Antigone Book Summary - Antigone Book explained in key points
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Antigone summary


An Ancient Greek Tragedy on Civil Disobedience, Morality and Gender

4.7 (31 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

Antigone by Sophocles is a Greek tragedy where Antigone defies the state's law and buries her brother, leading to tragic consequences. It explores themes of family, loyalty, and the conflict between divine and human laws.

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    Part 1: “I will bury him even if it means death.”

    The conflict that tore the city of Thebes apart is over. Peace, though, hasn’t healed the wounds of war. Before the city can move forward, it needs to reckon with its recent past. 

    Sophocles doesn’t give us a full account of the Theban civil war. He didn’t need to: Athenian theatergoers were familiar enough with the mythology that forms the backdrop to the play.

    We need some context, however, before we can jump into the drama. 

    The old king of Thebes, Oedipus, is a tragic hero. According to Greek myth, he fulfills a terrible prophecy: he unknowingly kills his own father and marries his mother, bringing disaster to his city and his family. When he learns what he’s done, he blinds himself with a dagger. “Why should I have eyes,” he asks in one of Sophocles’s earlier plays, when “nothing I saw was worth seeing?” Banished from the city, he becomes a wandering outcast. 

    Oedipus’s incestuous marriage to his mother, Jocasta, produced four children – two girls and two boys. After his banishment, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, take turns sharing the throne of Thebes. They both desire absolute power, though, and soon come to blows. In the struggle that ensues, Eteocles gains the upper hand and sends his brother into exile. Polynices returns with an army of mercenaries at his back, sparking the Theban civil war. Eteocles’s forces triumph, but not before the two brothers have killed each other in a battle outside the city’s gates. Power now passes to Creon, the uncle of both Oedipus and his children. 

    All of Oedipus’s children play a role in the play’s opening act. His daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are physically present. Their fallen brothers, meanwhile, are there in spirit, haunting the scene. It’s their fate that the two women are discussing when we first meet them. 

    Antigone has asked Ismene to meet her outside the city, away from the prying eyes of its inhabitants. She’s in a state of despair, her thoughts jumbled, and her words hurried. As Ismene puts it, she’s as “clear as fog at sea.” What’s caused her pain? Antigone says that she’s never seen such misery and madness; it’s monstrous, she cries. What is, her sister asks her. Antigone’s answer echoes through the rest of the play: this “shame and dishonor.”

    Eteocles has been buried with all the proper rites – a funeral with full honors befitting a man now celebrated as a hero for his role in repulsing an invasion. His brother, Polynices, meanwhile, has been denied any form of burial – a punishment worse than that handed out to traitors. Creon has ordered that his body be left exposed on a hillside for vultures to peck at and promised to execute anyone who goes against his will.

    That’s why Antigone wants to speak with Ismene: she’s decided to defy the king and bury Polynices. It’s time, she says, that Ismene “showed her colors.” Will she do what’s right? 

    Ismene is in a bind. She wants to honor her brother – like Antigone, she sees it as a duty owed to family. But she also believes that the law must be obeyed, “even if it hurts us.” These words take us to the heart of the ethical dilemma that Sophocles set out to explore. Do unjust laws command respect? Yes, says Ismene, who, like many ancient Greeks, believes that obedience to the law is non-negotiable. To let individuals decide which laws to follow and which to disregard is to rip up the social contract. It’s a recipe for anarchy – a word that, for the Greeks, conjured up images of a barbaric life-and-death struggle between isolated individuals. 

    Ismene says she’ll pray for her brother, but that’s all she can do. To do more, she argues, would be to “take up arms against the city.” Antigone rejects this argument – for her, it’s a cover for cowardice. What we do, she says, is a choice. Nothing can stop us doing what’s right; we’re always free to act. We can be punished for those actions, but that’s the price of our freedom. 

    “I will bury him,” Antigone concludes, “even if it means death.” 

    For her, justice is bigger than the city. To give the dead a proper burial is a religious commandment. Antigone isn’t an anarchist. Yes, the laws of cities and kings matter a great deal, but those laws are only valid if they conform to the eternal laws of the gods.

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    What is Antigone about?

    Antigone (c. 441 BC) is a tragedy by Sophocles, one of ancient Greece’s greatest playwrights. After a civil war, two brothers – the leaders of rival factions – are dead. One is remembered as a patriotic hero; the other, as a treacherous usurper. The king of Thebes, Creon, has forbidden anyone to bury the traitor – an order the man’s sister, Antigone, can’t square with her conscience. The stage is set for a conflict pitting the individual against the state, justice against law, idealism against realism, and a defiant woman against a male-dominated world.

    Who should read Antigone?

    • Theater enthusiasts interested in the history of drama
    • Fans of classical literature and mythology
    • Anyone interested in exploring themes of morality, family, and power

    About the Author

    Sophocles was an Athenian playwright who lived in the fifth century BC. By the time of his death at the age of 90 around 406 BC, he was the most celebrated author in Athens – a city-state at the height of its power and cultural influence. Only seven of the 120 plays Sophocles wrote have survived. Those plays, however, left an indelible mark not only on his own medium of tragic theater, but on Western literature as a whole. 

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