Role of Women in Antigone

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

'Antigone' by Sophocles is a play that has captured the attention of audiences because it challenges the status quo. Antigone is seen as the first feminist because she defies entrenched gender roles as exemplified by her uncle Creon's attitude towards her.

Who Is Antigone?

Antigone is the daughter and the sister of Oedipus. Antigone and her sister Ismene are the surviving members of the Labdacus family now that Oedipus and his brothers are dead. Antigone is seen by some as a woman who will do what she feels is right, even if that means defying the men who make the laws. She is wiling to sacrifice everything, including her own life to follow through on her beliefs.

Antigone and the body of her brother Polyneices

Ismene and Antgone

Ismene and Antigone are contrasting characters. Antigone believes with all her soul that she is capable of deciding how to act based on the circumstances presented. She is adamant that she should be free to disobey a command given by a man if she feels the command is unjust. When Ismene hears what Antigone is planning, she panics. Ismene is afraid to disobey the men who have expectations of her. She believes that men are stronger than women and deserve the power they have been given. Ismene tells Antigone that women are 'not born to contend with men.' She believes women need to be ruled by men because they are weak. Ismene makes it clear that women are second class citizens compared to men, who rule all.

Antigone's response to her sister is powerful. She says, 'But let me and my foolish plans suffer this terrible thing, for I shall succumb to nothing so awful as a shameful death.' In these lines, Antigone makes it clear that what matters is standing up for what is right. Gender is not the issue as much as making sure you are steadfast in your convictions. For Antigone, it is empowering to know that no matter the consequences, you must fight for what you believe in and see it all the way to the end.

The Plot Thickens

Now that we understand the place each of the sisters holds, it is time to see how the play's action unfolds. This is where we will truly understand how Sophocles demonstrates the role of women in this play.

Antigone and Ismene suffer a great loss right out of the gate. Their brothers Polyneices and Eteocles were in a battle for power. Eteocles was trying to defend Thebes while Polyneices was trying to overthrow his brother, and they killed each other. Their uncle Creon declares that because Eteocles was fighting for Thebes he should be buried with honor, and because Polyneices was trying to overthrow the crown, he should be left to the vultures. This is where the trouble begins.

Antigone is distraught over the idea of leaving her brother's body to this fate. She decides to disobey her uncle and bury Polyneices. Creon believes that he rules by divine power and with fairness. He rules with no mercy, and his laws clearly demonstrate a prejudice against women. Creon is furious that Antigone has disobeyed his orders, and he wants to cause her pain. He says, 'No woman shall seduce us. If we must lose, Let's lose to a man, at least. Is a woman stronger than we?' Creon does not believe that any woman is as strong as a man. He believes Antigone's betrayal deserves a harsh punishment.

Antigone Makes her Choice

Antigone stands by her decision and honors Polyneices by covering his body with dirt to prevent its desecration by scavengers. When Creon questions her she says, 'I did it. I don't deny a thing.' Creon continues to grill her, looking for answers, and Antigone tells him she is 'not ashamed for a moment, not to honor my brother.' Her strength is clear. She wants women to have the same rights as men. She does not want to be at the mercy of powerful men and does not believe women should be subjected to their rule.

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