This lesson analyzes two major figures in Sophocles' 'Antigone': the title character and her sister, Ismene. We will examine how the similarities and differences between these two women signify conflicts and questions that are central to the tragedy.
Family Versus Law in Antigone
One of the central questions of Antigone has to do with how a person in the world of the play is obligated to both family and law. At the start of the play, Polyneices and Eteocles, brothers of Antigone and Ismene, have been killed fighting on opposite sides in a civil war to determine which of the two will assume the throne of Thebes and become king of the city.
King Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has declared that Eteocles will be celebrated as a fallen hero, while Polyneices will be treated as a traitor, and his body will be left on the battlefield to be desecrated by birds and other scavengers. Anyone caught disobeying Creon's order faces the punishment of death. Ancient Greek culture valued honoring the dead very highly, and so for Polyneices to be treated in this way sends a clear message that Creon supported Eteocles and wants to assert power and stability in the city.
Imagine if you were caught in this bind. For Antigone, the main character, it creates a terrible problem. As the daughter of Oedipus, former king of Thebes, Antigone is certainly loyal to the city. On the other hand, both Polyneices and Eteocles were her brothers, and Sophocles' play suggests that she had an extremely close relationship with both of them.
Of course, Polyneices and Eteocles were also Ismene's brothers, and as you might expect, their death has deeply affected her as well. In normal circumstances, both sisters would mourn and honor both brothers. Wouldn't you want the same for your sibling? However, with Creon's decree that Polyneices not be given funeral rites and his promise to execute anyone who disobeys the order, each sister must answer a question: should I be loyal to family or to the state?
If you had just lost both of your brothers and were faced with this question, how would you feel? Would you want to find a peaceful resolution and some stability, or would you want to stand by your sister, no matter what?
Antigone and Ismene respond in different ways. For Ismene, the answer is clear. The law of the kingdom is the highest thing, to be followed above all. Since Creon is the new ruler of Thebes, he is the representation of this law. Ismene believes that the only course of action is, therefore, to obey Creon's decree, even though it asks Ismene and Antigone to disrespect their brother according to tradition.
Antigone sees things quite differently. For her, loyalty to family trumps all. Because of this, she devises her plan to secretly give Polyneices funeral rites, which sets the rest of the tragedy's action in motion, including the suicides of Antigone, Haemon (her husband-to-be, and Creon's son), and Eurydice (Creon's wife and Haemon's mother).
Comparing Antigone and Ismene
Despite their opposing points of view, Antigone and Ismene both share some fundamental values. At a basic level, both sisters want to bury their brother Polyneices, since they understand the importance of proper funeral rites. Even when Ismene suggests obeying Creon's order, she doesn't do so lightly. In their ideals, at least, Ismene and Antigone both value the laws of the gods, but Antigone is unwilling to compromise them in practice.
Since Antigone and Ismene do not agree with each other, they also both struggle with questions of loyalty to family in two senses. First, there is the central conflict of loyalty to their brother in the face of Creon's order. Second, the sisters wind up betraying their allegiance to each other when they cannot agree on what to do. Both Antigone and Ismene feel torn when their bonds of sisterhood are tested.
Contrasting Antigone and Ismene
In the most basic sense, Antigone is the more strong-willed of the two sisters, while Ismene is compliant. Antigone is willing to defy Creon's decree at any cost, including death, while Ismene tries to persuade her sister to obey the law, and thus King Creon himself. Analysis of Sophocles' play will often emphasize that Antigone represents a kind of proto-feminist position of rejecting the status quo and patriarchal authority, while Ismene accepts traditional roles of women in society.
On the other hand, the situation may be much more ambiguous. Imagine if you had just lost family members, were tired, grieving, and worried. You might want to find some stability. Throughout the play, Ismene urges Antigone and others to reconcile and come to peace. Ismene is a compromiser, a person who seeks to find an answer that will both serve Thebes and acknowledge family ties. In this sense, it may actually be Ismene who acts on nobler principles.
According to this interpretation of the play, Antigone is self-serving, in a striking way, since her desire to act on her own principles trumps all, including her obligations to her living family members. Antigone's suicide is terrible for a number of reasons, in this view, and one of them is the fact that it does not make a tragic situation any better in the end.
Taking these varying interpretations together, you can see how important the complex relationship between Antigone and Ismene is to Sophocles' ambiguous play and why this tragedy has provoked audiences and readers for thousands of years. In the wake of their brother Polyneices' death, Antigone and Ismene face a terrible choice: honor their dead brother and risk death themselves, or obey Creon's order not to bury their brother, thus dishonoring their family and the laws of the gods.
The similarities and differences between Antigone and Ismene exemplify how ensnarled these options are and how a peaceful, simple resolution is impossible. The conflict between the sisters over whether to follow the law of the state or family honor is heart wrenching, passionate, and memorable.