Approx 442 BCE
One of three plays concerning the city-state of Thebes during and immediately following the reign of Oedipus, Antigone is one of Sophocles’ best-known plays and by all accounts a classic not only of Greek literature but of western civilization in general. In the aftermath of the Theban civil war and during the reign of Creon, two brothers are dead – they are sons of Oedipus, killed in battle, fighting for opposing sides. Creon orders a burial of honors for the brother who fought on his side, and subjects the body of the other to public shame, forbidding any burial whatsoever and condemning his body to lie untouched, to be fed up on by vultures while it rots. Antigone, sister to the two brothers, is determined to provide her shamed brother with full traditional burial rites, despite Creon’s order of death for anyone attempting to touch the disgraced corpse.
Antigone deals with a moment of profound transition in Greek society and, in particular, the competing demands of traditional law as reflected in custom and state law as embodied in the rule of the king. Where does the authority of the monarch end? What constitutes legitimate civil disobedience? What is relationship between natural or traditional law and the state? What is citizenship, and on what terms can it be revoked? These are common questions and themes in classical Greek literature, and provide insight into the reconstitution of political order during a transition from traditional to state-based forms of governance.
A contemporary of such important playwrights as Aeschylus and Euripides – who with him are the trio of Greece’s great tragedians – Sophocles was the most-celebrated dramatist of his day, and is said to have written well over a hundred plays, though only seven have survived intact to the present. A politician and military leader, his life – some ninety years – spanned a remarkable period in Greek history, including the Persian and Pelopponesian Wars. His contributions to Greek culture and governance were well-recognized in his own day, and his impact upon Greek theatre lasting and profound – most notably for the use of additional characters to reduce the reliance on narration through a chorus, and for his more-detailed and in-depth drawing of his dramatic characters as individuals.