Antigone is another important play, written by Sophocles and a good example, for his modern techniques. The theoretical essence of the play is the conflict between individual conscience and the power of the state.
The tragedy was written somewhere around 442 BC. Chronologically, it is the third of the three Theban plays, but was the first to be written. The play continues Aeschylus' play Seven Against Thebes, and it extends the Theban legend that predated it.
Polyneices and Eteocles, were two brothers, leading opposite sides in Thebes' civil war.
They both are killed in battle. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, declares that Eteocles is the one to be honored and Polyneices disgraced. The punishment is that Polyneices’ body will not be sanctified by holy rites, and will be let unburied, on the battlefield. Antigone and Ismene, the sisters of the dead brothers, are also the last children of the bad-fated Oedipus. Antigone is the result of the accidentally incestuous marriage between King Oedipus of Thebes and his mother Jocasta.
The play opens with Antigone trying to convince her sister, during a secret meeting, to help her bury Polyneices' body, transgressing Creon's edict. But Ismene, too scared of death penalty, refuses to help her sister and can not convince Antigone to let go her plan. So, Antigone tries to bury her brother, but she is caught. Creon sentences her to be buried alive, and these even though she is betrothed to his son, Haemon.
The blind prophet, Tiresias, proves that the gods are on Antigone's side and adds that Creon will lose one child, for the crimes of leaving Polyneices unburied and putting Antigone into the earth. Creon gets scared and changes his mind.
But, it is too late, for a change of mind, because after he goes to bury Polynices, finds out Antigone has already hanged herself.
When Creon arrives at the tomb, Haemon attacks him and then kills himself. When the news is reported to her, Creon's wife, Eurydice commits suicide. Before dying, she cursed her husband.
Creon understands he is to be blamed for everything. He remains an empty man and continues to be king. The Chorus closes the play by saying that the gods punished the proud Creon, but punishment brings wisdom.
The historical context, in witch Antigone was written, was one of national tension. Shortly after the play was released, in 440 BC, Sophocles was appointed one of the ten generals to lead a military expedition against Samos Island. But none of this political context was to be detected in Sophocles play.
This is another proof that Sophocles always separated his literary work from his civil activity and political believes. Sophocles is not the only writer interested in Antingone legend. The dramatist Euripides also wrote a play called Antigone, but the play is lost. The story also inspired paintings. A painting by Philostratus shows Antigone, placing the body of Polynices on the funeral pyre. The scene also exists on a sarcophagus in the Villa Pamfili, in Rome.