As with all Greek plays, The Antigone is clearly separated into separate scenes, called “episodes”, by choral song and dance. The choral songs have two main functions: they offer a reflection on the events unfolding, and they allow time for the 3 actors to change character.
Prior to the beginning of the play, brothers Eteocles and Polynices, leading opposite sides in Thebes' civil war, died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and brother of the former Queen Jocasta, has decided that Eteocles will be honored and Polynices will be in public shame. The rebel brother's body will not be sanctified by holy rites and will lie unburied on the battlefield, prey for carrion animals like worms and vultures, the harshest punishment at the time. Antigone and Ismene are the sisters of the dead Polynices and Eteocles.
Prologue: Antigone & Ismene
In the opening of the play, Antigone brings Ismene outside the palace gates late at night for a secret meeting: Antigone wants to bury Polynices' body, in defiance of Creon's edict. Ismene refuses to help her, not believing that it will actually be possible to bury their brother, who is under guard, but she is unable to stop Antigone from going to bury her brother herself.
The chorus - or a single chorus member - starts to sing, then the chorus enters. They cast the background story of the seven against Thebes into a mythic and heroic context.
Creon enters, and seeks the support of the chorus of Theban elders in the days to come and in particular, wants them to back his edict regarding the disposal of Polynices' body. The leader of the chorus pledges his support out of deference to Creon. A sentry enters, fearfully reporting that the body has been given funeral rites and a symbolic burial with a thin covering of earth, though no one sees who actually committed the crime. Creon, furious, orders the sentry to find the culprit or face death himself. The sentry leaves.
In a very famous ode, the chorus praise the rule of law. This sets them against Antigone.
This scene is the "Agon" or contest, central to many Greek plays. We see the two points of view in stark contrast.
Creon returns, bringing Antigone with him. The sentry explains that the watchmen uncovered Polynices' body and then caught Antigone as she did the funeral rituals. Creon questions her after sending the sentry away, and she does not deny what she has done. She argues unflinchingly with Creon about the immorality of the edict and the morality of her actions. Creon becomes furious, and seeing Ismene upset, thinks she must have known of Antigone's plan. He summons her. Ismene tries to confess falsely to the crime, wishing to die alongside her sister, but Antigone will not have it. Creon orders that the two women be imprisoned.
The chorus sing of the troubles of the house of Oedipus. Since all 3 actors were on stage at the end of the previous episode, this chorus is necessary so that one can change costume and appear as Haemon in the next episode.
Haemon, Creon's son, enters to pledge allegiance to his father, even though he is engaged to Antigone. He initially seems willing to forsake Antigone, but when Haemon gently tries to persuade his father to spare Antigone, claiming that "under cover of darkness the city mourns for the girl", the discussion deteriorates, and the two men are soon bitterly insulting each other. When Creon threatens to execute Antigone in front of his son, Haemon leaves, vowing never to see Creon again.
The chorus sing of the power of love. Antigone is brought in under guard on her way to execution. She sings a lament. The chorus compare her to the goddess Niobe, who was turned into a rock, and say it is a wonderful thing to be compared to a goddess. Antigone accuses them of mocking her.
Creon decides to spare Ismene and to bury Antigone alive in a cave. By not killing her directly, he hopes to pay the minimal respects to the gods. She is brought out of the house, and this time, she is sorrowful instead of defiant. She expresses her regrets at not having married and dying for following the laws of the gods. She is taken away to her living tomb.
The Chorus encourage Antigone by singing of the great women of myth who suffered.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, enters. Tiresias warns Creon that Polynices should now be urgently buried because the gods are displeased, refusing to accept any sacrifices or prayers from Thebes. Creon accuses Tiresias of being corrupt. Tiresias responds that because of Creon's mistakes, he will lose "a son of [his] own loins" for the crimes of leaving Polynices unburied and putting Antigone into the earth (he does not say that Antigone should not be condemned to death, only that it is improper to keep a living body underneath the earth). All of Greece will despise Creon, and the sacrificial offerings of Thebes will not be accepted by the gods. The leader of the chorus, terrified, asks Creon to take Tiresias' advice to free Antigone and bury Polynices. Creon assents, leaving with a retinue of men.
The chorus delivers a choral ode to the god Dionysus (god of wine and of the theater; this part is the offering to their patron god), but also allows time for costume changes backstage.
A messenger enters to tell the leader of the chorus that Antigone has killed herself. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, enters and asks the messenger to tell her everything. The messenger reports that Creon saw to the burial of Polynices. When Creon arrived at Antigone's cave, he found Haemon lamenting over Antigone, who had hanged herself. After unsuccessfully attempting to stab Creon, Haemon stabbed himself. Having listened to the messenger's account, Eurydice disappears into the palace.
Creon enters, carrying Haemon's body. He understands that his own actions have caused these events and blames himself. A second messenger arrives to tell Creon and the chorus that Eurydice has killed herself. With her last breath, she cursed her husband. Creon blames himself for everything that has happened, and, a broken man, he asks his servants to help him inside. The order he valued so much has been protected, and he is still the king, but he has acted against the gods and lost his children and his wife as a result. After Creon condemns himself, the leader of the chorus closes by saying that although the gods punish the proud, punishment brings wisdom.
- Antigone, compared to her beautiful and docile sister, is portrayed as a heroine who recognizes her familial duty. Her dialogues with Ismene reveal her to be as stubborn as her uncle. In her, the ideal of the female character is boldly outlined. She defies Creon's decree despite the consequences she may face, in order to honor her deceased brother.
- Ismene serves as a foil for Antigone, presenting the contrast in their respective responses to the royal decree. Considered the beautiful one, she is more lawful and obedient to authority. She hesitates to bury Polynices because she fears Creon.
- Creon is the current King of Thebes, who views law as the guarantor of personal happiness. He can also be seen as a tragic hero, losing everything for upholding what he believed was right. Even when he is forced to amend his decree to please the gods, he first tends to the dead Polynices before releasing Antigone.
- Eurydice of Thebes is the Queen of Thebes and Creon's wife. She appears towards the end and only to hear confirmation of her son Haemon's death. In her grief, she commits suicide, cursing Creon whom she blames for her son's death.
- Haemon is the son of Creon and Eurydice, betrothed to Antigone. Proved to be more reasonable than Creon, he attempts to reason with his father for the sake of Antigone. However, when Creon refuses to listen to him, Haemon leaves angrily and shouts he will never see him again. He commits suicide after finding Antigone dead.
- Koryphaios is the assistant to the King (Creon) and the leader of the Chorus. He is often interpreted as a close advisor to the King, and therefore a close family friend. This role is highlighted in the end when Creon chooses to listen to Koryphaios' advice.
- Tiresias is the blind prophet whose prediction brings about the eventual proper burial of Polynices. Portrayed as wise and full of reason, Tiresias attempts to warn Creon of his foolishness and tells him the gods are angry. He manages to convince Creon, but is too late to save the impetuous Antigone.
- The Chorus, a group of elderly Theban men, is at first deferential to the king. Their purpose is to comment on the action in the play and add to the suspense and emotions, as well as connecting the story to myths. As the play progresses they counsel Creon to be more moderate. Their pleading persuades Creon to spare Ismene. They also advise Creon to take Tiresias's advice.