Antigone: Book 2
2. Summary of Antigone’s Early Morning Adventure
The play begins as Antigone sneaks into the palace carrying her shoes in the early morning and is caught by the Nurse, who wants to know where she has been. The Nurse assumes she is cheating on Haemon and meeting another lover. Antigone goes along with her, not denying what the Nurse thinks. The Nurse carries on about how she tried to raise the children properly, worrying about what Antigone’s mother would say if she were alive. She mentions how different Antigone is from Ismene, and worries about what her fiancé, Haemon, will say when he finds out. Antigone confesses she was not meeting a lover and says her mother would be proud of what she was doing this morning. The Nurse begins to cry at Antigone’s teasing her, and Antigone comforts her. She admits that when the Nurse cries, she feels like a child, and she cannot afford to be a child today.
Ismene comes in and Antigone sends the Nurse to get her breakfast coffee. Ismene is worried and tries to dissuade Antigone from her plan of burying their brother, Polynices, against Creon’s decree. Antigone says it was meant to be, but Ismene describes what will happen to them when Creon and the citizens find out: they will be convicted and dragged through the streets like criminals, tortured and killed. She has been up all night thinking of this and wonders if Antigone has thought it through.
Antigone says she has not thought of this, and then Ismene asks her if she wants to live. Antigone goes into a poetic rapture about all the joys of her childhood spent outdoors, and when Ismene tries to hug her, she shrugs her off, saying she has to be strong now, not weak. Ismene tries to tell her that she will have a wonderful life as the wife of Haemon. Antigone says she will talk to Haemon and that Ismene should go back to bed; it’s too early for her to be up. After getting Antigone to promise she would discuss the whole thing some more, Ismene leaves.
Commentary on Antigone’s Early Morning Adventure
Anouilh keeps the outline of Sophocles’s plot and character development but fleshes it out. He adds the character of the Nurse, who functions like the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, both foil and comic relief. The rivalry between the sisters adds conflict and makes them more believable. Sophocles does not tell us much about their natures, except that Ismene is cautious and Antigone, bold. The Nurse in this play brings out certain details, such as the fact that boys prefer Ismene for her beauty and the way she flirts as a woman. The Nurse has wanted Antigone to pay more attention to primping instead of wearing the same dress and neglecting her hair. Antigone seems something of a tomboy, not quite grown into a woman. Anouilh gives her charming and childish traits. Her older sister and the Nurse are protective of her and treat her as the baby of the family.
The scene brings out the difference between the two sisters. The older one, Ismene, already knows her place. She knows that Creon and men are the rulers of society, and that women need to look pretty and please them. She assumes the role of the older sister looking after the careless younger sister, and at this point, Antigone does not discourage her, nor does she volunteer anything to Ismene. She has told her plan to her older sister, thinking she would want to be involved in the family honor. Instead, Ismene gives a long and horrifying speech about what will happen to them, including details of torture. She is driven by fear, like most people in society, explaining they must stay in their place. Only men “believe in ideas and die for them” (p. 21).
Anouilh creates suspense here by not making it clear if Antigone is just planning to bury Polynices or already has, though it is implied through dramatic irony that she has. The audience suspects from hints that Antigone was out that morning to bury her brother. For instance, Antigone says to the Nurse “This isn’t a day when you should be losing your temper” (p.16), a foreshadowing that this is the day she is going to die. The way she reminisces with her sister about their childhood and how she, Antigone, threw mud and put worms down her sister’s neck, shows Antigone is nostalgic and trying to make peace with her life. She tells Ismene the fact that she is beautiful makes it easier on her today, but she doesn’t explain what she means. The mysterious hints keep mounting during the later interview with Haemon. The Nurse and Ismene were not capable of catching her hints or imagining Antigone doing such a dangerous act. Ismene calls Antigone “mad” and “impulsive” and “stubborn” (pp. 18-19). The Nurse and Ismene paint a portrait of a wild little girl who has not yet grown up. They try to keep her under control for her own good.
In this play Anouilh has imagined for us what kind of a person Antigone must be to deviate from the norm of her society. In Sophocles’s play, the only thing we are told is that Antigone is Oedipus’s daughter, rebellious like he was. Anouilh makes Antigone innocent and strong, just emerging from the purity of childhood. She doesn’t like being treated like a baby when she has serious ideas and feelings about life and about the justice of things. Grownups may turn their heads and pretend not to see how immoral things are, but she is still aware and honest. She resists taking on adult decorum and manners. We are given the impression of a poetic and sensitive soul who is out of place with ordinary and common people. When the Nurse confronts her with being out and not in bed, Antigone goes into raptures about being the first one out in the morning: “It was beautiful. The whole world was grey when I went out” (p. 13). Antigone is a poet. She feels deeply. She responds to life with her whole being. Ismene and the Nurse are dull by comparison.