Antigone is part of the fated royal line of Labdacus and one of the two surviving daughters of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. She is also the sister of Oedipus through incest, since he married his own mother, Iocasta. Antigone had accompanied her father Oedipus into exile after he blinded himself and stayed with him until his death (See Oedipus at Colonus). Then she and Ismene lived in the palace with their uncle, Creon, who took the throne of Thebes until the sons of Oedipus could come of age. Her other surviving sister is Ismene, whom she tries to convince to break the law in order to bury their brother, Polyneices. The corpse lies unmourned on the battlefield because Creon has forbidden any rites. She defies Creon’s law on the grounds that sacred law (burial rite) takes precedence over civil law (Creon’s decree). She is a feminist hero because she is not intimidated by men or Theban law the way her sister Ismene is. Creon specifically punishes her because she is a woman defying him, rather than thinking about the issue she raises. Antigone wins the heart of the Theban people who back her rather than Creon. She is rebellious and proud of her act of individual conscience, however, and this trait invites the worst punishment from the state, represented by Creon. Antigone is also the fiancée of Creon’s son, Haemon, who chooses her part over his father’s tyranny and dies at her side. Antigone has the ability to command respect and loyalty where Creon does not, because of her heroic sacrifice for divine duty.
The Chorus of Theban elders represent the seasoned and wise opinion of the people of Thebes. Creon tries to win their support for his laws. They are important for commenting on the actions of the characters and giving background information and traditional history. Their odes are the poetic interludes that give depth to the action. They note both the strengths and weaknesses of Creon and Antigone and pity their dilemmas. They agree that Creon has a sovereign right to make whatever laws he wants to, but they understand Antigone’s point that it is not a good idea to offend the gods. They subtly intervene with Creon to save the life of the innocent Ismene. In mood, they avoid the extreme positions of Antigone and Creon and most closely agree with Haemon’s pronouncements on what constitutes a wise ruler—moderation and consensus.
Creon is the brother of Iocasta, the former queen of Thebes. He becomes the regent when Oedipus dies and the sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, are too young to rule. After the war between the brothers ends in their deaths, Creon takes the throne of Thebes. His first decree, rather than stabilizing the government, has tragic consequences: he gives honors to Eteocles who defended Thebes and denies burial to the traitor, Polyneices. Creon is shown to be a tyrannical egoist, eager to prove to the city that he is a tough ruler. He is afraid of things getting out of hand and tries to control any sympathy for the traitor Polyneices. He also reveals himself to be a misogynist in that he refuses to let a woman best him in an argument. In being rigid and unwilling to listen to others he unknowingly creates sympathy for Antigone. His son informs him that the people back Antigone because she heroically wants to honor her duty to her brother. Creon accuses others of corruption rather than facing his own weakness. He is warned against extremes by Haemon, the Chorus, and finally by Teiresias the prophet. Too late he reverses his policy. The irony is that in his scorn of women, his own model wife curses him for causing the death of their sons and kills herself in protest.
Eteocles is dead when the play opens. He is the younger incestuous son of Oedipus by Iocasta, who did not recognize the claim of the elder son, Polyneices, and exiled him from Thebes. Polyneices raised an army at Argos and attacked Thebes. The brothers killed each other in the war, so the throne went to Creon, next in line. Eteocles is given an honorable burial as a hero of Thebes.
Eurydice is the wife of Creon and noted for her discretion and mildness. She is a perfect wife until the death of her sons, which she blames on Creon. The elder son, Megareus, had patriotically killed himself when Teiresias said the city needed a blood sacrifice to be victorious. When the younger son, Haemon, kills himself because of Antigone’s death, Haemon’s mother, Eurydice, kills herself and pronounces curses on Creon as she dies. She is a foil to the fiercely rebellious Antigone but ends up rebelling too at Creon’s extreme measures. Her reaction thus helps to justify Antigone’s choice.
The guard is a humorous longwinded slave who serves Thebes and has to report to Creon against his better judgment that someone has buried the body of Polyneices. He claims he is innocent and did not see it done. Creon accuses him of doing it himself for a bribe, but later the guard produces Antigone whom he caught in the act. He is thus cleared but regrets he has to turn in the royal princess. The guard is motivated by his own survival and this contrasts with the heroism of Antigone, who is motivated by what she feels is right, no matter the consequences. The guard reports how Antigone performed the rites the second time after the guards had exposed the body again to trap the culprit.
Haemon is the only remaining son of Creon and Eurydice, whose bride-to-be is his own cousin, Antigone. He admires his father and wants to please him until Creon pronounces the death sentence on Antigone and will not back down. Haemon wants justice over unquestioning loyalty to his father. Haemon tries to make his father listen as he tells him Antigone has the backing of the whole city, but Creon only responds by telling him a son should be obedient without question. Creon says he will kill Antigone in front of Haemon’s eyes. Haemon finds the body of Antigone hanging in the cave where she was buried alive, and tries to kill his father in revenge. When that fails, he turns the sword on himself and commits suicide.
The only survivor of Oedipus’s children by the end of the play, Ismene refuses at first to help Antigone bury their brother, Polyneices. She gives the reason that it is against the law of Creon, and they are only women who have no power. She is aware of the family curse and warns Antigone they will die an even worse death than the rest of their family if they disobey. When Antigone is caught and sentenced to death, Ismene begs to join her, but Antigone will not consent to share the act of rebellion with her sister. Creon originally sentenced Ismene to death as well but relents when the Chorus questions the justice of that.
The first messenger reports the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to the Chorus of elders while Eurydice is present. She leaves quickly after hearing the news, and another messenger follows her to the palace.
The second messenger reports the suicide of Eurydice and her curse on Creon to the Chorus and to Creon himself, who is already devastated by the death of his son.
Polyneices is dead and lies unburied after the war, when the play opens. He is the elder son of Oedipus, who was exiled by his brother Eteocles from Thebes when he demanded the throne. Polyneices went to Argos and raised an army there, returning to take Thebes by force. The two brothers killed each other in battle. Creon refused Polyneices the burial rites on pain of death for anyone performing them, but Antigone bravely buried him anyway and thus gave him a place and honor in the underworld.
Teiresias is the blind prophet who always tells the truth. He warns Creon he is on the wrong path and will be punished, because the gods are not pleased that Polyneices was denied burial. Teiresias tells the signs to Creon: birds are attacking each other near the altars; no sacrifices will burn or be accepted by the gods; there is a disease in Thebes. Teiresias is led by a boy, and generally shows up when things are bad. He advises Creon, as he had advised Oedipus earlier. The will of the gods is made known through the prophet, and because Teiresias was right about what would happen if Creon did not change his course, it further justifies the action of Antigone for following divine law rather than human law.