Sophocles is probably the greatest dramatist in the history of civilization, with the obvious exception of Shakespeare. He lived for ninety years, his life spanning almost the entirety of the fifth century B.C., from 496 to 406. During his long life, which seems to have been spent entirely in Athens, he witnessed both the rise and the fall of the Athenian Empire, a period of great social upheaval and political turmoil. He is best known for the Oedipus Cycle, also known as the Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. There are two ways of reading this cycle of plays. They can either be read in their order of composition, as listed above, or in the order of the chronology of the story they tell.
Oedipus Rex tells of the rise and fall of Oedipus, King of Thebes; Oedipus at Colonus tells of Oedipus’ old age and death; Antigone takes up the story of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter. The advantage of reading them in the order of composition is that we see the growth of wisdom of the playwright reflected in his work: Antigone is full of the vigor and vibrancy of political idealism; Oedipus Rex is a mature reflection on the mystery and meaning of suffering; Oedipus at Colonus takes the reflection on suffering to deeper levels of understanding, answering the questions that Oedipus Rex asks. Oedipus at Colonus, which was written when Sophocles was a very old man and was not performed until after his death, reflects the wisdom of the playwright’s ninety years of accumulated and philosophically digested experience. We will discuss Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus in the next two essays in the series. Now, however, we will endeavor to put Antigone in a nutshell.
The play begins as the dust settles on a battle in which the sons of Oedipus fight on opposing sides and kill each other in combat. Creon, King of Thebes, declares that one of the brothers, Eteocles, should be buried with full military honors but that the other, Polynices, is a traitor to the state who must not be dignified with burial. On the contrary, Polynices is to be left to rot where he fell, food for the vultures and the wild dogs. The decision of Antigone, the sister of both deceased warriors, to give her brother a dignified religious burial in defiance of the law of the state sets up a drama in which timeless legal and moral principles are evoked. Does the state have the authority to deny anyone a dignified burial according to the rites of religion? Is the power of the state “under God” or is it a law unto itself? How should those with religious faith respond to anti-religious laws? How should the state deal with religious dissidents who disobey its laws?