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Free Study Guide-Antigone by Sophocles-Free Online Summary Booknotes
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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

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.

LIST OF CHARACTERS

Major

Antigone

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.


Creon

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.

Minor

Haemon

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.

Ismene

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.

Eurydice

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

The watchman

Comes to inform 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.

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