Antigone was one of four children born from the incestuous relationship between Oedipus, king of Thebes, and his mother, Jocasta. In Greek myth and drama, Antigone's chief virtue was loyalty: she guided her father after he blinded and exiled himself; and, in burying her brother Polyneices, she chose family duty and the laws of the gods over the laws of the state.
When King Oedipus went into exile, Antigone accompanied him to Colonus in Attica. Her two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, stayed behind in Thebes under the regency of their uncle, Creon. When Oedipus died, Antigone returned to Thebes to live with her brothers and uncle, as well as her sister Ismene. By then, the brothers had come of age and vied for the throne of Thebes. They decided to take turns ruling the city: one year Eteocles would rule, the next year Polyneices, and so on. At the end of the first year, however, Eteocles made no show of yielding the kingdom to his brother. Polyneices was forced into exile and took refuge with Adrastus, king of Argos, whose daughter Argeia he married. Adrastus helped Polyneices assemble a huge army with seven leaders to attack Thebes—the army became known as the Seven Against Thebes.
The Seven failed dismally, but not before the two sons of Oedipus faced one another in battle and killed each other. As a consequence Creon, their uncle, became king. He gave an ornate funeral for Eteocles, but forbade the burial of Polyneices, whom he felt had betrayed his people by fighting against his own city. This was a very grave punishment: the ancient Greeks believed that without burial, a human soul could not enter the underworld and instead would flutter ceaselessly above the earth.
Antigone could not accept Creon's treatment of her brother, and with a handful of dirt she gave him a symbolic burial. She asked Ismene to help her, but her sister was too afraid. Antigone's action was a direct violation of the king's orders, and Creon sentenced her to death. He locked her up in a tomb chamber and had its entrance sealed. The old prophet Tiresias, however, warned the king that he would be cursed for killing Antigone. Eventually, Creon changed his mind. He allowed a proper burial for Polyneices and opened the entrance to Antigone's tomb, but it was too late: to avoid death by starvation, Antigone had hanged herself. Creon's son Haemon, who was engaged to marry Antigone, killed himself over his beloved's dead body. His death led Creon's wife, Eurydice, to commit suicide, too. Only Creon himself was left to live out the curse that Tiresias had prophesied.
The most famous version of Antigone's story is the play Antigone by Greek dramatist Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE). Sophocles' tragedy demonstrates Antigone's qualities of piety and heroism. In burying her brother, she follows the laws of the gods in direct violation of the command of the king. She is aware that there will be serious consequences, but in her mind she has no other option but to act. For her, religious beliefs and family duty take precedence over the laws of the city; the burial of her brother is more important than her uncle's command. She does what is right in spite of the consequences to herself.
Antigone features in two other tragedies by Sophocles. In Oedipus the King, she and her sister Ismene appear at the end of the play to be with their father, who has torn out his eyes after learning that he has unwittingly killed his father Laius, and married his own mother. In the sequel to this play, Oedipus at Colonus Antigone is portrayed as a faithful daughter who guides her blind father from place to place during his exile.
Antigone has continued to be an important character in more modern times. Inspired by Sophocles' Antigone, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) wrote several treatises about ethics, the individual, and the state. The first modern production of Antigone was performed with music by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in Potsdam, Germany, in 1841—a production that marked the beginning of the revival of Greek plays in western Europe.
Among the many interpretations of the Antigone theme, there is one that deserves special mention. In 1944, during the German occupation of France in World War II, French dramatist Jean Anouilh (1910–1987) wrote another play called Antigone. Anouilh's drama portrays Creon as a reasonable ruler, while Antigone is hysterical and unwilling to compromise. Yet despite these qualities, Antigone's attitude is very understandable: her brothers have killed one another, Creon has first refused to honor one of his nephews, and then sentenced one of his nieces to death. Under such circumstances, there is no place for reason. The play suggests that Antigone's rebellion against her uncle and life itself is the only choice left to her. The tragic end to the drama comes when Creon realizes that, despite all his power, he cannot stop his niece, son, and wife from destroying themselves.
See also: DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE; HADES; OEDIPUS.
- The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin, 2003. .
- The Theban Plays. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. , and Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman, trans.
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