Antigone is the oldest daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. She appears in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles' Antigone, Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, and Euripides' The Phoenician Women. Her name means "one who is of the opposite opinion." And, in Sophocles' Antigone, her difference of opinion with her uncle, King Creon, is the catalyst around which the play's ultimate tragedy evolves.
For Heaney, Antigone's grief turns to outrage. She asks her sister, "What's to become of us?" The question has the hint of hopelessness, but her subsequent actions prove that she is anything but helpless. She takes the law in her own hands, defying her uncle and defying even the penalty of death. She writes her own future by her actions, and she moves towards her inevitable end--without fear or tears.
Death is a theme that overshadows everything in this play, and it's interesting that Heaney named his translation The Burial at Thebes. Of Antigone's immediate family members, only her younger sister, Ismene, is alive. Her mother killed herself when she discovered that she'd married her son, and had children by him. Her father, Oedipus, died in the recent past of this play, but before he died, he prophesized that his two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, would kill each other.
The brothers quarreled over the throne of Thebes, which resulted in the exile of Polyneices, who went to Argos, married Argeia, and eventually persuaded his father-in-law to declare war on Thebes. Polyneices met his brother, King Eteocles, in single combat; and they killed one another. The death and tragedy might have ended there, if it weren't for the decision of King Creon to bury Eteocles with honor, refusing the burial of Polyneices.
When Antigone discovers that the body of one of her dead brothers will be desecrated, Ismene says, "And now this last thing happens. / The doom in our blood comes back..." Blaming fate, the blood, she says "It's not a woman's place" to defy King Creon, and that "I'll be ruled by Creon's word. / Anything else is madness."
In her zealous pursuit of justice, Antigone replies: "I will bury him myself. / And if death comes, so be it. / There'll be glory in it. / ... The gods will be proud of me." She says, "The land of the living, sister, / Is neither her nor there. / We enter it and we leave it."
Antigone took her chance, was brought in by the guard, and was sentenced to be sealed into a cave, where she would die of starvation. Her fiance, Haemon, was the son of King Creon, but even his pleas for her life were disregarded. By the time King Creon realized the error of his decree, Antigone had killed herself by hanging herself in the cave. Haemon stabbed himself to death when he discovered Antigone's body. Heaney leaves us with this understanding:
"Love leads the good astray,
Plays havoc in heart and home;
You, love, here and now
In this tormented house
Are letting madness loose."