Ismene in Antigone

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer taught 9th grade ELA and AP Literature for over 8 years. She has a dual master's in English Literature and Teaching Secondary Ed from Simmons University and a BS in Psychology. She is also a contracted freelance writer and certified AP Test Reader.

No matter how close brothers and sisters are, siblings will ultimately disagree at one time or another. In this lesson, we'll analyze the character of Ismene from the play 'Antigone' and learn about a conflict with her sister that resulted in the death of her entire immediate family.

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalries can be a nuisance when it comes to attaining familial harmony, but in the Greek tragedy Antigone, the rivalry isn't a fight over clothing or dinner options. In the play we meet two sisters facing a much more serious conflict. Antigone takes the side of loyalty and emotion while Ismene takes the side of reason and authority. Let's take a look at Ismene's perspective and analyze her actions, thoughts, and beliefs.

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  • 0:04 Sibling Rivalry
  • 0:30 The Conflict
  • 1:04 Difference of Opinion
  • 2:06 Reflection
  • 3:31 Resolution
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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The Conflict

Antigone and Ismene lose their father, mother and two brothers in a short period of time. Their brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, end up fighting to the death, which puts their uncle Creon in power. The newly appointed king declares that the body of Polyneices should rot in the street, and his brother Eteocles will have a proper burial due to his loyalty to the state. Anyone who dares to bury Polyneices' body will be stoned to death. Antigone tells Ismene she will bury the body at all costs and wants her help. Ismene thinks Antigone is crazy and reminds her sister of their uncle's orders.

Difference of Opinion

Sophocles creates a juxtaposition of the two sisters. On one side is Antigone, a girl who will risk her life to honor her brother, a loyalty she feels is connected through blood. On the other is Ismene, a girl who fears the law, authority, and death. It seems these two characters were created as a foil characters to each other, their opposite attributes offering knowledge and wisdom to the reader and to the other characters.

Ismene references the 'public good,' reminding Antigone that laws are created for good reason. Again, the divide between reason and emotion grows. Ismene's ignorance of Antigone's devotion to their brother increases as she says she will keep this secret for her. In turn, Antigone's anger increases; she wants people to know her true character and that of her sister's as well. Ismene can't understand why anyone would want to break the law and openly tell people about this crime. But after this encounter, Ismene begins to reflect on Antigone's brazen behavior when the thought of losing her sister becomes a reality after Antigone buries Polyneices' body.


After the sisters' first conversation, we don't hear from Ismene again until the king orders her into custody, thinking Ismene must know of Antigone's plan. It is during this time that Ismene has a change of heart. When she is brought in front of the king, she wishes to be charged with the crime, a crime she wanted no part of the day before. Ismene states she now understands what Antigone meant by honoring her brother, a truth she seemed to comprehend only at the thought of her sister's death. Ismene pleads that she does not want to live without Antigone, showing compassion and loyalty to her sister, but the question of Ismene's integrity arises from the timing of her confession.

Does Ismene want to die with her sister because she knows she would be alone without her? Or, did she truly learn what it means to be loyal to family by Antigone's actions? The answer is unclear, but we can read between the lines of Ismene's reaction to the king to find evidence for the former.

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