First Problem Play Popular

January 30, 2021


Sophocles (c.496 B.C.–406 B.C.).  Antigone.

Antigone, an orphan princess, defies a king's mandate and risks her life to do her duty to her brother. What is this duty which her brother calls her to perform and the king forbids?
(Sophocles died at Athens, Jan. 30. 405 B. C.)

Dramatis Personæ

Creon, King of Thebes
Hæmon, son of Creon
Teiresias, a seer
First Messenger
Second Messenger
Eurydice, wife of Creon
Ismene, daughters of Œdipus
Chorus of Theban Elders

SCENE—Thebes, in front of the Palace.


ANTIGONE  ISMENE, mine own sister, dearest one;
Is there, of all the ills of Œdipus,
One left that Zeus will fail to bring on us,
While still we live? for nothing is there sad
Or full of woe, or base, or fraught with shame,
But I have seen it in thy woes and mine.
And now, what new decree is this they tell,
Our ruler has enjoined on all the state?
Know’st thou? hast heard? or is it hid from thee,
The doom of foes that comes upon thy friends?

ISM.  No tidings of our friends, Antigone,
Painful or pleasant since that hour have come
When we, two sisters, lost our brothers twain,
In one day dying by each other’s hand.
And since in this last night the Argive host
Has left the field, I nothing further know,
Nor brightening fortune, nor increasing gloom.

ANTIG.  That knew I well, and therefore sent for thee
Beyond the gates, that thou mayst hear alone.

ISM.  What meanest thou? It is but all to clear
Thou broodest darkly o’er some tale of woe.

ANTIG.  And does not Creon treat our brothers twain
One with the rites of burial, one with shame?
Eteocles, so say they, he interred
Fitly, with wonted rites, as one held meet
To pass with honour to the gloom below.
But for the corpse of Polynices, slain
So piteously, they say, he has proclaimed
To all the citizens, that none should give
His body burial, or bewail his fate,
But leave it still unsepulchred, unwept,
A prize full rich for birds that scent afar
Their sweet repast. So Creon bids, they say,
Creon the good, commanding thee and me,
Yes, me, I say, and now is coming here,
To make it clear to those who knew it not,
And counts the matter not a trivial thing;
But whoso does the things that he forbids,
For him, there waits within the city’s walls
The death of stoning. Thus, then, stands thy case;
And quickly thou wilt show, if thou art born
Of noble nature, or degenerate liv’st,
Base child of honoured parents.

ISM.  How could I,
O daring in thy mood, in this our plight,
Or doing or undoing, aught avail?

ANTIG.  Wilt thou with me share risk and toil? Look to it.

ISM.  What risk is this? What purpose fills thy mind?

ANTIG.  Wilt thou with me go forth to help the dead?

ISM.  And dost thou mean to give him sepulture,
When all have been forbidden?

ANTIG.  He is still
My brother; yes, and thine, though thou, it seems,
Wouldst fain he were not. I desert him not.

ISM.  O daring one, when Creon bids thee not!

ANTIG.  What right has he to keep me from mine own?

ISM.  Ah me! remember, sister, how our sire
Perished, with hate o’erwhelmed and infamy,
From evils that he brought upon himself,
And with his own hand robbed himself of sight,
And how his wife and mother, both in one,
With twist and cordage, cast away her life;
And thirdly, how our brothers in one day
In suicidal conflict wrought the doom,
Each of the other. And we twain are left;
And think, how much more wretchedly than all
We twain shall perish, if, against the law,
We brave our sovereign’s edict and his power.
For this we need remember, we were born
Women; as such, not made to strive with men.
And next, that they who reign surpass in strength,
And we must bow to this, and worse than this.
I, then, entreating those that dwell below,
To judge me leniently, as forced to yield,
Will hearken to our rulers. Over-zeal
In act or word but little wisdom shows.

ANTIG.  I would not ask thee. No! if thou shouldst wish
To do it, and wouldst gladly join with me.
Do what thou wilt, I go to bury him;
And good it were, this having done, to die.
Loved I shall be with him whom I have loved,
Guilty of holiest crime. More time have I
In which to win the favour of the dead,
Than that of those who live; for I shall rest
For ever there. But thou, if thus thou please,
Count as dishonoured what the Gods approve.

ISM.  I do them no dishonour, but I find
Myself too weak to war against the state.

ANTIG.  Make what excuse thou wilt, I go to rear
A grave above the brother whom I love.

ISM.  Ah, wretched me! how much I fear for thee.

ANTIG.  Fear not for me. Thine own fate guide aright.

ISM.  At any rate, disclose this deed to none:
Keep it close hidden. I will hide it too.

ANTIG.  Speak out! I bid thee. Silent, thou wilt be
More hateful to me than if thou shouldst tell
My deed to all men.

ISM.  Fiery is thy mood,
Although thy deeds might chill the very blood.

ANTIG.  I know I please the souls I seek to please.

ISM.  If thou canst do it; but thy passion craves
For things impossible.

ANTIG.  I’ll cease to strive
When strength shall fail me.

ISM.  Even from the first,
It is not meet to seek what may not be.

ANTIG.  If thou speak thus, my hatred wilt thou gain,
And rightly wilt be hated of the dead.
Leave me and my ill counsel to endure
This dreadful doom. I shall not suffer aught
So evil as a death dishonourable.

ISM.  Go, then, if so thou wilt. Of this be sure,
Wild as thou art, thy friends must love thee still.  [Exeunt.

Enter Chorus


Chor.  Ray of the glorious sun,
Brightest of all that ever shone on Thebes,
Thebes with her seven high gates,
Thou didst appear that day,
  Eye of the golden dawn,
O’er Dirkè’s streams advancing,
Driving with quickened curb,
In haste of headlong flight,
The warrior who, in panoply of proof,
From Argos came, with shield as white as snow;
  Who came to this our land,
Roused by the strife of tongues
That Polynices stirred;
Shrieking his shrill sharp cry,
  The eagle hovered round,
With snow-white wing bedecked,
  Begirt with myriad arms,
And flowing horsehair crests.


  He stood above our towers,
Circling, with blood-stained spears,
  The portals of our gates;
He went, before he filled
  His jaws with blood of men,
Before Hephæstus with his pitchy flame
Had seized our crown of towers.
  So loud the battle din that Ares loves,
Was raised around his rear,
A conflict hard and stiff,
E’en for his dragon foe.
For breath of haughty speech
Zeus hateth evermore exceedingly;
And seeing them advance,
Exulting in the clang of golden arms,
With brandished fire he hurls them headlong down,
In act, upon the topmost battlement
  Rushing, with eager step,
To shout out, ‘Victory!’


Crashing to earth he fell,
Who came, with madman’s haste,
Drunken, but not with wine,
And swept o’er us with blasts,
The whirlwind blasts of hate.
Thus on one side they fare,
And mighty Ares, bounding in his strength,
  Dashing now here, now there,
  Elsewhere brought other fate.
For seven chief warriors at the seven gates met,
  Equals with equals matched,
To Zeus, the Lord of War,
Left tribute, arms of bronze;
All but the hateful ones
Who, from one father and one mother sprung,
Stood wielding, hand to hand,
Their doubly pointed spears;
They had their doom of death,
In common, shared by both.


But now, since Victory, of mightiest name,
Hath come to Thebes, of many chariots proud,
  Joying and giving joy,
After these wars just past,
  Learn ye forgetfulness,
And all night long, with dance and voice of hymns
Let us go round to all the shrines of Gods,
While Bacchus, making Thebes resound with shouts,
  Begins the strain of joy;
But, lo! the sovereign of this land of ours,
CREON, Menœkeus’ son,
He, whom strange change and chances from the God
  Have nobly raised to power,
Comes to us, steering on some new device;
For, lo! he hath convened,
  By herald’s loud command,
This council of the elders of our land.


CREON.  My Friends, for what concerns our commonwealth,
The Gods who vexed it with the billowing storms
Have righted it again; but I have sent,
By special summons, calling you to come
Apart from all the others, This, in part,
As knowing ye did all along uphold
The might of Laius’ throne, in part again,
Because when Œdipus our country ruled,
And, when he perished, then towards his sons
Ye still were faithful in your steadfast mind.
And since they fell, as by a double death,
Both on the selfsame day with murderous blow,
Smiting and being smitten, now I hold
Their thrones and all their power of sov’reignty
By nearness of my kindred to the dead.
And hard it is to learn what each man is,
In heart and mind and judgment, till one gains
Experience in the exercise of power.
For me, whoe’er is called to guide a state,
And does not catch at counsels wise and good,
But holds his peace through any fear of man,
I deem him basest of all men that are,
Of all that ever have been; and whoe’er
As worthier than his country counts his friend,
I utterly despise him. I myself,
Zeus be my witness, who beholdeth all,
Will not keep silence, seeing danger come,
Instead of safety, to my subjects true.
Nor could I take as friend my country’s foe;
For this I know, that there our safety lies,
And sailing in her while she holds her course,
We gather friends around us. By these rules
And such as these will I maintain the state.
And now I come, with edicts close allied
To these in spirit, for my subjects all,
Concerning those two sons of Œdipus.
Eteocles, who died in deeds of might
Illustrious, fighting for our fatherland,
To honour him with sepulture, all rites
Duly performed that to the noblest dead
Of right belong. Not so his brother; him
I speak of, Polynices, who, returned
From exile, sought with fire and sword to waste
His father’s city and the shrines of Gods,
Yea, sought to glut his rage with blood of men,
And lead them captives to the bondslave’s doom;
Him I decree that none should dare entomb,
That none should utter wail or loud lament,
But leave his corpse unburied, by the dogs
And vultures mangled, foul to look upon.
Such is my purpose. Ne’er, if I can help,
Shall the vile share the honours of the just;
But whoso shows himself my country’s friend,
Living or dead, from me shall honour gain.

Chor.  This is thy pleasure, O Menœkeus’ son,
For him who hated, him who loved our state;
And thou hast power to make what laws thou wilt,
Both for the dead and all of us who live.

CREON.  Be ye, then, guardians of the things I speak.

Chor.  Commit this task to one of younger years.

CREON.  The watchmen are appointed for the corpse.

Chor.  What duty, then, enjoin’st thou on another?

CREON.  Not to consent with those that disobey.

Chor.  None are so foolish as to seek for death.

CREON.  And that shall be his doom; but love of gain
Hath oft with false hopes lured men to their death.

Enter Guard

GUARD.  I will not say, O king, that I am come
Panting with speed and plying nimble feet,
For I had many halting-points of thought,
Backwards and forwards turning, round and round;
For now my mind would give me sage advice:
“Poor wretch, and wilt thou go and bear the blame?”
Or—“Dost thou tarry now? Shall Creon know
These things from others? How wilt thou escape?”
Resolving thus, I came in haste, yet slow,
And thus a short way finds itself prolonged,
But, last of all, to come to thee prevailed.
And though I tell of naught, thou shalt hear all;
For this one hope I cling to steadfastly,
That I shall suffer nothing but my fate.

CREON.  What is it, then, that causes such dismay?

GUARD.  First, for mine own share in it, this I say,
I did not do it, do not know who did,
Nor should I rightly come to ill for it.

CREON.  Thou tak’st good aim and fencest up thy tale
All round and round. ’Twould seem thou hast some news.

GUARD.  Yea, news of fear engenders long delay.

CREON.  Tell thou thy tale, and then depart in peace.

GUARD.  And speak I will. The corpse … Some one has been
But now and buried it, a little dust
O’er the skin scattering, with the wonted rites.

CREON.  What say’st thou? Who has dared this deed of guilt?

GUARD.  I know not. Neither was there stroke of spade,
Nor earth cast up by mattock. All the soil
Was dry and hard, no track of chariot wheel;
But he who did it went and left no sign.
But when the first day’s watchman showed it us,
The sight caused wonder and sore grief to all,
For he had disappeared. No tomb, indeed,
Was over him, but dust all lightly strown,
As by some hand that shunned defiling guilt;
And no work was there of a beast of prey
Or dog devouring. Evil words arose
Among us, guard to guard imputing blame,
Which might have come to blows, for none was there
To check its course, and each to each appeared
The man whose hand had done it. As for proof,
That there was none, and so he ’scaped our ken.
And we were ready in our hands to take
Bars of hot iron, and to walk through fire,
And call the Gods to witness none of us
Had done the deed, nor knew who counselled it,
Nor who had wrought it. Then at last, when naught
Was gained by all our searching, some one says
What made us bend our gaze upon the ground
In fear and trembling; for we neither saw
How to oppose it, nor, accepting it,
How we might prosper in it. And his speech
Was this, that all our tale should go to thee,
Not hushed up anywise. This gained the day;
And me, ill-starred, the lot condemns to win
This precious prize. So here I come to thee
Against my will; and surely do I trow
Thou dost not wish to see me. Still ’tis true
That no man loves the messenger of ill.

Chor.  For me, my prince, my mind some time has thought
That this perchance has some divine intent.

CREON.  Cease thou, before thou fillest me with wrath,
Lest thou be found a dastard and a fool.
For what thou say’st is most intolerable,
That for this corpse the providence of Gods
Has any care. What! have they buried him,
As to their patron paying honours high,
Who came to waste their columned shrines with fire,
To desecrate their offerings and their lands,
And all their wonted customs? Dost thou see
The Gods approving men of evil deeds?
It is not so; but men of rebel mood,
Lifting their head in secret long ago,
Have stirred this thing against me. Never yet
Had they their neck beneath the yoke, content
To own me as their ruler. They, I know,
Have bribed these men to let the deed be done.
No thing in use by man, for power of ill,
Can equal money. This lays cities low,
This drives men forth from quiet dwelling-place,
This warps and changes minds of worthiest stamp,
To turn to deeds of baseness, teaching men
All shifts of cunning, and to know the guilt
Of every impious deed. But they who, hired,
Have wrought this crime, have laboured to their cost,
Or soon or late to pay the penalty.
But if Zeus still claims any awe from me,
Know this, and with an oath I tell it thee,
Unless ye find the very man whose hand
Has wrought this burial, and before mine eyes
Present him captive, death shall not suffice,
Till first, impaled still living, ye shall show
The story of this outrage, that henceforth,
Knowing what gain is lawful, ye may grasp
At that, and learn it is not meet to love
Gain from all quarters. By base profit won,
You will see more destroyed than prospering.

GUARD.  May I, then speak? Or shall I turn and go?

CREON.  Dost thou not see how vexing are thy words?

GUARD.  Is it thine ears they trouble, or thy soul?

CREON.  Why dost thou gauge my trouble where it is?

GUARD.  The doer grieves thy heart, but I thine ears.

CREON.  Pshaw! what a babbler, born to prate, art thou.

GUARD.  And therefore not the man to do this deed.

CREON.  Yes, that too; selling e’en thy soul for pay.

GUARD.  Ah me!
How fearful ’tis, in thinking, false to think.

CREON.  Prate about thinking; but unless ye show
To me the doers, ye shall say ere long
That evil gains still work their punishment.  [Exit.

GUARD.  God send we find him! Should we find him not,
As well may be, for this must chance decide,
You will not see me coming here again;
For now, being safe beyond all hope of mine,
Beyond all thought, I owe the Gods much thanks.  [Exit

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