Sophocles’ Antigone, the play dealing with the Theban Post-Oedipus problems, highlights the conflicting viewpoints and philosophy of two women, Antigone and Ismene, set against each other through the trials of fate. As is the classic Greek way, neither stance is necessarily wrong. Both contain within themselves a logical thought process, they merely travel on different lines.
Sophocles’ Antigone begins with the news that Antigone and Ismene’s two brothers (Eteocles and Polynices) have perished while fighting each other in battle. Since Eteocles fought on the side of Thebes, and Polynices was the aggressor against his own city, on their deaths Eteocles was granted full burial rights while Polynices was deemed a traitor.
As per Greek law, a traitor’s body is to be left out to rot, to be consumed by dogs and crows, and the crime of burying a traitor against the order of the State is punishable by death.
Keeping in mind the recent turmoil the state has undergone with first Laertes, then Oedipus and now Eteocles and Polynices being disposed of due to a variety of reasons, Creon, who had taken over the throne in the meantime, thought it best to restore law and order by following the letter of the law blindly. Hence, Eteocles was buried with full honors and Polynices’ body was left unattended.
Until this point in Sophocles’ Antigone, the play had been pretty phallogocentric, but at this point Antigone and Ismene emerge from the peripheries to uncover the integral dilemma of the play.
Antigone has seen her father struggle to find a solution to Thebe’s plague, only to find that he himself was the cause. She has discovered that she was birthed from an incestuous marriage bed. She has borne the grief of her mother’s suicide and her father’s self-imposed exile. And lastly, she watched her own brothers hack each other to death. The last straw was Creon’s order that Polynices was not to be given his burial rights. Under Greek religion, that is as good as consigning him to an eternity in limbo, as the burial rites are essential to guarantee the safe passage of a soul into the Underworld.
Antigone, given the ordeals already suffered, decides that she will bear no further and puts her foot down. Her point is poignantly made. Earthly life, she reasons, is but a blip in existence, the afterlife is eternal. Therefore, a sacrifice on her part in this world is a small price to pay in order to purchase with it eternal peace for her brother’s soul. Here, the classic case of Religion vs State is brought out, where the futility of imposing a law upon a person who believes in an eternal afterlife is revealed through a dialogue between Antigone and Creon. Antigone has been perceived by many to be a feminist figure, combating at once the Law, her status as a woman in a patriarchal kingdom and the pleas of her family. She exudes strength, determination and conviction and, fully knowing her path leads to death, nevertheless resolves to do what she feels is right. Keeping in mind the status of women in Greek times, her character would be borderline scandalous and downright blasphemous in the eyes of the orthodoxy.
Ismene presents the perfect counterfoil to Antigone in the play. She has suffered through all that Antigone has, but she deals with it in a way that is more in keeping with the Greek ideal of what a woman should be. She accepts that Polynices has been dealt an unjust punishment, and she sympathizes with Antigone’s sentiments, however she does not see the benefit in compounding the familial woes by revolting against Creon’s judgement and being put to death. She is of the view that a woman’s place is to suffer in silence. She has no place in politics or law-making, and she is powerless to influence matters in a patriarchal society. She chooses the path of prudence and remains silent, though in her heart she bears the same regret about how things have turned out with her brother.
In a modern reading, the readers will view Antigone as the brave revolutionary figure, while Ismene will cop criticism as a cowardly figure who reinforces the subjugation of women.
However, there is another way of viewing this. Antigone’s path, though undoubtedly heroic, did not achieve much and led only to her death and compounded woes for her family and the kingdom at large. Ismene chose prudence and caution, and regardless of whether the motive was fear or otherwise, the fact remains that she survived and thus still had some influence, however minimal, on how things may turn out. A survivor has options before him/her, a martyr is already dead.
In this way, through the juxtaposition of Antigone and Ismene’s characters, Sophocles outlined two paths that can be taken at any given moral decision, with almost equal justification for both, as an almost eerie prediction of Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of radical freedom.
Which choice is the right one to make depends entirely on the kind of person you are and the values you hold dear. But Sophocles’ Antigone shows us that there is an Antigone and an Ismene in all of us and it is up to us to as to which path we choose to honor with our efforts.