Compare and Contrast Antigone & Ismene

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  • 0:04 Family Versus Law in Antigone
  • 2:46 Comparing Antigone and Ismene
  • 3:37 Contrasting Antigone…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

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.

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