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    Discuss the use of character foils in highlighting aspects of female protagonists in Sophocles’ Antigone and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler  Essay

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    Both playwrights’ characterisations of female protagonists are accentuated by the characterisation of their antithetical character foils. In Antigone, Sophocles uses Ismene – the ideally orthodox incarnation of ancient Greek women – to emphasize the unruly nonconformist in Antigone. In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen utilizes the conventional, compassionate and womanly Thea to play up the androgynous, callous and destructive tendency in Hedda.

    Sophocles straightaway establishes a divergence between the character foils by establishing their intentions in the first scene: Antigone’s to “lift the body” against the King’s “proclamation,” while Ismene’s to “obey those who are in power.” Ismene opts to “obey those who are in power” meanwhile Antigone has a “hot heart for chilling deeds” and the “impossible.” The audience are likely to interpret Ismene’s yielding to authority as sensible and Antigone’s “defiance of the law” as a ludicrous practice that violates the norm. Consequently, Ismene’s circumspection only makes Sophocles’ depiction of Antigone’s rebellious manner more striking. Ismene’s prudent and temperate intent enhances Antigone’s uncontrollably disruptive and wilful scheme.

    Moreover, Ismene’s shrewdness plays up the absurdity behind Antigone’s wilfulness. Sophocles marks the polarity between Ismene’s heedfulness and Antigone’s imprudent disposition. While Ismene knows her duty not to “fight against men” or “overstep [her] bounds,” Antigone insists on “plotting [the] burial” and breaking the King’s “proclamation.” Furthermore, while Sophocles gives grounds for Ismene’s cautiousness, proving that it is not self-effacing or cowardly but instead shrewd and sensible, Antigone’s brazen uprising goes unjustified. While Ismene wisely reasons that for the family’s last two descendants to die “[defying]” the law is “most [miserable] of all”, Antigone’s actions owe more to her unwarranted policy that it is “noble” to defy than to the “unwritten, unassailable laws of the gods.” By wholly justifying Ismene’s intent meanwhile reprimanding Antigone’s tenuous excuse, Sophocles emphasizes Antigone’s irrationality.

    Furthermore, when Antigone is placed side by side with the quiet and composed Ismene, her propensity as a blatant rebel is reinforced. Sophocles categorizes Ismene as the epitome of an ideal Athenian woman 1as her abject submissive coincides with Euripides’ declaration: “A modest silence is a woman’s crown.” Meanwhile, Antigone is loud and unsubtle about her uprising: she wants to “shout it out” – to publicize her rebellion. Thereby, Antigone’s brazenness is greatly underscored when placed next to Ismene’s docility.

    Subsequently, Sophocles establishes both Ismene’s traditional virtues and Antigone’s unorthodox dissident to enhance Antigone’s status as a rebel. The convention in Sophocles’ time argues that women should never be mentioned; Pericles – who’s closely associated to Sophocles 2- has stated: “the greatest glory for a woman is not to be discussed by men at all.” While Ismene fulfils this policy, Antigone being discussed by the men of the play – Creon, the Sentry, Haemon – and thus demonstrating her contravention of social customs.

    The audience, particularly those in ancient Greece, would straightaway adopt a preference for Ismene – the supreme blueprint of ancient Greek women – while disapproving of Antigone’s reckless insubordination.

    Meanwhile, Ibsen also emphasizes his protagonist’s disposition by placing her alongside her foil. Hedda’s nature is exaggerated and amplified as she is put abreast of her antithesis Thea.

    In the same manner as Sophocles, Ibsen contrasts the two female roles’ intentions to overplay Hedda’s inclination to wreak havoc. As Thea strives to reform Lovborg from a life of profligacy, Hedda “[sneers]” at this idea of “[reclaiming] the prodigal.” Their intentions are poles apart: while Thea’s is to suppress Lovborg’s licentiousness, Hedda’s is to incite it. Thea longs to quench Lovborg’s self-indulgent habits that she leaves home to save him from “bad influences there are here [in town].” Meanwhile, as Thea helps Lovborg to “[leave] off his old ways,” Hedda taunts Lovborg into drinking the “full punch [glass]” and going to Brack’s “wretched little party.” Hedda’s impulse to trigger an outbreak of Lovborg’s dissolution seems even more intense next to Thea’s altruism and beneficence.

    Moreover, Ibsen magnifies Hedda’s lack of emotional fulfillment through means of his description of Thea’s worthwhile pursuit of intimacy. Thea aspires to “live where Ejlert Lovborg is living” and therefore she is dissimilar to Hedda who finds it “unbearable” to “everlastingly” live with her own husband. Unlike Hedda who is dissatisfied with her man, Thea has some sort of emotional fulfillment. She has occupied herself with his book. She has gone into “mortal terror” of him succumbing to old habits. She itches to “be together” with him. Thea’s emotional attachment inflates Hedda’s apathy and deadpan disinterest. Placed alongside to Thea’s compassion, her indifference is hyperbolized. Hedda’s “steel grey, and cold, clear, and dispassionate” eyes are discernable as ever when she is compared to Thea. Hedda’s propensity to lack interest, emotion, or vigour is magnified as her glum jadedness is contrasted with Thea’s compassion.

    What’s more, Ibsen’s stage directions describe the two’s physical appearances that symbolize their contrasting mindset, widening the divergence between them. The foils’ hair is used as a conceit, a sensory description to appeal to the audience’s visual perception, conveying their inherent mentality. Ibsen solidifies this idea of feminism by affirming that Hedda is not willing to conceive, meanwhile securing the inference of her thin and infertile hair. By establishing that Hedda’s hair is “medium brown” and “not particularly ample”, he indicates that she has misgivings about her feminine duties. This is supported by the fact that Hedda hates light – the allegory that signifies life – ceaselessly “[drawing] the curtains.” Hedda’s distaste for light serves as a concrete detail of her ill will for birthing and mothering. To boot, if Hedda’s hair – dark and flimsy – indicates impeded femininity, Thea’s suggests otherwise. “Her hair is strikingly fair, almost whitish yellow, unusually rich and wavy.” The light colour and rich texture of her hair implies that unlike Hedda, Thea embraces her feminine commitments.

    Ironically, Hedda, who is androgynous and evasive about femininity, is described to be more unwilling to defy than Thea, who’s submissive to womanly roles. Ibsen incorporates such paradox to magnify Hedda’s inner conflicts.

    Typical Victorian ideology sets the principle that married women’s their lives are to revolve around domesticity3. Ibsen establishes Hedda’s resentment for such convention as he describes her refusing to be bound to what society expects her to do and forestalling fulfilling the standard feminine role. However, Ibsen describes her doing this in an extremely unconstructive manner. Her hostility toward being refined in a in a constricted space that is her home is not relieved by overcoming the barriers of society. Instead it is restricted and repressed – swept under the carpet and not dealt with. As a result, Hedda becomes easily restless and agitated, moving about “impatiently”, and “[clenching] her fists as though in a frenzy”.

    Meanwhile, Thea yanks free from social customs in the completely opposite way. As Hedda’s instability and fear of society’s disapprovals betrays her supposed rebellious self-image as a nonconformist, Thea’s “soft” and “scared, questioning” physical features do not stop her from uprising and prevailing over convention. She takes the train to town, leaving her husband, doing something society would not approve of. Such action is probably an enormous controversy at the time, regarding as the 19th century society highly valued marriage vows; Victorian marriage customs esteemed a wife’s fidelity – “Women… if caught cheating, were seen as disrespecting…their husbands”4However, unlike Hedda who fears society’s frowns and insecurely exclaims, “what do you think people will say of you,” Thea, when “couldn’t bear it any longer,” daringly emancipates herself – she “simply had to do what [she] did” and fearlessly she lets people “say what they please.”

    In short, both dramatists encompass two antithetical female characters in their plays in a manner that inflates the divergence between two foils and the protagonists’ disposition. By exaggerating this contrast, they accentuate the tension between their incompatible characters, dramatize their portrayals of society, presenting stimulating characterisations and thus render their plays compelling. Nevertheless, although dramatic potency is engendered, gripping the audience’s attention, their theatrical depictions precipitate misinformation about the female community. By opting to focusing on only two representatives, both playwrights disregard the need for collective descriptions. Instead of illustrating a variegated assortment of women, the playwrights choose to display a limited and stereotyped scope of their societies.

    As Ibsen and Sophocles exhibit two extreme categories of women, an audience who observes the world on stage is fooled into believing that the female community of their societies consists of only women from either category. Both playwrights portray the two poles of society rather than the whole range, oversimplifying the female populace of their societies and pigeonholing their leading ladies as either assertively subversive or strictly unorthodox. Both plays are restricted to only two exemplifications of women while in actual, the female domain is much more varying. For this reason, although Ibsen and Sophocles’ sensationalized plays leave powerful theatrical impacts, they contain neither diversity nor objectivity in their representations of the world.

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    Discuss the use of character foils in highlighting aspects of female protagonists in Sophocles’ Antigone and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler  Essay. (2017, Nov 29). Retrieved from

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