Gender Issues in AntigoneOne of the most devastating problems forthe Classical Greeks was the women’s issue. Women in Classical Greece werenot citizens, held no property, and indeed were not even allowed out ofthe house except under guard. Their status differed from that of the slavesof Greece only in name. This alone, however was not a problem — the problemwas 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 culturebelieved them to be. All of them created female characters of strengthand intelligence. But in “Antigone,” the discussion reached its peak.
Antigoneherself, as she stands upon the Grecian stage, represents the highest idealsof human life — courage and respect for the gods. A woman, she is neverthelessthe exemplum for her society. But how are we to know this? Does the authorlet the audience know that it is Antigone herself, not Creon, the “noble-eyedimperator” (453), who is to be believed? It is almost inconceivable thatthe audience would be meant to ignore Creon’s apparently skillful arguments,for he appears to represent all that the Athenian should strive for. Hestands for obedience to the State. Surely it is his voice we should obey. Sophocles does let us know where the truthlies, and he does this, amazingly, partly through his characterizationof Creon.Order now
Though Creon seemingly says intelligent things, there are cluesthat he is not to be trusted. One would be his discussion of incest withIsmene. 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’sactions in the graveyard: “O, not for me the dusty hair of youth, / Butlet us now unto the palace go” (465), she cries. But Creon, ignoring thesupposedly important information she has to tell — he has, after all,emptied the Theban coffers, spending money on his advanced spy networkin 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 theirnext meeting: “Upon the hour of noon, or / Not upon the hour of six. ” Tosuch a pass has the doomed line of Oedipus come. It is clearly his faultthat Ismene throws herself into the sea outside Thrace. Of course, it is Ismene’s suicide thatis the springboard for the rest of the action. She has shown herself tobe all that the Athenian society desires her to be: obedient, pretty, sweet-tempered, and dead — but it is not enough.
Obedience has gotten the statenowhere, and women nowhere, and outside the walls of the city, the deadare still being buried at alarmingly fast rates, quicker, almost, thanCreon can dig them up. Antigone solves the whole problem. Thoughshe is, indeed, like Ismene, both pretty and dead at the end, she neverthelessprovides a clear example of what women can do when they are trusted withpower, rather than kept at home. For it is her newly formed women’s rightsgroup, based on the Lysistratan model, which creates the only solutionto the Theban problem.
Though Antigone herself is dead by the time thegroup comes up with their stunningly simple plan, it it her legacy whichinforms the decision. “Not upon the dead nor yet / Upon the living basethy worth” (521), the Theban women cry, and upon their creation of a newburial ground, neither within the city, nor without, but within the wallsof the city itself, they alone stop the civil war which threatens Thebes. Their ingenious solution provides a liminal space for the disgraced familyof the late king, Oedipus. And the final scene, wherein the entire familyjoins Antigone, buried within the walls of Thebes, creates a physical metaphorof bonding and solidity. The traitor brother Polynices, the depressed sisterIsmene, the political firebrand Antigone, joined with their uncle Creonand their hot-tempered cousin and his mother, all are together at lastin harmony, united in the purpose of the defense of their beloved cityagainst the Spartan onslaught, a sort of spiritual and physical mortarto the defensive structure. It is no wonder that Antigone, the prizewinner of the Athenian festival in which it was performed, captured notonly the prize but also the hearts of the Athenians.
Clearly, they recognizedthemselves in the stage city of Thebes, and recognized as well the importanceof the message of the play, and its relevance to their own situation. Andindeed, had it not been for the movement which followed the productionof the play, in which the Athenian women were liberated from their near-slavestatus, Athens would most probably have lost the war with Sparta. Onlythe newly liberated women of Athens, bedecked with citizen status, womanningthe 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 withlive, rather than dead, defenders. The play provides us with a useful exampleof the importance of literature to society, and an important message forour own time.