How are the women portrayed in Sophocles' play Antigone?
In his play Antigone, using the two sister characters Ismene and the title character Antigone, Sophocles portrays women in two different lights. However, in general, he presents women as being oppressed but as also handling their oppression in two different ways.
Using the character Antigone, Sophocles portrays women as being strong and able to fight against the restraints of society. Antigone is restrained by Creon who decreed that their brother Eteocles shall be given proper burial but not their other brother Polynices. Creon's decree is significant in that it breaks laws already made by the gods but also in that it denied one of the few essential rights granted to women. Based on Ancient Greek beliefs, only when a person was buried could the person's soul be released into the Underworld to find rest. Therefore, burial was a very significant ceremony, and it was primarily women who oversaw the burial. According to the article titled "The Importance of Burial in Greek Religion," women underwent significant ordeals in the burial ceremony including "provid[ing] the tomb with liquid offerings (libations), and [leading] the mourning, a loud and violent process in which women tore their cheeks with their fingernails, ripped out their hair, and poured dirt over the heads and clothing" (eNotes.com, "Antigone eText--The Importance of Burial in Greek Religion"). Hence, in denying both Antigone and Ismene to bury their brother, he is denying them a "chance to do one of the few important things society allowed women to do" ("Antigone eText--The Importance of Burial in Greek Religion"). However, Antigone rises above Creon's restraints by burying her brother in secret, showing her strength of character.
In contrast, Ismene gives in to what she feels is her hopeless role as a woman. She begs her sister to reconsider her plan, feeling instead that they should be content submitting to their lot in life as women, knowing it's their role in society to be ruled by others:
Rather, consider that we were born women, proving we should not fight with men, and that we are ruled by powerful people and must obey them, even in more painful things. (61-64)
Throughout the play, Sophocles depicts women as being marginalized and subservient to men. However, Antigone defies the cultural context of Thebes by openly challenging Creon's decree. When Antigone declares her plan to bury her dead brother, Polyneices, and asks Ismene for assistance, Ismene immediately responds by calling her sister mad. Ismene's reaction to Creon's decree reveals her subservient nature and marginalized status in Thebes. Ismene is a docile, submissive female, who fears Creon and his wrath. She refuses to corroborate with Antigone and says,
We are only women, We cannot fight with men, Antigone! (Sophocles, 47).
Ismene is represented as a powerless female, who refuses to disobey Thebe's dominant male leader, Creon. Essentially, Antigone is Ismene's foil and is portrayed as a fearless, heroine, who is not intimidated by Creon. Despite Antigone's independent, courageous decision to bury her brother, she is still subjected to Creon's harsh treatment and is unable to survive his sentence. Overall, Sophocles portrays two types of females but clearly favors Antigone's determined, independent nature over Ismene's cautious, submissive disposition.