The sentry returns, escorting Antigone. He calls for Creon and presents Antigone as the culprit who defied the law and gave burial rites to Polynices. Creon is doubtful. The sentry tells the story of how he and his colleagues removed the dirt from the body and then sat in wait. As they watched, a sudden whirlwind lifted a cloud of dust. When the dust settled, they saw Antigone standing over the body, screaming because she saw that it was bare. She then poured handfuls of dirt on the body as the sentries came down and seized her.
Many critics have asked why Antigone returns to the body, and why she feels the need to cover it with dirt again. If she has already performed the funereal rites, shouldn't the gods be appeased? These critics argue that she seems to want to be caught in the act. The whirlwind suggests the presence of the gods, and that perhaps the gods do care about what happens to Polynices's body.
Creon asks Antigone if she denies this charge. She does not. Creon dismisses the sentry and asks Antigone if she was aware of his decree that no one should bury Polynices. She says that she was fully aware.
Antigone gives straight answers and doesn't hesitate in proclaiming her guilt. She wants to challenge Creon's law head-on.
Creon asks why she would dare to break the law. Antigone says that Creon's law was not the law of the gods of the underworld—the gods of death and burial whose laws form unwritten, ancient traditions. She was not going to break the laws of the gods to appease a man.
Antigone heeds the laws of custom and religion, not the laws of men like Creon. She believes she is obeying a higher power than Creon's imperfect man-made legislation.
Antigone says she knows she must die. Since she has already known so much sadness in her life, she says, she welcomes death and is not afraid of it. But she could not bear to leave her brother to rot. And if Creon thinks she is acting stupidly, she says, that's because Creon is a fool.
Antigone remains unwavering, even aggressive in her defiance. By insulting the king she is almost backing him into a corner so that his pride will force him to carry out the sentence.
The leader of the chorus notes that Antigone is as passionate and stubborn as her father. Creon responds that he will break her stubbornness, and that he refuses to let her go free, which would make it appear that he had been defeated by a woman. He declares that Antigone and her sister, whom he also believes is guilty, will suffer a terrible death.
Antigone is unfazed, and says that to die for the act of bringing honor to her brother will bring her glory. She adds that the citizens of Thebes support her actions, and would speak up in her favor if they weren't afraid of Creon. She calls him a tyrant.
Antigone again references the higher law that she follows. She suggests that Creon rules by fear, which calls into question the justice of his burial decree.
Creon asks how Antigone can honor Polynices, who killed her other brother, the patriotic Eteocles. Antigone responds that all people must be given the same death rites—it's what the gods command. To Creon's argument that the patriot and the traitor should be treated differently, Antigone says that, because they were her brothers, she loved both equally. Creon says she can love them in Hades.
Creon and Antigone debate whether Antigone should be loyal to the state and its laws—including its distinction of citizen and traitor—or to the gods. By Creon's logic, Antigone's refusal to follow his laws makes Antigone a threat to the state's safety that must be eliminated.
Ismene enters, weeping, and says that she will share Antigone's guilt, but Antigone furiously refuses to let Ismene share in the glory of dying for this cause. Ismene begs Antigone to let them die together. Antigone—harshly at first, and then more gently—continues to refuse to let Ismene claim guilt for defying Creon.
At first, Antigone won't let Ismene join her out of pride—Ismene didn't do the deed, why should she share the glory? But Antigone eventually softens. It would be pointless for Ismene to die for something of which she wasn't responsible.
Ismene turns to Creon and asks him if he'd really kill his son Haemon's intended bride (Antigone is Haemon's fiancée). Creon says his son can find someone new. Ismene pleads that the two are in love. Creon says that the thought of his son in love with a traitor repels him. He breaks off the marriage. Ismene continues to plead for Antigone. Creon tells the leader of the chorus that Antigone must die. Guards take Antigone and Ismene away.
Creon remains committed to the supremacy of his laws. If Antigone can't escape the law just because she wants to bury her brother, then Creon also won't make an exception just because his son is in love with Antigone. Rules are rules, to Creon, and a leader is judged by his ability to enforce them.
The chorus delivers a lyrical chant about the tragedy and ruin of the house of Oedipus. The chant then turns to the power of Zeus (king of the gods) to lay waste to fortunes and ruin the lives of great mortals. Though humans strive and strive, they but remain subject to the whim of the gods. The chant ends when Haemon, son of Creon, enters, weeping.
Fate seems to have it in for Oedipus and his descendents. They went from the height of power when Oedipus was king of Thebes to patricide, incest, fratricide, and now a sister dying for the right to bury her brother. Yet the chorus fails to see that it is now Creon who is on the verge of sentencing himself to a terrible fate. Just as Oedipus tried to fight against the fate given to him by the gods, now Creon holds up his own man-made laws as more important than the laws of the gods. In Greek literature and myth, things never turn out well for people who try to lift themselves above the gods.