears into the palace, still carrying Haemon's corpse. The Chorus's final song is about respecting the gods and resisting arrogance—only then can mortals become wise.

Analysis

The action that the messenger describes does not occur onstage—the audience only hears about the gruesome details secondhand. The messenger's tale reinforces the notion that once a person's fate has been decided by the gods there is no reversing course, no matter how much one tries to set things right. Creon's actions come too late to do any good.

The gravity of what Creon's decisions have wrought comes to a head when he watches Haemon kill himself. Only he is responsible for the tragedy before him. After Eurydice's death he declares, "Hurry and lead me off, get me away from here, for now what I am in life is nothing." It's as though he has finally realized that being the leader of Thebes means nothing without family. He has lost his identity in their deaths. All of this tragedy is a result of Creon's stubborn pride, which he realizes too late to remedy. Creon's tragic flaw is his arrogance and harshness, and now he is being punished by equal and proportional harshness by the gods.

The Chorus's final words deliver an equal sense of harshness, with no reassurance of a brighter future. Rather they convey a cautionary tale about the importance of respecting the gods and knowing one's place—a message that the audience should take home with them in order not to suffer the same fate as Creon. In Stasimon 4 it seems that the Chorus is warning Antigone about the pitfalls of hubris (in comparing herself to the gods), but in hindsight their warning applies to Creon as well because it is he who ultimately demonstrates the arrogance of putting his rules above those of the gods.

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