Women form an intrinsic part of this play which is probably one of the finest in all Greek literature. From the very first scene we have insightful exchanges between women which continue to dominate the play as if in leitmotifs. In fact, Antigone and Ismene who represent the two sisters set the scene by exchanging a rich vein of words which can only show that they are two persons almost in love with each other but up to a certain extent also wary of their own situations.
One has to remember that women in Greek society were rather more liberal than in other societies in those days. Sophocles in fact treats them with a certain liberal attitude focusing on their strengths in the philosophical and moral debate. He paints Antigone with a particular brush and Ismene is also one of the most revered, actually she grows from strength to strength as the play goes on. The interchanges between Antigone and Ismene are crucial parts of the play as they continually reflect upon the strebgth of women in the face of adversity, undoubtedly one of the core problems and issues which women continue to face today. Sophocles’ anticipation of today’s situation regarding women is striking and his characters are informed with an avante garde authenticity which is rather original and innovative.
But why does Sophocles treat women in this way? In contrast to Plato and Socrates who are rather more diminished in their attitude towards women, Sophocles extols the virtues of common sense and practicality in his characters which seem to jump out of the pages in their realistic stance. As time goes by we are made to appreciate women as important members of society and also as crucial sstakeholders in Greek civilisation.
The episode where Antigone and Ismene are condemned to death also makes us reflect on the brabaric nature of Greek civilisation at the time – at least in these aspects. Here we have parallels with what occured in other societies, although Greek executions were rather more sober than what was usually practised. The vulnerability of women is something which is described here although at this stage one can appreciate the fact that women were regarded with a bit ore respecta nd recognition in Athenian society.
The role of Antigone
Antigone is an important character in the sense that she sums up virtue and capacity in several areas. We find her conversing with other men in several circumstances in rather similar situations which would be more in their place in the 20th century than in Greek times. The moralist role of Ismene is also important in that she does not hold back in attacking others when she deems them to be incorrect or immoral in their values. She is also subsntially hardened on certain characteristics although at the end of the day she is rather soft like other women.
Still her intrinsic courage and great forcefulness in the face of adversity is very striking. She holds up the play with her intensity and also provides a role model for the many women out there who perhaps do not know their own strength and who fall at the first hurdle without attempting to get up.
The role of the chorus and Antigone is also important as the Chorus appears initially to have doubts about the purity of her personage. This is reflected upon extensively by Bowra (1944) who argues that the Chorus is doubtful but that Antigone also holds parallels with other personages in the era including Cleopatra. Yet again Sophocles skillfully weaves his web around Antigone to make her seem rather different although at the end of the day she may seem to be like all women, capricious and self serving most of the time. However she also proves to be strng and morally courageous especially in a situation where she is faced with certain death.
Creon’s constant clashes with Antigone are also of paraount importance as they set the leitmotif for what is to come. Again we have several comparisons with other mythological characters who are compared to Antigone and yet again, the role of the woman is reinforced through her actions and statements. Still, Antigone appears to be a strong character full of boundless energy and enthusiasm imbued with magnificent courage and inspiration in the face of death.
The role of Ismene
Ismene is perhaps more of a reflective character than the protagonist but hse is also used as a sort of sounding board for Antigone’s actions. In this case she appears to be wiser and more assertive in offering advice to Antigone but like most Athenian woman of her age she is also submissive.
Naturally Sophocles also weaves certain web like situations around his chracters and Ismene is no exception. She has to face her sister Antigone’s troubles when she is condemned to death and this takes a great toll on their relationship. However her matter of fact outlook on life as well as her direct and unfussy attitude shows that she is a crucial and extremely important character in the play.
Ismene also comes bearing terrible news on Oedipus two sons and their imbroglio in Thebes. This is consitent with Ismene’s role as the harbinger of doom on several occasions and she is also very much the wiser when compared to the more headstrong Antigone. This preceding story in another play is also an important leitmotif as it also shows that Ismene brings a certain realism and authenticity to the play which shows her intrinsic ability to balance things out.
Sophocles’ appears ready to create situations where Ismene can continue to show her intellectual prowess although these may be few and far between. His social commentary also provides valuable insight into the lives of Athenian women at the time, a life which perhaps could seem to be rather strait jacketed initially but which grew exponentially as time went by. Ismene is perfectly poised to offer her own philosophical observations on the situation in hand and in this play her character grows from strength to strength.
Euridice – a back seat in the story
Euridice is a charcter which does not bring much intensity to the plot although her observations are valuable and rather intriguing too. She often acts as a sort of mediator and here Sophocles reflects on this situation to emphasise women’s roles as mediators and peacemakers during conflicts. Orpheus relationship with Euridice is also important as there is a fine dividing line in what she expects as a wife and what can be done. The relationship of marriage is also explored at length here and one can also say that Euridice is obviously affected by what goes on around her and this has a double effect on the play’s general outcome.
Passages of commentary in the play
Fatalism is one of the most important points here as can be observed from this important passage where Antigone bewails her fate but also seems to accept it with a certain stoicism.
“O tomb, my bridal chamber, vaulted home,
Guarded right well for ever, where I go
Among the dead doth Persephassa hold;
And I, of all the last and saddest, wend
My way below, life's little span unfilled.
And yet I go, and feed myself with hopes
That I shall meet them, by my father loved,
Dear to my mother, well-beloved of thee,
Thou darling brother; I, with these my hands,
Washed each dear corpse, arrayed you, poured libations,
In rites of burial; and in care of thee”,
Here we have the classic case of a woman imploring for mercy yet also to join her loved ones in a heroic death. The mystical properties of deities and gods seem to intermingle with women and Sophocles is quite strong on this aspect too. He seems to focus on the immortality of women who are faced by unsurmountable odds in the face of all their obstacles. There are some poignant words in the text too especially the part where she mourns for her ‘dear brother’ which demonstrates the intrinsic bond between siblings as well as well as her mournful lament for her parents. This is a very powerful part of the play and demonstrates the power of Antigone to create situations of challenging morality.
Another important quote from the play is this;
"Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me; nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains."
Here we have Antigone once again extolling the virtues of death in the face of adversity which is quite a tragic situation. Yet again Sophocles attempts to create a web of mystery around women who are extolled as being virtuos, munificent and armed with great courage. The role of women is thus taken to supreme heights here and we can also subtly observe Sophocles intrinsic understanding of the character of women who may not always be perfect but who certainly inspire perfection.
Consequentially, the role of women is one where they are constantly at the forefront of the play in Antigone. There is a lot of tension as well as rising undercurrents in the whole play which is occasionally quite tedious at certain points. Obviously there is a huge amount of dialogue between actors but the role of the woman remains supreme at certain junctures.
Women play an extrenely important part in Sophocles’ Antigone. They are the crux behind the story and continously provide the backbone behind the events which are ocurring throughout. On several occasions the women in the play continue to assert their opinions without fear or favour and they are not afraid of the consequences which these may bring.
The main character Antigone is imbued with a tragic hue yet she is also extremely powerful and in a certain sense she is also a strong character depicting the intrinsic influence which women had in Athenian society. Ismene on the other hand is more measured, more assured and less prone to histrionics as would be expected by the sister of Antigone.
Eurydice does not get much of a look in in the play but she is also one of the wise sages, a character which espouses the virtuosity and unassailability of women. Although these virtues may be far away from the truth, the whole play is very much imbued with the mystical and influential nature of women who may be malleable but are also of crucial importance throughout.
The play focuses around the women characters and they are the fulcrum of it in more ways than one. They can be said to offer certain roles but also the three are a window upon the world of Athenian times where the virtues of the fairer sex were constantly extolled and in demand. Sophocles certainly had quite an admiration for the woman’s psyche as is amply demonstrated in this play.
Finally, Sophocles offers an intriguing pesrpective on women which may not always be valid but he certainly had a vision and philosophical intuition on several counts. The result is a play which is definitely strong on values and positive on the contribution of women.
Higgins C (2000); Oedipus Trilogy; Cliffs Notes
Grene D (1991);Sophocles I: Oedipus The King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (The Complete Greek Tragedies)
Sophocles; Antigone; Prestwick House (2005)