In What Ways Does Ismene Differ From Her Sister, Antigone, In Antigone?

What is the difference between Antigone and Ismene? How is Ismene a foil to Antigone? How are they different? I know that Antigone is for the gods' rule, and Ismene is for the state's rules. What other differences are there?

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Ismene is a clear foil to her bolder sister Antigone. Antigone lives by her moral convictions and the law of the gods. She is not afraid to stand up to male power to do what is right.

Ismene, at least at first, is more concerned with self-preservation than burying her dead brother. As she outlines to Antigone, their entire family has been through quite a bit of trauma. She admits she is weak and can't stand anymore contention. She is much more apt to define herself by her gender—as a woman—than as a human being. She uses her societal position as a woman to save herself from having to put her life on the line, something Antigone does not do. In the prologue, she says to Antigone:

We are only women, / We cannot fight with men, Antigone! / The law is strong, we must give in to the law / In this thing, and in worse. I beg the / Dead To forgive me, but I am helpless: I must yield / To those in authority.

Ismene is more akin to the average person, unwilling to rock the boat, and in this way she highlights Antigone's moral courage.

It is hard not to credit Ismene with some common sense for not wanting either of them to stick their necks out for a brother who is already dead after there has already been so much tragedy in their family. However, the gods, as the chorus explains, side with Antigone: one must do the right thing, regardless of the cost. As Antigone says:

But I will bury him; and if I must die, / I say that this crime is holy

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The difference between the two sisters reflects a dilemma created by two cultural imperatives that would not normally be in conflict with one another. On the one hand, women were expected to be subordinate to their older male guardians (fathers or blood relatives in the case of their fathers' deaths) or husbands. On the other hand, women had a special responsibility for performing funerary rights for their relatives. When their guardian and ruler forbids them to perform these rituals for their brother, their two major obligations as women are brought into conflict with one another.

Most ancient readers considered Ismene the ideal of a Greek woman, unlike many modern readers who admire Antigone. Ismene, although extremely dutiful and religious, yields to the judgment of legitimate authority rather than acting on her own judgment. Antigone, on the other hand, acts according to her own understanding of her duty. Thus the main contrast is between assertion of private, independent judgment and yielding to authority.

Ismene is more concerned with their future and Antigone more concerned with justice in the present. Antigone is more impulsive, Ismene more reflective. Antigone is more courageous, Ismene more fearful. Antigone is more outspoken, Ismene more reticent. 

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Antigone is certainly much bolder and more independent than her sister is. In the play's Prologue after Ismene tells Antigone that her plan to bury their brother's body is impossible, Antigone promises,

"If you say this, you will be hateful to me, / and the dead will hate you always–justly" (93-94).

The title character is not afraid to alienate her family and friends--even her own sister--in order to do what she believes is her moral obligation.

While many audience members might agree with Antigone that Ismene is a coward, Sophocles suggests in the Prologue that perhaps she is simply not as hot-blooded as is Antigone. While Ismene also loves her father and brothers, she realizes that infighting has brought only death to her family, and she does not see the point of continuing the feud (it would now be between her and Antigone and their Uncle Creon).

In the end, both women possess admirable qualities. Antigone's strength and boldness allow her to affect her uncle and all of Thebes before she commits a martyr's suicide, and Ismene's calmness allows her to bring hope of a more peaceful future for Thebes when all the carnage is done. She is the only female family member left alive at the play's end, and it will be up to her to decide if she will continue following the laws of man or if she will try to assert herself as a woman.

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