by Sophocles

Background of "Antigone" and the Oedipus Cycle
Antigone hails from a family in Greek mythology; she is the daughter of King Oedipus, who was famous in Greek mythology for being fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The myth of Oedipus provides Sophocles with material for three great tragedies: "Oedipus the King", "Oedipus at Colonus", and "Antigone", which together recount the downfall of Oedipus, his death in exile, and the actions carried out after his death by Antigone. The catastrophes afflicting this family can be traced in part to a curse, but Sophocles also explores the critical role played by human beings in bringing about their own fates.

In the 20th century the word Oedipus suggest a psychological complex, while in ancient Greece it was the name of a king of Thebes. The Oedipus complex, based on the life of that tragic figure, is a psychoanalytic theory introduced by Sigmund Freud in his book Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899. In this he suggests that all people have a secret desire to be married to one of their parents, the Oedipus Complex.

Before "Oedipus the King" begins we find out that Laius, king of Thebes and father of Oedipus, learned from an oracle that his own son would kill him. He therefore pierced and bound the feet of the newborn baby and had him left to die on Mount Cithaeron. A kindhearted shepherd found the child and named his Oedipus, meaning "swollen foot."

The child was brought to the king of Corinth, who reared him as his son. When Oedipus was grown an oracle told him he was to kill his father and marry his own mother. To escape this fate he left home, for he believed that the king of Corinth was his father.

On his way to Thebes he encountered Laius, his real father, quarreled with him, and killed him. About this time a terrible Sphinx appeared near Thebes. This monster asked a riddle of all who passed and forced them to guess it or be devoured. The Thebans offered the throne and the hand of Queen Jocasta to whomever should answer the monster's riddle.

"What animal," asked the Sphinx when Oedipus confronted it, "walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and three at night?" Oedipus quickly replied "Man, for in the morning, the infancy of his life, he creeps on all fours; at noon, in his prime, he walks on two feet; and , when the darkness of old age comes over him, he uses a stick for better support as a third foot." Thereupon the Sphinx threw herself over the rocky precipice and perished.

Oedipus became king and was married to Jocasta. Soon the country was devastated by a terrible plague. The oracle promised relief when the murderer of Laius should be banished.

"Oedipus the King"
The first play in the cycle tells the story of how King Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the plague afflicting the city of Thebes, and discovers that he himself is responsible, because he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother (who has given birth to his four children: Polynices, Etocles, Antigone, and Ismene). In the course of his search, Oedipus remains virtuous and intelligent, but is also blinded by his own ignorance and insufficient humility. The play ends when his wife/mother kills herself; Oedipus blinds himself and asks to be sent away from Thebes so that he will no longer pollute the city by his presence. Creon, Antigone's uncle, becomes king and assumes this position until Oedipus' sons grow up.
"Oedipus at Colonus"
The second play in the cycle takes place about 20 years after the action of "Oedipus the King". It completes the tale of Oedipus' life and immediately precedes the action in "Antigone". In this play, Oedipus, with his daughter Antigone as his sole attendant, has grown old in his destitute wanderings and has been graced with dignity and importance by divine forces. It is fated that he will bring good fortune to the land that provides him a place of refuge. In the town of Colonus, Oedipus finds refuge, dies, and is buried. After his death, Antigone returns to Thebes, with hopes of stopping the war that has arisen between her brothers, who are fighting over the throne.

"Antigone" (Short Introduction)
The third play of the cycle begins shortly after the death of Antigone's two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who have killed each other in a battle over the kingship of Thebes. Creon, Antigone's uncle, and now the king, decrees that Etocles will be buried with all honors, but that Polynices, because he was a traitor to Thebes in bringing an army from the outside, should not be buried or honored in any way. Creon feels that states cannot survive if they allow their laws to be broken. He also demands that any person disobeying this decree be stoned to death.

As the play opens, Etoecles has already been buried, but Polynices' corpse lies exposed and rotting where he fell. For the Greeks, until the body is properly buried with religious rites the soul cannot leave it and enter Hades, the Underworld. It is the duty of a family to ensure this is done. Antigone and her sister Ismene both think the decree of Creon is wrong. Ismene feels she can do nothing about it, but Antigone, who is about to marry Haemon, Creon's son, insists the laws of the gods should prevail over Creon's law. Despite Creon's threat of consequences, Antigone decides to defy the decree and bury her brother.

Oedipus Cycle: Greek Theater
There are certain traditions of the Greek Theater that can be seen in the Oedipus Cycle. Classical actors wore masks to suggest the characters they were playing. Men played all the roles in the play. (This attitude prevailed even in Shakespeare's time, 2000 years later. An actor might play more than one role, and since they all work masks, the audience couldn't tell. The Chorus (Theban Senators in "Antigone") was not considered part of the acting ensemble; its role was to chant, sing, or dance as part of the artistic development of the story, and it stayed in a separate area of the stage. These performers may have worn masks as well, but historical sources suggest they were graceful, dignified dancers, who used their own faces to express the changing moods and attitudes of the scenes.

Sophocles made some radical innovation in the use of the Chorus. He increased the traditional number of the Chorus from twelve to fifteen. He also introduced dirge like instrumental music, probably played on the flute or lyre, to underscore the choral chanting and singing. In other Greek drama, the Chorus usually commented only on the action, or provided direction between scenes. In "Antigone", the Chorus/Senators have a much more active role as spectators and as the voice of the Theban citizens. The Chorus is an important gauge of the moral progress throughout the play.

Read carefully what the Chorus says. The speeches set the tone of the play, and it never leaves the stage. Pay special attention to the changing moods and attitudes of the Chorus. When it speaks directly to the audience, it is presenting moral and ethical issues. Its judgments represent the basic standards and principles against which all people should be judged. These lyrical songs help to summarize plot, comment on the action, and build the play to a climax.

A perfect tragedy should imitate actions, which excite pity and fear, and also effect the proper purgation of these emotions. The change of fortune presented should be that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error of frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous-a person like Oedipus, or other illustrious men of such families. The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt with pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of Oedipus.


Civil Law (Creon) vs Moral Law (Antigone)
Yield to Pride (hubris)
Suffering Teaches Wisdom

Acheron: Lower world river of dead souls.
Acropolis: Elevated and walled section of Athens where the festival of Dionysus was held.
Antistrophe: The second of three parts in the Greek choral ode. It is delivered as the Chorus circles back toward the orchestra, moving from left to right.
Aphrodite: Goddess of love and beauty.
Apollo: The God of prophecy, reward, and punishment. Apollo was the son on Zeus and the most respected of the Greek Gods.
Ares: God of War
Artemis: The twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the heavens. Artemis was known to send plagues and sudden deaths - especially to women - without warning.
Athene: The goddess of power and wisdom. Athene was known as the protector of the Athenian state was was responsible for maintaining Greek law and order.
Bacchus: God of wine and revelry
Cadmus: Killed a dragon an built Thebes on the site.
Cithaeron: A mountain range that separated the province of Boeotia, where Thebes was located, from the surrounding frontier of Attica. Cithaeron was thought to be sacred to Dionysus.
Colonus: City near Athens where Oedipus dies
Delphi: The most sacred city in Greece, home to the holy oracles of Apollo
Dionysus: God of wine and fertility; proprietor of the theater.
Exodus: A choral recessional in Greek tragedy. It is the ritual song of the Chorus as it moves off the stage at the end of the play.
Furies: The Eumenides, or "gracious ones," who punished people for disobedience
Hades: Hell or the lower regions
Hephaestus: God of fire and forge
Hubris: Excessive pride
Oracles: Priests or psychics believed to be in direct communication with the gods. The Greeks believed oracles were holy prophets, capable of predicting the future and also interpreting the past and the present. The most famous oracle was located at Delphi.
Parados: The ceremonial entrance of the Chorus; it is also the first song chanted by the Chorus as it enters the theater and moves to the orchestra.
Parnasus: Where Apollo and the sacred muses lived
Prologue: Literally, "the speech before." In Greek tragedy the prologue is the first passage of spoken dialogue before the entrance of the Chorus.
Sipylus: Mountain in Lydia where Niobe was turned to stone
Sphinx: A winged monster know in myth as "the strangler." The sphinx had a lion's body and the head and breasts of a woman. Sitting on a rock outside the gates of Thebes, the Sphinx asked the same riddle of every passerby. Those who could not answer the riddle were strangled. When Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, she flung herself from the rock and was killed.
Stasimon: The choral song chanted or sung by the Chorus in its ritual movement around the stage. Stasima alternate with passages of spoken dialogue and are also found as choral odes between individual episodes of the tragedy.
Strophe: The first of three parts of the Greek choral ode. It is delivered as the Chorus circles from right to left in the orchestra; it comes before the antistrophe.
Tantalus: World king punished by Zeus with eternal hunger and thirst.
Thebes: The chief city of the province of Boeotia, reportedly founded by the hero Cadmus: Legend had it that Thebes was created when Amphion played his magic lyre and caused stones and rocks to move into place to form a city. Oedipus is a descendant of Cadmus.
Zeus: The husband of Hera, Zeus was the most powerful of all the Greek gods and was entrusted with ruling Mount Olympus.

Pronunciations of Names
Oedipus (ED ih pihs or EE dih pihs)
Antigone (an TIG uh ne)
Ismene (iz ME ne)
Teiresias (ti RE se uhs)
Eurydice (yoo RID uh se, yor RID uh se)
Polynices (pol ih NE seez)
Creon (KRE on)

Family Tree