The Role of Women in Sophocles’ Antigone

Antigone is a tragic play written in the fifth century BC by the great Greek poet Sophocles. The title character is the daughter of Oedipus and his wife Jocasta, who was also his mother. This unwitting incest brought great tragedy on Oedipus, and the curse extended to his children, who are the subject of the play.

The Plot of Antigone

Antigone tells the story of the princess’ reaction to her uncle Creon’s decree that the body of her dead brother Polyneices remain unburied for the birds and animals to eat. Polyneices had tried to wrest control of Thebes from his brother Eteocles, and the two brothers had killed each other in single combat during the struggle.

The death of Eteocles leaves Creon (Jocasta’s brother) in charge as King of Thebes, who decides that Eteocles should have all the honours of burial while Polyneices should be left to rot. Antigone is horrified because religious laws demand that the dead receive burial rites, and as a member of Polyneices’ family it is her duty to see that he is properly honoured. Although Polyneices attacked Thebes, he is still her brother and should be buried.

It is not Antigone’s attitude that is unique; her sister, Ismene, feels the same way and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, reveals that he has heard other people muttering their disagreement with Creon’s order. Creon himself is aware that many people disagree with the edict. What is striking and memorable about Antigone is not that she disapproves, but that she defies her uncle’s decree, even though the penalty for disobedience is death. This is remarkable because, not only as a subject of Thebes, but as a woman, and especially as a woman in Creon’s own family, she is supposed to obey him.

The Role of Women in Antigone

The point that defiance from a woman is unexpected and unseemly is made very early in the play as Ismene argues with Antigone, trying to convince her to obey the decree, despite their feelings:

“Nay, we must remember, first, that we were born women, as who should not strive with men; next, that we are ruled of the stronger, so that we must obey in these things, and in things yet sorer.”

Ismene believes that nothing can be done, and they must simply ask the gods’ pardon for leaving their brother unpunished, but Antigone defies the law and pours earth and wine (as a sacrifice) over her brother. This kind of defiant act is completely unexpected from a woman in the culture of ancient Thebes in which the play is set, and indeed in Classical Athens where it was performed. This is emphasised by the reactions of those who discover the crime. Creon asks, “What living man hath dared this deed?” and declares, “All the men who wrought this thing … soon or late, they shall pay the price.” It does not enter his head that a woman could have done it, until Antigone is caught red-handed completing her work.

Antigone Proved Justified

The key to the interest that Antigone holds as a text about the role of women is that, although Creon sentences Antigone to death for her “folly”, and rants at his son Haemon about how he must not “dethrone [his] reason for a woman’s sake”, it is Antigone, not the king, who is shown to be right. The blind prophet Teiresias, who has never given a false prophesy, eventually (with the help of Thebes’ elders) managed to convince Creon that he is in the wrong, but it is too late. The terrible vengeance that the gods take, leaving Creon alone and bereaved, demonstrates that Antigone was right.

Perhaps most significant of all is Antigone’s dignity and unswerving resolve. Unlike Ismene, Creon and the elders, who all change their minds, she is clear from the start about what is right. Sophocles shows her unafraid of death in the pursuit of piety, and gives her some wonderful lines to make her point, including one powerful speech in which she condemns Creon to his face for trying to “override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.”

Sophocles’ portrayal of a young, unmarried woman as the only person in the city willing to stand up for what is right, even if it means her death, was challenging. It sent a message that the weak and socially unimportant can be right where those in power are wrong, and that the powerless can still show dignity in meeting their fate. Antigone would have been played by a male actor in Sophocles play (as was the custom in ancient Greek plays), but that does not lessen the power of her message about the value and dignity of virtuous women.

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