Jennifer has 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. She is also a contracted freelance writer and certified AP Test Reader.
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.
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.
As Creon and Antigone fight over her fate, Ismene starts making arguments based on her sister and her sister's fiance, Haimon, who happens to be Creon's son. While it shows loyalty and compassion for her sister, not once has Ismene made an argument for the burial of Polyneices, the reason this conflict began. Her fear of her uncle and of death show in these arguments, and while Ismene seems genuine and compassionate toward her sister's fate, her emotions seem to stem from fear and selfishness. Antigone, on the other hand, makes her arguments based on the love of her brother, family loyalty, and honor.
Sadly, the word 'tragedy' is upheld in this play, and everyone in Ismene's family dies except for Creon, who is left begging for death after realizing the consequences of his actions. We don't see Ismene again on stage for the remainder of the play. Ismene is left to contemplate her actions and those of her family. We're not given any information regarding her thoughts or future, but one thing is clear: Sophocles is showing the reader that those who followed the law and lived by reason were saved from death, and those who were guided by emotion died. But if we look back at Antigone's argument regarding her reasoning for burying Polyneices, we may find another lesson.
Antigone argues to Creon that if she ignored her brother's body and followed the law, she would have to live with guilt, dishonor, and the evils surrounding her; she would become the walking dead. It seems Antigone may be right, and that fate seems to be in the hands of Creon and Ismene. They are physically alive, but their hearts have been plagued with guilt and dishonor, a life that is essentially not worth living.
Antigone and Ismene are two sisters presented with a conflict. They were written as foil characters to show the reader the opposition in their personalities to teach us a lesson. Antigone feels you should honor your family at all costs. Ismene thinks you should always follow the law, no matter who or what is involved. Ismene chooses the side of reason due to her fear of death and authority but has a change of heart after seeing Antigone's bravery. Unfortunately, it's too late, and Ismene is left alone with Creon at the end of the play, the rest of her family slain by their own hands. Ismene made a selfish choice that in the end cost her her dignity and forced her to live alone in guilt and shame.
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