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After the exile of Oedipus, his twin sons, Étéocle and Polynice, fight for the throne of Thebes where they will reign alternately. Summerocles will temporarily retain power with the help of his uncle Creon and his mother Jocasta. But Polynices allied himself with the Argians to besiege Thebes. The two brothers then find death in the battle that opposes them. Creon became king of Thebes and refused Polynices any burial, even though he gave an official funeral to Étéocle.
The beginning of the play takes place on a square in Thebes in front of the palace of the Labdacids.
Ismene finds her sister Antigone, who has arranged to meet her outside the palace in the middle of the night so that she can talk to her in secret. Antigone tells Ismene of her plan to bury her brother Polynices herself, as she cannot bear to see him thus abandoned and fall into disgrace, whereas Étéocle had the honour of being buried according to the rite. Antigone expresses her determination, even if it amounts to going against the royal order of Creon, and asks Ismene to act with her to prove that she is still faithful to her race. But Ismene answers that she is incapable of going against the laws of the city and exposing herself to the death penalty. Ismene tries in vain to dissuade her sister, but for Antigone, divine laws are superior to human laws and the gods demand a burial for Polynices. Ismene therefore lets Antigone leave and fulfil her destiny: "Leave, since you have resolved it. This is madness, know this well; but you know how to love those you love. »
This dialogue is followed by the entrance of the Choir, which goes back to the battle between Summerocles and Polynices for the throne of Thebes: "Alone, the cursed princes, the two German brothers, face to face spear against spear, each took their share of a common death. »
King Creon describes to the old Theban choir, his advisers, the policy he wishes to implement now that sovereign power has returned to him: "Whoever assumes the leadership of a state, if he has other concerns than the public good and lets his tongue be nailed down by I don't know what timidity, I say - and I have always said - that he is the worst of cowards. "He claims that these are the principles that dictated the public edict forbidding any citizen to mourn the Polynesians and honour them from a grave.
A guard intervened to announce to King Creon that his edict had been violated since the body of Polynices had been covered with earth in accordance with the rites. As the guard feared when he came to announce this news to the king, Creon, in his anger, suspected the guard of having buried the body himself. He ordered him to find a culprit who could exonerate him, on pain of being executed himself.
The first episode ends with the Song of the Choir, which praises the intelligence and universal genius of this marvel that is man, but which, faced with its contradictions, is capable of good and evil.
The guard returns a little later to hand Antigone over to the king and explain that she is the culprit. After the guards have laid Polynices' body bare again, Antigone appears, shouting and moaning, and is caught burying the body again. Antigone has admitted her guilt before Creon. She supposes that she violated her public edict, of which she was perfectly aware, to respect the divine laws and the justice of the gods who dictated that she should bury her brother's body. Fearing only divine justice, Antigone is satisfied to have fulfilled her duty at the risk of being sentenced to death.
Creon does not support Antigone's claim to be above the law. Out of pride, he doesn't want to give up punishing her and let her triumph: "As long as I live, it is not a woman who will make the law. "He suspects Ismène of having plotted this funeral with her sister and brings her here, before declaring with fury that the two women will not escape the death penalty. A vehement dialogue pits Creon against Antigone. Creon reproaches Antigone for having outraged Étéocle, who was also his brother, by wanting to honour the Polynices. Each considers that he acts according to his own conception of justice, and the two characters stubbornly maintain their positions.
Ismene enters and declares having acted with her sister, as she prefers to die with her and suffer the wrath of Creon. Antigone reproaches her for appropriating a work that is not hers and for not having helped her. Ismene tries to dissuade Creon from killing Antigone because she is engaged to her son, Hémon. But, without mercy, the king demands that the two sisters be locked up.
The Choir deplores the fatality that befalls the descendants of Oedipus.
Hémon appears before his father to try to reason with him. He explains to him that all the inhabitants of Thebes feel pity for this young woman sentenced to death for having given a burial to her brother who died in the war. Hémon tries to make Creon understand that he is defending his father's interests by advising him to reverse his decision and save Antigone, who only acted out of brotherly love and respect for the gods.
Creon remains insensitive to his son's arguments, whom he reproaches for being insolent by pretending to be wise despite his young age. He intends to make his sovereign power respected and, in an excess of anger, he demands that Antigone be led to give him death in front of his fiancée's eyes. Hémon ends up abandoning his father to his madness and leaves before Antigone appears, so as not to have to endure the spectacle that his father wants to inflict on him. After his departure, Coryphée questions Creon to find out what he wants to do. He decides not to punish Ismene, whose hand is innocent, but reserves an atrocious torment for Antigone: he wants to exile her to a desert where she will be walled up alive in a vault.
This episode opens with the laments of Antigone, who feels death coming. She dialogues with Koryphaeus about her tragic destiny and that of her family. While she deplores the situation, Koryphus retorts that "disobedience cannot be tolerated" and that it is her "spirit of independence" that is losing it. »
Créon remains insensitive to these complaints and demands the withdrawal of Antigone.
The Choir of the Ancient Thebans deplores the fatality that strikes the family of Antigone: "the force of fate is a terrible force".
The soothsayer Tiresias, whom Creon always listened to and respected, comes before the king to predict great misfortunes for him and his family if he does not reverse his decision. He tries to make him understand that Antigone acted out of divine piety and that there is no point in trying to insult a dead man who is already dead by refusing Polynices a burial.
Creon, obstinate and blinded by his pride, does not agree to follow the advice of Tiresias, who leaves on the spot.
However, Créon begins to doubt when Coryphée reminds him that Tiresias' predictions have always been right and that he must be careful. Creon finally agrees to follow Coryphus' advice: free Antigone and erect a tomb in Polynesia as soon as possible, before the divine punishment falls. Créon leaves immediately with a few servants to free Antigone himself.
Unfortunately, it is too late to abandon Creon. A messenger comes to announce the suicide of Hémon. Eurydice, wife of Creon and mother of Hémon, leaves the palace to ask the messenger to tell what happened.
As Creon and his servants wash the remains of Polynices' corpse, high-pitched cries are heard. Creon believes he recognises the voice of his son and orders to immediately pierce the vault of Antigone. They discovered Hémon moaning next to the lifeless body of Antigone, who had hanged himself with his scarf. Creon begged his son to come out of the vault, but, mad with pain, he thrust his sword into his chest and kissed his fiancée before dying.
Before the messenger had finished his story, Queen Eurydice retired to the palace. As Creon was about to do the same, groaning in pain, the palace messenger came to tell him that his wife had just committed suicide. Creon called for death to come and strike him as well.
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