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Theatre / Antigone

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Creon: And thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law?
Antigone: Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict [...] nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.

The lastnote  of the Theban trilogy of plays by Sophocles (preceded by Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus), Antigone follows the fate of one of Oedipus's daughters, born of his incestuous relationship with his mother.

The play starts with Antigone bringing her sister, Ismene, terrible news. Between the end of Oedipus at Colonus and the start of Antigone, their brother Polyneices led an army against Eteocles for the right to inherit their father's throne. The brothers took each other's lives. This was chronicled in the play The Progeny; sadly, only a single exchange from that play survives. It can be read here. Antigone's uncle, Creon, now undisputed master of Thebes once more, has ordered that Polyneices's body be left unburied, as a traitor. Antigone asks her sister to help her bury their brother properly, but Ismene refuses, and Antigone does it by herself.

Unfortunately, she is caught, and Creon orders her to be walled up in a cave to die. Despite warnings from both the Chorus and the seer Tiresias that leaving the dead unburied will have terrible consequences, it is not until Tiresias predicts that Creon's family will suffer and armies will march against Thebes that he relents. Unfortunately, he's too late, as the time spent burying the body prevented Creon from reaching Antigone before she hanged herself. Seeing he was too late, Haemon, her fiancé and Creon's son, stabbed himself, and when THAT news reached Haemon's mother and Creon's wife Eurydice, she stabbed herself too. The play ends with Creon leaving the stage as a broken man.

Also the name of a 1944 existential play by French playwright Jean Anouilh which covers the same events as the play by Sophocles, with a much more modern bent.

The original play contains examples of:

  • An Aesop:
    • Creon stands by poor reasoning and ends up wanting nothing but death, teaching Thebes and the audience that "of all curses which cleave to man, ill counsel is the sovereign curse."
    • Refusing to hate someone does not necessarily mean you approve of their actions.
    • Civil laws can be unjust in an authoritative governor and get in the way of a community's moral compass. There's a reason why both historical and modern audiences tend to agree with Antigone rather than with Creon.
    • Though the significance has largely faded with time, in the era in which the play was written, perhaps the most significant Aesop was that it is not for man to supersede the laws of the Gods.
  • Anachronic Order: This was actually written before Oedipus the King, but chronologically follows that play and its sequel.
  • Anti-Villain: Creon is seen as this today. He's a tyrant who rules Thebes with an iron fist, but he keeps his word and is surprisingly willing to listen to reason, and he is only actively malicious towards people who've committed a crime. When he realizes the unnecessary death his authoritarianism has caused, he is horrified.
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end, Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice are dead.
  • Acquitted Too Late: By the time Creon realizes he was being an asshole and Antigone should go free, she's already killed herself.
  • Badass Pacifist: Antigone: she causes a lot of disruption with no physical force.
  • Barred from the Afterlife: Polyneices has been left unburied by the king Creon so that his soul cannot go on to the underworld, in punishment for his rebellion. His sister Antigone takes it upon herself to do so.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: A possible reason for Antigone's hanging herself rather than waiting to die in her "tomb".
  • Berserk Button: Tiresias does not respond well to Creon accusing him of taking bribes.
  • Blind Seer: Tiresias requires an assistant to describe the flames and smoke that emerge after making a sacrifice, but from that description, he can determine the will of the gods with great wisdom. Still, he can't make Creon see the truth of his erroneous actions, which leads to the reason why Antigone is called a tragedy.
  • Break the Haughty: As was the Greek standard, Creon's arrogance leads to tragedy. He ends up lording his own judgement over that of his son, a seer, and the gods until that judgement leaves him without a son or wife. His despair is so great that he's little more than a "breathing corpse."
  • Buried Alive: As punishment for giving burial to her scoundrel of a brother, Antigone is sentenced to be buried alive in a crypt with enough food and water to keep death from saving her from years of isolation.
  • Cain and Abel: Just before the events of the play, the two sons of Oedipus killed one another over the throne of Thebes. One of the brothers is deemed to have been lawful and given burial, but the other is deemed the Cain of the situation and the king unjustly outlaws that he should have any Earthly help entering the realm of Hades. The Progeny has more detail on the brothers themselves but well...
  • Character Title: The title character is Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, who at first seems to be our Tragic Hero, but the ultimate tragedy ends up befalling her enemy, Creon.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Haemon calls out Creon for how he is willing to have Antigone and Ismene killed for burying Polyneices despite the whole city thinking it is an injustice.
  • Death Seeker:
    • Antigone. She views an eternal afterlife serving the gods as more desirable than a temporary life serving man. Hence why, after being imprisoned, she hangs herself.
    • Ismene is an unsuccessful one. While she refuses to help Antigone bury Polyneices, when Antigone is sentenced to death, Ismene tries to share in her guilt and punishment, but Antigone refuses because she didn't earn it.
  • Desecrating the Dead: Discussed. The plot is driven by a debate regarding whether or not Antigone's brother, Polyneices, who died trying to seize a power vacuum, deserves a proper burial or further desecration. The king has made it illegal to bury him, but Antigone holds that the law of the gods demands that one helps their family proceed through the afterlife. She holds this even as Creon orders her to be locked alive in a tomb, and he holds his conviction until Antigone's fate drives his entire family to suicide, at which point he admits his foolishness.
  • The Determinator: Antigone. She refuses to stop burying her brother's body even at the threat of death because she knows it's the right thing to do.
  • Disaster Dominoes: The ending is basically Suicide Dominoes. Poor Creon.
  • Dishonored Dead: King Creon orders that the body of Polyneices (who had attacked the city to claim kingship) should be left unburied.
  • Downer Ending: Antigone kills herself in her prison, which causes her lover to kill himself by accident while trying to stab the king, which then causes Antigone's lover's mother to self-stab in the heart, which leaves Antigone's lover's mother's husband (the king who condemned Antigone) is left to pray for his own death to escape from his despair.
  • Driven to Suicide: Antigone, and later on, Haemon and Eurydice.
  • Due to the Dead: The importance of this is a major plot point.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Creon cannot comprehend that Antigone loved both her brothers unconditionally, despite their becoming mortal enemies.
  • Evil Counterpart: Creon's arc here very closely mirrors that of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, but where Oedipus was motivated by the pursuit of justice and the well-being of his people, Creon is primarily concerned with protecting his own power.
  • Evil Uncle: Creon. However, unlike many other examples, this is due to his treating Antigone like he would any other who broke the law.
  • Faceā€“Heel Turn: Creon appears to have undergone one of these since his appearance in Oedipus Rex, where he's quite sensible and sympathetic.
  • False Dichotomy: Creon appears to equate an unwillingness to hate Polyneices with approval of what he did.
  • Genre Savvy: However stubborn he is, Creon, unlike Oedipus, is smart enough to ultimately realize that Tiresias is always right and he has to reverse his actions quickly now or it might be too late. But it doesn't do him much good anyway.
  • God Is Good: Antigone respects the law of the gods above all other laws, leading her to prefer death to submitting unjustly to the king. The king at first argues with Antigone, but the aftermath of her death convinces him that he was in the wrong, leaving it unambiguous that the gods determine what is just and not the kings of men.
  • Greek Chorus: Literally of course. They represent the people and elders of Thebes.
  • Hereditary Suicide:
    • Antigone concludes the chain from her own family that began with her mother (and grandmother) Jocasta hanging herself in Oedipus the King.
    • Antigone's suicide also sets off its own chain. Her husband-to-be (and cousin, and adopted sibling), Haemon, stabbed himself after finding out that Creon was too late to save Antigone. Haemon's mother, Creon's wife, then stabbed herself upon finding out about her son's death.
  • The Hero Dies: Antigone herself commits suicide near the end of the play.
  • Hesitant Sacrifice: Before being led into her tomb, Antigone has a speech lamenting that this has to happen to her, and Creon mocks her and interprets this as her regretting her decision.
  • Honor Before Reason: Antigone gives her brother a proper burial, even though she knows it will mean her death. Furthermore, she rejects Ismene's suggestion to bury him secretly, feeling she has to challenge Creon's unjust law directly rather than trying to escape with her life.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Many of Creon's mistakes come from the time he wastes completely misinterpreting the motives of everyone around him. He doesn't understand that Antigone is appealing to a different law than the one he's upholding, he unjustly accuses the Sentry and then Tiresias of being corrupt, and when Haemon tries to persuade him to think again, he lets himself get into a huge snot about the fact that his own son is daring to question his judgement.
  • Humans Are Special: The chorus has a speech about how special and wondrous but terrifying humans are.
  • Hypocrite: When Antigone buries her brother out of family loyalty, Creon orders her execution. When Haemon rejects the Disproportionate Retribution, Creon orders him to agree, arguing that he's being disloyal to his father because of this.
  • I Am Spartacus: When Antigone is accused of burying Polyneices and is ready to take the punishment, Ismene says that she was responsible, and Creon nearly decides to have them both killed before ultimately deciding Ismene was lying and is innocent.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • All of the tragedy is a result of first Antigone and then Creon deciding that burying Polyneices is more important than keeping Antigone alive.
    • Creon for not knowing that, generally, flipping off the gods by not burying the dead is a bad idea.
  • Ironic Echo: "Afflicting men the worst of ills is lack of judgment." First said by Creon when accusing Tiresias the seer of corruption, later said by the Messenger when Creon realizes that his hubris led to his son committing suicide, fulfilling Tiresias's prophecy.
  • Kissing Cousins: Antigone and Haemon are engaged, but worryingly, they are first cousins on both sides of the family, as Antigone is related to Creon through both her parents.
  • Mirror Character: Creon's story very closely mirrors that of the title character of the prequel work Oedipus Rex. Both start out as kings on top of the world, but their stubborn pursuit of their goals despite the advice of those around them causes their entire lives to come apart.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Creon at the end.
  • Never Hurt an Innocent: Creon stubbornly insists on carrying out his threats towards Antigone even when it's clear that this will do more harm than good, but he relents from punishing Ismene when he realizes she hasn't done anything illegal.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Antigone is not only Haemon's cousin but also his foster sister since Creon raised Antigone, Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles as his children after Oedipus left Thebes.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Creon is especially unwilling to relent to Antigone because he feels a man shouldn't ever relent to a woman. While in this play, this helps to show his arrogance, his general sentiment wouldn't be considered that politically incorrect at the time.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: We don't know how the neighbouring cities feel about Thebes by the end of the play, but just about everything else happened as Tiresias predicted.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Sentry serves an antagonistic role in arresting Antigone for trying to bury her brother. However, he is clearly doing this under Creon's orders, and after the first attempt, Creon threatens to have him executed if he cannot find the one responsible.
  • Punished for Sympathy: Antigone's brother Polynices dies an enemy of the state, and Creon commands that Polyneices's body shall not be buried. Antigone gives him a proper burial anyway, so she is sentenced to be locked in a tomb.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Creon succeeds in getting Antigone killed but loses his whole family in the process.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Tiresias really lets Creon have it after Creon ignores his advice and accuses him of taking bribes.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Antigone pays Due to the Dead despite the death penalty.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Antigone's ultimate fate is to be sealed into a tomb herself.
  • Secondhand Storytelling:
    • The illegal burial of Oedipus's son is not shown, it is only known to the audience thanks to a guard who (unwillingly) tells the king about the subject while stopping the story every few seconds to make sure he won't get killed for giving the bad news.
    • Antigone's capture is told by the guards who bring her to the king. Since the capture took about half a day, its omission helps to keep the play from running for an ungodly amount of time.
    • Per the standards of the day, all the suicides happen off-screen to be related by messengers for the audience.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Creon threatens to have the Sentry executed after they bring him news that there has been an attempt to bury the body, saying the guards must have been responsible. The Sentry was worried this would happen, delaying the journey, and the guards chose him by lot.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Antigone refuses to let the king stop her from doing what is right by burying her brother, thus forcing the king's son, Haemon, to stand by as his father sentences to death the woman who should be his wife.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: This is essentially the dilemma Antigone faces: Disobey her uncle's royal command and be punished, or leave her brother's corpse unburied and risk the wrath of the gods for impiety?
    • Ismene is asked by Antigone whether she will be a dutiful sister and help Antigone bury the body (good), or be a traitor to her family (lawful). Ismene reluctantly chooses to abide by Creon's authority, fearing the death penalty (lawful). Antigone declares that Ismene is as good as dead to her and buries Polyneices's body. When Ismene attempts to share in the guilt, Antigone rejects her, determined to die by herself.
  • Together in Death: Antigone and Haemon at the end.
    • Ismene tries to pull this with Antigone early in the play, saying that she was responsible for the burials as well so they could die together.
  • Tragedy: The entire play is about Antigone trying to go against her uncle's wishes to bury her dead brother, and ultimately being Driven to Suicide at the end, along with several others, leaving her uncle alone.
  • Tragic Hero: Both Creon and Ismene are bound by their devotion to the law; Antigone is compelled to give her brother a proper burial, while Creon's responsibility as king is to stop her.
  • Trilogy Creep: Originally this was the fourth Theban play. The Progeny, alas, only survives in fragments.
  • The Unfettered: Antigone will not let anything - her sister, the law, death itself - stop her from her singular goal of getting Polynices buried.
  • Villain Protagonist: Creon. Antigone may be the titular character and she's undoubtedly more heroic than Creon, but he's the real protagonist because she goes to her death still believing that she's done the right thing, whereas his actions bring about his utter ruin and, by the end, he's all too aware of it.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Creon is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the city afloat and ensure order after the anarchy of the Labdacides.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: No further mention is made of Ismene after her sister Antigone is sentenced to death.
  • Womanliness as Pathos: Played With. The protagonist, Antigone, actually acts far more like a Greek male hero would, rather than a heroine; these traits create a lot of friction with the other characters, who expect her to act as a woman should. Creon is especially fed up with her antics, feels the need to assert his dominance over her as a man, and tries to get his lovesick son Haimon to abandon her. He believes that she makes Haemon act weak and foolish — in other words, like how a woman would be expected to act. Creon's misogyny is one of the main reasons he opposes Antigone in her quest, and the drama is ironically created because she doesn't act stereotypically. The only time she acts "womanly" is when she's Driven to Suicide, and that leads to a very Bittersweet Ending.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Because Oedipus did... well... what Oedipus did, their entire family is cursed, making it inevitable that Antigone will be condemned for burying her brother, leaving her sister, Ismene, to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she was too cowardly to join Antigone in burying Polyneices and that her entire family is dead. Notice how eager she is to share Antigone's death sentence, but Creon refuses to condemn her, and Antigone rebuffs her.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: At least one translation (discussed here) has Creon labeling Antigone a "terrorist" for disobeying his law. Antigone is undaunted and continues to follow the law of Zeus over mortal decrees, effectively holding herself as a moral rebel rather than an ancestor to ISIS.

The Anouilh play contains examples of:

  • Acting for Two: The Prologue and the Chorus are both designated as such, but in most representations (including the 1944 première, they are played by the same actor.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: At the end of the play, Creon remains alone and devastated, having lost his whole family, and pitifully trying to advocate that he just does what has to be done in front of his page who is too young to understand.
  • Anachronism Stew: The 1944 version, although it's meant to fit in any place and time, mentions cigarettes, long trousers, jackets, movies, guns, sports cars, nightclubs, gangsters, and evening clothes.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: How Creon sees the whole Polyneices business.
    Antigone: You are odious!
    Creon: Yes my dear; it's part of the job description. The question is: do you want to do it or not? But if you do, that is how is must be done!
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Anouilh wrote his version while his homeland was occupied by the Nazis and administered on their behalf by French collaborators, and it's commonly interpreted as a commentary on that situation. Most of the characters either don't care about Creon's tyrannies or prefer to go along to get along, but Antigone insists on doing the right thing even though she knows it will lead to her death and might not even make a difference in the end.
  • Dramatic Irony: Purposefully invoked by Creon to make Antigone renounce her projects: both her brothers were scumbags and Creon isn't even sure which one was buried with honors and which one was left to rot.
  • Fatal Flaw: Antigone's complete unwillingness to bend even in the face of reason.
  • Greek Chorus: The Chorus in this version is unique in that it is not the "voice of the elders of the city" as it would have been (and was) in the original play, but is instead something like a meta narrator who points out the inherent flaws and hypocrisy of the characters within the play
  • Growing Up Sucks: At the end of the play, Creon is left alone with his young page.
    Creon: Of course, you don't know. How lucky you are! One should never have to know. Are you looking forward to grow up?
    Page: Oh yes, sir!
    Creon: You are out of your mind, kid. One should never have to grow up.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Once he becomes sure that Antigone has not told anyone about her plan, Creon's first idea to spare his niece is to silence the sentries who arrested her.
  • Hope Is Scary:
    CHORUS: Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Creon maintains throughout that he only took the crown because somebody had to and that the things he's done to keep hold of power, some of which he admits were deplorable, were all necessary for the good of the city.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: When Antigone is caught trying to bury her brother, Creon asks if she was counting on her family connections to get her out of trouble, and tells her she'll have to face the consequences like anybody else, but when she makes it clear that she's prepared to face the consequences he immediately starts planning to get her out of trouble and hush the whole thing up.
  • Loyal to the Position: The Chorus describes the guards as this, saying that they'll arrest anybody Creon orders them to and will be just as willing to arrest Creon himself if he gets overthrown and the new king orders them to.
  • Mood Dissonance: Every scene with the Guards who are totally devoid of imagination or sense of tragedy and care about their daily business.
  • Must Not Die a Virgin: The night before she goes out to bury her brother, Antigone tries to get her fiancé to seduce her, because she's not going to live to marry him and wants them both to have a taste of what married life would have been like. It doesn't work out; he's just confused by her uncharacteristic behavior.
  • Reluctant Ruler: The Prologue clearly states that Creon didn't want to be king. He later confirms that he assumed the role only because he felt it would be dishonest to turn down the job.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!:
    Creon: I get you, I would have done the same when I was twenty. That's the reason why I was drinking your words. I was listening to a young Creon, ages ago, skinny and pale as you are and also full of thoughts about self-sacrifice... [...] Life is not what you think. It's like a water and young people let it run away through their fingers.
  • Tomboy: Antigone in this version of the play in contrast with her sister who is the traditional "feminine" character.
  • The Voiceless: Eurydice, Creon's wife, doesn't say a line in the whole play.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: Ismene's change of heart near the end is depicted like this; after Antigone turns her away because she didn't help, she declares that she will carry on Antigone's work, and Antigone challenges Creon to consider that now there are two people who think like Antigone, and how many more will there be?
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Antigone is insistent throughout the play that this is the real reason she fights so hard to die because both she and Creon have "roles" to play.