My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene,
how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down!
Night has fallen in Thebes. The preceding days have borne witness to the armed struggle between Eteocles and Polynices, sons of Oedipus and brothers to Antigone and Ismene. The brothers, who were fighting for control of Thebes, have now died at each other’s hands. Polynices’ invading army has retreated, and Creon now rules the city. Antigone approaches an altar in the palace, bemoaning the death of her brothers. Ismene follows close behind, echoing Antigone’s sentiments.
Antigone laments Creon’s recent decree that whoever tries to bury or mourn Polynices must be put to death. Although Ismene declares that the sisters lack any power in the situation, Antigone insists that she will bury Polynices, and asks for Ismene’s help. Ismene contends that though she loves Polynices, she must follow the king’s decree—she does not want to risk punishment by death. Antigone rejects Ismene’s arguments, saying that she holds honor and love higher than law and death. Antigone exits, still resolved to bury Polynices. Ismene declares that she will always love Antigone, and then withdraws into the palace.
The Chorus, composed of the elders of Thebes, comes forward. It sings an ode praising the glory of Thebes and denouncing the proud Polynices, who nearly brought the city to ruin. Creon then enters, assuring the citizens that order and safety have returned to Thebes. He announces that Eteocles, who defended Thebes, will receive a hero’s burial, unlike his brother, who shall rot in godless shame for having raised arms against the city. The Chorus says that it will obey Creon’s edict.
A sentry enters with a message for the king, but he hesitates to speak for fear of the king’s reaction. Creon orders him to tell his story, and he finally reports the scandalous news. Someone has given proper burial rites to Polynices’ corpse, and no one knows who has done it. Unsure what to do, the sentries assigned to keep watch over the grave finally resolve to tell the king. The Chorus suggests that the gods themselves may have undertaken Polynices’ burial, but Creon denounces this notion as absurd, arguing that the gods would never side with a traitor. He himself theorizes that dissidents in the city have bribed one of the sentries to defy his edict, and he accuses the present sentry of the crime. Refusing to listen to the sentry’s desperate denials, Creon threatens the sentry with death if no other suspect is found, and then enters the palace. The sentry declares his intention to leave Thebes forever, and flees.
The Chorus sings an ode about how man dominates the earth and how only death can master him. But it warns that man should use his powers only in accordance with the laws of the land and the justice of the gods; society cannot tolerate those who exert their will to reckless ends.
The opening events of the play quickly establish the central conflict. Creon has decreed that the traitor Polynices must not be given proper burial, and Antigone is the only one who will speak against this decree and insist on the sacredness of family. Whereas Antigone sees no validity in a law that disregards the duty family members owe one another, Creon’s point of view is exactly opposite. He has no use for anyone who places private ties above the common good, as he proclaims firmly to the Chorus and the audience as he revels in his victory over Polynices. Creon’s first speech, which is dominated by words such as “principle,” “law,” “policy,” and “decree,” shows the extent to which Creon fixates on government and law as the supreme authority. Between Antigone and Creon there can be no compromise—they both find absolute validity in the respective loyalties they uphold.