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Prologue
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Objective for this Page: To summarize the prologue, highlighting the characterization of Antigone in contrast to Ismene.

Summary

Antigone and IsmeneAntigone reveals to her sister, Ismene, Creon's decree that Eteocles will have a state funeral for defending Thebes with his life, but Polynices will remain unburied because he was a traitor. Creon, Antigone reports to her sister, has said the punishment for burying Polynices is to be stoned to death within the walls of Thebes.  Antigone tries to recruit her sister's aid in their familial duty, but her younger sister is afraid of further shame.  The consequences of not obeying laws of the living are more important than not betraying the dead to Ismene.

 

Commentary

This scene, which the chorus does not overhear, sets up the whole play.  The audience finds out about the two brothers, sons of Oedipus, who have just fought against each other over who should rule Thebes.  Antigone suggests that Creon's decree is aimed directly at her (line 38: "yes, me, I tell you"), since it is her duty to bury the dead in her family.  Antigone's act of civil disobedience in burying her brother pits divine law against Creon's civil decree, but it is also an act of direct defiance against her uncle who raised her.  Ismene demurs to help Antigone partly because of the life of shame she and her sister have already endured as the incestuous daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta.  Also the Prologue sets up the idea that Antigone is the stronger of the two sisters and that Antigone could care less what others want or think is right . Lastly her loyalty is shown to for the dead, regardless of her brother's attack on Thebes.

Translator Charles Segal notes in his "Introduction" that "Antigone not only sets out the main issues but also displays all of the contradictions and dangers that define her character: her intensity of feeling, the single-mindedness of her devotion to family, her unbending will, her readiness to defy the entire city in the name of what she believes, her involvement with the dead, and ther willingness to face death if necessary" (7).

Study Questions

bulletWhy do feel Antigone was so determined to bury her brother, and why was Ismene not?
bulletWhy would Antigone say that even if Ismene changed her mind later that she would not now let Ismene help her bury their brother?
bullet Do you think that it is important that the two brothers died in "hand to hand" combat? If so how does it fit in with the streak of tragedy in this family?
bullet(Advanced) If you were playing the role of Creon, you'd have to supply some "back story" to understand how to portray the new king.
bulletWhy would Creon make such a decree: Is he a new ruler making a regulation to test everyone's loyalty?  Is he setting up Antigone because he fears her power?
bulletDid Creon get the brothers to agree to take turns ruling Thebes because he planned to remain the power behind the throne and work on Eteocles during the first year so that he would refuse to yield to Polynices when the time came?
bulletDoes Creon want the throne for himself, even at the cost of civil war and his nephews' deaths?  In the play, Oedipus the King, when Oedipus accuses Creon (wrongly) of plotting against him, Creon suggests that he would not want to be king because he has all of the perks of power without any of the headaches.  Has being regent for about 20 years changed his mind? Or was he lying to Oedipus in the first place just to turn aside his brother-in-law's suspicions?
bulletCreon has had only King Laius--who tried to run Oedipus down in the road outside Thebes because he wouldn't yield the right of way--and Oedipus who came up with several paranoid conspiracy theories when he was hunting down the murderer of Laius (who turned out to be himself, of course).  If these arrogant and paranoid men are his immediate role models as kings, what sort of king is Creon likely to be?

Thanks to Joy Myers and Shelley Rowe for contributing to the top half of this page.

Criticism

For analysis of Antigone's opening speech, see your reference librarian about getting a photocopy of this critical essay from a learned journal--

C.W. Willink, "The Opening Speech of Sophocles' Antigone. Mnemosyne, Dec 2000 v53 i6 p662(10).

Assessment: Choose a study question and respond in a paragraph, citing evidence from the prologue to support your point(s).

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This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.