Welcome to Thebes, Shmoopers. The population of this city is pretty uniformly doomed—when they're not sleeping with their own mothers (lookin' at you, Oedipus) or acting all high and mighty and assuming that their law is better than the gods' (cough, Creon, cough cough), they're burying their brother when burying their brother is forbidden—c'mon, Antigone; we've been over this.
Antigone is the third volume in what is maybe the most messed up Greek tragic trilogy of all time: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. These plays follow the fall of the great king, Oedipus, and later the tragedies that his children suffer. (Oedipus keeps it in the family—nudge, nudge.)
The Oedipus plays are awesome for a number of reasons: they're gory, they're tragic, and they're bound to make even the most aggressively cheerful theatergoer depressed. But they'd also have had a wide-reaching influence (and are particularly notable for inspiring Sigmund Freud’s theory of the "Oedipus Complex," or the "kill-the-father-sleep-with-the-mother complex").
Antigone, which comes last chronologically, was the play Sophocles wrote first, around 440 B.C—yup, this play actually came before Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. And it has all the hallmarks of an ambitious young author's work: namely, some serious verve and intensity.
So what goes down in Antigone's Thebes? Short answer: nothing good. Long answer: Big King Creon decides that nobody gets to bury the body of the traitor Polyneices. Polyneices just has to rot out in the open... which is both a) not very sanitary and b) in direct opposition with religious doctrine. But rebel-with-a-cause (the cause is "bury my brother") Antigone decides to do a bit of grave-digging, even if gets her landed in jail.
Creon is none too happy with this, and so decides to entomb her while she's still alive. Bad call, C: Antigone hangs herself, Creon's son Haemon kills himself, and Creon's wife/ Haemon's mama also decides to shuffle off her mortal coil.
Thebes: The Unhappiest Place On Earth. We won't be booking a vacation there anytime soon.
But if you're itching for a hair-rending, crazy-tragic, feel-bad story you pretty much can't do better than Antigone. Or should we say you can't do worse?
You'll like this play for a whole handful of reasons, you sicko. It has tragedy that's almost impossible to turn away from. It has family scandal. It has covert burying of dead bodies and decidedly not covert entombment of very-much-alive bodies. It has hubris galore. And it has the linchpin of tragic magic: a bunch of rich royals that decide to either kill themselves or kill other people.
Pass the popcorn, please. (But not the beef jerky—there are way too many corpses in this play to snack on dried meat.)
But the reason that you should care about Antigone is a whole other can of worms: Antigone wrestles with civil disobedience.
Remember how Ismene asks Antigone to just forget about burying their brother’s body (which, according to the king's latest law, is an act punishable by death) and to instead marry the king’s dreamy son and live happily ever after? Well, Antigone isn't willing to forget her brother. She sees burying her brother as a moral imperative, which supersedes human-created laws.
And she's far from the only person who has courageously placed morals over state laws.
Remember history class? You have lots of modern examples of people who have chosen to fight for justice rather than preserve their own safety. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi, both advocates of civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations, who were assassinated as a result of their fights against oppression. Or think about Nelson Mandela, who risked years in jail to stand up against the apartheid government in South Africa.
Antigone chooses to express her dissatisfaction with what she believes to be the unethical new regime of King Creon by burying her brother's body. She resolves to sacrifice her own life in the service of a greater justice. It's this kind of almost superhuman resolve that changes the course of history—and that's something that we can admire equally in the 5th Century B.C.E. and the 21st Century A.D.
A movie version of the play in Greek.
A TV movie with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone.