The Role of Women in Antigone by Sophocles
Greek society as a whole was incredibly male-dominant. With a focus on patrilineal and patriarchal ideals, women were viewed as inferior in nearly all aspects of life. During the reign of the Ancient Greek empire, women were confined to their homes (mans’ attempt to keep them from being raped and abused by the poor); they were ordered to bear children and work on the home; they were, as well, dissuaded from speaking out against their male counterparts. Women, in all, were oppressed in Ancient Greece during which Sophocles’ Antigone was produced.
Although it is uncertain the exact date in which the play was written, with these distinctions of Greek societal values, the title character is depicted as an example of women: one that risked her life to betray society’s rules and lay her brother, Polyneikes, to rest after his death. This event calls on the ethics of Kreon, the ruler of Thebes (and uncle to Antigone), whose ego shrouds his ability to determine what is truly just within his refusal to honor Polyneikes’ death as well as the punishment of Antigone’s actions.
Following the death of Polyneikes and Eteokles, Kreon declares the former of the two brothers to be left on the battleground to be subject to the hungry animals and elements. This refusal of burial is Kreon’s denial to recognize the brother whom fought against his home, Thebes. During this time, fighting against your native land was an act of treason. Betrayal of one’s country, specifically in this case one that honors its warriors abundantly, was seen as one the highest forms of crime. At the beginning of the play, two sisters – Antigone and Ismene – bicker over the burial of Polyneikes; Antigone wishing for a proper burial, ignoring the rules set by Kreon that nobody shall honor the traitor and Ismene begging her sister to follow the impacted rule. The rule was placed by Kreon in order to let Polyneikes lay in unrest for the rest of eternity. In the Greek belief system, those who have died and are not honored with a burial or funeral service will forever remain on Earth as a haunted soul.
Eventually, Antigone decides to recommence burying her brother stating, “It’s not for him [Kreon] to keep me from my own” (l. 60). This is the first time Antigone is shown to be a force of revolutionary ideals against her patriarchal surroundings. As a matter of fact, being so early on in the play, it sets the scene for what is yet to come. Her forceful initiative proves her to be an anomaly during this time. Women were seen as a passive people; one that had lived with immense restraints that they had learned to live with and accept. However, this is not the case for Antigone. If she were to simply follow her uncle’s orders, she would escape punishment and be free to live her life as any other. However, unhappy with Kreon’s rule, she doesn’t. She knows the risk of what she is doing, even telling Ismene, “For me it’s noble to do / This thing, then die … I will commit a holy crime” (ll. 87-90). A woman during this time may have recognized what the right thing to do was, but would refuse to perform the deed; afraid of the repercussions which were often death, as Ismene does.
Ismene in a sense is the balancing act between Antigone and her actions. Antigone is punished for what she did, her actions rarely seen by a woman during this time and Ismene steps back and watches from the sidelines for much of the play. She is a personification of the female population in Greece. It is until Antigone is tried for her crimes that Ismene renounces her silence. Ismene for a large duration of the play recognizes and respects the male authority present within the Greek system. Kreon’s rule, in her eyes, is meant to be followed without question despite any personal objection. Then, once Antigone and she are captured, she steps up and offers her own life as well, “But now you’re in trouble / …let me respect the dead and die with you” (ll. 618-622). This change of moral conduct may perhaps be a comment, and even a challenge, on the male-chauvinist society. However, it seems more fitting that this dynamic evolution of Ismene’s character criticizes the uselessness of her courageousness. She may have stepped in, but Kreon’s ultimate power and dictatorial style of leadership proves too influential.
Later in the play, a low-ranking guard rushes into the home of Kreon and proclaims “sight” of Polyneikes’s burial despite not seeing it with his own eyes. Kreon, displeased with the news, announces the manhunt for the culprit, warning the guard “if / You don’t reveal who did this, you’ll confess / That dirty profits make for suffering!” (ll. 369-371). This also speaks on the idea of justice during the time as if the Guard is to not provide proof of his accusation, he will suffer major consequences — perhaps death. As the Guard enters Kreon’s commons, Kreon is immediately displeased with his presence. He acts disinterested and berates him to get on with the accusation. It is almost as though Kreon is set to charge the Guard with the crime if he does not find the wrongdoer simply for bothering. The power he has been dealt seems to go to Kreon’s head. Previously, Antigone’s father Oedipus had ruled over Thebes until his discovery that his wife was coincidentally his mother. This led him to willfully blind himself and be led outside of Thebes to die. Power was handed to Kreon unexpectedly and the reader is able to see that power hungriness throughout the entirety of the play.
As stated prior, Antigone stands as a symbol of, not exigently equal treatment, but the recognition of women; during her trials, she owns up to her actions, “I admit I did it; I do not deny it” (l. 443). She is proud of what she has done and does not regret it. This can also be interpreted as Antigone standing as a symbol for women whom were often portrayed as mischievous troublemakers in myths and literature such as this one (Women in Ancient Greece). Later, Kreon calls for the punishment of Ismene as well as Antigone. Although Ismene did not physically participate in Polyneikes’s burial, the denial to report it is equitable to that of burying the apostate.
During a debate with her uncle, Antigone proclaims that what she has done, as she stated at the very beginning of the play during her talk with Ismene, should not be immediately declared as punishable. She places Kreon’s beliefs into question by asking: “Who knows if down there that [Polyneikes’s burial] is not considered holy?” (l. 573). This question angers Kreon and he exclaims that “a woman will not rule” as long as he is alive (l. 578). Kreon’s reasoning for his decision is justified as he sees it, simply because he is a man. Essentially, by proclaiming this, Kreon insinuates that women are unfit to make decisions for a kingdom; a women is not fit to make wise decisions and all Antigone has to say to defend herself are heresy. His only evidence for this is Antigone’s “foolish” burial of her brother.
During Antigone’s trial, Kreon sentences Antigone to death. Before her death, Antigone grieves over her lack of opportunity to perform her expected, womanly duties: “And now by force of hands he’s leading me / Away, without a nuptial bed, without / A wedding ceremony, and receiving / No share of marriage not of rearing children” (ll. 980-983). This speaks on the women of the time as well. Although Antigone stands as a woman who is unafraid to betray her uncle’s rule, she still feels her connection to Greece’s expectations of her. Once a woman is married, she is meant to bear children, tend to the home and her husband’s needs, and cook. Antigone wants that, relying on her gender’s expectations in order to receive some sort of ease of punishment; essentially absolving the feministic tendencies she had built prior.
Centrally, during the first half of the play – and arguably its entirety – justice is called on by Kreon and Kreon alone; justice to him is what a man in power declares and a man alone. Despite Antigone being his niece, he bears no mercy on her and puts her to death much like her brother she cared so much for to break a law. Men in Greek society were seen as superior; the only ones who had the capacity to make wise decisions enough to decide what compromised justice. This viewpoint of men is clearly seen within Kreon’s dictator-like character: “And to the common citizen, when you / Dislike some word he says, your eye becomes / a terror” (ll. 670-673).
Men during this time were also the main attendees of plays like Antigone. “Respectable” women were expected to remain home and care for their home and children as per the usual. With men’s freedom within the society, they were also expected to attend these theatrical performances as a civic duty. Thus, by being a civic responsibility, this guarantees high male viewership. In the beginning of the play, Antigone states
“I would not welcome such a fellowship. / Go thine own way; myself will bury him. / How seet to die in such employ, to rest,– / Sister and brother linked in loves’ embrace– / A sinless sinner, banned awhile on earth, / But by the dead commended and with them / I shall abide for ever. As for thee, / Scorn, if thou wilt, the eternal laws of Heaven” (ll. 69-76).
This longing (particularly this longing for death) in terms of her actions suggests she, being a woman, knows she will not be handed mercy. In this context, it can be assumed that by performing this play in front of a pantheon of men, women are portrayed as serpentine and almost animalistic: “From now on they must be / Women – not to be let run loose, for even / Bold men will try to make their escape when they / See Death begin to come too near their lives” (ll. 629-633). By writing a play heavily comprised of female objections to government and male-oppression, Sophocles may have intended the theatrics to be comedic, to influence men to both demonize women and insinuate lack of sympathy for a suffering woman and one who stands up for herself.
So, in summation, what is justice? In terms of Antigone, justice is a man’s decision, his opinion. A man can do whatever he pleases to whomever he pleases with the only justification being that he is a man and his decision is ultimate. What Antigone did, however morally correct or incorrect it was, was unlawful in the eyes of Kreon. Along with that, her being a woman in a male-chauvinistic society did not aid in her case as well. This distaste for outspoken women led to Antigone’s death, which Kreon eventually regrets after his son, along with his wife, commit suicide after hearing news of Antigone’s death. He mourns over his actions and must live with what he decreed.
This realization may also have been intentional on Sophocles’ part as he may have also wanted to push a comment on this toxic masculinity present in Ancient Greece. When Kreon exclaims “it was I …/ in my useless misery” (ll.1407-1409), he proclaims the idiocrasy in his harshness, although only after his son’s death, not after Antigone’s. But many may say that that is the true form of justice overall; living with the actions he caused, despite never truly realizing justice was nevermore found.
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