The chorus imagines a battle between Theseus and his men and Creon's guards, who took Antigone and Ismene. They foresee Theseus and his men winning a glorious victory. The chorus offers a prayer to the gods Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis, to bring victory.
As usual in Greek drama, the action takes place offstage. Sophocles uses the device of having the chorus "imagine" what the battle looks like, which helps the audience do the same.
Theseus returns with his attendants, escorting Antigone and Ismene. Overjoyed and relieved to see his daughters, Oedipus thanks Theseus profusely and asks what happened. Theseus responds that he has kept his promise to Oedipus but doesn't want to boast about the battle, because he would rather win fame through deeds rather than words.
Theseus has kept his oath to Oedipus. Theseus's refusal to boast is further proof that he is a good king. Theseus's humility stands in stark contrast to Creon's earlier boasting about his military power.
Theseus then reports that a man claiming to be related to Oedipus but now living in Argos has come to ask for help Poseidon's altar. He adds that the man has now requested a brief audience with Oedipus. Oedipus realizes that the man must be his son, Polynices.
A major change has occurred in Oedipus's status. In addition to Creon, Polynices is the second person who has now traveled great distances in an attempt to win his favor
Oedipus doesn't want to see his son, but Antigone and Theseus argue that there's no harm in listening. Oedipus agrees to see Polynices, and Theseus exits.
Oedipus has hardened his heart against his sons for not helping him in his exile and poverty.
The chorus surrounds Oedipus and chants about the miseries of life and the certainty of death. The chorus says that the luckiest man is one who has never been born, and of those that are born the luckiest are those with short lives. Once a person leaves youth behind, the chorus continues, life is full of pain, envy, and loneliness.
The chorus's statement suggests that it's better not to be born than to suffer at the whims of gods and fate, as Oedipus has. Its observation that the best lives are short ones highlights the horrors of old age.
Antigone says a man is approaching, alone, in tears. Polynices enters. He is miserable, and weeps at the pitiable state in which he finds his father and his family. He calls himself "the worst man alive" for not coming to the aid of his exiled father and asks for mercy. Oedipus does not respond. Polynices turns to Antigone and Ismene for help. Antigone tells him to tell their father why he has come.
Polynices does seem genuinely sorry for his past actions, as his description of himself shows. Though Oedipus seems to have hardened his heart against Polynices, Antigone still has a sisterly affection for her eldest brother.
Polynices says his younger brother, Eteocles, seized power in Thebes by bribing people, and then banished Polynices. Polynices fled to Argos, where he married, made connections, and raised an army. This army is now poised to attack Thebes. Polynices asks his father to let go of his rage toward him and to support his cause. He adds that the oracles have claimed that whatever side Oedipus supports will win.
Polynices feels sorry for himself for losing the throne of Thebes to his younger brother. Attacking his home city at the head of a foreign army, however, is a drastic response. Oedipus's role here is like that of the Furies—he gets to choose who is punished and who is not.
Polynices says that he is a beggar and an exile, like Oedipus, while Eteocles is a tyrant. Polynices finishes by promising that with Oedipus's support, he will defeat Eteocles, regain the throne, and bring Oedipus home to live in his own house. Oedipus refuses to respond, but the chorus prods him to speak.
Polynices makes an unfortunate comparison between himself and his father. While he has married well and made alliances in Argos, his father suffered blindness and banishment.
Oedipus unleashes a flood of insults and curses at Polynices. Oedipus says that he is glad that Polynices is an exile, since Polynices helped drive Oedipus when he in power in Thebes. Oedipus promises that Thebes will not fall to Argos, and that Polynices and Eteocles will both kill each other in the battle. Oedipus tells Polynices to leave with these curses and the assurance of his doom still ringing in his ears.
Oedipus's suffering has made him powerful and prophetic. And like the gods, Oedipus shows no mercy. Just as he was punished for committing actions he regretted and could not control, he now sentences Polynices to be punished, even though Polynices clearly regrets what he has done.
Before he goes, Polynices asks his sisters to give him a proper burial if Oedipus's curses come true. Antigone begs Polynices to call off the attack on Thebes. Polynices refuses—he has been humiliated by his younger brother, and his honor compels him to fight. He says he won't report Oedipus's prophecies to his men, and the attack will go on. He and Antigone share a mournful farewell. She begs him again not to go, but his mind is made up. He prays that Zeus bring her happiness as long as she fulfills her promise to give him a proper burial. He then leaves for Thebes, certain he is heading toward his own doom.
Polynices seems to accept that Oedipus's prophecy will come true. His stubbornness ensures that this prophecy will come true, just Oedipus's own stubbornness led to his downfall in Oedipus Rex. Fate doesn't just happen to Sophocles's characters, it works through them, using their own traits against them. Antigone's promise to bury Polynices sets the stage for the conflicts in Sophocles's Antigone.