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Drama

The Female Perspective In Sophocles’ Antigone And Sappho’s Poetry

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout Sophocles’ play the audience notices the misogynistic overtones from Creon, but here, more than anywhere else in the play, Creon fully displays his opinion on women and how far he will go to protect the sanctity of not only his perceived power but the power that men hold in society in general. To lay his “pride bare to the blows of ruin” is more than Creon can handle. Even the character of the sentry makes a pointed remark about Creon when he states that it is terrible when “the one who does the judging judges things all wrong”. In the end, however, Creon loses his family through his unwillingness to bend the rules to bury Antigone’s brother Polynices and shows that in “the ills afflicting men” the worst “is lack of judgment”.

Sophocles seems to be suggesting that men should not use their preconceived notions of women to manipulate their power, or exert that power, over women. Antigone wins the moral fight between her and Creon and directly challenges the male-made order of things. Sophocles displays the general attitudes of the public in those times through the character of Creon in Antigone and his play showcases how gender issues were highly problematic in that time. Sophocles also showcases his personal view that men can be wrong in their judgments and shouldn’t make unilateral decisions over them, but more pointedly, is that a woman’ judgement can be right.

Another such author who highlighted women, and in particular the female perspective, in ancient Greek society, was the poetess Sappho. Since little of the poetry of women survives from ancient Greece, her work becomes important because it indicates what sorts of female-with-female relationships existed. Sappho challenges the traditional roles of women by describing the complexity of female relationships, even antagonistic ones. Although we have no definite portrait of these women’s lives, Sappho had the unique ability in her poetry to stretch beyond the limits of her female contemporaries to describe femininity and female relationships with grace and empowerment. Sappho was thought to have run a school for girls, and it was important in Greek society for girls to be educated and deemed eligible for marriage. Some of the fragments of Sappho’s poetry seem to speak of another rival “school, ” and the women who run them, such as in fragment #52.

In fragment #52 it is speculated that Atthis is a girl that has gone on to another school and abandoned Sappho, or possibly, it is a relationship that has soured since the same girl is mentioned in the previous fragment #51 where Sappho speaks well of her: “in skill I think you need never bow to any girl”. Now, the girl has apparently darted off to Andromeda and Sappho states how Atthis hates even the thought of her. Why Atthis does this we can only speculate, but clearly if she was a student or perhaps a protégé of Sappho’s, the relationship between the two has clearly ended on bad terms.

It is rare to see women talking amongst each other without the conversation being about men or the women talking to men in general. Sappho’s work gives us a rare glimpse into the interpersonal relationships that women had in Archaic Greece. In poem #40 Sappho seems to be talking about the past relationship she had with two other women, possibly her students, Anactoria and Atthis. It seems highly suggestive in the poem that Anactoria and Atthis had a deeply personal connection with each other, as Sappho states, “Atthis her heart hanging/heavy with longing in her little breast”. Even though women’s lives at that time centered around marriage and men in general, there is a short time before that happens and this poem gives a glimpse into that period.

In poem #20, the reader sees how Greek women mourned their dead. Girls in the poem grieve for Timas, a girl that died young and unmarried. In mourning for her the girls “took new-edged blades” and cut their hair similar to how Achilles cut his hair in mourning for Patroclus in the Iliad. This poem shows how women were allowed to grieve similarly as men were able to. In poem #12 we see, presumably, Sappho’s daughter discussing with her mother how she can’t finish her weaving because of her love for a boy and blaming Aphrodite for killing her with “love for that boy”. This poem could even translate to modern times as a discussion between a mother and a daughter about love and infatuation. This is a very typical topic of conversation for mothers and daughters discussing young love but one hardly sees that in most Greek literature of the times. Sappho has shown us this seemingly mundane conversation, yet it shows just how much women’s lives at the time were not showcased in literature.

In poem #17 we further see Sappho talking about her daughter Cleis who she describes “like a golden flower” and shows just how much love she has for her daughter and the value she places on her. Most value is usually placed on boys because they will carry on the family lineage and name, so this poem is unusual in the sense that we see how a mother in those times valued her daughter. Sappho’s poems depict not only profound female friendships, but also ones of a sexual nature. These relationships consist of a foundation of female friendship but have the additional element of romantic love.

Sappho directly challenges patriarchal notions of female desire that have been widely accepted by describing her sexual desires and romantic introspections. Many of the fragments seem to indicate intimate relationships between one girl and another, in particular between Sappho and another girl. These relationships were definitely tinged with a hint of an erotic quality, as seen for example in the fragment #40, which talks of two possible students of Sappho’s. Sappho includes herself in this poem when she talks of how the girl Anactoria will think of her and another girl Actis and of the “life we shared here”. Even though Anactoria is “across the sea” she still thinks of gentle Actis and this gives a glimpse into the intimacy between not only the two women, but also between Sappho and her possible students. It’s even more evident in poems #38 and #39 where in poem #38 Sappho invokes Aphrodite to help her win the woman she loves whom her “distracted heart most wanted” and this type of love does not seem platonic but more of a romantic love since Sappho is invoking the help of a goddess and not just any but the goddess of erotic love.

In poem #39, Sappho is envious of a man, “more than a hero” because he is allowed to sit beside the woman she loves. Sappho clearly adores or loves this woman as she describes how the woman’s laughter makes her own heart beat fast and how her “tongue is broken” if she meets her suddenly. Sappho is captivated by her physiological responses to watching the woman she loves laughing with a man. The contradiction in this poem is that even though Sappho is the silent observer by putting her thoughts into words, she becomes silent when she states “death isn’t far from me”. This does not seem to be casual platonic friendship between two women but something more intimate bordering on the romantic, at least on Sappho’s end. Sappho even describes how a “thin flame” runs underneath her skin. Almost as if she comes alive every time she sees this women or even thinks about her. Sappho through her poetry conveys that women should be free to express their sexuality and that is something the Greeks didn’t think women should be allowed to do.

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