Antigone Line 1-489
The two daughters of Oedipus are standing together outside of the palace gates in the city of Thebes, discussing recent events in the city. Antigone complains to her sister Ismene that the gods have been very cruel to their entire family. The girls' father, Oedipus, died not long before at Colonus after a long life of suffering, since he discovered that he had murdered his own father, Laius. He also had sexual intercourse with his own mother Iocasta, who hung herself when she realized what had happened. Oedipus blinded himself as a result of his guilt and was exiled from Thebes until his eventual death. After he died, these two sisters returned to Thebes to stop the battle for the Theban kingship that was being waged between Oedipus' elder son, Polyneices and the younger Eteocles. The result of this war was that both brothers killed each other in battle and Iocasta's brother, Creon, now rules the city as its king. However, he will not allow Polyneices' body to be buried and hopes for it to remain exposed in disgrace and eaten by birds and animals. Creon had supported Eteocles during the war and regards Polyneices to be a traitor to Thebes.
Antigone laments to Ismene that it is not fair for her brother to be denied a burial, "And now what is the proclamation that they tell of made lately by the commander, publicly,/to all people? Do you know it? Have you heard it?/Don't you notice when evils due to enemies/are headed towards those we love?" Line 8-12. She refers not only to the recent situation of their dead brother, but also to the evils that befell Oedipus their father, who had been exiled from Thebes by his own sons, never to return. Ismene tells Antigone that she has not heard this news and is surprised to hear that Polyneices will not be given a burial. Antigone asks if she will help her to secretly give him a proper burial so that his spirit can rest, but Ismene is fearful because it is forbidden. The punishment for anyone who disobeys is death. Ismene thus places the good of the city before the good of her family. Ismene explains her reasons to Antigone, "Consider, sister, how our father died,/hated and infamous; how he brought to light/his own offenses.../Then, mother...did shame/violently on her life, with twisted cords [because she hung herself]/Third, our two brothers, on a single day.../Each killed the other, hand against brother's hand" Line 59-65. She remembers that their family is filled with sadness, and she is afraid that they will join them in suffering if Antigone and Ismene break the law and bury Polyneices' body.
Yet Ismene continues, explaining that there is little good that they can accomplish, "Now there are only two of us, left behind,/and see how miserable our end shall be/if in the teeth of law we shall transgress/against the sovereign [ruler]'s decree and power. You ought to realize we are only women,/not meant to fight against men,/and that we are ruled by those who are stronger,/to obedience in this and even more painful matters" Line 64-73. The two sisters disagree about what should be done. Antigone wants to violate Creon's order, but Ismene thinks that their family is filled with enough tragedy already, that it is wiser to stay out of any more trouble. She also believes that women should stay in their place and simply let men make all of the decisions, because men are stronger than women anyway. Antigone insists that she will go to bury her brother alone. She believes that religious laws requiring burial are more important than laws of the city. However, she is not afraid to die but remains very determined. Ismene tries to dissuade her again by saying, "It is better not to hunt the impossible," because she believes that Antigone will not accomplish anything by her actions. To bury her brother is an impossible task in her opinion. The sisters then say good-bye to each other, and Antigone runs off to bury Polyneices anyway.
The Chorus of Theban Elders speaks about the recent events in Thebes during the war between the seven armies brought to the city by Polyneices; how each army fought each at one of the seven gates of Thebes; and how the brothers Polyneices and Eteocles killed each other in battle. Remembering these occurrences, they welcome their king Creon as he arrives and speaks to them. He states that "It is impossible to know any man--/I mean his soul, intelligence, and judgement--/until he shows his skill in rule and law./I think that a man [who is] supreme ruler of a whole city,/if he does not reach for the best counsel for her.../him I judge the worst of any [man].../and anyone thinking/another man more a friend than his own country,/I rate him nowhere" Line 195-204. As ruler of Thebes, Creon feels that a person owes loyalty to their city more than anything else, no matter what the consequences may be. Thus, he has no tolerance for people who are disloyal to the greater good of the city.
He repeats his decree that no one may bury Polynecies' body because he is a traitor, who "sought to taste the blood he shared with us,/and lead the rest of us to slavery--/You shall leave him without burial; you shall watch him/chewed up by birds and dogs and violated.../But he that is loyal to the state/in death, in life alike, shall have my honor" Line 220-229. Polyneices attacked Thebes with seven armies because his younger brother Eteocles, with the support of Creon, refused to give him the kingship. Instead, Eteocles exiled his brother so that he would not threaten his power. As a result, an angry Polyneices attacked Thebes to reclaim what rightfully belonged to him, because he was the older brother and the true successor to the Theban kingship after his father, Oedipus, had been exiled. But Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other in battle. Creon still sees Polyneices as a traitor and because he dared to attack the precious city of Thebes. For this crime against the city, Creon will not allow his body to be buried. Creon's words of Polynecies wanting to "lead the rest of us to slavery" are not really true, because he only wanted to have the kingship. Creon tries to turn Polyneices into a villain and tells the Chorus that he was an enemy of the city. The Chorus readily says that they will respect Creon's decree about the burial, and they will not support anybody else who might disagree with this decision.
The conversation is interrupted by a Sentry who suddenly comes running in. He is out of breath because he is in such a rush to speak with Creon, declaring that he has very important news. Curious, Creon asks him to tell more, but the Sentry is very evasive and acts afraid, declaring that he and his fellow sentries chose who would go to see Creon by lottery, fearing his anger. This Sentry ended up winning the lottery and as a result, he had to go to Creon bearing his news. Finally he admits that someone has sprinkled dirt over Polyneices' corpse that is lying outside of the city's gates and performed a burial ritual upon his body. In effect, someone has violated Creon's solemn decree forbidding burial for traitors. There are no footprints on the ground around the body, and so they cannot find any sign of who did this. The Chorus suggests that perhaps it was God himself who committed the deed, but Creon becomes very, very angry, saying "Do you see the gods as honoring criminals?" and insists that it is someone in Thebes who has done this deed. Creon distrusts his own citizens.
Creon orders the Sentry to find and arrest whomever it was, otherwise he himself will be executed for not guarding Polyneices' body properly. The man simply replies, "it's a bad thing if one judges and judges wrongly," but Creon is confused by these mysterious words. He does not realize that the Sentry is calling him a poor judge of character for being so rash in his threats to execute him. The Sentry then shows fear towards Creon in a comment towards the audience, "It were best that he were found, but whether/the criminal is taken or he isn't--/for that chance will decide--one thing is certain,/you'll never see me coming here again./I never hoped to escape, never thought I could./But now I have come off safe, I thank God heartily" Line 362-367. He does not show respect towards Creon, but instead he shows only fear. Creon departs and returns to his palace.
The Chorus then speaks about the joys of men and what great things men have accomplished on earth such as learning to ride horses and use animals for plowing fields. The Chorus recognizes that men have many talents, and these talents are used for good sometimes, but sometimes they are used to commit evil and to make bad decisions. They end their song with "If he [man] honors the laws of earth,/and the justice of the gods he has confirmed by oath,/high is his city; no city/has he with whom dwells dishonor/prompted by recklessness./He who is so, may he never/share my hearth!/may he never think my thoughts!" Line 404-411. The Chorus hopes that they never make the mistake of disobeying the laws of the gods. They reveal that if a citizen and a king obey the rules of the gods, then the gods will bless their city with good fortune; however, if they do not obey the rules of the gods, then the city will no longer exist and will disappear. Perhaps this suggests the events that are occurring as Creon refuses to allow proper burial of a man, as is required by the gods. Instead, Creon places the importance of the city as being greater than that of the gods who rule the world.
The Sentry suddenly returns, bringing a very unhappy Antigone with him. He asks where Creon is, and the Theban king comes out of the palace at that moment, surprised to see that the Sentry has returned again. The Sentry is very happy that he has captured this criminal who buried Polyneices, insisting that he is now free from any possible punishments. Creon is stunned to hear this news and asks how she was captured. The Sentry tells the story of how he had returned to the body with his fellow sentries and dusted it off so that it was no longer covered. However as soon as this was done, they saw Antigone coming towards them, stirring up a dust cloud around her, "She was crying out with the shrill cry/of an embittered bird/that sees its nest robbed of its nestlings/and the bed empty. So, too, when she saw/the body stripped of its cover, she burst out in groans.../and with her hands immediately/brought thirsty dust to the body; from a shapely brazen/urn, held high over it, poured a triple stream/of funeral offerings; and crowned the corpse" Line 466-475. Antigone was caught in the very act of breaking Creon's decree by burying Polyneices; as a result, she was arrested and brought to Creon. Creon asks Antigone if she is guilty of this crime, and she admits that it is true. The Theban king is pleased with the work of the Sentry and sends him on his way, forgiving his earlier negligence.