As the incidents on which the Antigone is founded belong to a story with which no less than five of the extant Greek tragedies deal, and as references to various details in that story abound in this and in other dramas, it may be well to tell it at length.
The founder of the dynasty, to the throne of which Oedipus the father of Antigone succeeded, was Labdacus, king of Thebes. On his death his son Laïus, after certain adventures with which the main story has no conern, came to the throne. In due time he married Jocasta, or Epicaste as Homer calls her, the daughter of Menoeceus and the granddaughter of Pentheus, the successor of Cadmus on the throne of Thebes and celebrated as the opponent of the god Dionysus. His fate is the theme of the Bacchae of Euripides. As Laïus and Jocasta were childless, the Oracle at Delphi was consulted, and Laïus and Jocasta were childless, the Oracle at Delphi was consulted, and Laïus was informed that if a son was born to him that son would be his death. Accordingly, on Jocasta afterwards giving birth to a male child, the child, three days after its birth, was given to a slave belonging to the household of Laïus, that it might be destroyed. Its feet were pierced by an iron pin--hence the name Oedipus, "swellfoot"--and it was taken to the wilds of Mount Cithaeron. There the slave in charge of it met with a herdsman in the service of Polybus, king of Corinth, and touched with pity for the poor babe gave it to the herdsman, who took it to Corinth. It chanced that Polybus and his wife Merope were childless. Hearing of the baby they took it from the herdsman, adopted it, and passed it off as their own child; and Oedipus, having no knowledge of what had happened, but believing himself to be the son of Polybus and Merope and the heir to the throne of Corinth, grew up to man's estate. One day at a feast a youth heated with wine taunted him with not being the true son of his father. The taunt disturbed him, and he questioned his reputed parents, who assured him that what he had heard was idle slander. Still he was not satisfied, and he determined to consult the Oracle at Delphi. The terrible response was that he was destined to murder his father and become the husband of his mother. This he resolved should never be the case, never again would he enter Corinth--so turning his back on Corinth he took the way to Thebes. On his journey at a narrow place near the Branching Roads in Phocis, he met an old man on a chariot with an escort of four attendants, a quarrel ensued, and Oedipus slew the old man and three out of the four attendants. That old man was his father Laïus, and the first prophecy was fulfilled. Continuing his journey he entered Thebes. Not long after his arrival there the goddess Hera sent the Sphinx to plague the city. Perched on a hill near it the monster propounded her famous riddle, and every failure to answer that riddle cost the city a life. What none could solve was solved by Oedipus. The Sphinx destroyed herself, and the city, grateful to its saviour, gave him the hand of its queen and made him its king. And so he married his mother, and the second prophecy was fulfilled. Some sixteen years passed by and four children were the fruit of this ghastly and portentous union, two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
At last came the scourge entailed by the crime of which Oedipus had been unwittingly guilty, taking the form of a plague which desolated the city. All came out; detail by detail the frightful story was unravelled. Jocasta hung herself, Oedipus stabbed out his eyes, and blind and degraded and discrowned kept himself secluded in his home till the cry rose that Thebes was harbouring pollution. Then he was expelled and he wandered forth into exile, with his child-daughter Antigone as his sole escort and companion. The fall of Oedipus is the subject of Sophocles' masterpiece the Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King. Meanwhile Creon, the brother of Jocasta and the brother-in-law of Oedipus, governed Thebes as regent, and Eteocles and Polyneices, conscious of the curse which was on themselves and their whole family, were at first content that he should succeed to the kingdom. But as they grew up ambition was awakened in them, and they fell to feud. Eteocles the younger brother persuaded Creon and the citizens of Thebes to banish Polyneices, who as being the elder brother had most right to the throne. Upon that Polyneices took refuge at Argos, where he married the daughter of the king Adrastus, and persuaded Adrastus to join him in invading Thebes. With them were banded five other heroes who have been so magnificently described by Aeschylus in his noble epic drama The Seven Against Thebes, namely Tydeus, Amphiaraus, Capaneus, Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus. The great conflict is about to begin; the Argive host has gathered before Thebes, but Polyneices, who was like his brother under a curse from their common father for not having resisted those who had expelled him from Thebes, would have that father's forgiveness and blessing before battle is joined. Oedipus has now made his way to Colonus, his weary wanderings soon to be over--the just gods about to recompense him by a glorious death for the calamities and sufferings for which his destiny rather than his own voluntary acts has been responsible. Antigone and Ismene are with him when the arrival of Polyneices is announced. At first his father refuses to see him. But persuaded by Antigone, in a speech recalling and rivalling in pathos and beauty Portia's appeal to Shylock, he grants the young man an interview, and Polyneices--for he knows that victory will be with that brother on whose side Oedipus shall stand--pours forth his petitions for forgiveness and assistance. The old man listens in silence till Polyneices' passionate appeal is ended; then suddenly turning on him he reiterates the curse which he had years before pronounced on his undutiful and ungrateful sons: victory shall be with neither of them, they shall fall on the field slain by each other's hands. Then Antigone implores Polyneices to abandon his fatal enterprise. This honour forbids; he must go and meet his doom. And so with a parting praryer that they, his sisters, will see that in death he is not dishonoured, but has duly his funeral rites, he disengages himself from their embraces and departs to fulfil his father's curse. All this is related in the Oedipus at Colonus. Battle is joined--and here the story is told by Aeschylus in the Seven Against Thebes and by Euripides in the Phoenician Women--the two brothers meet in mortal combat and fall transfixed by each other's spears.
Now, as Eteocles had died defending his native city against an alien host, he was justly entitled to his funeral rites, and to an honourable burial. But as Polyneices had died while invading his native state at the head of an alien army, and was thus guilty of the greatest crime a citizen could commit, it was decreed that he should be deprived of those rites, and that his body should be left prey to birds and dogs on the spot where he fell. Such a fate was regarded by the Greeks with peculiar horror. On the reception of funeral rites depended, it was believed, the welfare of the departed in the next world: in this world the deprivation of them marked the extreme ignominy and dishonour. Even for the murderer of her father and the seducer of her mother, Electra in the frenzy of her hatred can wish nothing worse (Electra, 1487-9). At this point the hostility of Ulysses to Ajax relents, and we need go no further than the debate between him and the Atridae at the end of the Ajax to realize what momentous concern to all relatives and friends of the departed the provision of such rites was.
As soon as Antigone hears of this decree, she determines, in defiance of it, to give her brother the rites which the state withholds and forbids. This is related at the conclusion both of the Seven Against Thebes and the Phoenician Women. The first of these dramas long preceded the Antigone; and the concluding dialogue in it between the Herald, the Chorus and Antigone, in which Antigone, half of the Chorus siding with her, expresses her intention of honouring Polyneices in spite of the warnings of the Herald and of the other half of the Chorus who are against her, probably furnished Sophocles with the hint for his tragedy. At this point the Antigone opens. It is early in the morning succeeding the day on which the two brothers had slain each other and on which the Argive army, led by Polyneices, had been routed and driven in panic from Thebes. Creon had succeeded to the throne vacated by Eteocles, and had just issued, apparently on his own responsibility, the decree announcing that Eteocles was to receive honourable burial, but that no one, under pain of death, was to give the corpse of Polyneices funeral rites.