Prologue of Antigone (Lines 1-100): Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Abigail Walker

Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.

In the prologue to Sophocles' ''Antigone'', Oedipus's daughters Antigone and Ismene mourn the deaths of their two brothers. The sisters disagree for several reasons about whether or not they should comply with sacred laws or the orders of the king.

Oedipus's Family, or Setting the Stage

Antigone needs to share horrifying news with her sister Ismene, and so she leads Ismene out of earshot from the palace where they live. Although the palace once belonged to their dead father Oedipus, it now belongs to their uncle Creon, a man whom their father mistrusted. Antigone does not want Creon to hear what she is about to tell her sister.

When Ismene has moved away from the palace doors, Antigone speaks of the misery their family has had to endure because their father's actions. Abandoned at birth, Oedipus later encountered his parents, King Laius of Thebes and his wife Jocasta. Oedipus, unaware that the king and his wife were in fact his parents, first killed Laius in a quarrel and later married Jocasta. She gave birth to Antigone and Ismene, as well as two sons: Eteoclês and Polyneicês.

Polyneicês's Fate and Antigone's Request

It is these two sons who now bring a new tragedy into the lives of Antigone and Ismene. Eteoclês and Polyneicês have battled and killed each other because Polyneicês would not accept Creon as king. As a result, Creon declared that Eteoclês was heroic, honoring him and burying him with 'military honors.' In contrast, Creon denounced Polyneicês as a traitor, ordering that his body be left on the battlefield to decompose and be eaten by birds of prey; furthermore, he ordered that anyone caught attempting to bury the body will be sentenced to stoning in the public square.

After sharing this terrible news, Antigone challenges her sister to help bury their brother. Ismene is shocked; she has just heard Antigone explain the agonizing punishment for such an action. Ismene implores her sister to consider what Creon will do to them if they're caught. Antigone, however, insists that she will not be scared away by Creon.

Ismene's Response, or Echoes of Tragedy

Ismene, horrified, reminds her sister of the past tragedy in their family: their mother Jocasta had strung rope around her neck and taken her own life upon realizing that the father of her children was in fact her own son, while Oedipus had torn out his own eyes when he discovered that his parents were Laius and Jocasta. Now their brothers have slain each other, and Antigone is inviting another tragedy. No, Ismene says. She is unable to help; she has to obey the law.

Antigone's Reaction

Antigone shoots back that she would not allow Ismene to accompany her now even if her sister begged to help. Knowing Creon will punish her, she adds that she will 'lie down with him in death.' Antigone insists she will be following sacred laws by interring the body of her brother, something she chastises her sister for failing to do.

Ismene replies that she honors sacred laws but is afraid to disobey Creon's decree. She also tells her sister how fearful she is for her, and promises she will not tell anyone what Antigone plans to do.

Antigone says that Ismene should tell everyone so others won't despise her for keeping her sister's plan a secret. Wanting to be by herself, she tells Ismene to leave her alone and adds that she will soon despise Ismene, as will the dead. Ismene replies that Antigone must do what she feels she must, even though she is foolish but nonetheless faithful to those who have given her love.

Thematic Analysis

Antigone opens focusing on the struggle for power, which emerges as a central theme of Sophocles's play. We learn, for example, of the struggle between Eteoclês and Polyneicês, which ends in the death of both. The brothers' conflict parallels the struggle between Laius and Oedipus that also ends in death.

In addition to the conflict between the brothers, another theme arises in the prologue of Antigone: the contrast between what is deemed civilized and what is not - covering up the deceased as opposed to leaving the corpse to decompose in public. While Ismene recognizes that it is wrong not to bury her brother, she does not want to go against Creon's decree. Antigone of course has no compunction about defying Creon.

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