44 pages 1 hour read

Jean Anouilh


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1944

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Summary and Study Guide


French playwright Jean Anouilh’s Antigone—based on Sophocles’ play of the same name—was first performed in France in 1943; the script was first published three years later in 1946. Performed under censorship in Nazi-occupied France, the play is famed for its seemingly ambiguous portrayal of the authority figure, Creon (, as he confronts authority-defying martyr, Antigone (said to represent the oppressed people of France). While the play appeared neutral enough to be performed, it was nevertheless interpreted as an act of defiance and a critique of the Vichy government which had allowed Nazi rule. The play is a drama that both borrows and changes many elements of ancient Greek Tragedy. It explores themes of authority and justice, femininity, and sibling rivalry.

This study guide uses the edition published by Samuel French in 2010 and is translated by Lewis Galantière.

Content Warning: The source material depicts death by suicide.

Plot Summary

Jean Anouilh’s Antigone begins with all the characters frozen in tableaus onstage. The Chorus announces that this is the story of Antigone, daughter of the former king Oedipus and sister to Ismene, Eteocles, and Polynices. Antigone sits alone while the Chorus explains how she will soon confront her uncle, Creon, the current King. Creon forbade anyone from giving the body of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, a proper burial, on punishment of death. In defiance of this order, Antigone has buried Polynices, deliberately disobeying her uncle but following a higher, moral law.

The Chorus introduces Antigone’s betrothed (and Creon’s son), Haemon. Also onstage is King Creon, who believes that he is only on the throne because he will not turn away from his duty. The Chorus foreshadows the pride that will be Creon’s downfall. Nearby, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, sits peacefully with her knitting—a symbol for the thread of life, which is a common trope in Greek Tragedy. Next to her is the Nurse, who raised the two girls, Creon’s young Page, the Messenger who will later announce Haemon’s death, and the Guards who enforce Creon’s law.

The action begins with Nurse scolding Antigone for being out late at night. Antigone tells Nurse not to worry about where she was earlier. The Nurse leaves while Ismene enters, looking for Antigone. She found Antigone’s bed empty and has grown worried. Ismene tells her sister that they must not bury Polynices and that she should think of her betrothed, Haemon. Antigone insists that she will bury her brother with or without Ismene, but promises she won’t leave the house if Ismene returns to bed.

Nurse returns and Antigone confides in Nurse that she is afraid, then makes Nurse promise to take care of her dog if anything happens to her. Before Nurse can ask any further questions, Haemon arrives to see Antigone. They reconcile, having had a fight the night before. He questions why she wore perfume and a dress when she visited him last night, which is unusual for her. Antigone admits that she stole the items from Ismene to make Haemon love her more, for she is insecure that she might not be as attractive as her sister. Haemon insists upon the strength of his love. Antigone tells him they will not be married after all, refusing to explain why. Shocked but obedient, Haemon leaves Antigone alone. Ismene then returns to Antigone, who now confesses that she has already buried Polynices.

The next scene features Creon speaking to one of the guards entrusted with keeping watch over Polynices’ body. The guard confesses that someone stole and buried the body. Creon is outraged and demands that the guard keep the story a secret. He tells the guard to uncover the body and arrest anyone who attempts to re-cover it. The guards then return with Antigone after they catch her trying to rebury the body. Creon is appalled to see that his own niece is the one who has defied his laws. He confronts her and she admits to her crime. When he learns that no one else saw her arrest, he offers to cover up her crime, but Antigone tells him that she will just go back to bury the body again.

The rest of the scene is a strong and heated debate between Creon and Antigone about the distinction between moral law and laws written by men. Antigone argues that her brother is owed a proper burial regardless of Creon’s edict, while Creon argues that he is a just king and that she owes him her obedience. When Antigone remains defiant, he sentences her to death, in spite of the pleas from the Chorus and even Haemon to spare her life.

In prison, Antigone dictates a love note for Haemon and learns that she will be buried alive. Antigone laments her fate. She is taken away to the cave before she can finish the letter.

A Messenger appears on stage, wanting to speak to Queen Eurydice. The Chorus asks the Messenger what news he has for the queen, and the Messenger delivers the bleak story of Antigone’s death. After the cave was walled up, cries were heard from within. Creon recognized them as Haemon’s and began to dig, trying to release his son. When a crack in the cave was formed, he discovered Haemon holding the corpse of Antigone, who had already hanged herself with her robe cord. Haemon violently charged at Creon wanting to kill him, but failed. He stumbled back and instead fatally stabbed himself in the stomach.

Creon and his Page enter. They hear that Queen Eurydice has killed herself in grief over Haemon’s death. Creon takes a moment to grieve, then begins preparing for a cabinet meeting. The play ends with the Chorus onstage with the guards. The Chorus speaks of Antigone, explaining that as long as there are tyrants, there will be someone like Antigone to rise up and oppose them. Meanwhile, the guards continue to play cards—this tragedy means nothing to them.

Related Titles

By Jean Anouilh