A single protagonist or antagonist is difficult to identify throughout the play Antigone. The author, Sophocles, allows the audience to see all sides of the same story by relying on the neutrality of the Elders who narrate the plot. Considering the time period of the writing, it is surprising that two characters who compete for the spotlight are women. Antigone and Ismene do not represent the stereotypes associated with women, but instead, they work against the expectations set for themselves. Kreon is extremely open about his animosity towards females. There are many instances where he makes a derogatory claim and those surrounding him do not blink their eyes at his statements. The play clearly depicts the inferior role of women during the time it was written through exaggerated characteristics, yet it implicitly inspires rebellion towards the female audience. Although, Antigone is such a complex story it is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which it is being examined.
Kreon makes remarks throughout the play that give the audience insight into his feelings toward females. Whether he is punishing Antigone and Ismene or he is in an argument with his son, Kreon does not fail to insult women. As Antigone and Kreon argue about whether it is honorable for Antigone to properly bury her brother, Kreon exclaims, “While I’m alive, no woman governs me” (Sophocles 570). From a simple line, Kreon reveals his thoughts that women are not worthy of power. He feels insecure about women being stronger than him in any sense. The choice of the word, “governs,” is also impactful because it implies that Kreon is under complete control with no consent. While Kreon is ordering his men to punish Antigone and Ismene, he says, “Make sure they behave/like women. Don’t let either slip away” (Sophocles, 624-625). Kreon is implying that a typical woman would not attempt to fight back when being punished. He thinks females are weak and would allow themselves to be wrongfully penalized whether they are confident in their choices or not. Kreon then uses his power to conceal his insecurity. He is aware of the power and strength of Antigone and Ismene and excessively punishes them. Furthermore, Kreon is intimidated by the sisters, so he must reassure himself that the guards do not let the girls break away. A fight between Kreon and Haimon also allows Kreon to display his disbelief in his son for siding with a female. “Look at yourself! A woman overpowers you” (Sophocles, 824), and “You are her slave” (Sophocles, 834), Kreon shouts at his son Haimon. Kreon is disappointed in his own son because Haimon cares for Antigone. The disgust in Kreon’s voice is evident and triggers Harmon’s anger. Kreon exemplifies his anger with a woman’s control over a man through the power of the word “slave.” Sophocles uses Kreon as an exaggeration of the men during their time. This encourages the female audience to dislike Kreon and look up to the female leads.
Despite the societal negativity towards women that Antigone faces daily, she does not allow it to stop her from fighting for her beliefs. “He’s got no right to keep me from what’s mine” (Sophocles, 57). Antigone is aware of the extreme punishment that Kreon has enforced if someone were to bury her brother’s body. Although she is aware, she confidently ignores the possibility of death. She is not afraid of Kreon and shows her courageousness and loyalty to her family. Antigone represents heroic qualities that are generally associated with males during the time period of the play. Antigone also exclaims, “When my strength is exhausted, I’ll quit” (Sophocles, 109), which represents another quality not often associated with women. Strength generally would not be something that a woman would reference because Antigone is supposed to be inferior to men. This quote is also comparable to modern-day feminism because women in today’s world push for strength and equality until they are unable. The ability to connect a quote from the play to modern-day opinions enforces that Sophocles wants the female readers to feel empowered. Also, while Antigone pleads guilty, she looks Kreon in the eyes and says, “I deny that your edicts—since you, a mere man, imposed them—have the force to trample on the gods’ unwritten and infallible laws” (Sophocles, 489-492). Antigone believes Kreon does not have power over herself or the unwritten laws simply because of his gender. She emphasizes that whatever gender someone is, especially a “mere man”, her honor to her deceased family trumps all other laws. Antigone’s character embodies the morals of Henry David Thoreau to a tee. “…but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law” (Thoreau). Antigone buries the body because she would have felt guilty if she did not, but she also breaks from being an agent of the injustice of gender stereotypes during the act. She could have succumbed to societal pressure and followed the law, but she breaks the gender norms and refuses to leave her brother's body in the wild.
Ismene, on the other hand, does not represent independent women the same way Antigone does. Ismene often worries about the strength and power of the men over her own. “Remember, we’re women. How can we fight men? They’re stronger” (Sophocles, 75-76) Ismene groans to Antigone. Ismene is afraid that if Antigone continues with her plan to bury the body, the men will handle both of them easily because of the men’s excess strength. Ismene is insecure about her gender and feels restrained by men. Ismene also states, “I want the Spirits of the Dead to understand this: I’m not free.” (Sophocles, 78-79). She claims that she is not free because of her lack of independence as a woman. This enforces what Kreon wants women to feel - that they are powerless. Ismene fits the stereotype of women at the time the play was written. She is too afraid to follow through with the plan to properly bury the body because of the punishment from men, but Antigone is not. Antigone completes the act and when Ismene finds out, Ismene wants to take some of the credit. Ismene wants to feel as honorable as her sister but was too afraid to actually follow through with the act. Even though Ismene says things that oppose her sister’s modern feminism, her regret for not assisting in the act shows that Ismene wishes she could act similarly to her sister. Ismene also thinks women should be equal to men; she is just more fearful to be as bold as Antigone is. Ismene uses her sister as inspiration towards the end of the play to voice her own opinions more, no matter the gender of whom she is talking to. She finally gains the confidence to speak against Kreon and shame him for killing his son’s soon-to-be wife.
Antigone subliminally tells the audience that women should be more confident to speak out on their own behalf. Kreon, Antigone, and Ismene are all characters used as symbolism for the way society worked during their time period, and how Sophocles wanted to alter the gender roles. Kreon represents over-confident men who have the power they do not deserve. Men like this are not afraid to speak loudly about how they are more influential than the women around them, but these men also radiate insecurity near powerful women. Antigone represents the ideal strong-minded woman that all girls should aspire to be. She contains many inspirational characteristics such as bravery, loyalty, and strength, that are usually dealt to men in storytelling. Ismene depicts a regular woman who feels the societal pressures of being a woman from men similar to Kreon. She is insecure because she feels weaker than the men around her. Characters such as Antigone are set to inspire insecure women to speak their truth regardless of the situation they are in. Sophocles used these characters in hopes to open the audience’s eyes to the power of women in the real world. Antigone is such a complex story, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which it is being broken down.