Why is Ismene important in the play Antigone?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ismene is incredibly important to the play. For one thing, she acts as a foil to Antigone. In literary terms, a foil is someone who provides a contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, in order to highlight particular qualities of that character. In this case, the protagonist is, of course, Ismene's sister, Antigone.

Ismene, unlike her sister, is not a dynamic character; she remains the same throughout the entirety of the play. She doesn't make things happen—things happen to her. Nevertheless, she still has an important role to play, and not just as a foil to Antigone. Ismene, no less than Creon, represents the forces of human law and convention. Antigone, by contrast, is openly prepared to defy Creon and all that he represents, in order to do what's right by all that's just and holy. Furthermore, in defying Creon, Antigone is also displaying her contempt for Ismene for her unthinking submission to Creon's will, a mere earthly power. After all, Polynices was Ismene's brother too, so to some extent we can understand Antigone's hostility towards her sister.

At the same time, however, Ismene strikes us as a sympathetic character overall. For one thing, she's very much a creature of her time, a woman living in an age when women were expected to be meek, demure, and submissive to their menfolk. There's nothing unusual or especially cowardly about her actions. Indeed, the vast majority of women at the time would've done the exact same thing. But because Antigone displays such extraordinary heroism, we're in danger of overlooking the harsh realities of the time.

Finally, Ismene gives us someone in the play with whom we can identify more readily. She confronts us with a stark challenge: what would we have done in her shoes? Although we can still admire Antigone's enormous courage, there's still something almost godlike about it, something that we can't imagine ourselves doing, save for in exceptional circumstances. Ismene, for good or ill, is only human, and as such provides an essential dramatic counterpoint to the superhuman courage of her sister.


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I suppose I have to disagree with the previous post.  Indeed, while I feel she is a minor character, I think that Ismene operates on several essential levels in the play.  One reason why I think she is important is that she displays another side to the predicament of being a woman in Greek times.  While Antigone is quite committed to breaking Creon's unjust laws, Ismene reminds her sister of what the expectations are for a woman and the importance in following this convention.  It is essential that Ismene voices this point of view, as women did have to deal with a different reality (and still do, to a large extent) than the men did.  Antigone's dilemma is enhanced because of being a woman, and having to wrestle with the cultural reality that frowns upon independent thought of a woman countering patriarchal laws.  Ismene also operates on the level of what happens when passivity and defeatism takes over an individual.  She sees herself as powerless to impact change, and her presence reminds the reader of the pain and agony inherent in such a position.  If nothing else, the reader is reminded that while challenging situations may plague individuals, there is always action that can be taken and helpless passivity should never be accepted as a state of being in the world.

megaaa | Student

I think Isemen is very important character in the play.sophocles used her as a tool to bring about the rebelious nature of antigone.Ismene is a passive character while antigone is rebellious.I will give you a very simple example.If you have a painting with a black background and the figure painted is in white so you will see the figure very clearly.Simply Ismene is the black background to antigone.

chikazu | Student

Ismene is not really that important at all, for she is a minor character. Sorry to disappoint.