Jean Anouilh's Antigone: Summary & Analysis

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin teaches college English and composition. She holds an M.A. in Publishing and Writing.

Learn how French playwright Jean Anouilh adapted Sophocles' classic play 'Antigone' to send a message of anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. Read a summary and analysis of this adaptation within the context of its writing.


We're all familiar with how movies and television shows adapt works of literature. But it turns out, movies and TV weren't the first to do this. Jean Anouilh adapted Greek playwright Sophocles' Antigone and paid homage to it by hitting most of the same story notes, but also made it his own by using it as an inspiration for anti-Nazi sentiment. It's pretty cool that writing a play can be seen as a revolutionary act, but that's exactly what Antigone was in German-occupied France in the 1940s.

Jean Anouilh was a French playwright living in German-occupied France during World War II. He wrote Antigone in 1942, though the play was originally censored due to its anti-authority message. The play was not staged in Paris until 1944, shortly before Paris' liberation.

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The play starts with the Chorus introducing the main characters of the play, including Antigone, the titular tragic heroine and daughter of Oedipus; Ismene, Antigone's beautiful and feminine sister; Haemon, Antigone's fiance and the Prince of Thebes; and Creon, Antigone's uncle and the world-weary King of Thebes, who's married to Eurydice. The Chorus also narrates the background lead up to the play: Antigone's brothers Eteocles and Polynices fought for the rule of Thebes and killed each other. Creon then became king and declared Polynices a traitor, meaning he should get no burial.

The action picks up with the Nurse, an original character, discovering Antigone sneaking back to her room early in the morning, supposedly from a romantic tryst. Ismene arrives and tries to talk Antigone out of burying Polynices against Creon's edict. She's afraid to go against the law.

Haemon visits and Antigone admits to dressing up in Ismene's feminine accessories out of insecurity of Haemon's love for her. She then says that she loves Haemon but she will not be able to marry him. Hurt, Haemon leaves. Ismene returns to remind Antigone that Polynices was not kind or loving. She says that this is Creon's business. Antigone confesses to already burying him.

Meanwhile, Creon learns that Polynices has been buried, though without much depth. Creon orders his body uncovered and any person found trying to bury the body again arrested. He also orders his guards to keep quiet about this.

The Chorus then returns to meditate on the meaning of tragedy.

During the day, Antigone tries to bury Polynices again and is caught. The guards bring her before Creon, though they don't recognize her since they are more interested in how this can benefit them. Their ridiculousness is meant to be humorous against a tragic backdrop.

Antigone confesses to her actions without reservation. Creon tries to cover up the crime to protect Antigone, but she says she will just bury the body again. Creon tells Antigone she, as the daughter of kings, must obey the law. Antigone, however, refuses. Creon realizes her motivations aren't actually religious, as the rituals being used are hollow. Rather, she cares only for herself. Like her father, she thrives on tragedy. No matter what argument Creon makes to try to convince Antigone to back down, she refuses. Ismene arrives and tries to take some of the blame on herself, but Antigone refuses to let her. She wants to be sentenced to death alone.

The Chorus warns Creon not to kill Antigone, but Creon does not see any other way. Haemon then arrives and tries to intercede on Antigone's behalf, but Creon does not change his mind because the story has already spread around Thebes. He has no choice but to uphold the law or risk rebellion.

In a cell, meanwhile, Antigone bribes a guard to record a letter to Haemon in which she apologizes to her fiance. When she's done, she's taken away to a cave.

A messenger then arrives to reveal to Eurydice that Antigone hanged herself in the cave. Haemon found her, and when Creon arrived, Haemon drew his sword on his father but stabbed himself. Creon returns and states he has laid the pair out together. However, the Chorus tells him Eurydice cut her own throat after learning of Haemon's death.

Alone except for his young page, Creon goes on with his required duties while the guards continue playing cards.

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