Gender Issues in Antigone


One of the most devastating problems for the Classical Greeks was the
women's issue. Women in Classical Greece were not citizens, held no
property, and indeed were not even allowed out of the house except
under guard. Their status differed from that of the slaves of Greece
only in name. This alone, however was not a problem -- the problem was
that the Greeks knew, in their hearts, that this was wrong. Indeed,
their playwrights harangued them about it from the stage of Athens
continually. All of the great Grecian playwrights -- Sophocles,
Euripedes, Aristophenes -- dealt with the women's issue. All of them
argued, in their various ways, that the women of Greece were not nearly
as incapable and weak as the culture believed them to be. All of them
created female characters of strength and intelligence. But in
"Antigone," the discussion reached its peak. Antigone herself, as she
stands upon the Grecian stage, represents the highest ideals of human
life -- courage and resp! ect for the gods. A woman, she is
nevertheless the exemplum for her society. But how are we to know
this? Does the author let the audience know that it is Antigone
herself, not Creon, the "noble-eyed imperator" (453), who is to be
believed? It is almost inconceivable that the audience would be meant
to ignore Creon's apparently skillful arguments, for he appears to
represent all that the Athenian should strive for. He stands for
obedience to the State. Surely it is his voice we should obey.
Sophocles does let us know where the truth lies, and he does this,
amazingly, partly through his characterization of Creon. Though Creon
seemingly says intelligent things, there are clues that he is not to be
trusted. One would be his discussion of incest with Ismene. Torn
between her duty to God and her duty to the State, Ismene, in the third
act, has run to Creon, planning to tell him of Antigone's actions in
the graveyard: "O, not for me the dusty hair of youth, / But let us now
unto the palace go" (465), she cries. But Creon, ignoring the
supposedly important information she has to tell -- he has, after all,
emptied the Theban coffers, spending money on his advanced spy network
in search of the miscreant -- asks her, instead, to come home with
him. "How long, O Princess, O! How long!" he states, suggesting a
time for their next meeting: "Upon the hour of noon, or / Not upon the
hour of six." To such a pass has the doomed line of Oedipus come. It
is clearly his fau! lt that Ismene throws herself into the sea outside
Thrace. Of course, it is Ismene's suicide that is the springboard for
the rest of the action. She has shown herself to be all that the
Athenian society desires her to be: obedient, pretty, sweet- tempered,
and dead -- but it is not enough. Obedience has gotten the state
nowhere, and women nowhere, and outside the walls of the city, the dead
are still being buried at alarmingly fast rates, quicker, almost, than
Creon can dig them up. Antigone solves the whole problem. Though she
is, indeed, like Ismene, both pretty and dead at the end, she
nevertheless provides a clear example of what women can do when they
are trusted with power, rather than kept at home. For it is her newly
formed women's rights group, based on the Lysistratan model, which
creates the only solution to the Theban problem. Though Antigone
herself is dead by the time the group comes up with their stunningly
simple plan, it it her legacy which informs the decision. "Not upon
the dead nor yet / Upon the living base thy worth" (521), the Theban
women cry, and upon their creation of a new burial ground, neither
within the city, nor without, but within the walls of the city itself,
they alone stop the civil war which threatens Thebes. Their ingenious
solution provides a liminal space for the disgraced family of the late
king, Oedipus. And the final scene, wherein the entire family joins
Antigone, buried within the walls of Thebes, creates ! a physical
metaphor of bonding and solidity. The traitor brother Polynices, the
depressed sister Ismene, the political firebrand Antigone, joined with
their uncle Creon and their hot-tempered cousin and his mother, all are
together at last in harmony, united in the purpose of the defense of
their beloved city against the Spartan onslaught, a sort of spiritual
and physical mortar to the defensive structure. It is no wonder that
Antigone, the prize winner of the Athenian festival in which it was
performed, captured not only the prize but also the hearts of the
Athenians. Clearly, they recognized themselves in the stage city of
Thebes, and recognized as well the importance of the message of the
play, and its relevance to their own situation. And indeed, had it not
been for the movement which followed the production of the play, in
which the Athenian women were liberated from their near-slave status,
Athens would most probably have lost the war with Sparta. Only the
newly liberated women of Athens, bedecked with citizen status,
womanning the walls of Athens, kept the Spartans out, in the last
battle of the war, in a stirring reproduction of the end scene of
Antigone, this time with live, rather than dead, defenders. The play
provides us with a useful example of the importance of literature to
society, and an important message for our own time.


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