Antigone tells Ismene of her plans to bury their brother Polynices in defiance of Creon's orders. When Ismene refuses to join her sister, pleading their weakness as women and subjects of Creon, Antigone leaves her angrily, determined to bury her brother, even if it means her own death.
The opening scene sets up the problem of the play: Creon's strict order to leave Polynices unburied as punishment for his treason, and Antigone's determination to offer her brother the final rituals that will assure his soul's rest.
As an invader of the city and the killer of his brother Eteocles, Polynices represents the enemy of the polis, a traitor unworthy of the most basic privileges. For his crimes, and as an example to the city, Creon refuses him burial — the ceremony that will put his soul to rest. The indecency, so abhorrent to Antigone, is meant as a deterrent to anyone who might be tempted to take advantage of this moment of crisis, so soon after the war, to seize power.
And Creon's threat of death to anyone who tries to bury Polynices also stands as a civil defense measure. The death he specifies — stoning — requires the participation of the whole city. Just as the disrespect for Polynices' body is a public display of contempt for traitors, the consequence of stoning unites the city against anyone who feels sympathy for an enemy.
Antigone, Polynices' sister, has a very different view. Outside the city walls — symbolically, outside the law — Antigone looks for Ismene's help in her plan to bury their brother, a duty traditionally carried out by the women of the family. As a sister, Antigone feels she must offer Polynices burial — in fact, she promised him this favor specifically in Oedipus at Colonus. With the argument of tradition, and with reminders of their common identity as the children of the doomed Oedipus, Antigone encourages Ismene to join her, literally to lift their brother's body together, to assure him rest.
In this scene, Antigone displays offense at Creon's order. First and foremost, she takes it as a personal rebuke against herself. But she also sees the civil order as forbidding her participation in a rite reserved for women, thus denying her fundamental role in society.
Antigone's anger and determination, though, does not ignite her sister to rebellion. Passive and resigned, Ismene sees her own womanhood as relative weakness. As women and subjects, Ismene demurs, there is nothing they can do.
In rejecting Ismene's passive obedience to the state, Antigone responds to a higher, religious law, a power that overrules even Creon's authority, because leaving the dead unburied — for any reason — offends the gods. To her sister, Antigone makes her declaration that she will obey the gods before the state at whatever cost, even her own life. Antigone will deliver the same passionate, strident speech throughout the drama, unmoved by either pleadings or threats.
In her defiance and her disregard for her own life, Antigone declares her love for the dead, and even, it seems, her love for death itself.
Thebes chief city of ancient Boeotia, in eastern central Greece. Here, the location of the tragedy.
Zeus the chief deity of Greek mythology, son of Chronus and Rhea and husband of Hera.
Argos ancient city-state in the northeast Peloponnesus from the seventh century B.C. until the rise of Sparta. Here, used to represent the forces led by Polynices to take back Thebes.