The Greek audience would have been familiar with the story told in Antigone and with the background of the characters. An understanding of Antigone’s family and her father’s fate helps to put the events of the play in context. Antigone is of the Labdacids, a great but star-crossed family. Her father was Oedipus. Oedipus was born of Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, but his parents were warned in prophecy that the boy would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother.
A herdsman was charged with killing the child, but out of pity he gave the boy to another herdsman from a neighboring kingdom. This second herdsman gave the child to his own king and queen, who raised the child as their own. The child Oedipus never knew that his adoptive parents were not his biological parents. When a young man, Oedipus was warned by an oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He fled home, thinking he would be able to avoid this fate, embarking on a series of adventures that resulted in the exact fulfillment of the prophecy.
Along the way, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, saving Thebes and becoming her king as well as Jocasta’s new husbandbut not before he killed, in a fit of uncontrolled anger, a stranger at a crossroads. The stranger, of course, was his true father, Laius. After Oedipus had been in power in Thebes for some time, a plague began to kill Theban citizens. An oracle informed the king that Thebes was being punished because Laius’ murderer was dwelling among them. Oedipus, the great riddle-solver, set out to learn the culprit’s identity.
Finally, he learned that Laius was the man at the crossroads, and worse, that Jocasta and Laius were his true parents. Jocasta was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together some time before her husband-son, and in despair she hanged herself. Oedipus, on discovering her body, blinded himself with her broaches and left the city. He entrusted his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, to Creon’s care. In the days preceding the start of the action of Antigone, Thebes has been torn by war. Many years have passed since Oedipus’s reign, and war eventually broke out between Oedipus’s two sons.
During the conflict, the two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, fought against each other as leaders of the two different sides. Eteocles was of the entrenched faction, in power in Thebes. Polyneices was the upstart, a returning exile, and he brought an invading army against the city. In the course of the battle, the two brothers were slain, “by their hands dealing mutual death” (l. 16), but Eteocles’ army eventually triumphed. In the aftermath, Creon ascended to the throne. These are the events leading up to the action of the play. Antigone and Ismene meet at night in front of the city gates.
Antigone has called her sister out for a secret meeting: she bewails their fate, daughters of a doomed mother and father, and sisters of two men who have slain each other. She then informs Ismene that Creon has declared that Eteocles shall be given a full and honorable funeral, while the body of Polyneices will be left for the animals and the sun. Anyone who tries to perform the proper funeral rites for Polyneices will be killed by public stoning. Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury Polyneices. Ismene fearfully refuses, and the two women argue over what should be done.
Antigone is outraged. She tells Ismene that she would no longer want her help even if Ismene were willing to give it. She also says that she will die willingly for her brother for giving her brother the proper rites. Ismene cannot dissuade Antigone, who parts to do the deed, speaking harsh words to Ismene as Ismene stays behind. Ismene is afraid for her sister, and she cannot condone her actionsbut she also understands that there is something to what Antigone wants to do: “Know this; that though you are wrong to go, your friends / are right to love you” (ll. 116-7).
The Chorus of Theban elders celebrates the Theban victory, praising Zeus. Zeus, they say, hates pride. They condemn Polyneices for fighting against the city. Creon meets with the elders, praising their past loyalty to Oedipus and their subsequent loyalty to Oedipus’ sons; he implies that he hopes for their continued loyalty to him. Creon speaks about the value of counsel and the importance of loyalty and patriotism. He tells them of his royal decree: though Eteocles will have all rites and honors, Polyneices’ carcass will be left to rot. The Chorus pledges to support him, though they are less than enthusiastic.