"There is great power in the inability of theatre to create a complete illusion."

 Tony Kushnerplaywright, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize winner for Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes 

In this short rubric, we focus on theatre and Antigone, an ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles

We view two filmed stage versions of the play: one translated and directed by Don Taylor; and another

directed by Gerald Freedman, based on French playwright Jean Anouilh's Antigone, and translated into 

English by Lewis Galantière.

Consult the "Exams" page of this website for a study guide of terms, works, and artists for which you are responsible.

If you would like to read a script of Sophocles' Antigone (not required reading), check Ian Johnston's translation here 

(or pdf below).

Scroll down for a reading guide and study questions.

Antigone_IanJohnston-translation.pdf Antigone_IanJohnston-translation.pdf
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Read a summary of Jean Anouilh's Antigone here.


Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle mapped it out as follows:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action involving incidents that arouse fear and pity.

Tragedy deals with how catastrophic events work to affect individuals: 
    • How does the protagonist react to the situation?
    • What choices does he or she make?
    • How does she or he confront life when faced with difficult choices?
The tragic action should involve an error in judgment made by the tragic figure (hero) in the play.

The tragic hero should be a better-than-ordinary, yet imperfect, individual with whom the audience may sympathize (= the tragic hero should be relatable).

The tragic hero should have a tragic flaw (hamartia), a weakness or imperfection that brings the protagonist into conflict with fate or with the antagonist, and ultimately leads to his/her downfall. Often the tragic hero's hamartia is hubris (= excessive pride).  

A tragedy must effect a catharsis in the spectators: an emotional release that comes from the spectators identifying with the suffering of the tragic hero. 

Sophocles' tragedies are concerned with flawed but virtuous human heroes. 

What drives them? 

How do they behave in the face of impossible situations? 

How do they choose between two equally valid options? 

How do they explain (or justify) their choices and actions? 

Are they willing to assume responsibility for their them? 

What are the consequences for those choices and actions, for themselves, their family members, their fellow citizens?  

If you're interested in the question of authority addressed in Sophocles' play, you may enjoy reading Autumn Bieberle's short article, "Antigone: True Authority." 


Greek tragedies and comedies were always performed in outdoor theaters. Early Greek theaters were probably little more than open areas in city centers or next to hillsides where the audience, standing or sitting, could watch and listen to the chorus singing about the exploits of a god or hero. From the late 6th century BCE to the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE there was a gradual evolution towards more elaborate theater structures, but the basic layout of the Greek theater remained the same. The major components of Greek theater are labeled on the diagram below.

Orchestra: The orchestra (meaning "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the Classical period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials. In the center of the orchestra there was often a thymele, or altar. The orchestra of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was about 60 feet in diameter.

Theatron: The theatron (meaning "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around a large portion of the orchestra (see the diagram below). Spectators in the fifth century BCE probably sat on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many Greek theaters had marble seats.

Skene: The skene (meaning "tent") was the building directly behind the stage. During the 5th century, the stage of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was probably raised only two or three steps above the level of the orchestra, and was perhaps 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The skene was directly in back of the stage, and was usually decorated as a palace, temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters (such as the Watchman at the beginning of Aeschylus' Agamemnon) could appear on the roof, if needed.

Parodos: The parodoi (meaning "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad) made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater before and after the performance.

designed by ancient Greek architect Polyclitus the Younger

seats about 12 000 spectators in its 55 rows


After a prologue spoken by one or more characters, the chorus enter, singing and dancing. 

Scenes then alternate between spoken sections between characters and sung sections 

between the characters and the chorus. 


The prologue is spoken by one or two characters. 

It usually gives background necessary for understanding the events of the play.

Parode or Parodos (Entrance Ode)

This is the song sung by the chorus as the first enter the orchestra and dances. 

The chorus usually remain on stage throughout the remainder of the play. 

Chorus members wear masks and dance expressively, using the hands, arms and body.

Episodes and Stasima (singular: stasimon)

For the rest of the play, there is alternation between episodes and stasima, until the final scene (exode).


There are typically 3-5 episodes in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. 

Speeches and dialogue are typically iambic hexameter: six iambs (short-long) per line, 

but rhythmic anapests are also common. In lyric passages the meters are treated flexibly. 

At the end of each episode, the chorus remains on state while other characters usually leave. 

The chorus dance and sing a stasimon, or choral ode.


A stasimon is a choral ode sung by the chorus. 

It often comments on or reacts to the preceding episode, and puts it into a larger mythological framework.

Exode / Exodos (Exit Ode)

The exode is sung by the chorus after the last episode, 

usually offering words of wisdom concerning the actions and outcome of the play.

Structure of Sophocles' Antigone


Antigone asks for her sister Ismene's help in burying their brother Polyneices. 

Ismene refuses, and Antigone rejects her sister.


The Chorus enter(s), rejoicing and thanking the gods that the attack of Polyneices has been defeated 

and Thebes is safe.

First Episode

Creon enters, and announces his plan to bury Eteocles but leave Polyneices unburied. 

A guard enters, and reports that someone has tried to bury Polyneices. Creon reacts with anger, threatens the guard.

First Stasimon

The Chorus dances and sings its Ode to Man ("There are many strange and wonderful things, 

but nothing more strangely wonderful than man.")

Second Episode

Antigone is brought before Creon, and confesses that she buried her brother. 

She and Creon argue, Creon decrees she will die. Ismene is led in. 

When she claims to have helped her sister, Antigone rejects her.

Second Stasimon

The Chorus reflects on the destiny of Antigone's house, fate, and the nature of a divine curse.

Third Episode

Haemon argues with his father Creon, and leaves. Creon decrees that Antigone be entombed, alive.

Third Stasimon

The Chorus sings a song about the power of the god Eros.

Fourth Episode

Antigone, lamenting her fate to the Chorus, is led to the cave.

Fourth Stasimon

The Chorus compares Antigone's fate and imprisonment to that of three others: Danae, Lycurgus, and Cleopatra.

Fifth Episode

Teiresias enters, and tells Creon he has made a serious mistake. 

Creon realizes his error in judgment, and rushes to bury Polyneices and release Antigone from the cave.

Fifth Choral Ode

The Chorus calls upon Dionysus, the god who protects Thebes ("O you with many names...").


A messenger reports the deaths of Antigone and Haemon. 

Euridyce, Creon's wife, commits suicide. Creon laments his losses.


1. Does Antigone really expect Ismene to help her with Polynices' burial?

2. Why does Creon choose to leave Polynices' body unburied?

3. Why does Creon sentence Antigone to death? What purpose does this serve in the play?

4. Why does Ismene attempt to share responsibility for Antigone's actions?

5. What does Haemon's appeal to Creon reveal about Haemon's character?

6. What purpose does the Guard's role serve?

7. Why does Creon become so obsessive and stubborn in his leadership? (He won't change his edict.)

8. What are the underlying feelings of the Chorus toward Creon? 

9. What is the role of Teirisias, the blind prophet? How does Creon react to him?

10. What does Creon eventually decide to do? Why?

11. What happens in the cave?

12. What is the role of the Messenger towards the end of the play? 

13. What motivates Eurydice's suicide?

14. Who is the tragic figure in this play? Justify your response.


A. Questions

1. Identify three conflicts represented in this tragedy. Identify the scenes in which each conflict is played out.

2. What is the moral lesson being represented in this play?  

3. Do you think that Antigone's choice to defy Creon shows tragic pride and inflexibility, 

or heroic dedication to virtue? Explain your opinion.

4. Do you think that Creon's decisions show heroic dedication to the well-being of Thebes and its citizens, 

or tragic pride and inflexibility? Explain your opinion.

5. Identify and discuss an example in recent history where individuals have been forced to choose between
obeying established laws and human rights.

B. Discuss these three significant quotations from the Gerald Freedman - Lewis Galantière adaptation of 

Jean Anouilh's Antigone

1. Antigone (to Creon): "What a person can do, a person ought to do."

2. Creon (to Antigone): "My trade forces me to be loathsome."

3. Chorus (to Creon): "Why must dirty work be done?"

C. Read the statements below and discuss your interpretation of each of them. Decide if you agree or disagree, 

and explain your reasoning.

1. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle 

"It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen."

2. Nineteenth-century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau 

"I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward."

3. Twentieth century civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. 

"One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." 

"An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of 

imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the

highest respect for the law." 

GROUP CREATIVE ACTIVITY: Antigone is right but Creon is not wrong!

Compose a dialogue between Antigone and Creon that exposes each of their positions AND results in an

outcome that respects both moral authority and political authority. 


GROUP ONE prefaces their dialogue with this explanation: "In this text conversation that ends before the resolution, the communication isn't face to face. This makes the exchange between Antigone and Creon more difficult and less sincere. The way words are said means so much especially when what's being said contains very emotional content.

Our version starts at the scene where Creon brings in Antigone, but in our story, they are in separate places. Therefore Creon can not physically arrest her yet. All he can do is threaten her and this gives Antigone a bit better of a situation. Our version of Antigone would like to avoid death it seems, and this is partly how a compromise is possible in our texting edition of the play."

Antigone: Wut up boss, you busy?

Creon: Excuse me young lady,
            You won't address,
            The king that way...

Antigone: K. 🙄 I don't like the way you did P dirty. 

Creon: Polynices knew he was committing treason when he marched on his own state, he doesn't deserve a burial... 

Antigone: P was my bro and your nephew and he deserves better! 

Creon: Law is law, even my family isn't above it. Do you really believe that I would jeopardize the integrity of the state's authority? This is madness....

Antigone: OMG WTF😡he won't find peace in the afterworld and might be stuck in purgatory if you keep him unburied. 

Creon: I hold the final say, little girl, just because you are marrying my son doesn't mean any different about you breaking the law. 

Antigone: Do you think we can come up with a compromise? 😁

Creon: I shall only offer you this once... 

GROUP TWO dialogue
Antigone: I want to bury my brother.

Creon: He cannot be buried. He committed treason and I must make an example of him.

Antigone: Why do we not come to a compromise and put moral and state well-being together. He should be buried, but his grave marked as to show he is a traitor. That way he may still pass into the afterlife, and an example is still being made of him so you authority goes unquestioned.

Creon: NO! Treason deserves death without a proper burial! I will allow to woman to undermine this!

Antigone: I am a woman, but I'm not undermining your authority with this compromise. If anything, this compromise adds to your integrity as king because it shows you respect the ancient truths of proper burial and morality, yet still punish those who deserve it.

Creon: Compromise does not befit a king. Undermining one facet of my authority undermines all of it. I cannot relent. But I can convince the public of my complete control by improperly burying an imposter in your brother's stead while giving Polynices a secret but proper burial.

AND from the poetically inclined BR: 

Sonnet 7.6
As King I may reform law as I choose
I must also stand firm to my choices
As the King I have far too much to prove
It would be folly to ignore the voices

I cannot overlook morality
My brother lies in malicious dishonor
I mustn't live in immorality
If this law proceeds, I am a goner

My dear son need'th a wife and a child
Spare yourself my daughter, my law will change
It's clear my law is immoral and wild
Your brother shall go into that free range

At the very least my brother will be free
Alas, I'll marry with reluctant glee.

            Above: Antigone: A Clean House for the Dead Season, by Sam Weber  


Plays of Sophocles (The Gutenberg Project): translation by F. Storr

Antigone (Poetry in Translation): translation by George Theodoridis

Director Don Taylor's film of Antigone: The Theban Plays by Sophocles

National Theatre You Tube: An Introduction to Greek Theatre

National Theatre You Tube: An Introduction to Greek Tragedy

National Theatre You Tube Antigone: The Ancient Greek Chorus 

National Theatre You Tube Antigone: An Introduction

Read about Chiraq, Spike Lee's movie spin of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, by Aristophanes

Crash Course Literature 202: "Fate, Family, and Oedipus Rex"

NY Times article: "Antigone Speaks to a Modern World"

Sophocles' "Ode to Man" from Antigone, recited in ancient Greek: watch the video here; read about it here.

Conversation with Martha Nussbaum on 21st century enlightenment

Film scenes that break the fourth wall

1957 film of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (William Butler Yates version, filmed by Tyrone Guthrie - the actors wear masks)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Martha Nussbaum on moral decency: "Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition"

Theatre of the Absurd

Mike Nichol's revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman: complete audio recording here

"The Muted Melancholy Between the Lines": A.R. Gurney's epistolary play Love Letters on Broadway

The UK's Telegraph list that includes plays from different cultures and different time periods:
Best plays of all time

Goodreads' Top 100 Stage Plays of All Time (274 books) 

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