It is nighttime in Thebes. The Thebans have defeated an invading army from Argos. During the fighting, the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, have died, each killing the other as they fought for opposing sides. Polynices, the older brother, led the army from Argos in an effort to try to regain the throne of Thebes, which he lost years earlier when Eteocles overthrew him. Now that both brothers have died, the brothers' uncle, Creon, is king of Thebes.
This battle, one of the most famous in Greek mythology, grew out of Oedipus's terrible fate (detailed in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex) as well as the fates to which Oedipus later sentenced his sons in Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus.
Oedipus's two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, discuss their grief in the palace. The outraged Antigone tells Ismene that Creon has decreed that the slain attackers will not be given proper burial rites. Eteocles, who defended Thebes, will be buried with military honors, but Creon has ordered that Polynices's body will be left unburied, for animals to eat. In addition, Creon has commanded that anyone who attempts to bury Polynices's body will be put to death.
Creon grants or denies burial rights based on the individual's relationship to the city. Anyone he sees as a traitor is denied burial. Antigone's outrage that proper burial has been denied to one of her brothers shows that she does not use the same standard. For her, loyalty to family is more important than Polynices's disloyalty to Thebes.
Angry and defiant, Antigone challenges Ismene to help her bury their brother Polynices. Ismene is frightened, both of Creon's decree and of her sister's rash words. She begs Antigone to think of all of the tragedy that has already befallen their family and to recognize that they are women with less power than men—particularly the king. She says that they must obey Creon's law.
Ismene's resistance to burying Polynices comes not from a belief that Antigone is wrong, but from a fear of the punishment she will receive for breaking Creon's law. Ismene also knows how her family members tend to act in ways that end in destructive fates.
Antigone responds that she won't let Ismene join in the glory of burying their brother even if Ismene changes her mind. Though Ismene reminds Antigone that she would be defying the laws of the city by burying Polynices, Antigone argues that burying Polynices is obeying the laws of the gods, which demand that her brother be given a proper burial.
Antigone and Ismene establish one of the play's major themes. Ismene points out that Creon's decree is the law of the land. But Antigone feels that the laws of the gods are more important than the laws of men.
Ismene continues to plead with Antigone, but Antigone only grows angrier with her and more determined to defy Creon's decree. Antigone challenges Ismene to tell the world what Antigone is about to do, and then she exits. Ismene says that though she thinks her sister is irrational, she loves her, and exits.
Ismene is clearly not Antigone's enemy, but rage makes Antigone see the world in black and white. She is working herself up to the point of defying Creon's law and earning a death sentence.
The chorus enters. They are elder citizens of Thebes. They offer a chant to the rising sun and tell of the battle in which Thebes defeated Polynices and his attacking army from Argos. They speak of Zeus, who they believe helped to defend Thebes, of the goddess Victory, and then call on Dionysus, god of the dance, to celebrate their victory.
Antigone refers to a higher law—the laws of the gods—and the chorus here indicates how important the gods were to the people of Thebes. The chorus attributes the successful defense of the city to the gods' protection.
Creon enters and addresses the chorus. Creon explains that, after the death of Oedipus's two sons, he is now king, and the "ship of state is safe." He gives a speech about the character of a leader—a leader must make the soundest policies and put nothing above the good of the state. He declares that Eteocles will receive a burial with military honors, but that the body of the traitorous Polynices will not be dignified with a burial, but will instead be left out to rot, "an obscenity for the citizens to behold!"
Creon uses his first speech as king to explain his ideas of leadership and citizenship. He sees the state as more important than any individual, and thinks that as leader his most important job is to preserve the state's safety. Any action taken against the state he sees as an "obscenity" that must be punished and destroyed.
A sentry enters. He's afraid to speak because he brings bad news and is afraid of Creon's reaction, but is at last persuaded to say what he knows. The sentries have discovered that someone has given Polynices's body burial rites. The body isn't fully buried, but it is covered with a sprinkling of dry earth.
Creon's authority is immediately tested. The sentry, as the bearer of bad news, guesses that he'll be blamed for what has happened—not an unusual occurrence, apparently.
The leader of the chorus suggests that this might be the work of the gods. This idea sets Creon into a rage. He accuses the sentry of having been bribed to allow the burial rites to take place. He threatens to torture the sentry if the sentry doesn't find the man who buried Polynices. Creon exits. The sentry considers he's had a lucky escape, and swears he'll never come back to Thebes.
Creon, who sees the state as more important than the individual, can't fathom that the gods might not agree with him. He sees the laws of the state as so important that he would be willing to torture the sentry, who is just a messenger, in order to uphold them.
Alone on the stage, the chorus offers a chant on the nature of man. With their capacity for hard work and their ingenuity, humans can conquer every obstacle—except death. When a man makes laws and combines them with the justice of the gods, his city will prosper and he will become great. But when he strays from the laws of the land and the laws of the gods, he will become an outcast.
Some critics refer to the Chorus's speech as Sophocles's "Ode to Man." It is a celebration of the awesome capacities of human beings. The condemnation of men who stray from the proper laws is aimed at Polynices, who attacked the city of his birth. But note how the chorus seems to think, as Creon does, that the laws of men and god are always aligned. The events of Antigone will prove otherwise, to Creon's horror.