Antigone key literary elements

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This tragedy is set against the background of the Oedipus legend. It illustrates how the curse on the House of Labdacus (who is the grandson of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, and the father of Laius, whose son is Oedipus) brought about the deaths of Oedipus and his wife-mother, Jocasta, as well as the double fratricide of Eteocles and Polynices. Furthermore, Antigone dies after defying King Creon.

The play is set in Thebes, a powerful city-state north of Athens. Although the play itself was written in 441 B.C., the legend goes back to the foundations of Hellenic culture, many centuries before Sophocles’ time.

All the scenes take place in front of the royal palace at Thebes. Thus Sophocles conforms to the principle of the unity of place. The events unfold in little more than twenty four hours. The play begins on the night when Antigone attempts to bury her brother for the first time. Her second attempt at burial occurs at noon the following day, when Antigone is apprehended. She is convicted and kept overnight in a cell. The next morning she is taken to a cave, her place of entombment.

On Thebes: Thebes was the most important city of Boeotia, on mainland Greece. It was one of the chief city-states of ancient Greece, after Athens and Sparta. Sophocles described it as “the only city where mortal women are the mothers of gods.” According to Greek legends, the city was founded by Cadmus and was destroyed by the Epigonoi in the time before the Trojan War. In the sixth century B.C., Thebes recovered its glory to some extent, and in Sophocles’ time it was still a powerful state.



The daughter of Oedipus, the former King of Thebes. Her mother, Jocasta, was Creon’s sister. She is willing to risk her life in order to bury Polynices, her dead brother, thereby defying King Creon’s edict. She is sentenced to death, but commits suicide by hanging herself.


The brother of Jocasta, who was the wife and mother of Oedipus. Creon becomes ruler of Thebes after the deaths of Oedipus’ two sons in the recent civil war. He orders a state funeral for Eteocles, but denies the rites of burial to Polynices. He is compelled to sentence Antigone to death when she defies his law. In the end, he accepts that he has acted wrongly and repents.

The Chorus

The voice of the elders of the city of Thebes. They are the main victims of the recently fought civil war and hence long for peace and stability. They comment on the major events that occur in the play and provide the audience with the public reaction to the private struggles of the ruling family of Thebes.



The only surviving son of Creon. He is in love with Antigone, to whom he is engaged. He pleads in vain with his father for her life. He commits suicide in Antigone’s tomb after he discovers that Antigone has taken her own life.


The elder sister of Antigone, who initially has reservations about helping Antigone to bury the body of their brother, Polynices. She later claims a share in Antigone’s guilt and punishment; Creon refuses to punish her as he considers her temporarily insane.

Tiresias (or Teiresias)

The blind prophet of Thebes, who also appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. He comes to warn Creon that dire consequences will follow if he stands by his decision to leave Polynices’ body unburied.


The wife of Creon. She appears only once in the play, when she hears the news of her son’s (Haemon’s)

The watchman

Comes to inform death. She commits suicide at the end of the play.

Creon that someone has attempted to bury Polynices during the night. Threatened with severe punishment for what Creon feels is neglect of duty, the watchman returns to his watch and succeeds in arresting Antigone. He hands her over to Creon for sentencing.

The first Messenger

Comes to inform Eurydice about the death of Haemon. He accompanies Creon to the tomb and later gives a first- hand account of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon.

The Second Messenger

Comes to inform Creon about the death of Eurydice.

The leader of the Chorus

Occasionally speaks a few lines addressed mainly to the audience. He is given the final lines of the play, in which he draws a moral from the sequence of tragic events the audience has just witnessed.



Antigone is the resolute and strong-willed daughter of King Oedipus. She is determined to give her brother, Polynices, a decent burial. She consciously risks her life with this action, which violates both Creon’s unjust decree, as well as the ancient custom of denying burial to enemies of the state. She obeys only the laws of the gods and the dictates of familial loyalty and social decency.


King Creon regards only the requirement of political expediency. Soon after the civil strife between Eteocles and Polynices ends in their deaths, he announces a decree denying Polynices’ burial. He is unrelenting in his stance, as he wants Thebans to know that he is a firm ruler. Thus he sentences his own niece, Antigone, to death for defying his law.


The climax of the play occurs during the encounter between Creon and Antigone. It is a scene marked by dramatic contrast. Here one can see the incompatibility between Creon’s world of physical power (which he takes to be absolute) and the world of spiritual, idealistic strength which Antigone represents. Creon’s vanity is hurt and his anger aroused by the stubborn disobedience of one whom he considers to be merely a mad woman. When he realizes he cannot break or bend her will, he resolves to send her to her doom.


The resolution of the play begins when the Chorus succeeds in making Creon see the injustice of his recent decisions. He orders the burial of Polynices’ body and rushes to Antigone’s cave, only to find that she has hanged herself. The deaths of Haemon and Eurydice soon ensue, and at end of the play, Creon is left alone in his wretchedness. He has paid a heavy price for his folly and rashness. The tragedy lies in the fact that realization has come to late for Creon.


Antigone’s brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, had fought a battle for the throne of Thebes. At the beginning of the play, they are both dead, having killed each other in combat. Creon, the new monarch, has decided to honor the memory of the younger brother, Eteocles, by giving him a state funeral. During his lifetime Eteocles had broken his pact with Polynices, according to which the two brothers had agreed to take turns at ruling Thebes. This enraged Polynices, who brought an army of Argives to fight against Eteocles and the Thebans. Creon had supported Eteocles in this dispute. After the civil war has ended, Creon brands Polynices a “traitor” and proclaims that anyone who attempts to bury Polynices’ body will have to face death.

Antigone resolves to defy Creon’s edict, and in the opening scene (or Prologus) she asks her sister, Ismene, to join her in the act of burying Polynices. Ismene refuses to help Antigone because she does not wish to violate Creon’s order.

Antigone’s strong respect for family bonds and divine laws prompt her to conduct funeral rites for her brother. She is caught by Creon’s watchman and brought before the enraged king. At her trial, Antigone pleads that her defiant act is in accordance with the overriding laws of the gods.

Creon is reluctant to accept this justification and is unrelenting in his harsh stance as he condemns Antigone to be immured (buried alive) in a cave. Ismene comes forward to claim a share in Antigone’s guilt and in the penalty that goes with the crime. Creon dismisses her pleas as he considers her present behavior to be a temporary mental abnormality, although he had earlier accused her of being Antigone’s partner in crime.

Then Creon’s son, Haemon, pleads vainly with his father to forgive Antigone. The blind prophet, Tiresias, also threatens Creon with the catastrophic consequences of defying all divine laws in refusing burial to Polynices. Finally, the Chorus begs Creon to relent and release Antigone.

At last Creon is moved, and he goes to the cave to find Haemon clasping the dead Antigone, who has hanged herself. In blind fury, Haemon charges with his sword towards his father, but misses him and then kills himself. Filled with remorse, Creon returns to his palace to find that his wife, Eurydice, has already received the tragic news of the two deaths from a messenger. In deep despair, Eurydice takes her own life, leaving Creon to grieve alone.

Major Themes

Sophocles’ plays often deal with the specific struggle of a strong- willed individual against fate. In Antigone he depicts a resolute and heroic female protagonist, who pits her individual free will against the intractable forces of fate and against the irrational and unjust laws of tyrannical men, like Creon. Basically, the play centers on the conflict between the steadfast protagonist and an equally resolute antagonist.

Sophocles’ two main characters are placed in peculiar circumstances that force them to act the way they do. There are fatal consequences for themselves and others. Their very personalities seem to initiate the play’s central action, and a conflict of interests soon erupts between these two people of almost equal heroic stature. One is committed to serving the public, and the other is led by the demands of her conscience.
Minor Themes

As the central conflict unfolds, Sophocles makes it known that both Creon’s and Antigone’s firm stances stem from the two great imperatives that underlie all political action: the needs of the individual versus the rights of the state. Creon is constrained to act the way he does for reasons of political expediency. He is a newly appointed ruler who has to rescue his people from the chaotic state of civil war and anarchy brought on by the bitter rivalry of Polynices and Eteocles. Creon is forced to formulate unpleasant laws so that political trouble-makers will think twice before attempting to start another revolt.

Yet Creon’s noble intentions in trying to bring stability back to Thebes ironically backfires on him. Antigone’s protest against Creon’s decree merely underscores the fundamental truth that conscience is very often above the law.

The action takes place in the period of uneasy calm following the civil war in Thebes. In this time of tentative peace, Creon’s new edict introduces a note of harsh repression and punitive malevolence. A mood of uncertainty prevails in Thebes. The Chorus reacts typically to the flux of public events in these disturbed times. At times, the singers of the Chorus express a kind of empathy for Antigone’s unhappy situation; there are other moments when they display silent sympathy for Creon.

As the great debate between the two central figures advances, the elements of foreboding and impending doom predominate in the atmosphere. Creon’s mounting rage is matched by Antigone’s willful obstinacy. Finally, as the catastrophe unfolds, a somber mood prevails as one tragic death follows another. From the pity and terror the audience feels at the deaths of Antigone, Haemon and Eurydice, it is moved at the play’s end to sympathize with Creon in his silent, solitary grief. The pathos of human suffering against the tragic backdrop of death leaves a final impression of catharsis, an emptying of all emotion after the catastrophic storm. As John Milton says at the close of his Samson Agonistes, the audience here experiences the same “calm of mind, all passions spent.”

Author Information

Life of Sophocles (circa 496-406 B.C.)

Sophocles was chronologically the second of the trinity of great Greek tragedians, the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides. He was born at Colonus, a pleasant rural suburb of Athens, (probably in 496 B.C.) and died there, ninety years later. His father, Sophilius, manufactured armor for a living.

As a boy, Sophocles won prizes for both wrestling and music. In his teens, he is reputed to have led the singing of a lyrical paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis (480 B.C.). He produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C., and won the first prize although he was competing with his own mentor, Aeschylus.

He wrote more than 120 plays (the titles of over 110 of these are known). However, only seven of his tragedies have survived. Their probable chronological order was: Antigone (441 B.C.), Ajax, Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus Tyrannus), Electra, Trachiniae, and Philoctetes (409 B.C.). He wrote his final work, Oedipus at Colonus, at the age of ninety. The play was first produced five years after Sophocles’ death by the younger Sophocles, the grandson of the great playwright.

As a dramatist, Sophocles learned his art from Aeschylus. He was instrumental in increasing the number of singers of the chorus from twelve to fifteen. He also had painted scenery in his productions and used three actors, instead of only two, in his dramas. He is known to have had at least eighteen to twenty victories at drama festivals (besides being ranked second on several occasions). These festivals were held at the theater of Dionysus in Athens. His greatest surviving play, Oedipus Rex managed only second place. Sophocles also staged his plays at the “Lenaea,” or feast of the wine-vats, held annually in January after 450 B.C. at the theater of Dionysus in Athens.

Sophocles married twice (first to Nicostrate, and then to Theoris of Sccyon) and had two sons: Iophon, the tragedian, and Agathon, father of the younger Sophocles, also a writer of tragedies. The Greeks regarded Sophocles as a kind of tragic Homer, hailed him as the favorite of the gods and honored him with state sacrifices long after his death. The last part of his life coincided with the glorious age of Cimon and Pericles, the period of Athens’ greatest prosperity. Although he showed little interest in politics and had no special military skills, he was elected as a “strategos” to serve as one of the ten generals who led the war of 441-438 B.C. He was also chairman of the Athenian treasury from 441-410 B.C., serving alongside the eminent statesman, Pericles. In 413 B.C., after the great Athenian disaster in Sicily, he was made one of the “Probouloi” (special commissioners), mainly due to his widespread fame.

From reliable contemporary accounts one learns that Sophocles was a handsome, wealthy man of great charm. He had friends like Pericles and Herodotus, the great Greek historian. The Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold, praised Sophocles as a man “who saw life steadily and saw it whole.” The ancient biographer, Phyrnicus, says that Sophocles’ life was happy and that he retained all his faculties to the very end. Sophocles is reported to have died either by choking on raw grapes or by running out of breath while reciting lines from Antigone, his favorite play.

The Works of Sophocles

Sophocles’ plays were not like those of either Aeschylus or Euripides. His tragedies did not deal with abstract problems of guilt and punishment stretching over generations, like those of Aeschylus (namely his famous trilogy, Oresteia). Sophocles preferred to depict the specific struggles of resolute individuals against the unyielding forces of fate. He did not favor the writing of a whole trilogy to cover one subject but wrote only single plays, such as Antigone or Ajax.

However, Sophocles did write three plays connected to the Oedipus legend from Greek mythology. The first, called Oedipus Rex, deals with the ill-fated reign of Oedipus as King of Thebes. It was written in the middle of his career, while the second, titled Oedipus at Colonus, was written in 406 B.C., when Sophocles was ninety years old. This play narrates the incidents following Oedipus’ downfall as king and his life in exile in the forests of Colonus. Here he was looked after by his loyal daughters, Antigone and Ismene, until his death. The third play in this series is Antigone, which was actually written first in 441 B.C.


To understand a classical play like Antigone it is essential to have a general idea of Greek tragedy (as a form of drama) as well as specific information about the ill-fated House of Cadmus, whose tragic family history comes full circle with the death of Antigone.

Greek Tragedy:

It was originally associated with religious festivals like that of Dionysus, the god of wine. It was often solemn, poetic and philosophical. It told the tale of a central character (the protagonist), who was an admirable but not necessarily flawless person. S/he was confronted by hostile forces and often had to make difficult moral choices in trying to resolve these conflicts. The protagonist’s struggle ended mostly in defeat or death.

Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and consisted of a series of dramatic episodes interspersed with choral odes chanted by an on-stage chorus of ten to fifteen people. This chorus often commented on the dramatic action or analyzed the pattern of events in its own way. They sang, danced and recited the odes to the accompaniment of musical instruments like the lyre, flute or drums. The main episodes were performed usually by not more than three actors appearing simultaneously on stage. Men played the women’s parts, and the same actor appeared in multiple roles. The performers in Greek tragedy wore masks to depict the kind of characters they were enacting.

In his critical work, The Poetics, Aristotle deals with the major elements of Greek tragedy. For Aristotle, the most important part of tragedy was the plot (or action). He felt that any tragic action must be long enough to depict a dramatic change in fortune (from prosperity to misfortune) of the protagonist. In Antigone it is the antagonist, Creon, who at the start of the play has just become king. By the end of the play, Creon has lost both his wife and son and is left despondent. Aristotle holds that character is the second most significant feature which gives drama its moral dimensions. The central personage in Greek tragedy must be morally good, of a heroic stature, true to life and consistent in his/her actions. The change in fortune of the main personage is often the consequence of a fatal flaw in his/her character, or an error of judgment called “hamartia.” The failure of the hero (or heroine) is also due to his/her “hubris,” a false sense of pride in his/her own secure position.

The tragic dramatist must choose suitably heroic characters and place them in a well constructed plot, which aims at representing actions that will invoke “pity and fear” in the audience. Tragedy ideally evokes these dual emotions. The downfall of a noble, well- known, prosperous and moral person naturally evokes one’s pity (in reaction to the hero’s misfortune) and one’s fear (that such misfortune can overwhelm human beings). This leads finally to an effect of catharsis, the purgation of these emotions of pity and fear. This gives tragedy a psychological dimension, as it provides an outlet for undesirable emotions that humans inevitably experience.

Aristotle also pointed out two important devices of the plot: “peripeteia” and “anagnorisis.” “Peripeteia” is often wrongly translated as “reversal of fortune,” but more accurately, it refers to a reversal of the situation: the action turns in a direction opposite from its original course. “Anagnorisis” refers to a person’s realization of a situation. It is a change from the state of ignorance to that of enlightenment. Such changes wrought through “peripeteia” or through “anagnorisis” must occur within the limits of probability and help to create the effect of dramatic irony.

The Ill-Fated House of Cadmus:

Antigone is virtually the last in the line of Theban royalty belonging to this family of Cadmus, who was the founder of Thebes. The story of Antigone can be read and understood entirely only when one takes into account all the tragic consequences that troubled the family of the founding father, Cadmus.

Cadmus was the legendary founder of the Greek city of Thebes and the son of Agenor, King of Tyre. Cadmus’ sister, Europa, was carried off by Zeus in the disguise of a bull. Cadmus, who went in search of Europa, discovered instead the site of Thebes. Cadmus slew the dragon who was guarding Thebes and planted half the dragon’s teeth in the soil. From these teeth sprang a group of armed men who fought each other until only five survived. These five, known as the “spartoi,” were believed to be the ancestors of the Theban nobility. Thus the city of Thebes was born in a violent manner.

Cadmus married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, and presented his bride with a necklace which was to prove fatal to the Theban dynasty. At the end of their lives, Cadmus and his wife were changed into serpents by the gods.

Cadmus’ daughter, Semele, was loved by Zeus and gave birth to the god Dionysus. Semele was killed when Zeus appeared before her in all his godly glory. Dionysus himself punished the women of Thebes with madness for refusing to accept his divinity. Agave, the sister of Semele, brought about the death of her own son, Pentheus. This story is related in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae.

Laius, the father of Oedipus, was the great-grandson of Cadmus. He was killed by his own son, Oedipus, who was unaware of his father’s identity. The god Apollo had warned Laius that his own son would kill him. Thus, when Oedipus was born to Laius and his wife, Jocasta, Laius took the boy and exposed him to the elements on Mount Cithaeron. But Oedipus survived and was brought up by the King of Corinth. Eager to discover his true identity, Oedipus set out in the direction of Thebes. In a chance encounter en route, Oedipus met, quarreled with and then killed his own father, Laius. He became the monarch of Thebes and unwittingly married his own mother, Jocasta. The couple had four children: two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

Homer relates that when it was discovered that Oedipus had married his own mother, Jocasta hanged herself, but he continued to rule as king. However, in Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus willfully blinds himself and wanders off in self-imposed exile, accompanied by Antigone. He later went to Colonus where he died.

The present play, Antigone, begins with a reference to the battle fought between Oedipus’ two sons, Polynices and Eteocles. They had quarreled over their father’s throne during Oedipus’ lifetime. Oedipus had pronounced a curse on the two, predicting that they would kill each other. When Oedipus died, his sons decided to share power. They agreed to allow each other to rule separately for alternate periods of the year. Eteocles, the younger of the two, began to rule first, but when his reign was over, he refused to give up the throne to his brother. Polynices, in the meanwhile, had married the Princess of Argos. Angered at his brother’s betrayal of trust, Polynices set out with an army from Argos towards Thebes. He placed seven commanders at the seven gates of Thebes. The Argive army was hopelessly routed by the Theban army, led by Eteocles, and the two brothers fought and killed each other in battle. This tale was dramatized by Aeschylus in his Seven Against Thebes.

Creon, the brother of Jocasta and the senior most member of the royal family of Thebes, assumed power. He had favored Eteocles before the battle and now proclaims that Eteocles is a hero who will be given a state funeral. However, Creon ordered that the bodies of the enemies, including Polynices’ body, should not be buried. There are many traditions and legends regarding what happened next. Sophocles tells one of these in his play, Antigone. Other stories tell how Antigone was killed by Creon himself, or was sent into exile for defying Creon’s law and daring to bury her brother’s body.

Thus the House of Cadmus had from ancient times been plagued by disaster and tragedy. Antigone’s tragedy is a culmination of the earlier events that look place in and around Thebes.

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