Roles of Women in Antigone

Despite the male dominant society of Ancient Greece, the women in Sophocles’ play Antigone all express capabilities of powerful influence and each individually possess unique characteristics, showing both similarities and contrasts. The women in the play are a pivotal aspect that keeps the plot moving and ultimately leads to the catharsis of this tragedy. Beginning from the argument between Antigone and Ismene to Eurydice’s suicide, a male takes his own life and another loses everything he had all as a result of the acts these women part take in. The women all put their own family members above all else, but the way they go about showing that cherishment separates them amongst many other things.

In one of the opening scenes, the fluctuating emotions of the heated dialogue between Ismene and Antigone takes place. The two sisters take turns evoking passion and subjectiveness on their role as people in this world, but more specifically as civilians of Greece. Antigone has the mentality that she owes her duty of being an obedient family member (Johnson 370). Likewise, Ismene fears for her sister’s life and tries to persuade her that her allegiance may lay too strongly in the wrong place. Both women ultimately value family, however, they are split between whom they are most considerate to and immediately cause the audience to take sides.

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Antigone, the protagonist of the play, has what is seemingly the most powerful female role. From the very beginning of the plot she foreshadows her demise but expresses it through her stubbornness and inability to realize the great power of man. It is possible that she was aware of Creon’s capabilities as a leader, but nonetheless, she fights back by going to give her brother, Polyneices, the proper burial. This bold act ultimately leads to her punishment, in which she takes matters into her own hands and kills herself.

Ismene, Antigone’s sister, plays a very critical role that is undaring but wise considering what eventually happens to the other female characters. Ismene symbolizes the alternate route that could have been taken had Antigone understood the danger she was putting herself in when she decided to bury her brother. Ismene is strong willed to say the least because even after her brothers have both died, she doesn’t let her reckless emotions lead her to trouble and control her desires and anger. Her conservative manner, which is neither too radical like Antigone or too traditional like Eurydice, can be held accountable for her survival.

Antigone and her sister, Ismene, both come from a humiliating background full of shame and ill-fate. After the infamous story of their father’s prophecy of murdering his father and sleeping with his mother coming true, the misfortunes continue as their two brothers kill one another in battle. It was in their hand to at least try to stay out of harms way and put themselves in a situation that could have dire consequences given that they came from a lineage of trouble. Antigone is set on the fact that Creon, the king, has been unfair and should not be allowed to decide on something that goes against the laws of the gods. Although Ismene agrees, she doesn’t see how they can respond to Creon effectively without putting their own lives at risk. To Ismene, their own lives aren’t worth gambling for and she considers the possibility of ending their jinxed legacy instead of keeping it going. 

Antigone proves to be both irrational and courageous because even though she doesn’t consider the consequences, she stands up to the most powerful man in Thebes unsupported. Her devotion to her brother and the gods results in her rebellious act and ultimately, her downfall as a tragic hero. In fact, Antigone can be seen as a martyr because she basically risks and gives her own life in order to obey the laws of the gods. She makes an offer to see if her sister will join and help her but instead, Ismene tries to convince her to let go of her emotions and face the facts. Antigone doesn’t let the obvious obstacle of sexism to sway her or even serve as an obstacle. Supported or not, Antigone has made up her mind.

Ismene is presented as a foil to her sister, Antigone, in their initial take on the decision of whether or not they should provide their brother the burial he wasn’t granted. Ismene, on the contrary, proves to be very cautious and wise with her decision. Instead of being persuaded by Antigone and follow her down a cursed path, she reminds herself and her sister of the great obstacles that will make the burial nearly impossible and help them avoid the wrath of an egotistical man. Ismene can either be interpreted as a weakling or as a strong character depending on the point of view she is observed by. When she refuses to extend her aid to her sister, it can be seen as a reason to save her own life or as a chance to not just save but prevent chaos to all. In either case, Ismene stands opposed to her sister’s beliefs to go against Creon’s words. She believes that the certain responsibilities and activities that one is to take part in is dependent on the basis of gender roles.

The debate between the laws of man and the laws of the gods forms the spine of this Greek drama. Sophocles is essentially posing a question to the readers about whether the obedience of the citizen should be given to the gods and family or to the authority when they are on conflicting terms. While Ismene sides with the authority and Antigone shows loyalty to the gods and her family, Eurydice doesn’t quite make a clear-cut commitment to either side until later. In the end, it may seem that because Antigone and Eurydice die and Ismene is the only surviving female character that it is Ismene’s rational that was the correct one. In reality, it is not Antigone or Eurydice, but Creon that is wrong for even challenging the power of the gods that are far beyond his to begin with. 

Eurydice and Ismene are very similar in their timidness towards men. The men feel superior and most women, like Eurydice and Ismene, accept their place in society below men. The opening argument involves Ismene refusing to participate in the defying of man and from the start Eurydice keeps to herself as well. Both women fear the idea of being on the opposite side of man unlike Antigone who is fearless because they lack this certain sense of courage. Initially, both Ismene and Eurydice meet the social expectations of females in Greek society by obeying the decision of men but as the plot develops so does their character and they start to drift from these feminist stereotypes. Towards the end, they realize the importance of exposing their thoughts through words even if it means consequences, which Antigone had been aware of from the start. Ismene and Eurydice realize the bravery at a point in the play that is too late to save the people they care most for; however, the impact they make lingers just enough to leave a possibility for the chain of misfortunes to live on beyond them.

Eurydice doesn’t necessarily stand by her husband but at the same time she doesn’t stand opposed to him either. This weak characteristic observed in Eurydice serves as the inability she has of taking sides and her lack of decision making. She isn’t really a notable character and therefore, she isn’t fully presented to the readers as worthy enough until she commits the noteworthy act of suicide. Her suicide symbolizes her miserable state of living in a society where man can’t see himself ruled by women and also, it symbolizes the reason why she had so little to say because she knew how ignorant Creon had been. Eurydice is her final stand against Creon is more powerful than what her words could have done. In the end, Eurydice becomes aware that she must rise to what she believes rather than stay silent. 

The women all rise to defend their beliefs and pour out their emotions whether it is through just words, like Ismene, or even go as far as bringing themselves to their own death, like Antigone and Eurydice, in order to prove the power they hold. Ismene confesses to the burial on behalf of Antigone although she didn’t engage in the crime. Simultaneously, Antigone refuses to let Ismene take the blame for something she simply didn’t do. This scene of the play shows the importance of family and how both sisters are willing to fall for one of their loved ones. The way Antigone acts isn’t all that surprising, but the way Ismene carries herself in the final scene that she is portrayed to the readers changes the perception of how she is seen as a character.

The men in Antigone take advantage of the fragility present in the women, coinciding with the social characteristics of the Ancient Greek society (Antigone 28). The male characters throughout the play are seen as possessing an upper hand on the females. The men construct and insert the ideology of inferiority in the women, showing how they are not only more capable but also more influential than women. When Creon discovers Antigone’s unsuccessful attempt to bury her brother, he becomes very prideful. Creon makes it seem as if it were a good combination of his great power and the Antigone’s feminism that was responsible for why she failed and was caught. Creon is even more set on acquitting Antigone when he says, “There is no doubt that if she emerges victorious, and is never punished, I am no man, she will be the man here” (Sophocles 760). His egotistical approach to Antigone’s situation sets the standards to the unequally established perspective on the sexes.

Surprisingly, the role of women is underestimated most considerably by the women themselves than by the men. Ismene warns Antigone, “Remember, we’re women. How can we fight men. They’re stronger. We must accept these things-- and worse to come” (Sophocles 749). She recognizes and accepts their setback as females in attempting to carry on such a controversial act telling. Ismene is aware of how difficult defying a man could be, but the fact that she is a female makes the task far from attainable. Eurydice merges with Ismene under the impression that women come short to being co equals of men. Eurydice lets Creon acts on his own terms and do as he pleases without any intervention. Although it is unclear at first, Eurydice shows that she isn’t pleased with how her husband has been dealing with matters even though she fails to bring it to his attention or provide her guidance.

The connotation of sexism in the Ancient Greek society is supported by every character except for Antigone; she is the one exception. Antigone is evasive in falling under the stereotypical gender role of respecting the words of man. Antigone is the single most prominent character because of her extreme ability to influence her surroundings. She successfully causes Haemon, her husband and Creon’s son, to challenge King Creon’s decisions and to make him go as far as to kill himself. Creon is in a state of confusion and destroys the family he once had all because he was reluctant to compromise with Antigone. Not only does Antigone create a brunt for Creon, but she is the underlying reason why his life will no longer bring him joy. She sees herself and acts as if she were an equal while exhibiting rare courage, drive, and toughness throughout the play. Her masculine characteristics intrigue the people around her and motivate some of the women to inherit her male-like qualities.

A very fascinating role that Antigone and Eurydice share in this play is that of a strong support system to the men in their family. Just as Antigone gives her life because of the unconditional devotion she has for her brother and continues supporting him even after he was no longer alive, Eurydice lives in a companionship with her husband and then later gives her life for Haemon, her son. It is interesting that some of the few things that Antigone and Eurydice have in common are both their tragic suicide and their loyalty to family because these two commonalities lead to the possibility that their suicide may have been related to their faithfulness to family bonds. 

Eurydice’s inability to serve as both a wife and mother and Antigone’s difficulty to play the role of sister and wife simultaneously leads to neglection of much needed attention by the men in their life. Antigone and Eurydice choose to commit to one of the men rather than all of them equally and concurrently. Antigone dedicates herself to Polyneices and therefore ends up completely neglecting her fiance, Haemon. Had she been more considerate of all the men rather than just one, she may have realized the awkward situation she would be putting Haemon in by challenging his father in order to serve her brother. Similarly, Eurydice maintains the role of a wife to Creon initially and then adopts the role of a mother, but never both at the same time. While the female characters care for and nurture one of their loved ones, the others seem to drift astray. This quality of women proves exactly why their role is so critical even if some of the men are unwilling to acknowledge it.

There are very few characters to be analyzed in Sophocles’ Antigone but they are so complex to the point where anymore may have been overwhelming. Sophocles’ wisely uses contrasts between the roles of the females to bring out the realities of how different they are while using comparisons to express the universal theme of equality with no regards to gender. Antigone, Ismene, and Eurydice portray exclusive qualities despite their common instincts of caring and showing utmost devotion to their family. The women perpetrate the climax of the play and then follow through with the catharsis by the power of influence, a component unseen by the society of Ancient Greece. How ever highly men view themselves, they owe much to the women and the roles they play in their life.

Works Cited

Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles. SIU Press, 1991. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Johnson, Patricia J. "Woman's Third Face: A Psycho/Social Reconsideration of Sophocles' Antigone." 
Arethusa 30.3 (1997): 369-398. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Kirkpatrick, Jennet. "The Prudent Dissident: Unheroic Resistance in Sophocles’ Antigone." The Review 
of Politics 73.03 (2011): 401-424. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Lyberaki, Antigone. "The Crisis And Women's Economic Independence: Some Warnings From 
Greece." Journal Of Critical Studies In Business & Society 3.1 (2012): 12-39. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Rosenfield, Kathrin H. "Getting Inside Sophocles' Mind Through Holderlin's Antigone." New Literary 
History 30.1 (1999): 107-127. Project MUSE. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Peter Bagg. The Norton Anthology World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. A. 
N.p.: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 747-83. Print.

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