History of Literature









Greek dramatist

born c. 496 bc, Colonus, near Athens [Greece]
died 406, Athens

with Aeschylus and Euripides, one of classical Athens’ three great tragic playwrights. The best known of his 123 dramas is Oedipus the King.

Life and career
Sophocles was the younger contemporary of Aeschylus and the older contemporary of Euripides. He was born at Colonus, a village outside the walls of Athens, where his father, Sophillus, was a wealthy manufacturer of armour. Sophocles himself received a good education. Because of his beauty of physique, his athletic prowess, and his skill in music, he was chosen in 480, when he was 16, to lead the paean (choral chant to a god) celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. The relatively meagre information about Sophocles’ civic life suggests that he was a popular favourite who participated actively in his community and exercised outstanding artistic talents. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for receiving and managing tribute money from Athens’ subject-allies in the Delian League. In 440 he was elected one of the 10 stratēgoi (high executive officials who commanded the armed forces) as a junior colleague of Pericles. Sophocles later served as stratēgos perhaps twice again. In 413, then aged about 83, Sophocles was a proboulos, one of 10 advisory commissioners who were granted special powers and were entrusted with organizing Athens’ financial and domestic recovery after its terrible defeat at Syracuse in Sicily. Sophocles’ last recorded act was to lead a chorus in public mourning for his deceased rival, Euripides, before the festival of 406. He died that same year.

These few facts are about all that is known of Sophocles’ life. They imply steady and distinguished attachment to Athens, its government, religion, and social forms. Sophocles was wealthy from birth, highly educated, noted for his grace and charm, on easy terms with the leading families, a personal friend of prominent statesmen, and in many ways fortunate to have died before the final surrender of Athens to Sparta in 404. In one of his last plays, Oedipus at Colonus, he still affectionately praises both his own birthplace and the great city itself.

Sophocles won his first victory at the Dionysian dramatic festival in 468, however, defeating the great Aeschylus in the process. This began a career of unparalleled success and longevity. In total, Sophocles wrote 123 dramas for the festivals. Since each author who was chosen to enter the competition usually presented four plays, this means he must have competed about 30 times. Sophocles won perhaps as many as 24 victories, compared to 13 for Aeschylus and four for Euripides, and indeed he may have never received lower than second place in the competitions he entered.

Dramatic and literary achievements
Ancient authorities credit Sophocles with several major and minor dramatic innovations. Among the latter is his invention of some type of “scene paintings” or other pictorial prop to establish locale or atmosphere. He also may have increased the size of the chorus from 12 to 15 members. Sophocles’ major innovation was his introduction of a third actor into the dramatic performance. It had previously been permissible for two actors to “double” (i.e., assume other roles during a play), but the addition of a third actor onstage enabled the dramatist both to increase the number of his characters and widen the variety of their interactions. The scope of the dramatic conflict was thereby extended, plots could be more fluid, and situations could be more complex.

The typical Sophoclean drama presents a few characters, impressive in their determination and power and possessing a few strongly drawn qualities or faults that combine with a particular set of circumstances to lead them inevitably to a tragic fate. Sophocles develops his characters’ rush to tragedy with great economy, concentration, and dramatic effectiveness, creating a coherent, suspenseful situation whose sustained and inexorable onrush came to epitomize the tragic form to the classical world. Sophocles emphasizes that most people lack wisdom, and he presents truth in collision with ignorance, delusion, and folly. Many scenes dramatize flaws or failure in thinking (deceptive reports and rumours, false optimism, hasty judgment, madness). The chief character does something involving grave error; this affects others, each of whom reacts in his own way, thereby causing the chief agent to take another step toward ruin—his own and that of others as well. Equally important, those who are to suffer from the tragic error usually are present at the time or belong to the same generation. It was this more complex type of tragedy that demanded a third actor. Sophocles thus abandoned the spacious Aeschylean framework of the connected trilogy and instead comprised the entire action in a single play. From his time onward, “trilogy” usually meant no more than three separate tragedies written by the same author and presented at the same festival.

Sophocles’ language responds flexibly to the dramatic needs of the moment; it can be ponderously weighty or swift-moving, emotionally intense or easygoing, highly decorative or perfectly plain and simple. His mastery of form and diction was highly respected by his contemporaries. Sophocles has also been universally admired for the sympathy and vividness with which he delineates his characters; especially notable are his tragic women, such as Electra and Antigone. Few dramatists have been able to handle situation and plot with more power and certainty; the frequent references in the Poetics to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King show that Aristotle regarded this play as a masterpiece of construction, and few later critics have dissented. Sophocles is also unsurpassed in his moments of high dramatic tension and in his revealing use of tragic irony.

The criticism has been made that Sophocles was a superb artist and nothing more; he grappled neither with religious problems as Aeschylus had nor with intellectual ones as Euripides had done. He accepted the gods of Greek religion in a spirit of unreflecting orthodoxy, and he contented himself with presenting human characters and human conflicts. But it should be stressed that to Sophocles “the gods” appear to have represented the natural forces of the universe to which human beings are unwittingly or unwillingly subject. To Sophocles, human beings live for the most part in dark ignorance because they are cut off from these permanent, unchanging forces and structures of reality. Yet it is pain, suffering, and the endurance of tragic crisis that can bring people into valid contact with the universal order of things. In the process, a person can become more genuinely human, more genuinely himself.

The plays
Only seven of Sophocles’ tragedies survive in their entirety, along with 400 lines of a satyr play, numerous fragments of plays now lost, and 90 titles. All seven of the complete plays are works of Sophocles’ maturity, but only two of them, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, have fairly certain dates. Ajax is generally regarded as the earliest of the extant plays. Some evidence suggests that Antigone was first performed in 442 or 441 bc. Philoctetes was first performed in 409, when Sophocles was 90 years old, and Oedipus at Colonus was said to have been produced after Sophocles’ death by his grandson.

The plays Ajax
The entire plot of Ajax (Greek Aias mastigophoros) is constructed around Ajax, the mighty hero of the Trojan War whose pride drives him to treachery and finally to his own ruin and suicide some two-thirds of the way through the play. Ajax is deeply offended at the award of the prize of valour (the dead Achilles’ armour) not to himself but to Odysseus. Ajax thereupon attempts to assassinate Odysseus and the contest’s judges, the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, but is frustrated by the intervention of the goddess Athena. He cannot bear his humiliation and throws himself on his own sword. Agamemnon and Menelaus order that Ajax’ corpse be left unburied as punishment. But the wise Odysseus persuades the commanders to relent and grant Ajax an honourable burial. In the end Odysseus is the only person who seems truly aware of the changeability of human fortune.

The plays Antigone
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. She is willing to face the capital punishment that has been decreed by her uncle Creon, the new king, as the penalty for anyone burying her brother Polyneices. (Polyneices has just been killed attacking Thebes, and it is as posthumous punishment for this attack that Creon has forbidden the burial of his corpse.) Obeying all her instincts of love, loyalty, and humanity, Antigone defies Creon and dutifully buries her brother’s corpse. Creon, from conviction that reasons of state outweigh family ties, refuses to commute Antigone’s death sentence. By the time Creon is finally persuaded by the prophet Tiresias to relent and free Antigone, she has killed herself in her prison cell. Creon’s son, Haemon, kills himself out of love and sympathy for the dead Antigone, and Creon’s wife, Eurydice, then kills herself out of grief over these tragic events. At the play’s end Creon is left desolate and broken in spirit. In his narrow and unduly rigid adherence to his civic duties, Creon has defied the gods through his denial of humanity’s common obligations toward the dead. The play thus concerns the conflicting obligations of civic versus personal loyalties and religious mores.

The plays Trachinian Women
This play centres on the efforts of Deianeira to win back the wandering affections of her husband, Heracles, who is away on one of his heroic missions and who has sent back his latest concubine, Iole, to live with his wife at their home in Trachis. The love charm Deianeira uses on Heracles turns out to be poisonous, and she kills herself upon learning of the agony she has caused her husband. Thus, in Trachinian Women (Greek Trachiniai) Heracles’ insensitivity (in sending his mistress to share his wife’s home) and Deianeira’s ignorance result in domestic tragedy.

The plays Oedipus the King
The plot of Oedipus the King (Greek Oidipous Tyrannos; Latin Oedipus Rex) is a structural marvel that marks the summit of classical Greek drama’s formal achievements. The play’s main character, Oedipus, is the wise, happy, and beloved ruler of Thebes. Though hot-tempered, impatient, and arrogant at times of crisis, he otherwise seems to enjoy every good fortune. But Oedipus mistakenly believes that he is the son of King Polybus of Corinth and his queen. He became the ruler of Thebes because he rescued the city from the Sphinx by answering its riddle correctly, and so was awarded the city’s widowed queen, Jocasta. Before overcoming the Sphinx, Oedipus left Corinth forever because the Delphic oracle had prophesied to him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. While journeying to Thebes from Corinth, Oedipus encountered at a crossroads an old man accompanied by five servants. Oedipus got into an argument with him and in a fit of arrogance and bad temper killed the old man and four of his servants.

The play opens with the city of Thebes stricken by a plague and its citizens begging Oedipus to find a remedy. He consults the Delphic oracle, which declares that the plague will cease only when the murderer of Jocasta’s first husband, King Laius, has been found and punished for his deed. Oedipus resolves to find Laius’ killer, and much of the rest of the play centres upon the investigation he conducts in this regard. In a series of tense, gripping, and ominous scenes Oedipus’ investigation turns into an obsessive reconstruction of his own hidden past as he begins to suspect that the old man he killed at the crossroads was none other than Laius. Finally, Oedipus learns that he himself was abandoned to die as a baby by Laius and Jocasta because they feared a prophecy that their infant son would kill his father; that he survived and was adopted by the ruler of Corinth (see video), but in his maturity he has unwittingly fulfilled the Delphic oracle’s prophecy of him; that he has indeed killed his true father, married his own mother, and begot children who are also his own siblings.

Jocasta hangs herself when she sees this shameful web of incest, parricide, and attempted child murder, and the guilt-stricken Oedipus then sticks needles into his eyes, blinding himself. Sightless and alone, he is now blind to the world around him but finally cognizant of the terrible truth of his own life (see video).

The plays Electra
As in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the action in Electra (Greek Ēlektra) follows the return of Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus in retribution for their murder of Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. In this play, however, the main focus is on Orestes’ sister Electra and her anguished participation in her brother’s plans. To gain admittance to the palace and thus be able to execute his revenge, Orestes spreads false news of his own death. Believing this report, the despairing Electra unsuccessfully tries to enlist her sister Chrysothemis in an attempt to murder their mother. In a dramatic scene, Orestes then enters in disguise and hands Electra the urn that is supposed to contain his own ashes. Moved by his sister’s display of grief, Orestes reveals his true identity to her and then strikes down his mother and her lover. Electra’s triumph is thus complete. In the play Electra is seen passing through the whole range of human emotions—from passionate love to cruel hatred, from numb despair to wild joy. There is debate over whether the play depicts virtue triumphant or, rather, portrays a young woman incurably twisted by years of hatred and resentment.

The plays Philoctetes
In Philoctetes (Greek Philoktētēs) the Greeks on their way to Troy have cast away the play’s main character, Philoctetes, on the desert island of Lemnos because he has a loathsome and incurable ulcer on his foot. But the Greeks have discovered that they cannot win victory over Troy without Philoctetes and his wonderful bow, which formerly belonged to Heracles. The crafty Odysseus is given the task of fetching Philoctetes by any means possible. Odysseus knows that the resentful Philoctetes will kill him if he can, so he uses the young and impressionable soldier Neoptolemus, son of the dead Achilles, as his agent. Neoptolemus is thus caught between the devious manipulations of Odysseus and the unsuspecting integrity of Philoctetes, who is ready to do anything rather than help the Greeks who abandoned him. For much of the play Neoptolemus sticks to Odysseus’ policy of deceit, despite his better nature, but eventually he renounces duplicity to join in friendship with Philoctetes. A supernatural appearance by Heracles then convinces Philoctetes to go to Troy to both win victory and be healed of his disease.

The plays Oedipus at Colonus
In Oedipus at Colonus (Greek Oidipous epi Kolōnō) the old, blind Oedipus has spent many years wandering in exile after being rejected by his sons and the city of Thebes. Oedipus has been cared for only by his daughters Antigone and Ismene. He arrives at a sacred grove at Colonus, a village close by Athens (and the home of Sophocles himself). There Oedipus is guaranteed protection by Theseus, the noble king of Athens. Theseus does indeed protect Oedipus from the importunate pleadings of his brother-in-law, Creon, for Oedipus to protect Thebes. Oedipus himself rejects the entreaties of his son Polyneices, who is bent on attacking Thebes and whom Oedipus solemnly curses. Finally Oedipus departs to a mysterious death; he is apparently swallowed into the earth of Colonus, where he will become a benevolent power and a mysterious source of defense to the land that has given him final refuge. The play is remarkable for the melancholy, beauty, and power of its lyric odes and for the spiritual and moral authority with which it invests the figure of Oedipus.

The plays Trackers
Four hundred lines of this satyr play survive. The plot of Trackers (Greek Ichneutai) is based on two stories about the miraculous early deeds of the god Hermes: that the infant, growing to maturity in a few days, stole cattle from Apollo, baffling discovery by reversing the animals’ hoof marks, and that he invented the lyre by fitting strings to a tortoise shell. In this play the trackers are the chorus of satyrs, who are looking for the cattle; they are amusingly dumbfounded at the sound of the new instrument Hermes has invented. Enough of the play survives to give an impression of its style; it is a genial, uncomplicated travesty of the tragic manner, and the antics of the chorus were apparently the chief source of amusement.

Additional Reading
Influential interpretations of Sophocles’ works include G.M. Kirkwood, A Study of Sophoclean Drama (1958, reissued 1994); Bernard M.W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (1957, reissued 1998), and The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (1964, reissued 1983); G.H. Gellie, Sophocles: A Reading (1972); and R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (1980).

Valuable studies of specific works in context include Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (1981, reissued 1999), Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society (1995), and Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge, 2nd ed. (2001). Specialized studies are presented in David Seale, Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles (1982); Mary Whitlock Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (1989); and Jasper Griffin (ed.), Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1999).

Thomas M. Woodard
Oliver Taplin




Type of work: Drama
Author: Sophocles (4957-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Colonus, near Athens
First presented: 401 B.C.


Although the second day of the Theban Plays chronologically, Oedipus at Colonus was the last one written and may be taken as the thematic climax of the trilogy. In the end Oedipus accepts the fact of his guilt and its consequences, but he insists on his essential innocence with passion and conviction, making a powerful affirmation of human dignity in the face of an incomprehensible universe.


Principal Characters

Oedipus (ed's-pas, e'ds-pas), the former king of Thebes, now a wanderer, blind and in rags because he had been fated unwittingly to murder his father and marry his mother. Oedipus Tyrannus is Sophocles' version of Oedipus' discovery of these horrible crimes. After the suicide of his wife and mother, Jocasta, Oedipus, who had blinded himself in the moment of anguish which came with his full realization of who he was and what he had done, had lived for a time quietly in Thebes until his banishment by the regent Creon, his brother-in-law, with the acquiescence of his sons, Polynices and Eteo-cles. During his years of wandering he has endured hardship and pain, but from them he has gained spiritual authority and strength; he is aware that his special suffering has conferred upon him a special grace and that, although he is an object of disdain while alive, his dead body will confer divine benefits on the land in which it lies. Although changes have occurred, his personality is the same as that portrayed in Oedipus Tyrannus; he is still intelligent, courageous, and irascible, but to these characteristics has been added a new dimension of strength and knowledge. Through the horrible afflictions that the gods have visited upon him, he has become as nearly godlike as a man can be.
Antigone (an-tig'a-ne), Oedipus' elder daughter and her father's guide since childhood. Although passionately devoted to him, she also is capable of love for Polynices, her brother, who wronged both her father and her. After the death of Oedipus, she returns to Thebes to try to mend the breach between Polynices and Eteocles, her other brother.
Ismene (is - me 'ne), Oedipus' younger daughter. Searching for her father and sister, she overtakes them at Colonus. She brings Oedipus word that the Oracle of Delphi has predicted that in the struggle between his sons for the mastery of Thebes the victory will go to Eteocles if the body of Oedipus rests in Theban soil, to Polynices if the blind, aged exile is buried in Attica. More pious than Antigone, Ismene shares her sister's courage and devotion.
Creon (kre'on), Oedipus' brother-in-law and regent of Thebes during the minority of the sons of Oedipus. Because the presence of Oedipus will ensure victory for the Theban forces over the army of Polynices, Creon attempts to persuade Oedipus to return to his native city. Failing, he tries to take Antigone and Ismene by force but is thwarted by Theseus. Creon is articulate and clever, but these virtues are subordinate to his own self-interest.
Theseus (the'soos, the'si-as), king of Athens and protector of Oedipus, for whom he feels a deep sympathy and by whom he is convinced that Athens will prosper in a future war against Thebes if Oedipus' body is buried in Athenian soil. He is a man of high integrity, religious yet practical, honorable yet outspoken.
Polynices (рбГэ-ne'sez), the elder son of Oedipus (although Aeschylus and Euripides make him the younger). Exiled after conflict with Eteocles, his brother, he has raised an army in Argos to regain his former place in Thebes. Like Creon, he wants Oedipus for the divine sanction the deposed king will give to his cause. He recognizes and admits his guilt for the wrongs he has done his father; but his penitence comes too late; and Oedipus, in cursing him, predicts that he and Eteocles will fall by each other's hand. He is sympathetically presented, but it is clear that he is not acting out of a desire to be reconciled with Oedipus, but a desire to recapture the throne of Thebes.
A Chorus of Elders of Colonus. The songs of the chorus contain some of the best of Sophocles' poetry, including the famous ode in praise of Colonus and Attica.


The Story

Many years had passed since King Oedipus had discovered to his horror that he had murdered his father and had married his own mother, who had given birth to his children. Having blinded himself and given up his royal authority in Thebes, he had been cared for by his faithful daughters, Antigone and Ismene. When internal strife broke out in Thebes, Oedipus, believed to be the cause of the trouble because of the curse the gods had put upon his family, was banished from the city.
He and Antigone wandered far. At last they came to an olive grove at Colonus, a sacred place near Athens. A man of Colonus warned the strangers that the grove in which they had stopped was sacred to the Furies. Oedipus, having known supreme mortal suffering, replied that he knew the Furies well and that he would remain in the grove. Disturbed, the man of Colonus stated that he would have to report this irregularity to Theseus, king of Athens and overlord of Colonus. Oedipus replied that he would welcome the king, for he had important words to say to Theseus.
The old men of Colonus were upset at Oedipus' calm in the grove of the Furies, whom they feared. From a discreet distance, they inquired about the identity of the blind stranger, and they were horror-stricken to learn that he was the infamous king of Thebes, whose dreadful story the whole civilized world had heard. Fearing the terrible wrath of the gods, they ordered him to be off with his daughter. Oedipus was able to quiet them, however, by explaining that he had suffered greatly, even though he had never consciously sinned against the gods. Furthermore, to the mystification of the old men, he hinted that he had strange powers and that he would bring good fortune to the land that would provide for him a place of refuge.
Ismene, another daughter of Oedipus, arrived in the grove at Colonus after searching throughout all Greece for her father and sister. She brought to Oedipus the unhappy news that his two sons, Polynices and Eteocles had fought for supremacy in Thebes. Polynices, defeated, had been banished to Argos, where he was now gathering a host to return to Thebes to regain control. Ismene also informed her father that the Oracle of Delphi had prophesied that Thebes was doomed to terrible misfortune if Oedipus should be buried anywhere but in that city. With this prophecy in mind, the Thebans hoped that Oedipus would return from his exile. But Oedipus, mindful of his banishment and of the faithlessness of his sons, declared to Ismene that he would remain in Colonus and that the land of Attica would be his tomb.
Having been informed of the arrival of Oedipus, Theseus went to Colonus and welcomed the pitiful old man and his daughters. Oedipus, offering his body to Attica and Colonus, prophesied that Attica would have good fortune if he were buried in its soil. Theseus, who had also known exile, was sympathetic; he promised to care for Oedipus and to protect the fearful old man from seizure by any Theban interloper.
After Theseus had returned to Athens, Creon, the former regent of Thebes, came to the grove with his followers. Deceitfully he urged Oedipus to return with him to Thebes, but Oedipus, aware of Creon's motives, reviled him for his duplicity. Oedipus cursed Thebes for the way it had repudiated him in his great suffering. Creon's men, at the command of their leader, seized Antigone and Ismene and carried them away. Blind Oedipus and the aged men of Colonus were too old and feeble to prevent their capture. Then Creon attempted to seize Oedipus. But by that time the alarm had been sounded, and Theseus returned to confront Creon, Creon had to order the rescue of Antigone and Ismene. Asked to explain his actions, Creon weakly argued that he had come to rid Attica of the taint which Oedipus surely would place upon the kingdom if its citizens offered shelter to any of the cursed progeny of Cadmus. Having checked Creon, Theseus rescued the two daughters of Oedipus.
In the meantime Polynices, older son of Oedipus, had been searching for Oedipus. Hoping to see the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle fulfilled for his own selfish ends, the young man came to the olive grove and professed repentance and filial devotion, begging Oedipus to return with him to Argos. Oedipus, knowing that his son wished only to ensure the success of his expedition against his brother Eteocles, who was in authority at Thebes, heard Polynices out in silence; then he scathingly denounced both sons as traitors. Furthermore, with vehement intensity he prophesied that Polynices and Eteocles would die by violence. Polynices, impressed by his father's words but still ambitious and arrogant, ignored Antigone's pleas to spare their native city. He departed, convinced that he was going to certain death.
Three rolls of thunder presaged the impending death of old Oedipus. Impatiently, but at the same time with a certain air of resignation, Oedipus called for Theseus. Guiding the king and his two daughters to a nearby grotto, he predicted that as long as his burial place remained a secret known only to Theseus and his male descendants Attica would successfully resist all invasions. After he had urged Theseus to protect Antigone and Ismene, he dismissed his daughters. Only Theseus was with him when Oedipus suddenly disappeared. Antigone and Ismene tried to return to their father's tomb, but Theseus, true to his solemn promise, prevented them. He did. however, second them in their desire to return to Thebes, that they might prevent the dreadful bloodshed which threatened their native city because of Polynices and Eteocles.


Critical Evaluation

Written when Sophocles was about ninety and approaching death, Oedipus at Colonus is the dramatist's valedictory to the stage, to Athens, and to life. In its transcendent spiritual power it is reminiscent of Shakespeare's last great play, The Tempest. It was probably inevitable that Sophocles, a great Athenian patriot, should have written this play, a story dealing with the legendary past of his birthplace. Indeed, two of the high points of this drama are magnificent odes in praise of Colonus and Attica. Oedipus at Colonus represents the culmination of Sophocles' handling of the Cadmean legend, which he had treated earlier in Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus. At the same time it is his last, luminous affirmation of human dignity in the face of an incomprehensible universe.
The theme of the suppliants, or refugees pleading for protection, was common in Greek tragedy. Both Aeschylus and Euripides had written patriotic dramas on this subject earlier. The pattern was simple. People threatened with capture sue a powerful but democratic king for aid and receive it. Oedipus at Colonus is remarkably similar in its patriotic content to Euripides' The Suppliants. Each play treats the Theban myth and features an aspect of the war of Seven Against Thebes; each conforms to the formula stated above; and each presents Theseus and Athens in a heroic light, as the defenders of the weak from tyrannical force. When Sophocles wrote his play, Athens was in the final throes of the disastrous Peloponnesian War, which would result in Athens' defeat at the hands of Sparta. In its arrogance of power, the city had become rapacious and had undergone moral degeneration. So Sophocles' purpose in writing this play, at least from a civic viewpoint, was to remind the Athenians of their legendary respect for the rights of the helpless, a respect that up to that point had kept them safe from invaders. With the Greek tragedians, civic welfare depended directly on moral rectitude. By defending Oedipus and his daughters, Theseus ensures the safety of Athens for generations. Sophocles shows Theseus acting disinterestedly, out of concern for these suppliants, as a model ruler. The playwright wished to inspire his fellow citizens with virtues they had cast aside: piety, courage in a good cause, manliness.
Yet Sophocles' patriotism went beyond state morality. In his two beautiful choral odes on Colonus and Attica, there is an intense, wistful passion for the land itself and for the life it supported and for man's activities on it. There was, for Sophocles, something holy about the entire place. It is not accidental that the entire action of this play takes place before a sacred grove. Sophocles wanted his audience to feel the presence of divinity. The specific goddesses were the hideous and awesome Furies who judged and punished evildoers. As agents of divine justice, they presided invisibly over all that occurs in Oedipus at Colonus.
The center of this play, however, is not Theseus or Athens but a frightful beggar who has suffered terribly in his long life—the blind Oedipus. Although Oedipus is reconciled to exile, beggary, and blindness, he is still proud and hot-tempered; and he cannot forgive the two men who inflicted exile and penury on him, Creon and Polynices. Oedipus has paid in full for the infamous deeds he committed in ignorance. He rightly insists upon his innocence, not of killing his father, marrying his mother, and having children by her, but of knowingly doing these things. Fate led him into that trap and the Furies punished him for it. His nobility consists in bearing his suffering with dignity. Even if he is the weakest and most pitiful of men in his blindness, and though he must be led around by a young teenage girl, there is true manliness in him.
By contrast Creon is a man who lives by expediency, using force when persuasion fails, and who tamely submits when Theseus gains the upper hand. In pursuing a reasonable goal, namely the defense of Thebes, he is willing to use any means, including kidnapping Oedipus' only supports, his two daughters. His ruthlessness is highly distasteful. But even more unpleasant is Polynices' whining plea for Oedipus' aid in attacking Thebes. It stems from selfish ambition rather than concern for his poor father. One feels that the curses Oedipus levels at Creon, Polynices, Eteocles, and Thebes are justified and apt. In dishonoring a helpless blind man they incur calamity.
In this play Oedipus is a man preparing for death, as Sophocles must have been as he wrote it. Despite his hard destiny, and despite his power to curse men who have shamed him, Oedipus carries in his breast a profound blessing. In the end the Furies who hounded him bestow upon him a tremendous potency in death, the power to protect Athens for a long time, just as Athens had protected him. We never learn the ultimate reason for his suffering, but the manhood with which he faced it was the sole blessing he himself received, and that was all he needed. His mysterious and fearsome apotheosis amid flashes of lightning and earth tremors is the tribute the gods pay to Oedipus' supreme courage. Sophocles here wrote his last and most sublime testament on man's ability to take unmerited pain and transform it into glory.




Тyре of work: Drama
Author: Sophocles (4957-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: Thebes
First presented: с 429 В. С.


Oedipus Tyrannus is the first (chronologically; the second in order of composition) of the Theban Plays, which dramatize the effects of Oedipus' crime upon himself and his house. In finally realizing his guilt, in assuming the personal responsibility for his acts of patricide and incest, and in accepting blindness and exile to expiate those acts, Oedipus achieves a tragic stature that is, perhaps, unequaled in dramatic literature.


Principal Characters

Oedipus (ed's-pgs, e'da-pas), King of Thebes. A foundling, he had been reared by Polybus and Merope, King and Queen of Corinth. In that city he had enjoyed a place of honor until a drunken Corinthian at a banquet accused him of being a bastard. To settle the matter, he went to the oracle at Pytho, who revealed that he was destined to lie with his mother and murder his father. To avoid this curse, he fled Corinth. During his travels he was thrust out of the road by an old man in a carriage. Angered, Oedipus returned the old man's blow and killed him. Later he overcame the Sphinx by answering a riddle which the monster put to all whom it encountered, killing those who could not solve it. As a reward Oedipus was made King of Thebes and was given the hand of Queen Jocasta, whose former husband, King Laius, was believed killed in an encounter with highway robbers. When the action of the play begins, Oedipus has ruled well for many years, but a plague of unknown origin has recently fallen upon the city. His subjects appeal to him as one especially favored by the gods to help them, but Oedipus is powerless to do so. He is essentially a good man, courageous, intelligent, and responsible, but he is also short tempered, tragically weak in judgment, and proud of his position and past achievements, for which he gives the gods little credit. As the action progresses and the question of his responsibility for the plague is raised, he becomes obsessed with finding out who he is, regardless of repeated warnings that knowledge of his identity will bring disaster on himself and on those whom he loves.
Jocasta (jo-kas'ta), wife of Oedipus and mother of his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. She, too, has a sense of the responsibilities of her position and is deeply concerned with the welfare of her husband. As bits of information relating to his identity are revealed, her sense of foreboding grows; and when the truth finally becomes apparent to her, she hangs herself, overwhelmed by the enormities she has unwittingly committed.
Creon (kre'on), Jocasta's brother and a powerful Theban noble. Sent by Oedipus to ask the Delphic Oracle what can be done to save the city from the plague, he returns with word that it will be raised when the city no longer harbors the murderer of king Laius, Jocasta's former husband. When it later appears that Oedipus may be the murderer, the king violently accuses his brother-in-law of treacherously seeking the throne; but Creon defends himself as reasonably as he can until Jocasta calms her husband. Creon is presented as a calm, pious man, with a less tyrannical view of kingship than that of Oedipus.
King Laius (Laa'us) Jocasta's former husband, he is killed on the road by Oedipus, who does not know Laius' true identity. Later it is revealed that Laius is Oedipus' father.
Tiresias (ti-re'si-as), a blind prophet who alone knows what Oedipus' fate has been and will be. Oedipus consults him in an effort to find the murderer of King Laius and loses his patience when the old man at first refuses to answer. Becoming angry in turn, Tiresias reveals that Oedipus' seeming good fortune in vanquishing the Sphinx has actually caused him unknowingly to commit incest with his mother and to bring pollution upon Thebes. Furious, Oedipus sends the blind seer away.
The First Messenger, an old man who comes from Corinth with word that Polybus and Merope are dead and that the people of that city want Oedipus to return as their king. This information, under the circumstances, is received joyfully by Oedipus, for if his parents have died naturally, the Oracle's prediction that he is doomed to murder his father has been proved false. But the messenger goes on to say that Polybus and Merope were in reality Oedipus' foster parents; he himself had received the infant Oedipus from a Theban shepherd and given him to them.
A Herdsman, an old Theban who has voluntarily exiled himself from his native city. He is forced by Oedipus to confess that years before he had been ordered to expose the infant son of King Laius and Jocasta, but, pitying the child, he had given him to a Corinthian. He also had been the one survivor when King Laius was killed by a young man after a quarrel on the road. His information thus makes the web of evidence complete; Oedipus now knows that the old man whom he killed was Laius, his father, and that his wife Jocasta is also his mother.
The Second Messenger, a Theban who reports the immediate results of the shepherd's revelation: Jocasta has hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself with the brooches which fastened her robe.


The Story

Thebes having been stricken by a plague, the people asked King Oedipus to deliver them from its horrors. Creon, brother of Jocasta, Oedipus' queen, returned from the oracle of Apollo and disclosed that the plague was punishment for the murder of King Laius, Oedipus' immediate predecessor, to whom Jocasta had been his wife. Creon further disclosed that the citizens of Thebes would have to discover and punish the murderer before the plague would be lifted. The people, meanwhile, mourned their dead, and Oedipus advised them, in their own interest, to search out and apprehend the murderer.
Asked to help find the murderer, Tiresias, the ancient, blind seer of Thebes, told Oedipus that it would be better for all if he did not tell what he knew. He said that coming events would reveal themselves. Oedipus raged at the seer's reluctance to tell the secret until the old man, angered, said that Oedipus was the one responsible for the afflictions of Thebes, that Oedipus was the murderer, and that the king was living in intimacy with his nearest kin. Oedipus accused the old man of being in league with Creon, whom he suspected of plotting against his throne. Tiresias answered that Oedipus would be ashamed and horrified when he learned the truth about his true parentage, a fact Oedipus did not know. Oedipus defied the seer, saying that he would welcome the truth as long as it freed his kingdom from the plague. Suspicious, Oedipus threatened Creon with death, but Jocasta and the people advised him not to do violence on the strength of rumor or momentary passion. Oedipus yielded, and Creon was banished.
Jocasta, grieved by the enmity between her brother and Oedipus, told her husband that an oracle had informed King Laius that he would be killed by his own child, the offspring of Laius and Jocasta. Jocasta declared Laius could not have been killed by his own child because soon after the child was born it was abandoned on a deserted mountainside. When Oedipus heard from Jocasta that Laius had been killed by robbers at the meeting place of three roads, he was deeply disturbed. Learning that the three roads met in Phocis, he began to suspect that he was, after all, the murderer. Hesitating to reveal his crime, he became more and more convinced of his own guilt.
Oedipus told Jocasta he had believed himself the son of Polybus of Corinth and Merope, until at a feast a drunken man had announced that the young Oedipus was not really Polybus' son. Disturbed, he had gone to consult the oracle of Apollo, who had told him he would sire children by his own mother and he would kill his own father. Leaving Corinth, at a meeting place of three roads, Oedipus had been offended by a man in a chariot. He killed the man and all of his servants but one. Thereafter he had come to Thebes and had become the new king by answering the riddle of the Sphinx, a riddle which asked what went on all fours before noon, on two legs at noon, and on three legs after noon. Oedipus had answered, correctly, that Man walks on all fours as an infant, on two legs in his prime, and with the aid of a stick in his old age. With the kingship, he also won the hand of Jocasta, King Laius' queen.
The servant who had reported that King Laius had been killed by robbers was summoned. Oedipus awaited his arrival fearfully. Jocasta assured her husband that the entire matter was of no great consequence, that surely the prophecies of the oracles would not come true.
A messenger from Corinth announced that Polybus was dead and that Oedipus was now king. Because Polybus had died of sickness, not by the hand of his son, Oedipus and Jocasta were at ease for the time being. Oedipus told the messenger he would not go to Corinth for fear of siring children by his mother, Merope, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the oracle.
The messenger then revealed that Oedipus was not really the son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling whom the messenger, at that time a shepherd, had taken to Polybus. The messenger related how he had received the baby from another shepherd, who was a servant of the house of King Laius. Jocasta, realizing the dreadful truth, did not wish any longer to see the old servant who had been summoned, but Oedipus, desiring to have the matter out regardless of the cost, called again for the servant. When the servant appeared, the messenger recognized him as the herdsman from whom he had received the child years before. The old servant then confessed he had been ordered by King Laius to destroy the boy, but out of pity he had given the infant to the Corinthian to rear as his foster son.
Oedipus, now all but mad from the realization of what he had done, entered the palace to discover that Jocasta had hanged herself by her hair. He removed her golden brooches and with them pierced his eyes. Blinded, he would not be able to see the results of the horrible prophecy. Then he displayed himself, blind and bloody and miserable, to the Thebans and announced himself as the murderer of their king and the defiler of his own mother's bed. He cursed the herdsman who had saved him from death years before.
Creon, having returned, ordered the attendants to lead Oedipus back into the palace. Oedipus asked Creon to have him conducted out of Thebes where no man would
ever see him again. Also, he asked Creon to give Jocasta a proper burial and to see that the sons and daughters of the unnatural marriage should be cared for and not be allowed to live poor and unmarried because of any shame attached to their parentage. Creon led the wretched Oedipus away to his exile of blindness and torment.


Critical Evaluation

Oedipus Tyrannus is the most famous of the ancient Greek tragedies. Aristotle considered it the supreme example of tragic drama and largely modeled his theory of tragedy on it. He mentions the play no less than eleven times in his Poetics. Freud in this century used the story to name the Oedipus complex, which denotes the rivalry of male children with their fathers for the affection of their mother, and Jean Cocteau adapted the tale to the modern stage in The Infernal Machine. Yet no matter what changes the Oedipus myth has undergone in two and a half millennia, the finest expression of it is still this tragedy by Sophocles.
Brilliantly conceived and written, Oedipus Tyrannus is a drama of self-discovery. Sophocles achieves an amazing compression and force by limiting the dramatic action to the day on which Oedipus learns the true nature of his birth and destiny. The fact that we already know these dark secrets, that Oedipus has unwittingly slain his true father and married his actual mother, begetting children with her, does nothing to destroy our suspense. We are drawn into Oedipus' search for the truth with all the tautness of a mystery story, and because we already know the truth we are aware of all the ironies in which Oedipus is enmeshed. Our knowledge enables us to fear the final revelation but also to pity this man as his past is gradually and relentlessly uncovered to him.
The excellence of the plot is thoroughly integrated with the characterization of Oedipus, for it is he who impels the action forward in his concern for Thebes. Through his rashness and ignorance everything is brought to light, and he must face the consequences of all that he has done. He is flawed by a hot temper and impulsiveness, but without those traits his heroic course of self-discovery would never have occurred.
Fate for Sophocles is not something essentially outside man but something inherent in his character and yet transcendant as well. Oracles and prophets in this play may show the will of the gods and indicate future events, but it is the individual character of a man that gives substance to them. Moreover, there is an element of freedom in man, an ability to choose, where the compulsions of character and the compulsions of the gods are powerless. It is in how a man meets the necessities of his destiny that freedom lies. He can succumb to fate's blows like a victim, plead extenuating circumstances, or he can shoulder the full responsibility for what he does. In the first case he is merely pitiful, while in the second he is tragic— possessed of a greatness of soul that nothing can conquer. We will see these issues as they appear in Oedipus Tyrannus.
A crucial point is that Oedipus is entirely unaware that he has killed his father and wedded his mother. He himself is the cause of the plague on Thebes, and in vowing to find the murderer of Laius and exile him he unconsciously pronounces judgment on himself. As king and as the hero who saved Thebes from the Sphinx, Oedipus is public spirited. Believing in his own innocence, he is angry and incredulous when the provoked Tiresias accuses him of the crime, so he naturally jumps to the conclusion that Tiresias and Creon are conspirators against him. As plausible as that explanation may be, Oedipus maintains it with irrational vehemence, not even bothering to investigate it before he decides to have Creon put to death. Every act of his is performed in rashness, from his hot-tempered killing of Laius, to his investigation of the murder, to his violent blinding of himself, to his insistence on being exiled. He is a man of great pride and passion intent on serving Thebes, but until the evidence of his guilt begins piling up, he does not have the least tragic stature. He is merely a blind man sitting on the powder-keg of his past.
Ironically, his past is revealed to him by people who wish him well and who want to reassure him. Each time a character tries to comfort him with information, the information serves to damn him more thoroughly. Jocasta. in proving how false oracles can be, suggests to Oedipus unknowingly that he really did kill Laius, thus corroborating the oracles. The messenger from Corinth in reassuring Oedipus about his parentage brings his true parentage into question, but he says enough to convince Jocasta that Oedipus is her son. It is at this point that Oedipus' true heroism starts to emerge, for he determines to complete the search for the truth, knowing that he killed Laius and knowing that the result of his investigation may be utterly damning. His rashness here is no longer a liability but part of his absolute integrity.
Having learned the full truth of his dark destiny, his last act as king is to blind himself over the dead body of Jocasta, his wife and mother. It is a terrible, agonizing moment, even in description, but in his depths of pain Oedipus is magnificent. He does not submit passively to his woe or plead that he committed his foul acts in ignorance, although he could do so with justice. He blinds himself in a rage of penitence, accepting total responsibility for what he did and determined to take the punishment of exile as well. As piteous as he appears in the final scene with Creon, there is more public spirit and more manhood in his fierce grief and his resolution of exile than in any other tragic hero in the history of the theater. He has unraveled his life to its utmost limits of agony and found there an unsurpassed grandeur of soul.



Type of work: Drama
Author: Sophocles (4957-406 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: The city of Thebes
First presented: 441 B.C.

This play was so successful with its original Athenian audience that they rewarded the playwright with a generalship in the war against Santos. The tragedy in the play arises from the age-old conflict between individual moral responsibility (the necessity of proper burial) and the demands of the state (the obedience owed to Creon as the legitimate ruler).

Principal Characters

Antigone (an-tig'a-ne), the daughter of Oedipus, sister of Eteocles, defender of Thebes, and Polynices, an exile from the city and one of its attackers. After Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other in battle, Creon, Antigone's uncle and now king of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles' body shall be buried with honors befitting a national hero but that Polynices' body shall be left unbur-ied, a prey to scavengers. Divine law, Greek custom, and simple humanity demand, however, that Antigone see her brother buried; she must choose, therefore, between obedience to the temporal rule of Creon and the duty she owes to a brother she had loved. Although she knows that her fate will be death, she chooses to bury the body of her brother. She is undoubtedly strong-willed and defiant; having been apprehended by the guards posted to prevent the burial, she replies to Creon's wrathful accusations of treason with an equal ferocity. Yet she emerges as immensely heroic, for she alone seems clearly to understand that the king's law is inferior to divine law and that if sacrifice is required to follow the right, such sacrifice must be made. She is always aware of the glory of her deed and dies for love in the largest sense of the word, but her concurrent awareness of her youth and her loss of earthly love humanizes her and makes her a profoundly tragic figure.
Creon (kre'on), king of Thebes. Although he gives lip service to the necessity for order and for obedience to the law, he is a tyrant who has identified the welfare of the state with his own self-interest and self-will. He commits hubris through his violent misuse of his temporal power; he too has a duty to bury the dead, and his unjust condemnation of Antigone to death is murder of a near relative, although he changes her sentence from stoning to burial alive in order to avoid the formal pollution which would accompany such a deed. He has a regard for the external forms of religion but no understanding of its essential meaning. When Tiresias brings the gods' curse on his actions, he relents, but too late to save Antigone or his son.
Haemon (he'mon), Creon's son. engaged to wed Antigone. He attempts to placate his father. Failing, he declares his fidelity to Antigone. When Creon conies to release Antigone from the cave in which she has been entombed, he finds that she has hanged herself and that Haemon is embracing her suspended body. Haemon attempts to kill his father, then falls on his own sword.
Ismene (is-me'ne), Antigone's sister, as gentle and timid as Antigone is high-minded and strong. She pleads a woman's weakness when Antigone asks her to help with Polynices' burial, yet her love for her sister makes her willing to share the blame when Antigone is accused.
Eurydice (fl-rid'i-se), Creon's wife. She kills herself when she is informed of Haemon's death.
Tiresias (tl-re'si-as), a prophet who brings to Creon a warning and a curse that cause him belatedly to revoke his decision to execute Antigone. He is the human in closest affinity with the divine; his intercession is therefore equivalent to divine sanction for Antigone's deeds.


The Story

Polynices and Eteocles, sons of the cursed family of King Oedipus, led two armies against each other before the gates of Thebes, and both brothers were killed in single combat with each other. Creon, their uncle, and now the tyrant ruler of the city, ordered that Eteocles be given full funeral rites, but that Polynices, who had attacked
the city, be left unburied and unmourned. Anyone who broke this decree would be punished with death.
Antigone and Ismene, the sisters of Polynices and Eteocles, discussed this order, and with grief for the unburied brother tearing at her heart. Antigone asked Ismene to aid her in giving him burial. When Ismene refused to help in so dangerous a task, Antigone went defiantly to bury Polynices.
Shortly afterward, Creon learned from a sentry that the body had been buried. Angrily he ordered the sentry to find the perpetrator of the deed. The sentry returned to the grave and uncovered the body. During a dust storm Antigone came to look at the grave and, finding it open, filled the air with lamentation. Her cries attracted the attention of the guard, who captured her and took her to Creon.
Questioned by Creon, she said that to bury a man was to obey the laws of the gods, even if it were against the laws of a man. Her reply angered Creon. Antigone must die. Ismene tried to soften Creon's heart toward her sister by reminding him that Antigone was engaged to his son, Haemon. But Creon remained firm.
Haemon incurred his father's anger by arguments that Creon should soften his cruel decree because of popular sympathy for Antigone. Creon said that he cared nothing for the ideas of the town, and Haemon called his answer foolish. As a punishment, Creon ordered that Antigone be killed before Haemon's eyes. Haemon fled with threats of revenge. Creon ordered that Antigone be walled up in a cave outside Thebes and left there to die for her crime against his law.
When Antigone was led out of the city, the people of Thebes followed her, lamenting her fate. She was thrust into the cave while Polynices' body lay unburied outside the walls. The prophet Tiresias warned Creon that the gods had not been pleased with his action, and that the body should be buried. He foretold that before long Haemon would die if his father did not bury Polynices and rescue Antigone from the cave.
Creon, realizing that Tiresias' prophesies had never proved false, hurried to avert the fate the prophet had foretold. Quickly Creon ordered a tomb prepared for Polynices, and he set off to release Antigone. But the will of the gods could not be changed so easily. When he reached the cave, he heard his son's voice within, crying out in grief. Creon entered and saw that Antigone had hanged herself with a rope made from her own dress. Haemon, sword in hand, rushed at his father as if to attack him. He then fell on his sword and killed himself in sorrow over Antigone's death. The news of these events quickly traveled back to the city, and Creon's wife, hearing of so many misfortunes, died by her own hand.
On returning to Thebes with the body of his son, Creon learned of his wife's death. Seeing that his life could no longer have meaning, he had himself led out of the city into exile. He was, himself, the final victim of his harsh tyranny.


Critical Evaluation

Antigone is one of the finest, most moving tragedies ever written. It was very successful when it was first produced in 441 B.C., and tradition says that Sophocles was made an Athenian general in the war against Samos because of it. Modern audiences, too, find this play meaningful, particularly in the conflict between individual conscience and the state policy. The fundamental issue of the play, however, goes deeper than that conflict. It probes the nature of suffering, and finds in it a universal condition, one that exists at the very heart of the human experience.
Sophocles did not share Aeschylus' view that man learns by pain, or the Christian idea that we are purified by agony. Both opinions are ultimately optimistic because they are based on hope in some future vindication of our misery. In contrast, Sophocles faced the problem of pain without hope, as an essential fact of life that no one could escape. With this outlook he was keenly attuned to both the sadness and the tragedy inherent in living.
Ironically, Sophocles himself enjoyed the most fortunate life possible to a Greek. He was crowned with honors from early manhood on to the age of ninety, when he died. He was a skilled athlete, he achieved public position. Most important, he had an extremely creative and successful dramatic career, writing more than one hundred and twenty plays, ninety-six of which were awarded first place in the Athenian drama competitions. He was the foremost tragedian in an age of magnificent literary, artistic, and political genius—Periclean Athens. Moreover, he won a lasting reputation as one of the supreme playwrights of all time. Antigone, written when Sophocles was in his fifties, affords a penetrating look at his dramatic prowess.
The meaning of this play is to be found in the antithesis between Antigone and her uncle Creon. The issue of burying Polynices depends on a grasp of Greek ideas about death. An unburied body meant a soul condemned to torment. It was the profound obligation of the family, therefore, to see that a body was properly inhumed. This was more than a matter of family loyalty, it was an act of piety demanded by the gods. Antigone undertakes that obligation even though it means treason to the State, the rejection of her only sister Ismene, the renunciation of her fiance, and her own death. She is absolutely uncompromising about it, knowing all the consequences beforehand. As it turns out, she is justified, but we do not know this until Tiresias appears and then it is too late to matter, for she has hanged herself.
Creon also has a valid stand. The traitor Polynices should be punished in death. A conscientious ruler, he is concerned about loyalty to the state. But in his position as king he confuses his own will with the good of Thebes.
In pursuing his edict, which says that anyone who buries Polynices will be put to death, he changes from a good king into a tyrant. His vanity is involved: he will not be put in the wrong by a young woman or his son in front of the chorus of Theban elders. His flaw lies in his stubborn, self-righteous inflexibility when the tide of evidence turns against him. He angrily maintains his stand in the face of Antigone's martyrdom, his son's pleading, the sympathy of the townspeople with Antigone, and Tiresias' warnings. He only relents because of the fear he feels after Tiresias has prophesied doom for his family and for the city. But, again, his penitence comes too late to save himself.
It is wrong, however, to see Antigone as a perfect heroine or Creon as a willing malefactor. The same passion that goes into Antigone's heroic treason in burying her brother makes her unjustly cruel to her gentle sister Ismene; and she has no thought whatever for Haemon, her fiance. She is right, but she is also unbearably self-righteous. The only time we feel sympathy for her is when she laments that she will never have a husband or a child, but she made that choice freely and passionately. As far as character goes, there is no difference whatever between Antigone's self-righteousness and Creon's. Both are hard and unyielding.
The difference between the two lies in the principle by which they live. Antigone chooses to serve the gods, or divine law, while Creon makes the state his top priority. Both serve their principle with all the force of their being. But because Creon has chosen the lesser law, and because the state as he conceives it is indistinguishable from his own ego, he must bow in the end to the gods. and they crush him. Ironically, he faces the same suffering he meted out to Antigone. lust as he deprived her of the chance to have a husband and child, so he is bereft of his wife and son.
Creon's fate is sad because he blundered into it unwittingly, through stubbornly upholding a limited idea. The man lacked wisdom. Yet Antigone's death is tragic because she voluntarily accepted it as the consequence of her heroism. For all her hardness, there is something truly grand and edifying in her fate. When suffering is a part of every man's condition, there is a vast difference in how one takes it. A man can fumble into it through ignorance and flaws of character, as Creon does, which makes him merely pathetic. This is the normal human lot. Or a person can freely choose suffering with open eyes by taking on a divine obligation in spite of all obstacles. This way is intense and tragic, but in the end it is the only path that can enlarge our humanity. The greatness of Antigone lies in the clarity, the poignance. and the integrity with which Sophocles presented these two possibilities.



Frederic Leighton


Antigone confronted with the dead Polynices
Nikiforos Lytras


Antigone Leads Oedipus out of Thebes
Charles François Jalabeat


Oedipus and Antigone
Antoni Stanislaw Brodowski


Oedipus with his dead daughter Antigone
Fulchran-Jean Harriet


Marie Spartali Stillman


Hades and Antigone
James Peniston



Translated by Ian Johnston





Background Note to the Story

When Oedipus, King of Thebes, discovered through his own investigations that he had killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta, he put out his own eyes, and Jocasta killed herself. Once Oedipus ceased being king of Thebes, his two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, agreed to alternate as king. When Eteocles refused to give up power to Polyneices, the latter collected a foreign army of Argives and attacked the city. In the ensuing battle, the Thebans triumphed over the invading forces, and the two brothers killed each other, with Eteocles defending the city and Polyneices attacking it. The action of the play begins immediately after the battle. Note that Creon is a brother of Jocasta and thus an uncle of Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices.


Dramatis Personae

ANTIGONE: daughter of Oedipus.
ISMENE: daughter of Oedipus, sister of Antigone
CREON: king of Thebes
EURYDICE: wife of Creon
HAEMON: son of Creon and Euridice, engaged to Antigone.
TEIRESIAS: an old blind prophet
BOY: a young lad guiding Teiresias
GUARD: a soldier serving Creon.
CHORUS: Theban Elders


[In Thebes, directly in front of the royal palace, which stands in the background, its main doors facing the audience.
Enter Antigone leading Ismene away from the palace]


Now, dear Ismene, my own blood sister,
do you have any sense of all the troubles
Zeus keeps bringing on the two of us,
as long as we’re alive? All that misery
which stems from Oedipus? There’s no suffering,
no shame, no ruin—not one dishonour—
which I have not seen in all the troubles
you and I go through. What’s this they’re saying now,
something our general has had proclaimed
throughout the city? Do you know of it? 10
Have you heard? Or have you just missed the news?
Dishonours which better fit our enemies
are now being piled up on the ones we love.

I’ve had no word at all, Antigone,
nothing good or bad about our family,
not since we two lost both our brothers,
killed on the same day by a double blow.
And since the Argive army, just last night,
has gone away, I don’t know any more
if I’ve been lucky or face total ruin.

I know that. That’s why I brought you here,
outside the gates, so only you can hear.

What is it? The way you look makes it seem
you’re thinking of some dark and gloomy news.

Look—what’s Creon doing with our two brothers?
He’s honouring one with a full funeral
and treating the other one disgracefully!
Eteocles, they say, has had his burial
according to our customary rites,
to win him honour with the dead below.
But as for Polyneices, who perished
so miserably, an order has gone out
throughout the city—that’s what people say.
He’s to have no funeral or lament,
but to be left unburied and unwept,
a sweet treasure for the birds to look at,
for them to feed on to their heart’s content.
That’s what people say the noble Creon
has announced to you and me—I mean to me—
and now he’s coming to proclaim the fact,
to state it clearly to those who have not heard.
For Creon this matter’s really serious.
Anyone who acts against the order
will be stoned to death before the city.
Now you know, and you’ll quickly demonstrate
whether you are nobly born, or else
a girl unworthy of her splendid ancestors.

Oh my poor sister, if that’s what’s happening,
what can I say that would be any help
to ease the situation or resolve it?

Think whether you will work with me in this
and act together.

In what kind of work?
What do you mean?

Will you help these hands
take up Polyneices’ corpse and bury it?

What? You’re going to bury Polyneices,
when that’s been made a crime for all in Thebes?

Yes. I’ll do my duty to my brother—
and yours as well, if you’re not prepared to.
I won’t be caught betraying him.

You’re too rash.
Has Creon not expressly banned that act?

Yes. But he’s no right to keep me from what’s mine.

O dear. Think, Antigone. Consider
how our father died, hated and disgraced,
when those mistakes which his own search revealed
forced him to turn his hand against himself
and stab out both his eyes. Then that woman,
his mother and his wife—her double role—
destroyed her own life in a twisted noose.
Then there’s our own two brothers, both butchered
in a single day—that ill-fated pair
with their own hands slaughtered one another
and brought about their common doom.
Now, the two of us are left here quite alone.
Think how we’ll die far worse than all the rest,
if we defy the law and move against
the king’s decree, against his royal power.
We must remember that by birth we’re women,
and, as such, we shouldn’t fight with men.
Since those who rule are much more powerful,
we must obey in this and in events
which bring us even harsher agonies.
So I’ll ask those underground for pardon—
since I’m being compelled, I will obey
those in control. That’s what I’m forced to do.
It makes no sense to try to do too much.

I wouldn’t urge you to. No. Not even
if you were keen to act. Doing this with you
would bring me no joy. So be what you want.
I’ll still bury him. It would be fine to die
while doing that. I’ll lie there with him,
with a man I love, pure and innocent,
for all my crime. My honours for the dead
must last much longer than for those up here.
I’ll lie down there forever. As for you,
well, if you wish, you can show contempt
for those laws the gods all hold in honour.

I’m not disrespecting them. But I can’t act
against the state. That’s not in my nature.

Let that be your excuse. I’m going now
to make a burial mound for my dear brother.

Oh poor Antigone, I’m so afraid for you.

Don’t fear for me. Set your own fate in order.

Make sure you don’t reveal to anyone
what you intend. Keep it closely hidden.
I’ll do the same.

No, no. Announce the fact—
if you don’t let everybody know,
I’ll despise your silence even more.

Your heart is hot to do cold deeds.

But I know
I’ll please the ones I’m duty bound to please.

Yes, if you can. But you’re after something
which you’re incapable of carrying out.

Well, when my strength is gone, then I’ll give up.

A vain attempt should not be made at all.

I’ll hate you if you’re going to talk that way.
And you’ll rightly earn the loathing of the dead.
So leave me and my foolishness alone—
we’ll get through this fearful thing. I won’t suffer
anything as bad as a disgraceful death.

All right then, go, if that’s what you think right.
But remember this—even though your mission
makes no sense, your friends do truly love you.

[Exit Antigone away from the palace. Ismene watches her go and then returns slowly
into the palace. Enter the Chorus of Theban elders]

O ray of sunlight,
most beautiful that ever shone
on Thebes, city of the seven gates,
you’ve appeared at last,
you glowing eye of golden day,
moving above the streams of Dirce,*
driving into headlong flight
the white-shield warrior from Argos,
who marched here fully armed,
now forced back by your sharper power.

Against our land he marched,
sent here by the warring claims
of Polyneices, with piercing screams,
an eagle flying above our land,
covered wings as white as snow,
and hordes of warriors in arms,
helmets topped with horsehair crests.

Standing above our homes,
he ranged around our seven gates,
with threats to swallow us
and spears thirsting to kill.
Before his jaws had had their fill
and gorged themselves on Theban blood,
before Hephaistos’ pine-torch flames
had seized our towers, our fortress crown,*
he went back, driven in retreat.
Behind him rings the din of war—
his enemy, the Theban dragon-snake,
too difficult for him to overcome.

Zeus hates an arrogant boasting tongue.
Seeing them march here in a mighty stream,
in all their clanging golden pride,
he hurled his fire and struck the man,
up there, on our battlements, as he began
to scream aloud his victory.

The man swing down, torch still in hand,
and smashed into unyielding earth—
the one who not so long ago attacked,
who launched his furious, enraged assault,
to blast us, breathing raging storms.
But things turned out not as he’d hoped.
Great war god Ares assisted us—
he smashed them down and doomed them all
to a very different fate.

Seven captains at seven gates
matched against seven equal warriors
paid Zeus their full bronze tribute,
the god who turns the battle tide,
all but that pair of wretched men,
born of one father and one mother, too—
who set their conquering spears against each other
and then both shared a common death.

Now victory with her glorious name
has come, bringing joy to well-armed Thebes.
The battle’s done—let’s strive now to forget
with songs and dancing all night long,
with Bacchus leading us to make Thebes shake.

[The palace doors are thrown open and guards appear at the doors]

But here comes Creon, new king of our land,
son of Menoikeos. Thanks to the gods,
who’ve brought about our new good fortune.
What plan of action does he have in mind?
What’s made him hold this special meeting,
with elders summoned by a general call?

[Enter Creon from the palace. He addresses the assembled elders]

Men, after much tossing of our ship of state,
the gods have safely set things right again.
Of all the citizens I’ve summoned you,
because I know how well you showed respect
for the eternal power of the throne,
first with Laius and again with Oedipus,
once he restored our city.* When he died,
you stood by his children, firm in loyalty.
Now his sons have perished in a single day,
killing each other with their own two hands,
a double slaughter, stained with brother’s blood.
And so I have the throne, all royal power,
for I’m the one most closely linked by blood
to those who have been killed. It’s impossible
to really know a man, to know his soul,
his mind and will, before one witnesses
his skill in governing and making laws.
For me, a man who rules the entire state
and does not take the best advice there is,
but through fear keeps his mouth forever shut,
such a man is the very worst of men—
and always will be. And a man who thinks
more highly of a friend than of his country,
well, he means nothing to me. Let Zeus know,
the god who always watches everything,
I would not stay silent if I saw disaster
moving here against the citizens,
a threat to their security. For anyone
who acts against the state, its enemy,
I’d never make my friend. For I know well
our country is a ship which keeps us safe,
and only when it sails its proper course
do we make friends. These are the principles
I’ll use in order to protect our state.
That’s why I’ve announced to all citizens
my orders for the sons of Oedipus—
Eteocles, who perished in the fight
to save our city, the best and bravest
of our spearmen, will have his burial,
with all those purifying rituals
which accompany the noblest corpses,
as they move below. As for his brother—
that Polyneices, who returned from exile,
eager to wipe out in all-consuming fire
his ancestral city and its native gods,
keen to seize upon his family’s blood
and lead men into slavery—for him,
the proclamation in the state declares
he’ll have no burial mound, no funeral rites,
and no lament. He’ll be left unburied,
his body there for birds and dogs to eat,
a clear reminder of his shameful fate.
That’s my decision. For I’ll never act
to respect an evil man with honours
in preference to a man who’s acted well.
Anyone who’s well disposed towards our state,
alive or dead, that man I will respect.

Son of Menoikeos, if that’s your will
for this city’s friends and enemies,
it seems to me you now control all laws
concerning those who’ve died and us as well—
the ones who are still living.

See to it then,
and act as guardians of what’s been proclaimed.

Give that task to younger men to deal with.

There are men assigned to oversee the corpse.

Then what remains that you would have us do?

Don’t yield to those who contravene my orders.

CHORUS LEADER: No one is such a fool that he loves death.

Yes, that will be his full reward, indeed.
And yet men have often been destroyed
because they hoped to profit in some way.

[Enter a guard, coming towards the palace]

My lord, I can’t say I’ve come out of breath
by running here, making my feet move fast.
Many times I stopped to think things over—
and then I’d turn around, retrace my steps.
My mind was saying many things to me,
"You fool, why go to where you know for sure
your punishment awaits?"—"And now, poor man,
why are you hesitating yet again?
If Creon finds this out from someone else,
how will you escape being hurt?" Such matters
kept my mind preoccupied. And so I went,
slowly and reluctantly, and thus made
a short road turn into a lengthy one.
But then the view that I should come to you
won out. If what I have to say is nothing,
I’ll say it nonetheless. For I’ve come here
clinging to the hope that I’ll not suffer
anything that’s not part of my destiny.

What’s happening that’s made you so upset?

I want to tell you first about myself.
I did not do it. And I didn’t see
the one who did. So it would be unjust
if I should come to grief.

You hedge so much.
Clearly you have news of something ominous.

Yes. Strange things that make me pause a lot.

Why not say it and then go—just leave.

All right, I’ll tell you. It’s about the corpse.
Someone has buried it and disappeared,
after spreading thirsty dust onto the flesh
and undertaking all appropriate rites.

What are you saying? What man would dare this?

I don’t know. There was no sign of digging,
no marks of any pick axe or a mattock.
The ground was dry and hard and very smooth,
without a wheel track. Whoever did it 290
left no trace. When the first man on day watch
revealed it to us, we were all amazed.
The corpse was hidden, but not in a tomb.
It was lightly covered up with dirt,
as if someone wanted to avert a curse.
There was no trace of a wild animal
or dogs who’d come to rip the corpse apart.
Then the words flew round among us all,
with every guard accusing someone else.
We were about to fight, to come to blows—
no one was there to put a stop to it.
Every one of us was responsible,
but none of us was clearly in the wrong.
In our defence we pleaded ignorance.
Then we each stated we were quite prepared
to pick up red-hot iron, walk through flames,
or swear by all the gods that we’d not done it,
we’d no idea how the act was planned,
or how it had been carried out. At last,
when all our searching had proved useless,
one man spoke up, and his words forced us all
to drop our faces to the ground in fear.
We couldn’t see things working out for us,
whether we agreed or disagreed with him.
He said we must report this act to you—
we must not hide it. And his view prevailed.
I was the unlucky man who won the prize,
the luck of the draw. That’s why I’m now here,
not of my own free will or by your choice.
I know that—for no one likes a messenger
who comes bearing unwelcome news with him.

My lord, I’ve been wondering for some time now—
could this act not be something from the gods?

Stop now—before what you’re about to say
enrages me completely and reveals
that you’re not only old but stupid, too.
No one can tolerate what you’ve just said,
when you claim gods might care about this corpse.
Would they pay extraordinary honours
and bury as a man who’d served them well
someone who came to burn their offerings,
their pillared temples, to torch their lands
and scatter all its laws? Or do you see
gods paying respect to evil men? No, no.
For quite a while some people in the town
have secretly been muttering against me.
They don’t agree with what I have decreed.
They shake their heads and have not kept their necks
under my yoke, as they are duty bound to do
if they were men who are content with me.
I well know that these guards were led astray—
such men urged them to carry out this act
for money. To foster evil actions,
to make them commonplace among all men,
nothing is as powerful as money.
It destroys cities, driving men from home.
Money trains and twists the minds in worthy men,
so they then undertake disgraceful acts.
Money teaches men to live as scoundrels,
familiar with every profane enterprise.
But those who carry out such acts for cash
sooner or later see how for their crimes
they pay the penalty. For if great Zeus
still has my respect, then understand this—
I swear to you on oath—unless you find
the one whose hands really buried him,
unless you bring him here before my eyes,
then death for you will never be enough.
No, not before you’re hung up still alive
and you confess to this gross, violent act.
That way you’ll understand in future days,
when there’s a profit to be gained from theft,
you’ll learn that it’s not good to be in love
with every kind of monetary gain.
You’ll know more men are ruined than are saved
when they earn profits from dishonest schemes.

Do I have your permission to speak now,
or do I just turn around and go away?

But I find your voice so irritating—
don’t you realize that?

Where does it hurt?
Is it in your ears or in your mind?

Why try to question where I feel my pain?

The man who did it—he upsets your mind.
I offend your ears.

My, my, it’s clear to see
it's natural for you to chatter on.

Perhaps. But I never did this.

This and more—
you sold your life for silver.

How strange and sad
when the one who sorts this out gets it all wrong.

CREON: Well, enjoy your sophisticated views.
But if you don’t reveal to me who did this,
you’ll just confirm how much your treasonous gains
have made you suffer.

[Exit Creon back into the palace. The doors close behind him]

Well, I hope he’s found.
That would be best. But whether caught or not—
and that’s something sheer chance will bring about—
you won’t see me coming here again.
This time, against all hope and expectation,
I’m still unhurt. I owe the gods great thanks.

[Exit the Guard away from the palace]

There are many strange and wonderful things,
but nothing more strangely wonderful than man.
He moves across the white-capped ocean seas
blasted by winter storms, carving his way
under the surging waves engulfing him.
With his teams of horses he wears down
the unwearied and immortal earth,
the oldest of the gods, harassing her,
as year by year his ploughs move back and forth.

He snares the light-winged flocks of birds,
herds of wild beasts, creatures from deep seas,
trapped in the fine mesh of his hunting nets.
O resourceful man, whose skill can overcome
ferocious beasts roaming mountain heights.
He curbs the rough-haired horses with his bit
and tames the inexhaustible mountain bulls,
setting their savage necks beneath his yoke.

He’s taught himself speech and wind-swift thought,
trained his feelings for communal civic life,
learning to escape the icy shafts of frost,
volleys of pelting rain in winter storms,
the harsh life lived under the open sky.
That’s man—so resourceful in all he does.
There’s no event his skill cannot confront—
other than death—that alone he cannot shun,
although for many baffling sicknesses
he has discovered his own remedies.

The qualities of his inventive skills
bring arts beyond his dreams and lead him on,
sometimes to evil and sometimes to good.
If he treats his country’s laws with due respect
and honours justice by swearing on the gods,
he wins high honours in his city.
But when he grows bold and turns to evil,
then he has no city. A man like that—
let him not share my home or know my mind.

[Enter the Guard, bringing Antigone with him. She is not resisting]

What this? I fear some omen from the gods.
I can’t deny what I see here so clearly—
that young girl there—it’s Antigone.
Oh you poor girl, daughter of Oedipus,
child of a such a father, so unfortunate,
what’s going on? Surely they’ve not brought you here
because you’ve disobeyed the royal laws,
because they’ve caught you acting foolishly?

This here’s the one who carried out the act.
We caught her as she was burying the corpse.
Where’s Creon?

[The palace doors open. Enter Creon with attendants]

He’s coming from the house—
and just in time.

Why have I come "just in time"?
What’s happening? What is it?

My lord,
human beings should never take an oath
there’s something they’ll not do—for later thoughts
contradict what they first meant. I’d have sworn
I’d not soon venture here again. Back then,
the threats you made brought me a lot of grief.
But there’s no joy as great as what we pray for
against all hope. And so I have come back,
breaking that oath I swore. I bring this girl,
captured while she was honouring the grave.
This time we did not draw lots. No. This time
I was the lucky man, not someone else.
And now, my lord, take her for questioning.
Convict her. Do as you wish. As for me,
by rights I’m free and clear of all this trouble.

This girl here—how did you catch her? And where?

She was burying that man. Now you know
all there is to know.

Do you understand
just what you’re saying? Are your words the truth?

We saw this girl giving that dead man’s corpse
full burial rites—an act you’d made illegal.
Is what I say simple and clear enough?

How did you see her, catch her in the act?

It happened this way. When we got there,
after hearing those awful threats from you,
we swept off all the dust covering the corpse,
so the damp body was completely bare.
Then we sat down on rising ground up wind,
to escape the body’s putrid rotting stench.
We traded insults just to stay awake,
in case someone was careless on the job.
That’s how we spent the time right up ’til noon,
when the sun’s bright circle in the sky
had moved half way and it was burning hot.
Then suddenly a swirling windstorm came,
whipping clouds of dust up from the ground,
filling the plain—some heaven-sent trouble.
In that level place the dirt storm damaged
all the forest growth, and the air around
was filled with dust for miles. We shut our mouths
and just endured this scourge sent from the gods.
A long time passed. The storm came to an end.
That’s when we saw the girl. She was shrieking—
a distressing painful cry, just like a bird
who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.
That’s how she was when she saw the naked corpse.
She screamed out a lament, and then she swore,
calling evil curses down upon the ones
who’d done this. Then right away her hands
threw on the thirsty dust. She lifted up
a finely made bronze jug and then three times
poured out her tributes to the dead.
When we saw that, we rushed up right away
and grabbed her. She was not afraid at all.
We charged her with her previous offence
as well as this one. She just kept standing there,
denying nothing. That made me happy—
though it was painful, too. For it’s a joy
escaping troubles which affect oneself,
but painful to bring evil on one’s friends.
But all that is of less concern to me
than my own safety.

You there—you with your face
bent down towards the ground, what do you say?
Do you deny you did this or admit it?

I admit I did it. I won’t deny that.

CREON [to the Guard]
You’re dismissed—go where you want. You’re free—
no serious charges made against you.

[Exit the Guard. Creon turns to interrogate Antigone]

Tell me briefly—not in some lengthy speech—
were you aware there was a proclamation
forbidding what you did?

I’d heard of it.
How could I not? It was public knowledge.

And yet you dared to break those very laws?

Yes. Zeus did not announce those laws to me.
And Justice living with the gods below
sent no such laws for men. I did not think
anything which you proclaimed strong enough
to let a mortal override the gods
and their unwritten and unchanging laws.
They’re not just for today or yesterday,
but exist forever, and no one knows
where they first appeared. So I did not mean
to let a fear of any human will
lead to my punishment among the gods.
I know all too well I’m going to die—
how could I not?—it makes no difference
what you decree. And if I have to die
before my time, well, I count that a gain.
When someone has to live the way I do,
surrounded by so many evil things,
how can she fail to find a benefit
in death? And so for me meeting this fate
won’t bring any pain. But if I’d allowed
my own mother’s dead son to just lie there,
an unburied corpse, then I’d feel distress.
What going on here does not hurt me at all.
If you think what I’m doing now is stupid,
perhaps I’m being charged with foolishness
by someone who’s a fool.

It’s clear enough
the spirit in this girl is passionate—
her father was the same. She has no sense
of compromise in times of trouble.

CREON [to the Chorus Leader]
But you should know the most obdurate wills
are those most prone to break. The strongest iron
tempered in the fire to make it really hard—
that’s the kind you see most often shatter.
I’m well aware the most tempestuous horses
are tamed by one small bit. Pride has no place
in anyone who is his neighbour’s slave.
This girl here was already very insolent
in contravening laws we had proclaimed.
Here she again displays her proud contempt—
having done the act, she now boasts of it.
She laughs at what she’s done. Well, in this case,
if she gets her way and goes unpunished,
then she’s the man here, not me. No. She may be
my sister’s child, closer to me by blood
than anyone belonging to my house
who worships Zeus Herkeios in my home,*
but she’ll not escape my harshest punishment—
her sister, too, whom I accuse as well.
She had an equal part in all their plans
to do this burial. Go summon her here.
I saw her just now inside the palace,
her mind out of control, some kind of fit.

[Exit attendants into the palace to fetch Ismene]

When people hatch their mischief in the dark
their minds often convict them in advance,
betraying their treachery. How I despise
a person caught committing evil acts
who then desires to glorify the crime.

Take me and kill me—what more do you want?

Me? Nothing. With that I have everything.

Then why delay? There’s nothing in your words
that I enjoy—may that always be the case!
And what I say displeases you as much.
But where could I gain greater glory
than setting my own brother in his grave?
All those here would confirm this pleases them
if their lips weren’t sealed by fear—being king,
which offers all sorts of various benefits,
means you can talk and act just as you wish.

In all of Thebes, you’re the only one
who looks at things that way.

They share my views,
but they keep their mouths shut just for you.

These views of yours—so different from the rest—
don’t they bring you any sense of shame?

No—there’s nothing shameful in honouring
my mother’s children.

You had a brother
killed fighting for the other side.

Yes—from the same mother and father, too.

Why then give tributes which insult his name?

But his dead corpse won’t back up what you say.

Yes, he will, if you give equal honours
to a wicked man.

But the one who died
was not some slave—it was his own brother.

Who was destroying this country—the other one 590
went to his death defending it.

That may be,
but Hades still desires equal rites for both.*

A good man does not wish what we give him
to be the same an evil man receives.

Who knows? In the world below perhaps
such actions are no crime.

An enemy
can never be a friend, not even in death.

But my nature is to love. I cannot hate.

Then go down to the dead. If you must love,
love them. No woman’s going to govern me— 600
no, no—not while I’m still alive.

[Enter two attendants from the house bringing Ismene to Creon]

Ismene’s coming. There—right by the door.
She’s crying. How she must love her sister!
From her forehead a cloud casts its shadow
down across her darkly flushing face—
and drops its rain onto her lovely cheeks.

You there—you snake lurking in my house,
sucking out my life’s blood so secretly.
I’d no idea I was nurturing two pests,
who aimed to rise against my throne. Come here.
Tell me this—do you admit you played your part
in this burial, or will you swear an oath
you had no knowledge of it?

I did it—
I admit it, and she’ll back me up.
So I bear the guilt as well.

No, no—
justice will not allow you to say that.
You didn’t want to. I didn’t work with you.

But now you’re in trouble, I’m not ashamed
of suffering, too, as your companion.

Hades and the dead can say who did it—
I don’t love a friend whose love is only words.

You’re my sister. Don’t dishonour me.
Let me respect the dead and die with you.

Don’t try to share my death or make a claim
to actions which you did not do. I’ll die—
and that will be enough.

But if you’re gone,
what is there in life for me to love?

Ask Creon. He’s the one you care about.

Why hurt me like this? It doesn’t help you.

If I am mocking you, it pains me, too.

Even now is there some way I can help?

Save yourself. I won’t envy your escape.

I feel so wretched leaving you to die.

But you chose life—it was my choice to die.

But not before I’d said those words just now.

Some people may approve of how you think—
others will believe my judgment’s good.

But the mistake’s the same for both of us.

Be brave. You’re alive. But my spirit died
some time ago so I might help the dead

I’d say one of these girls has just revealed
how mad she is—the other’s been that way
since she was born.

My lord, whatever good sense
people have by birth no longer stays with them
once their lives go wrong—it abandons them.

In your case, that’s true, once you made your choice
to act in evil ways with wicked people.

How could I live alone, without her here?

Don’t speak of her being here. Her life is over.

You’re going to kill your own son’s bride?

Why not? There are other fields for him to plough.

No one will make him a more loving wife
than she will.

I have no desire my son
should have an evil wife.

Dearest Haemon,
how your father wrongs you.

I’ve had enough of this—
you and your marriage.

You really want that?
You’re going to take her from him?

No, not me.
Hades is the one who’ll stop the marriage.

So she must die—that seems decided on.

Yes—for you and me the matter’s closed.

[Creon turns to address his attendants]

No more delay. You slaves, take them inside.
From this point on they must act like women
and have no liberty to wander off.
Even bold men run when they see Hades
coming close to them to snatch their lives.

[The attendants take Antigone and Ismene into the palace, leaving Creon and the Chorus on stage]

Those who live without tasting evil
have happy lives—for when the gods
shake a house to its foundations,
then inevitable disasters strike,
falling upon whole families,
just as a surging ocean swell
running before cruel Thracian winds
across the dark trench of the sea
churns up the deep black sand
and crashes headlong on the cliffs,
which scream in pain against the wind.

I see this house’s age-old sorrows,
the house of Labdakos’ children,*
sorrows falling on the sorrows of the dead,
one generation bringing no relief
to generations after it—some god
strikes at them—on and on without an end.
For now the light which has been shining
over the last roots of Oedipus’ house
is being cut down with a bloody knife
belonging to the gods below—
for foolish talk and frenzy in the soul.

Oh Zeus, what human trespasses
can check your power? Even Sleep,
who casts his nets on everything,
cannot master that—nor can the months,
the tireless months the gods control.
A sovereign who cannot grow old,
you hold Olympus as your own,*
in all its glittering magnificence.
From now on into all future time,
as in the past, your law holds firm.
It never enters lives of human beings
in its full force without disaster.

Hope ranging far and wide brings comfort
to many men—but then hope can deceive,
delusions born of volatile desire.
It comes upon the man who’s ignorant
until his foot is seared in burning fire.
Someone’s wisdom has revealed to us
this famous saying—sometimes the gods
lure a man’s mind forward to disaster,
and he thinks evil’s something good.
But then he lives only the briefest time
free of catastrophe.

[The palace doors open]

Here comes Haemon,
your only living son. Is he grieving
the fate of Antigone, his bride,
bitter that his marriage hopes are gone?

We’ll soon find out—more accurately
than any prophet here could indicate.

[Enter Haemon from the palace]

My son, have you heard the sentence that’s been passed
upon your bride? And have you now come here
angry at your father? Or are you loyal to me,
on my side no matter what I do?

Father, I’m yours. For me your judgments
and the ways you act on them are good—
I shall follow them. I’ll not consider
any marriage a greater benefit
than your fine leadership.

Indeed, my son,
that’s how your heart should always be resolved,
to stand behind your father’s judgment
on every issue. That’s what men pray for—
obedient children growing up at home
who will pay back their father’s enemies,
evil to them for evil done to him,
while honouring his friends as much as he does.
A man who fathers useless children—
what can one say of him except he’s bred
troubles for himself, and much to laugh at
for those who fight against him? So, my son,
don’t ever throw good sense aside for pleasure,
for some woman’s sake. You understand
how such embraces can turn freezing cold
when an evil woman shares your life at home.
What greater wound is there than a false friend?
So spit this girl out—she’s your enemy.
Let her marry someone else in Hades.
Since I caught her clearly disobeying,
the only culprit in the entire city,
I won’t perjure myself before the state.
No—I’ll kill her. And so let her appeal
to Zeus, the god of blood relationships.
If I foster any lack of full respect
in my own family, I surely do the same
with those who are not linked to me by blood.
The man who acts well with his household
will be found a just man in the city.*
I’d trust such a man to govern wisely
or to be content with someone ruling him.
And in the thick of battle at his post
he’ll stand firm beside his fellow soldier,
a loyal, brave man. But anyone who’s proud
and violates our laws or thinks he’ll tell
our leaders what to do, a man like that
wins no praise from me. No. We must obey
whatever man the city puts in charge,
no matter what the issue—great or small,
just or unjust. For there’s no greater evil
than a lack of leadership. That destroys
whole cities, turns households into ruins,
and in war makes soldiers break and run away.
When men succeed, what keeps their lives secure
in almost every case is their obedience.
That’s why they must support those in control,
and never let some woman beat us down.
If we must fall from power, let that come
at some man’s hand—at least, we won’t be called
inferior to any woman.

Unless we’re being deceived by our old age,
what you’ve just said seems reasonable to us.

Father, the gods instill good sense in men—
the greatest of all the things which we possess.
I could not find your words somehow not right—
I hope that’s something I never learn to do.
But other words might be good, as well.
Because of who you are, you can't perceive
all the things men say or do—or their complaints.
Your gaze makes citizens afraid—they can’t
say anything you would not like to hear.
But in the darkness I can hear them talk—
the city is upset about the girl.
They say of all women here she’s least deserves
the worst of deaths for her most glorious act.
When in the slaughter her own brother died,
she did not just leave him there unburied,
to be ripped apart by carrion dogs or birds.
Surely she deserves some golden honour?
That’s the dark secret rumour people speak.
For me, father, nothing is more valuable
than your well being. For any children,
what could be a greater honour to them
than their father’s thriving reputation?
A father feels the same about his sons.
So don’t let your mind dwell on just one thought,
that what you say is right and nothing else.
A man who thinks that only he is wise,
that he can speak and think like no one else,
when such men are exposed, then all can see
their emptiness inside. For any man,
even if he’s wise, there’s nothing shameful
in learning many things, staying flexible.
You notice how in winter floods the trees
which bend before the storm preserve their twigs.
The ones who stand against it are destroyed,
root and branch. In the same way, those sailors
who keep their sails stretched tight, never easing off,
make their ship capsize—and from that point on
sail with their rowing benches all submerged.
So end your anger. Permit yourself to change.
For if I, as a younger man, may state
my views, I’d say it would be for the best [
if men by nature understood all things—
if not, and that is usually the case,
when men speak well, it good to learn from them.

My lord, if what he’s said is relevant,
it seems appropriate to learn from him,
and you too, Haemon, listen to the king.
The things which you both said were excellent.

And men my age—are we then going to school
to learn what’s wise from men as young as him?

There’s nothing wrong in that. And if I’m young,
don’t think about my age—look at what I do.

And what you do—does that include this,
honouring those who act against our laws?

I would not encourage anyone
to show respect to evil men.

And her—
is she not suffering from the same disease?

The people here in Thebes all say the same—
they deny she is.

So the city now
will instruct me how I am to govern?

Now you’re talking like someone far too young.
Don’t you see that?

Am I to rule this land
at someone else’s whim or by myself?

A city which belongs to just one man
is no true city.

According to our laws,
does not the ruler own the city?

By yourself you’d make an excellent king
but in a desert.

It seems as if this boy
is fighting on the woman’s side.

That’s true—
if you’re the woman. I’m concerned for you.

You’re the worst there is—you set your judgment up
against your father.

No, not when I see
you making a mistake and being unjust.

Is it a mistake to honour my own rule?

You’re not honouring that by trampling on
the gods’ prerogatives.

You foul creature—
you’re worse than any woman.

You’ll not catch me
giving way to some disgrace.

But your words
all speak on her behalf.

And yours and mine—
and for the gods below.

You woman’s slave—
don’t try to win me over.

What do you want—
to speak and never hear someone reply?*

You’ll never marry her while she’s alive.

Then she’ll die—and in her death kill someone else.

Are you so insolent you threaten me?

Where’s the threat in challenging a bad decree?

You’ll regret parading what you think like this—
you—a person with an empty brain!

If you were not my father, I might say
you were not thinking straight.

Would you, indeed?
Well, then, by Olympus, I’ll have you know
you’ll be sorry for demeaning me
with all these insults.

[Creon turns to his attendants]

Go bring her out—
that hateful creature, so she can die right here,
with him present, before her bridegroom’s eyes.

No. Don’t ever hope for that. She’ll not die
with me just standing there. And as for you—
your eyes will never see my face again.
So let your rage charge on among your friends
who want to stand by you in this.

[Exit Haemon, running back into the palace]

My lord, Haemon left in such a hurry.
He’s angry—in a young man at his age
the mind turns bitter when he’s feeling hurt.

Let him dream up or carry out great deeds
beyond the power of man, he’ll not save these girls—
their fate is sealed.

Are you going to kill them both?

No—not the one whose hands are clean. You’re right.

How do you plan to kill Antigone?

I’ll take her on a path no people use,
and hide her in a cavern in the rocks,
while still alive. I’ll set out provisions,
as much as piety requires, to make sure
the city is not totally corrupted.*
Then she can speak her prayers to Hades,
the only god she worships, for success
avoiding death—or else, at least, she’ll learn,
although too late, how it’s a waste of time
to work to honour those whom Hades holds.

O Eros, the conqueror in every fight,*
Eros, who squanders all men’s wealth,
who sleeps at night on girls’ soft cheeks,
and roams across the ocean seas
and through the shepherd’s hut—
no immortal god escapes from you,
nor any man, who lives but for a day.
And the one whom you possess goes mad. [
Even in good men you twist their minds,
perverting them to their own ruin.
You provoke these men to family strife.
The bride’s desire seen glittering in her eyes—
that conquers everything, its power
enthroned beside eternal laws, for there
the goddess Aphrodite works her will,
whose ways are irresistible.*

[Antigone enters from the palace with attendants who are taking her away to her execution]

When I look at her I forget my place.
I lose restraint and can’t hold back my tears—
Antigone going to her bridal room
where all are laid to rest in death.

Look at me, my native citizens,
as I go on my final journey,
as I gaze upon the sunlight one last time,
which I’ll never see again—for Hades,
who brings all people to their final sleep,
leads me on, while I’m still living,
down to the shores of Acheron.*
I’ve not yet had my bridal chant,
nor has any wedding song been sung—
for my marriage is to Acheron.

Surely you carry fame with you and praise,
as you move to the deep home of the dead.
You were not stricken by lethal disease
or paid your wages with a sword.
No. You were in charge of your own fate.
So of all living human beings, you alone
make your way down to Hades still alive.

I’ve heard about a guest of ours,
daughter of Tantalus, from Phrygia—
she went to an excruciating death
in Sipylus, right on the mountain peak.
The stone there, just like clinging ivy,
wore her down, and now, so people say,
the snow and rain never leave her there,
as she laments. Below her weeping eyes
her neck is wet with tears. God brings me
to a final rest which most resembles hers.

But Niobe was a goddess, born divine—
and we are human beings, a race which dies.
But still, it’s a fine thing for a woman,
once she’s dead, to have it said she shared,
in life and death, the fate of demi-gods.*

Oh, you are mocking me! Why me—
by our fathers’ gods—why do you all,
my own city and the richest men of Thebes,
insult me now right to my face,
without waiting for my death? 950
Well at least I have Dirce’s springs,
the holy grounds of Thebes,
a city full of splendid chariots,
to witness how no friends lament for me
as I move on—you see the laws
which lead me to my rock-bound prison,
a tomb made just for me. Alas!
In my wretchedness I have no home,
not with human beings or corpses,
not with the living or the dead.

You pushed your daring to the limit, my child,
and tripped against Justice’s high altar—
perhaps your agonies are paying back
some compensation for your father.*

Now there you touch on my most painful thought—
my father’s destiny—always on my mind,
along with that whole fate which sticks to us,
the splendid house of Labdakos—the curse
arising from a mother’s marriage bed,
when she had sex with her own son, my father.
From what kind of parents was I born,
their wretched daughter? I go to them,
unmarried and accursed, an outcast.
Alas, too, for my brother Polyneices,
who made a fatal marriage and then died—
and with that death killed me while still alive.*

To be piously devout shows reverence,
but powerful men, who in their persons
incorporate authority, cannot bear
anyone to break their rules. Hence, you die
because of your own selfish will.

Without lament, without a friend,
and with no marriage song, I’m being led
in this miserable state, along my final road.
So wretched that I no longer have the right
to look upon the sun, that sacred eye.
But my fate prompts no tears, and no friend mourns.

Don’t you know that no one faced with death
would ever stop the singing and the groans,
if that would help? Take her and shut her up, 990
as I have ordered, in her tomb’s embrace.
And get it done as quickly as you can.
Then leave her there alone, all by herself—
she can sort out whether she wants suicide
or remains alive, buried in a place like that.
As far as she’s concerned, we bear no guilt.
But she’s lost her place living here with us.*

Oh my tomb and bridal chamber—
my eternal hollow dwelling place,
where I go to join my people. Most of them
have perished—Persephone has welcomed them
among the dead.* I’m the last one, dying here
the most evil death by far, as I move down
before the time allotted for my life is done.
But I go nourishing the vital hope
my father will be pleased to see me come,
and you, too, my mother, will welcome me,
as well as you, my own dear brother.
When you died, with my own hands I washed you.
I arranged your corpse and at the grave mound
poured out libations. But now, Polyneices,
this is my reward for covering your corpse.*
However, for wise people I was right
to honour you. I’d never have done it
for children of my own, not as their mother,
nor for a dead husband lying in decay—
no, not in defiance of the citizens.
What law do I appeal to, claiming this?
If my husband died, there’d be another one,
and if I were to lose a child of mine
I’d have another with some other man.
But since my father and my mother, too,
are hidden away in Hades’ house,
I’ll never have another living brother.
That was the law I used to honour you.
But Creon thought that I was in the wrong
and acting recklessly for you, my brother.
Now he seizes me by force and leads me here—
no wedding and no bridal song, no share
in married life or raising children.
Instead I go in sorrow to my grave,
without my friends, to die while still alive.
What holy justice have I violated?
In my wretchedness, why should I still look
up to the gods? Which one can I invoke
to bring me help, when for my reverence
they charge me with impiety? Well, then,
if this is something fine among the gods,
I’ll come to recognize that I’ve done wrong.
But if these people here are being unjust
may they endure no greater punishment
than the injustices they’re doing to me.

The same storm blasts continue to attack
the mind in this young girl.

Then those escorting her
will be sorry they’re so slow.

Alas, then,
those words mean death is very near at hand.

I won’t encourage you or cheer you up,
by saying the sentence won’t be carried out.

O city of my fathers
in this land of Thebes—
and my ancestral gods,
I am being led away.
No more delaying for me.
Look on me, you lords of Thebes,
the last survivor of your royal house,
see what I have to undergo,
the kind of men who do this to me,
for paying reverence to true piety.

[Antigone is led away under escort]

In her brass-bound room fair Danae as well
endured her separation from the heaven’s light,
a prisoner hidden in a chamber like a tomb,
although she, too, came from a noble line.*
And she, my child, had in her care
the liquid streaming golden seed of Zeus.
But the power of fate is full of mystery.
There’s no evading it, no, not with wealth,
or war, or walls, or black sea-beaten ships.

And the hot-tempered child of Dryas,
king of the Edonians, was put in prison,
closed up in the rocks by Dionysus,
for his angry mocking of the god.*
There the dreadful flower of his rage
slowly withered, and he came to know
the god who in his frenzy he had mocked
with his own tongue. For he had tried
to hold in check women in that frenzy
inspired by the god, the Bacchanalian fire.
More than that—he’d made the Muses angry,
challenging the gods who love the flute.*

Beside the black rocks where the twin seas meet,
by Thracian Salmydessos at the Bosphorus,*
close to the place where Ares dwells,
the war god witnessed the unholy wounds
which blinded the two sons of Phineus,
inflicted by his savage wife—the sightless holes
cried out for someone to avenge those blows
made with her sharpened comb in blood-stained hands.*

In their misery they wept, lamenting
their wretched suffering, sons of a mother
whose marriage had gone wrong. And yet,
she was an offspring of an ancient family,
the race of Erechtheus, raised far away,
in caves surrounded by her father’s winds,
Boreas’ child, a girl who raced with horses
across steep hills—child of the gods.
But she, too, my child, suffered much
from the immortal Fates.*

[Enter Teiresias, led by a young boy]

Lords of Thebes, we two have walked a common path,
one person’s vision serving both of us.
The blind require a guide to find their way.

What news do you have, old Teiresias?

I’ll tell you—and you obey the prophet.

I’ve not rejected your advice before.

That’s the reason why you’ve steered the city
on its proper course.

From my experience
I can confirm the help you give.

Then know this—
your luck is once more on fate’s razor edge.

What? What you’ve just said makes me nervous.

You’ll know—once you hear the tokens of my art.
As I was sitting in my ancient place
receiving omens from the flights of birds
who all come there where I can hear them,
I note among those birds an unknown cry—
evil, unintelligible, angry screaming.
I knew that they were tearing at each other
with murderous claws. The noisy wings
revealed that all too well. I was afraid.
So right away up on the blazing altar
I set up burnt offerings. But Hephaestus
failed to shine out from the sacrifice—
dark slime poured out onto the embers,
oozing from the thighs, which smoked and spat,
bile was sprayed high up into the air,
and the melting thighs lost all the fat
which they’d been wrapped in. The rites had failed—
there was no prophecy revealed in them.
I learned that from this boy, who is my guide,
as I guide other men.* Our state is sick—
your policies have done this. In the city
our altars and our hearths have been defiled,
all of them, with rotting flesh brought there
by birds and dogs from Oedipus’ son,
who lies there miserably dead. The gods
no longer will accept our sacrifice,
our prayers, our thigh bones burned in fire.
No bird will shriek out a clear sign to us,
for they have gorged themselves on fat and blood
from a man who’s dead. Consider this, my son.
All men make mistakes—that’s not uncommon.
But when they do, they’re no longer foolish
or subject to bad luck if they try to fix
the evil into which they’ve fallen,
once they give up their intransigence.
Men who put their stubbornness on show
invite accusations of stupidity.
Make concessions to the dead—don’t ever stab
a man who’s just been killed. What’s the glory
in killing a dead person one more time?
I’ve been concerned for you. It’s good advice.
Learning can be pleasant when a man speaks well,
especially when he seeks your benefit.

Old man, you’re all like archers shooting at me—
For you all I’ve now become your target—
even prophets have been aiming at me.
I’ve long been bought and sold as merchandise
among that tribe. Well, go make your profits.
If it’s what you want, then trade with Sardis
for their golden-silver alloy—or for gold
from India, but you’ll never hide that corpse
in any grave. Even if Zeus’ eagles
should choose to seize his festering body
and take it up, right to the throne of Zeus,
not even then would I, in trembling fear
of some defilement, permit that corpse
a burial. For I know well that no man
has the power to pollute the gods.
But, old Teiresias, among human beings
the wisest suffer a disgraceful fall
when, to promote themselves, they use fine words
to spread around abusive insults.

Alas, does any man know or think about . . .

CREON [interrupting]
Think what? What sort of pithy common thought
are you about to utter?

TEIRESIAS [ignoring the interruption]
. . . how good advice
is valuable—worth more than all possessions.

I think that’s true, as much as foolishness
is what harms us most.

Yet that’s the sickness
now infecting you.

I have no desire
to denigrate a prophet when I speak.

But that’s what you are doing, when you claim
my oracles are false.

The tribe of prophets—
all of them—are fond of money

And kings?
Their tribe loves to benefit dishonestly.

You know you’re speaking of the man who rules you.

I know—thanks to me you saved the city
and now are in control.*

You’re a wise prophet,
but you love doing wrong.

You’ll force me
to speak of secrets locked inside my heart.

Do it—just don’t speak to benefit yourself.

I don’t think that I’ll be doing that—
not as far as you’re concerned.

You can be sure
you won’t change my mind to make yourself more rich.

Then understand this well—you will not see
the sun race through its cycle many times
before you lose a child of your own loins,
a corpse in payment for these corpses.
You’ve thrown down to those below someone
from up above—in your arrogance
you’ve moved a living soul into a grave,
leaving here a body owned by gods below—
unburied, dispossessed, unsanctified.
That’s no concern of yours or gods above.
In this you violate the ones below.
And so destroying avengers wait for you,
Furies of Hades and the gods, who’ll see
you caught up in this very wickedness.
Now see if I speak as someone who’s been bribed.
It won’t be long before in your own house
the men and women all cry out in sorrow,
and cities rise in hate against you—all those
whose mangled soldiers have had burial rites
from dogs, wild animals, or flying birds
who carry the unholy stench back home,
to every city hearth.* Like an archer,
I shoot these arrows now into your heart
because you have provoked me. I’m angry—
so my aim is good. You’ll not escape their pain.
Boy, lead us home so he can vent his rage
on younger men and keep a quieter tongue
and a more temperate mind than he has now.

[Exit Teiresias, led by the young boy]

My lord, my lord, such dreadful prophecies—
and now he’s gone. Since my hair changed colour
from black to white, I know here in the city
he’s never uttered a false prophecy.

I know that, too—and it disturbs my mind.
It’s dreadful to give way, but to resist
and let destruction hammer down my spirit—
that’s a fearful option, too.

Son of Menoikeos,
you need to listen to some good advice.

Tell me what to do. Speak up. I’ll do it.

Go and release the girl from her rock tomb.
Then prepare a grave for that unburied corpse.

This is your advice? You think I should concede?

Yes, my lord, as fast as possible.
Swift footed injuries sent from the gods
hack down those who act imprudently.

Alas—it’s difficult. But I’ll give up.
I’ll not do what I’d set my heart upon.
It’s not right to fight against necessity.

Go now and get this done. Don’t give the work
to other men to do.

I’ll go just as I am.
Come, you servants, each and every one of you.
Come on. Bring axes with you. Go there quickly—
up to the higher ground. I’ve changed my mind.
Since I’m the one who tied her up, I’ll go
and set her free myself. Now I’m afraid.
Until one dies the best thing well may be
to follow our established laws.

[Creon and his attendants hurry off stage]

Oh you with many names,
you glory of that Theban bride,
and child of thundering Zeus,
you who cherish famous Italy,
and rule the welcoming valley lands
of Eleusianian Deo—
O Bacchus—you who dwell
in the bacchants’ mother city Thebes,
beside Ismenus’ flowing streams,
on land sown with the teeth
of that fierce dragon.*

Above the double mountain peaks,
the torches flashing through the murky smoke
have seen you where Corcyian nymphs
move on as they worship you
by the Kastalian stream.
And from the ivy-covered slopes
of Nysa’s hills, from the green shore
so rich in vines, you come to us,
visiting our Theban ways,
while deathless voices all cry out
in honour of your name, "Evoe."*

You honour Thebes, our city,
above all others, you and your mother
blasted by that lightning strike.*
And now when all our people here
are captive to a foul disease,
on your healing feet you come
across the moaning strait
or over the Parnassian hill.

You who lead the dance,
among the fire-breathing stars,
who guard the voices in the night,
child born of Zeus, oh my lord,
appear with your attendant Thyiads,
who dance in frenzy all night long,
for you their patron, Iacchus.*

[Enter a Messenger]

All you here who live beside the home
of Amphion and Cadmus—in human life
there’s no set place which I would praise or blame.*
The lucky and unlucky rise or fall
by chance day after day—and how these things
are fixed for men no one can prophesy.
For Creon, in my view, was once a man
we all looked up to. For he saved the state,
this land of Cadmus, from its enemies.
He took control and reigned as its sole king—
and prospered with the birth of noble children.
Now all is gone. For when a man has lost
what gives him pleasure, I don’t include him
among the living—he’s a breathing corpse.
Pile up a massive fortune in your home,
if that’s what you want—live like a king.
If there’s no pleasure in it, I’d not give
to any man a vapour’s shadow for it,
not compared to human joy.

Have you come with news of some fresh trouble
in our house of kings?

They’re dead—
and those alive bear the responsibility
for those who’ve died.

Who did the killing?
Who’s lying dead? Tell us.

Haemon has been killed.
No stranger shed his blood.

At his father’s hand?
Or did he kill himself?

By his own hand—
angry at his father for the murder.

Teiresias, how your words have proven true!

That’s how things stand. Consider what comes next.

I see Creon’s wife, poor Eurydice—
she’s coming from the house—either by chance,
or else she’s heard there’s news about her son.

[Enter Eurydice from the palace with some attendants]

Citizens of Thebes, I heard you talking,
as I was walking out, going off to pray,
to ask for help from goddess Pallas.
While I was unfastening the gate,
I heard someone speaking of bad news
about my family. I was terrified.
I collapsed, fainting back into the arms
of my attendants. So tell the news again—
I’ll listen. I’m no stranger to misfortune.

Dear lady, I’ll speak of what I saw,
omitting not one detail of the truth.
Why should I ease your mind with a report
which turns out later to be incorrect?
The truth is always best. I went to the plain,
accompanying your husband as his guide.
Polyneices’ corpse, still unlamented,
was lying there, the greatest distance off,
torn apart by dogs. We prayed to Pluto
and to Hecate, goddess of the road,
for their good will and to restrain their rage.
We gave the corpse a ritual wash, and burned
what was left of it on fresh-cut branches.
We piled up a high tomb of his native earth.
Then we moved to the young girl’s rocky cave,
the hollow cavern of that bride of death.
From far away one man heard a voice
coming from the chamber where we’d put her
without a funeral—a piercing cry.
He went to tell our master Creon,
who, as he approached the place, heard the sound,
an unintelligible scream of sorrow.
He groaned and then spoke out these bitter words,
"Has misery made me a prophet now?
And am I travelling along a road
that takes me to the worst of all disasters?
I’ve just heard the voice of my own son.
You servants, go ahead—get up there fast.
Remove the stones piled in the entrance way,
then stand beside the tomb and look in there
to see if that was Haemon’s voice I heard,
of if the gods have been deceiving me."
Following what our desperate master asked,
we looked. In the furthest corner of the tomb
we saw Antigone hanging by the neck,
held up in a noose—fine woven linen.
Haemon had his arms around her waist—
he was embracing her and crying out
in sorrow for the loss of his own bride,
now among the dead, his father’s work,
and for his horrifying marriage bed.
Creon saw him, let out a fearful groan,
then went inside and called out anxiously,
"You unhappy boy, what have you done?
What are you thinking? Have you lost your mind?
Come out, my child—I’m begging you—please come."
But the boy just stared at him with savage eyes,
spat in his face and, without saying a word,
drew his two-edged sword. Creon moved away,
so the boy’s blow failed to strike his father.
Angry at himself, the ill-fated lad
right then and there leaned into his own sword,
driving half the blade between his ribs.
While still conscious he embraced the girl
in his weak arms, and, as he breathed his last,
he coughed up streams of blood on her fair cheek.
Now he lies there, corpse on corpse, his marriage
has been fulfilled in chambers of the dead.
The unfortunate boy has shown all men
how, of all the evils which afflict mankind,
the most disastrous one is thoughtlessness.

[Eurydice turns and slowly returns into the palace]

What do you make of that? The queen’s gone back.
She left without a word, good or bad.

I’m surprised myself. It’s about her son—
she heard that terrible report. I hope
she’s gone because she doesn’t think it right
to mourn for him in public. In the home,
surrounded by her servants, she’ll arrange
a period of mourning for the house.
She’s discreet and has experience—
she won’t make mistakes.

I’m not sure of that.
to me her staying silent was extreme—
it seems to point to something ominous,
just like a vain excess of grief.

I’ll go in.
We’ll find out if she’s hiding something secret,
deep within her passionate heart. You’re right—
excessive silence can be dangerous.

[The Messenger goes up the stairs into the palace. Enter Creon from the side, with attendants.
Creon is holding the body of Haemon]

Here comes the king in person—carrying
in his arms, if it’s right to speak of this,
a clear reminder that this evil comes
not from some stranger, but his own mistakes.

Aaiii—mistakes made by a foolish mind,
cruel mistakes that bring on death.
You see us here, all in one family—
the killer and the killed.
Oh the profanity of what I planned.
Alas, my son, you died so young—
a death before your time.
Aaiii . . . aaiii . . . you’re dead . . . gone—
not your own foolishness but mine.

Alas, it seems you’ve learned to see what’s right—
but far too late.

Aaiiii . . . I’ve learned it in my pain.
Some god clutching a great weight struck my head,
then hurled me onto paths in wilderness,
throwing down and casting underfoot
what brought me joy.
So sad . . . so sad . . .
the wretched agony of human life.

[The Messenger reappears from the palace]

My lord, you come like one who stores up evil,
what you hold in your arms and what you’ll see
before too long inside the house.

What’s that?
Is there something still more evil than all this?

Your wife is dead—blood mother of that corpse—
slaughtered with a sword—her wounds are very new,
poor lady.

Aaiiii . . . . a gathering place for death . . .
no sacrifice can bring this to an end.
Why are you destroying me? You there—
you bringer of this dreadful news, this agony,
what are you saying now? Aaiii . . .
You kill a man then kill him once again.
What are you saying, boy? What news?
A slaughter heaped on slaughter—
my wife, alas . . . she’s dead?

MESSENGER [opening the palace doors, revealing the body of Eurydice]
Look here. No longer is she concealed inside.

Alas, how miserable I feel—to look upon
this second horror. What remains for me,
what’s fate still got in store? I’ve just held 1440
my own son in my arms, and now I see
right here in front of me another corpse.
Alas for this suffering mother.
Alas, my son.

Stabbed with a sharp sword at the altar,
she let her darkening eyesight fail,
once she had cried out in sorrow
for the glorious fate of Megareos,
who died some time ago, and then again
for Haemon, and then, with her last breath,
she called out evil things against you,
the killer of your sons.*

Aaaii . . . My fear now makes me tremble.
Why won’t someone now strike out at me,
pierce my heart with a double bladed sword?
How miserable I am . . . aaiii . . .
how full of misery and pain . . .

By this woman who lies dead you stand charged
with the deaths of both your sons.

What about her?
How did she die so violently?

She killed herself,
with her own hands she stabbed her belly,
once she heard her son’s unhappy fate.

Alas for me . . . the guilt for all of this is mine—
it can never be removed from me or passed
to any other mortal man. I, and I alone . . .
I murdered you . . . I speak the truth.
Servants—hurry and lead me off,
get me away from here, for now
what I am in life is nothing.

What you advise is good—if good can come
with all these evils. When we face such things
the less we say the better.

Let that day come, oh let it come,
the fairest of all destinies for me,
the one which brings on my last day.
Oh, let it come, so that I never see
another dawn.

That’s something for the times ahead.
Now we need to deal with what confronts us here.
What’s yet to come is the concern of those
whose task it is to deal with it.

In that prayer
I included everything I most desire.

Pray for nothing.
There’s no release for mortal human beings,
not from events which destiny has set.

Then take this foolish man away from here.
I killed you, my son, without intending to,
and you, as well, my wife. How useless I am now.
I don’t know where to look or find support.
Everything I touch goes wrong, and on my head
fate climbs up with its overwhelming load.

[The Attendants help Creon move up the stairs into the palace, taking Haemon’s body with them]

The most important part of true success
is wisdom—not to act impiously
towards the gods, for boasts of arrogant men
bring on great blows of punishment—
so in old age men can discover wisdom.

* * * *


*Dirce: one of the rivers beside Thebes.

*Hephaistos: god of fire.

*Laius: king of Thebes and father of Oedipus. Oedipus killed him (not knowing who he was) and became the next king of Thebes by saving the city from the devastation of the Sphinx.

*Zeus Herkeios: Zeus of the Courtyard, a patron god of worship within the home.

*Hades: god of the underworld, lord of the dead.

*Labdakos: father of Laius and hence grandfather of Oedipus and great-grandfather of Antigone and Ismene.

*Olympus: a mountain in northern Greece where, according to tradition, the major gods live.

*Following common editorial practice, the lines of the Greek have been rearranged here, so that 663-7 come after 671, hence the apparently odd numbering of the lines.

*Following the suggestion of Andrew Brown and others, I have moved lines 756-7 in the Greek text so that they come right after line 750.

*corrupted: the killing of a family member could bring on divine punishment in the form of a pollution involving the entire city (as in the case of Oedipus). Creon is, one assumes, taking refuge in the notion that he will not be executing Antigone directly.

*Eros: the god of erotic sexual passion.

*Aphrodite: goddess of sexual desire.

*Acheron: one of the major rivers of the underworld.

*The last two speeches refer to Niobe, daughter of Tantalus (a son of Zeus). Niobe had seven sons and daughters and boasted that she had more children than the goddess Leto. As punishment Artemis and Apollo, Leto’s two children, destroyed all Niobe’s children. Niobe turned to stone in grief and was reportedly visible on Mount Sipylus (in Asia Minor). The Chorus’ claim that Niobe was a goddess or semi-divine is very odd here, since her story is almost always a tale of human presumption and divine punishment for human arrogance.

*father: The Chorus here is offering the traditional suggestion that present afflictions can arise from a family curse originating in previous generations.

*still alive: Polyneices married the daughter of Adrastus, an action which enabled him to acquire the army to attack Thebes.

*here with us: Creon’s logic seems to suggest that because he is not executing Antigone directly and is leaving her a choice between committing suicide and slowly starving to death in the cave, he has no moral responsibility for what happens.

*Persephone is the wife of Hades and thus goddess of the underworld.

*In these lines Antigone seems to be talking about both her brothers, first claiming she washed and dressed the body of Eteocles and then covered Polyneices. However, the pronoun references in the Greek are confusing. Lines 904 to 920 in the Greek text have prompted a great deal of critical debate, since they seem incompatible with Antigone’s earlier motivation and do not make much sense in context (in addition most of them appear closely derived from Herodotus 3.119). Hence, some editors insist that the lines (or most of them) be removed. Brown provides a useful short summary of the arguments and some editorial options (199-200).

*Danae: daughter of Acrisus, King of Argos. Because of a prophecy that he would be killed by a son born to Danae, Acrisus imprisoned her. But Zeus made love to her in the form of a golden shower, and she gave birth to Perseus, who, once grown, killed Acrisus accidentally.

*mocking of the god: a reference to Lycurgus son of Dryas, a Thracian king. He attacked the god Dionysus and was punished with blinding or with being torn apart.

*flute: the anger of the Muses at a Thracian who boasted of his flute playing is not normally a part of the Lycurgus story but refers to another Thracian, Thamyras.

*dark rocks . . . Bosphorus: the dark rocks were a famous hazard to shipping. They moved together to smash any ship moving between them. The Bosphorus is the strait between the Black Sea and the Propontis (near the Hellespont).

*blood-stained hands: this verse and the next refer to the Thracian king Phineas, whose second wife blinded her two step sons (from Phineas’ first wife Cleopatra) by stabbing out their eyes.

*immortal Fates: Cleopatra was the grand-daughter of Erechtheus, king of Athens. Boreas, father of Erechtheus, was god of the North Wind.

*other men: Teiresias’ offering failed to catch fire. His interpretation is that it has been rejected by the gods, a very unfavourable omen.

*in control: This is the second reference to the fact that at some point earlier Teiresias has given important political help to Creon. It is not at all clear what this refers to.

*Teiresias here is apparently accusing Creon of refusing burial to the dead allied soldiers Polyneices brought with him from other cities. There is no mention of this anywhere else in the play, although the detail is present in other versions of the story.

*fierce dragon: In these lines the Chorus celebrates Dionysus, the god born in Thebes to Semele, daughter of King Cadmus. The bacchants are those who worship Dionysus. Eleusis, a region on the coast near Athens, was famous for the its Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret ritual of worship. Deo is a reference to the goddess Demeter, who was worshipped at Eleusis. The Theban race sprang up from dragon’s teeth sown in a field by Cadmus, founder of the city.

*Evoe: a cry of celebration made by worshippers of Bacchus.

*lightning strike: Semele, Dionysus human mother, was destroyed by Zeus lightning bolt, because of the jealousy of Hera, Zeus’ wife.

*Iacchus: Thyiads are worshippers of Dionysus, Iacchus a divinity associated with Dionysus.

*Amphion: legendary king of Thebes, husband of Niobe.

*Megareos: Haemon’s brother, who, we are to understand on the basis of this reference, died nobly some time before the play begins. It is not clear how Creon might have been responsible for his death. In another version of the story, Creon has a son Menoeceos, who kills himself in order to save the city.




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