The Chorus introduces the players. Antigone is the girl who will rise up alone and die young. Haemon, Antigone's dashing fiancé, chats with Ismene, her beautiful sister. Though one would have expected Haemon to go for Ismene, he inexplicably proposed to Antigone on the night of a ball. Creon is king of Thebes, bound to the duties of rule. Next to the sisters' sits the Nurse and Queen Eurydice. Eurydice will knit until the time comes for her to go to her room and die. Finally three Guards play cards, indifferent to the tragedy before them.
The Chorus recounts the events leading to Antigone's tragedy. Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene's father, had two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Upon Oedipus' death, it was agreed that each would take the throne from one year to the next. After the first year, however, Eteocles, the elder, refused to step down. Polynices and six foreign princes marched on Thebes. All were defeated. The brothers killed each other in a duel, making Creon king. Creon ordered Eteocles buried in honor and left Polynices to rot on the pain of death.
It is dawn, and the house is still asleep. Antigone sneaks in and the Nurse appears and asks where she has been. Suddenly Ismene enters, also asking where Antigone has been. Antigone sends the Nurse away for coffee. Ismene declares that they cannot bury Polynices and that she must understand Creon's intentions. Antigone refuses and bids Ismene to go back to bed. Suddenly Haemon enters and Antigone asks Haemon to hold her with all his strength. She tells him that she will never be able to marry him. Stupefied, Haemon departs. Ismene returns, terrified that Antigone will attempt to bury Polynices despite the daylight. Antigone reveals that she has already done so.
Later that day, the nervous First Guard enters and informs Creon that someone covered Polynices's body with a little dirt last night. He orders the guards to uncover the body and keep the matter secret. The Chorus appears and announces that the tragedy is on. Its spring is wound, and it will uncoil by itself. Unlike melodrama, tragedy is clean, restful, and flawless. In tragedy, everything is inevitable, hopeless, and known. All are bound to their parts.
The Guards enter with the struggling Antigone. The First proposes that they throw a party. Creon appears, and the First explains that Antigone was found digging Polynices' grave by hand in broad daylight. Creon sends the guards out. Once he is certain no one saw Antigone arrested, he orders her to bed, telling her to say that she has been ill. Antigone replies that she will only go out again tonight. Creon asks if she thinks her being Oedipus's daughter puts her above the law. Like Oedipus, her death must seem the "natural climax" to her life. Creon, on the other hand, devotes himself only to the order of the kingdom. Antigone's marriage is worth more to Thebes than her death.
Antigone insists that he cannot save her. Enraged, Creon seizes her arm and twists her to his side. Antigone remarks that Creon is squeezing her arm too tightly, but his grasp no longer hurts. Creon releases her. He knows his reign makes him loathsome but he has no choice. Antigone rejoins that he should have said no; she can say no to anything she thinks vile. While ruined, she is a queen. Because Creon said yes, he can only sentence her to death. Creon asks her to pity him then and live. Antigone replies that she is not here to understand, only to say no and die.
Creon makes a final appeal, saying that Antigone needs to understand what goes on in the wings of her drama. As a child, she must have known her brothers made her parents unhappy. Polynices was a cruel, vicious voluptuary. Being too cowardly to imprison him, Oedipus let him join the Argive army. As soon as Polynices reached Argos, the attempts on Oedipus' life began. But Eteocles, Thebes' martyr, too plotted to overthrow his father. Both were gangsters. When Creon sent for their bodies, they were found mashed together in a bloody pulp. He had the prettier one brought in.
Dazed, Antigone moves to go her room. Creon urges her to find Haemon and marry quickly. She must not waste her life and its happiness. Antigone challenges his servile happiness. She is of the tribe that asks questions and hates man's hope. A distraught Ismene rushes in, begging Antigone's forgiveness and promising to help her. Antigone rejects her, but she does not deserve to die with her. Ismene swears she will bury Polynices herself then. Antigone calls on Creon to have her arrested, warning him that her disease is catching. Creon relents. The Chorus protests. Haemon enters and begs his father to stop the guards. Creon replies that the mob already knows the truth, and he can do nothing.
Antigone sits before the First Guard in her cell; his is the last face she will see. The Guard rambles about his pay, rations, and professional quibbles. Antigone interrupts him, pointing out that she is soon to die. She asks how she is to be executed. The Guard informs her that she is to be immured. The Guard asks if he can do anything for her. She asks if he could give someone a letter, offering him her ring. Reluctant to endanger his job, the Guard suggests that she dictate her letter and he write it in his notebook in case they search his pockets. Antigone winces but accepts. She recites her letter, "Forgive me, my darling. You would all have been so happy except for Antigone." Suddenly a drum roll is heard, and the Guards lead Antigone out.
The Chorus enters, announcing that it is Creon's turn. The Messenger delivers the news: Antigone had just been immured, when the crowd heard Haemon's moan from within. Creon howled for the slaves to remove the stones. Antigone had hung herself. Haemon then stabbed himself and lay beside Antigone in a pool of blood. Upon being told of Haemon's death, Eurydice finished her row of knitting, climbed to her room, and cut her throat. Creon is alone. The Chorus notes that truly if it had not been for Antigone, all would have been at peace. All who had to die have now died. Only the Guards are left, and the tragedy does not matter to them.