Who was the target audience for Sophocles' Antigone? Why does Sophocles portray women as he does?

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Like all Sophocles's plays, Antigone was written to be performed at a public festival in Athens, where his audience would be purely male. Despite this, he draws upon Greek legend to create a play where the titular character and clear hero is a young, as-yet-unmarried woman. Antigone is thus...

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Like all Sophocles's plays, Antigone was written to be performed at a public festival in Athens, where his audience would be purely male. Despite this, he draws upon Greek legend to create a play where the titular character and clear hero is a young, as-yet-unmarried woman. Antigone is thus the most powerless sort of person in Athens, yet she stands firm against the most powerful person—Creon, the king.

Sophocles is able to use this contrast to make a point about the limits of power and authority. Creon repeatedly claims more or less absolute power, saying things like, "The man the city sets up in authority / must be obeyed in small things and in just / but also in their opposites" and "Is not the city thought to be the ruler's?" In contrast to Creon's excessive claims of his human authority, Antigone reminds him of the superior claims of religious obligation, saying "It is not for him [i.e., Creon] to keep me from my own [i.e., from burying her brother]" and "I shall be a criminal—but a religious one" (David Grene translation).

Contrasted with Antigone is her sister Ismene, who is afraid to flout authority. By the play's end, everyone agrees that Antigone is right: Ismene (who disappears after Antigone rejects her attempt to be punished with her), Haemon (Creon's son and Antigone's fiancé), the Chorus, and even Creon. Thus Sophocles gives us two women, one weak and timid, one strong and bold, and he uses them to give us a tragic drama that shows us certain things about the limits of power.

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Sophocles's target audience would have been primarily free male citizens, the only people able to attend the theater at that time. That said, Sophocles's portrayal of women in Antigone is nuanced and presents the audience with something of a challenge to their traditional understanding of gender roles. Whatever those watching Antigone may have felt about the heroine's actions, at the very least they were compelled to see another side to women, a side that shows them to be capable of great courage in taking a stand against worldly hubris for the sake of a higher law.

In Athens at that time, women were expected to be neither seen nor heard; they were confined solely to the domestic realm. Antigone, therefore, systematically destroys just about every established social convention concerning how women should conduct themselves. Sophocles presents Antigone's actions in such a way that either one can instinctively shrink from her numerous transgressions or sympathize with her immense moral courage, even if one does not accept that she has the right to defy Creon. It is much the same with Ismene. Many in Sophocles's audience would have praised her submission to a dominant male authority figure. At the same time, it would have been hard to resist drawing the conclusion that the manner of Ismene's submission displays a certain lack of nobility on her part, a moral cowardice that stands in stark contrast to her sister's exemplary heroism.

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Sophocles' Antigone was written and initially performed in 441 BC. It would have been performed initially at the annual festival of Dionysus in Athens, and thus was as much part of a religious ritual as pure entertainment. The majority of people attending the festival would have been Athenian citizens—in other words, upper class men whose families had lived in Athens for at least three generations, who had received a traditional Greek education. Women would not have been present in the audience and all female characters would have been performed by male actors.

The portrait of women in the play was shaped by the culture of Sophocles' period, which included very different roles for men and women. The story itself was not invented by Sophocles and the basic plot line follows a legend that was already shaped into a tragedy by Aeschylus. Ismene in many ways is a portrait of the ideal Greek wife, and Antigone is a character who oversteps traditional female subservience in response to her other female duties to perform funerary rites. Both these characters thus are developed in terms of what were considered traditional female roles and obligations in Sophocles' period. 

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