Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the last play in the Theban Trilogy, Antigone, around 442 B.C. The Theban Trilogy consists of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, but the play considered the last of the three was, ironically, written first.
Only seven of Sophocles's one hundred-twenty-three tragedies have survived to the modern era—with the trilogy surviving the ages intact. These three plays are perhaps the most famous of the seven, with Antigone performed most often.
Antigone tells the story of the title character, daughter of Oedipus (the former king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, and who renounced his kingdom upon discovering his actions), and her fight to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebes.
It is a story that pits the law of the gods—"unwritten law"—against the laws of humankind, family ties against civic duty, and man against woman.
Many playwrights in Ancient Greece used mythological stories to comment on social and political concerns of their time. This is what Sophocles may have intended when he wrote Antigone.
Based on the legends of Oedipus, Sophocles may have been trying to send a message to the Athenian general, Pericles, about the dangers of authoritarian rule.
These tragedies were written to be performed at the Great Dionysia (a festival in honor of the god Dionysus, the god of fertility, theater, and wine) in Athens. Attending these plays was considered a civic duty, and even criminals were let out of jail to attend.
Antigone won Sophocles first prize at the festival and was an enormous success. It is still performed today, and has been adapted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, who set the play during World War II.
The play takes up the story of the Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, but with some changes in the situation. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have fallen, as will be remembered, at one of the gates of Thebes.
King Creon allows Eteocles to be buried at once, that he might receive due honor among the shades; but he orders a herald to forbid any funeral rites or burial to the corpse of Polynices. "Let him lie unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and whoso touches him shall perish by the cruel death of stoning."
Antigone tells these gloomy tidings to her sister Ismene, and informs her of what she has resolved to do: • "In spite of the orders, I shall give my brother burial, whether thou, Ismene, wilt join with me or not."
In vain her sister bids her keep in mind the ruin of their house: • "We twain are left alone, and if we brave the king's decree, an unhappy death awaits us. Weak women such as we cannot strive with men; rather were it seemly to bow to those that are stronger than ourselves. The dead, who lie below, will deal leniently with us, as forced to yield."
Pathetically noble is the response of Antigone: • "Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me; nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains."