After Oedipus left the throne, and when his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, came of age, they agreed to rule Thebes in alternate years. Eteocles, at the end of his first year of rule, reneged on the agreement and refused to step down. Polynices then raised an army of traditional enemies of Thebes and led them against his city. (This story is recounted in Aeschylus' play Seven Against Thebes.) The battle ends with the defeat of the invading army, but Eteocles and Polynices are both dead, killed by each other's hand. Creon, who now assumes power in Thebes, declares that, as he was the protector of the city, Eteocles' body will be properly buried, but Polynices, because he attacked the city, will be left unburied on the battlefield.
Antigone decides she must disobey, arguing that a law of man which violates religious law is no law at all. She performs a ceremonial burial -- a simple sprinkling of dust over the body -- is apprehended by the guards, and taken before Creon, who decrees that she will herself be buried by being sealed in a cave. Creon's son, Haemon, however, is betrothed to Antigone, and protests her sentence and lectures his father on wise leadership. Creon refuses to change his mind. When the prophet Tiresias informs Creon that the gods are angry with his pronouncement concerning Polynices, he finally relents, but too late. When the cave is opened to retrieve Antigone, she has already hung herself. In his grief and anger, Haemon tries to kill Creon. He fails, and then kills himself instead. Upon his return to the palace, Creon also learns that his wife, Eurydice, killed herself too when she heard what had happened. Thus at the end of the play, Creon is ruler over an orderly city, but he has lost everything.
The Antigone is much admired for being the first and most enduring statement of the conflict between the need for social order and the feeling that on occasion higher law may supersede human law.