When Sophocles wrote Antigone, his heroine defied all of the notions of a woman’s role in 5th century BC Greece. Women were given a very restricted role in that society, both in public and private life. They remained under the control of their fathers and husbands, performing household chores, having their marriages arranged and remaining silent in public affairs. Sophocles created Antigone in part to draw attention to this restricted role by Antigone’s defiance of Creon’s orders.
Tossing aside her traditional responsibilities, she disregards his orders by burying her brother and suffering the consequences. Antigone sees herself as heroic and an example to women. Creon sees himself as a ruler who must be obeyed. Each suffers the consequences of their actions. Theirs becomes a gender battle that permeates the play and makes a powerful human interest story.
Antigone and the Role of Women
in Ancient Greece
Although the role of women in ancient Greece was restricted to domestic and family activities, Sophocles chose to write a play that challenged this traditional role of women in ancient times.
He created the character of Antigone who chose to defy the orders of Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes, when he forbade anyone to bury the body of Antigone’s brother Polyneices. Creon considered Polyneices to be a traitor who did not deserve a proper burial; Antigone considered Polyneices to be a family member who deserved proper interment. Thus began the conflict of woman against man, niece against uncle, revolution against tradition.
Women in ancient times were relegated to traditional duties about the house – weaving, running the household, childbearing and other family-related matters. They had no say in public life and almost no say in their own private lives. Their lives were directed by the male of the family, whether it was a father, brother, or husband. They did not even have a choice as to who they would marry and most girls were married at the age of fourteen or fifteen. If they were allowed in public it was only to visit the graves of family or to take part in religious festivals. Young girls were sometimes given the opportunity to get water from the wells where they met other women for at least a limited socialization. The lives of women, though, remained highly restricted. (Hemingway, 2000)
Antigone led such a life; that is, until her uncle proclaimed that no one should bury Antigone’s brother whom he considered a traitor to Thebes. Antigone could not bear to see her brother’s body defiled by the elements and made the decision to give him proper burial rites no matter what the consequences. When Creon found out about Antigone’s actions, he was torn. He, as many other persons of power, had to choose between his family and his public persona. Antigone wanted to show that she could maintain her beliefs despite any threat to her life; Creon needed to demonstrate his power by condemning anyone, even family, who disobeyed him. She chose family; he chose the law. Thus, the conflict began.
From the very beginning of the play Antigone’s actions are considered extraordinary. She tries to enlist her sister Ismene to help bury Polyneices, but Ismene is not the rebel that Antigone is. She calls her sister a “firebrand” and a schemer. She says in regard to Antigone’s suggestion, “Remind ourselves that we are women and as such are not made to fight with men. For might unfortunately is right and makes us bow to things like this and worse.” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 192) This statement epitomizes the station of women at the time. Though Ismene later reconsiders helping her sister, Antigone rejects her help and says, “No share in work, no share in death, and I must consummate alone what I began.” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 215) She becomes a one-woman resistance force against her uncle’s interdict.
The role of women at the time is emphasized even further by Creon’s discourses with his son Haemon, who is Antigone’s betrothed. When Haemon appears to be siding with his father, Creon says, “Let us then defend authority and not be ousted by a girl. If yield we must, then let it be to men, and never have it said we were worsted by a woman.” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 221) It would be sheer folly in Creon’s eyes to let the actions of a woman affect his power over Thebes. For him to have acted otherwise would have been unheard of at that time. Creon says, “Why, I’ve just caught her in an open act of treason – she alone of all the city. I will not break my word to Thebes. She dies.” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 220)
As Haemon continues to present his case for Antigone, Creon’s comments provide further insight into a woman’s place in his state. Lamenting his son’s attitude toward Antigone, he lashes out at Haemon. “Insolent pup! A woman’s lackey!” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 224) and calls Haemon “a woman’s slave.” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 225) These comments, among many others, insinuate that for a man to be influenced by a woman is appalling. Creon will not be swayed by any argument, even his son’s.
Antigone remains steadfast in her determination to suffer death rather than give up her dignity and honor for family. In so doing she becomes powerful, essentially mocking the power of a man – Creon. However, she is not seen as a heroine in the eyes of others. This attitude is reflected in the observations of the leader of the chorus who says, “See how she goes, headlong driven by the capricious gusts of her own will!” (Sophocles, trans. 1996,
p. 232) This intimates that Antigone’s defense of her brother by burying him was just a woman’s thoughtless whim. In effect he is saying that no woman would be brave enough or determined enough to defy the edict of a ruler without having been driven by some impulsive womanly notion.
In Antigone’s eyes, however, she is demonstrating that a woman can indeed be powerful enough to earn the respect of others, particularly outside the woman’s expected role of mother and wife. Even Creon, at the end, regrets his decision to kill Antigone, not because of her bravery and persistence, but apparently only because his son and his wife in turn were killed by their own hands.
Antigone stepped out of her role with dire consequences to herself and to her loved ones. She perhaps becomes too driven in her mission. Creon, on the other hand, suffers the effects of putting his power above his family. He feels that he must punish Antigone if he wishes to retain the respect and obedience of the citizens he rules. He does not wish to lose power or influence over his people. He feels that his decision to punish his own niece was a necessary evil.
Antigone becomes a heroine and Creon becomes the pathetic figure regretting the deaths of his son and wife as a result of his decision to punish Antigone and looking for death to claim him soon. “My heart is sick with dread. Will no one lance a two-edged sward through this bleeding seat of sorrow?” (Sophocles, trans. 1996, p. 250) One can pose the question of just who came out the winner in this battle of the genders.
Hemingway, Colette. (2000). Women in Classical Greece [Electronic version]. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sophocles. (1996). The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. (Paul Roche, Trans.). New York: Meridian.
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