Antigone picks up in the same (uber-dismal) place that Oedipus at Colonus leaves off. Oedipus has just passed away in Colonus, and Antigone and her sister decide to return to Thebes with the intention of helping their brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, avoid a prophecy that predicts they will kill each other in a battle for the throne of Thebes.
But upon her arrival in Thebes, Antigone learns that both of her brothers are dead. Eteocles has been given a proper burial, but Creon, Antigone's uncle who has inherited the throne, has issued a royal edict banning the burial of Polyneices, who he believes was a traitor. Antigone defies the law, buries her brother, and is caught. When Creon locks her away in prison, she kills herself.
Meanwhile, not realizing Antigone has taken her own life, the blind prophet Teiresias, Creon's son and Antigone's fiancé Haemon, and the Chorus plead with Creon to release her. Creon finally relents, but in an instance of too-late-timing, finds her dead in her jail cell. Out of despair, Haemon and Creon’s wife have by now also killed themselves, and Creon is left in distress and sorrow.
The Oedipus myth was well known even in Sophocles’ day, so his audience already knew what would happen at the end of Antigone. The contrast between what the audience knows and what the characters know sets up the tension, the dramatic irony. However, Sophocles uses dramatic license and adds events that are not found in any previous account of the myth, including the quarrels between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone’s two attempts to bury Polynices, Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon, the entombment of Antigone, Tiresias’s argument with Creon, and the suicides. These added events serve to intensify the play.
Although the last play in the Oedipus trilogy, Antigone was written first. The play won for Sophocles first prize at the Dionysia festival. It is still a popular play, with many stage and screen adaptations, including Jean Anouilh’s famous stage production Antigone (pr. 1944, pb. 1946; English translation, 1946), placing the story in a World War II setting, and Amy Greenfield’s 1990 stark, interpretive dance-film version (Antigone—Rites of Passion).
The conflicts within the play, represented by the conflicts between Antigone and Creon, are powerful human struggles that are still relevant today: the state versus the individual, the state versus family, the state versus the church, the old versus the young, and man versus woman. Although the Chorus delivers the moral of obedience to the laws of the gods before all else, the moral is not a tidy conclusion. Many questions remain unanswered, many conflicts unresolved. For example, when is family more important than the state? In ancient Greece, it was the duty of women to bury family members. Leaving Polynices unburied was a violation of not only the laws of the gods but also the laws of the family. In addition, Creon was willing to put his own niece, and his son’s fiancé, to death. After a brutal civil war, however, restoring order is the responsibility of the king. When, and to what extent, do the laws of the gods and of the state override the laws of the family?
Connected to the above themes is the theme of choices and consequences. The characters in the play have free will to choose, but the consequences of their choices are guided by fate—determined by the gods. To what extent, however, do the characters truly have free will? Antigone’s conscience is pressured by the demands of family tradition and obedience to the gods, while Creon is tasked with preserving law and order. How much is each bound by their position in society, or by their conscience? Both Antigone and Creon stick stubbornly to what they feel are logical choices—but they are limited in their knowledge and cannot foresee all the consequences of their choices. Too often they stubbornly refuse to listen to council, which tries to guide them in their choices. Had Antigone and Creon listened more, the tragedies may have been averted, but each would have had to sacrifice some pride as well as give up a little of who they are.
Antigone is a complex play, one that defies ready interpretation. It is a study of human actions, with complex emotions. Each character represents a moral ideal, a moral argument, and the play becomes a great debate. The two major debaters in the play, Antigone and Creon, are both destroyed at the end, leaving the debate with no clear winner. Antigone demands its audience to continue the debate.