Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Study Guide

Sophocles

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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Prologos | Summary

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Summary

The prologue sets the action in Thebes, in front of its royal palace. Antigone emerges from the palace with her sister, Ismene. She tells Ismene that she's brought her outside the palace so they can speak freely without being overheard. She asks Ismene if she realizes the gravity of the tragedies that have recently befallen them, which Antigone attributes to both the god Zeus and their father, Oedipus. She also asks Ismene if she has heard the recent proclamation from Creon, their uncle and king of Thebes. Ismene claims not to know anything, but mentions the fact that both of their brothers killed each other in battle fighting on opposing sides. Ismene observes that Antigone looks like she has "dark and gloomy news" to tell her.

Antigone complains to Ismene that Creon has treated the deaths of their brothers unfairly: he gave Eteocles a proper burial and funeral since he defended Thebes, but he gave orders that Polyneices is to be left unburied and without customary funeral rites. Creon has also ordered that anyone who interferes will be "stoned to death." Antigone tells Ismene that this news should make her want to be worthy of her ancestors by doing what is just for Polyneices. Ismene is hesitant and unsure of what she could possibly do, and Antigone proposes that she and Ismene bury Polyneices's corpse themselves. Ismene is shocked at the suggestion, since it would be an outright disobedience to Creon's orders. But Antigone argues that it would be a larger betrayal to Polyneices to leave him unburied, and that she sees it as her and Ismene's family duty. Ismene warns Antigone to think carefully about this decision and reminds her of their tragic family history: both their father, Oedipus, and mother, Jocasta, died tragically as well. All they have left is each other. She also reminds Antigone that they are both women, and therefore they "shouldn't fight with men." Ismene tells Antigone she'd rather obey Creon because she doesn't want to face the harsh punishment if they are caught.

Antigone tells Ismene that she'll bury Polyneices with or without her help because she sees it as her duty to the dead and she's willing to sacrifice her life for this duty if it comes to that. Their brother Eteocles received a proper burial and so was able to win "honour with the dead below." Those who do not uphold ancient burial rites, Antigone tells Ismene, "rightly earn the loathing of the dead." Ismene reiterates that disobeying the king and his laws is not in her nature—and that she is afraid for Antigone. She cautions Antigone not to tell anyone of her plans, but Antigone says that she'd rather everyone knew.

Analysis

Creon's proclamation highlights loyalty and disloyalty to the city of Thebes. In his justification Eteocles was loyal in his defense of Thebes and deserves an honorable burial, but Polyneices was disloyal by fighting on the side of the enemy and therefore deserves nothing. It's important to note that Creon's decision would not have been considered unusual in ancient Greece—any enemy of a city would have been denied the same privilege. But Creon takes it a step farther in his threat to publicly stone anyone who disobeys his decision. He is using the opportunity to try to unite his citizens against their enemies after a bitter war.

But Antigone's concept of loyalty is to her family, not to her king or city, and so she believes that disobeying Creon is the right and just thing to do. She also believes that Creon's proclamation will offend the gods—a serious offense in ancient Greece. Due to their close relationships with the gods, ancient Greeks like Antigone held religious piety and honor in the utmost importance. Antigone sees the proper burial of Polyneices as the right way to show respect to the gods, and she believes that obeying divine law is much more important than obeying mortal law. Her concern about leaving Polyneices unburied reveals her belief that she and Ismene will "rightly earn the loathing of the dead." Since much of their family is dead, Antigone seems far more concerned with what the dead think of her actions than the living.

Ismene does not agree with Antigone. Sophocles uses stichomythia (rapid-fire dialogue between characters) in the sisters' conversation to show the tension between them. Ismene's warnings to Antigone are based more on fear of being punished than the belief that Antigone is wrong to want to bury her brother. She is also weary of all the tragedy that has already occurred in their family and sees Antigone's choice as one that will only lead to more of the same. Antigone alludes to the fact that the tragedies of their brothers' deaths stem from decisions their father Oedipus made—and also due to the "fate" that the god Zeus has decreed for their family.

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