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The Role of Women in Antigone

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Antigone, originally written by Sophocles and reinterpreted by Seamus Heaney, presents Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, as a woman who is willing to speak out when the king, her uncle, bans the burial of her brother. Antigone meets all of Aristotle’s criteria for tragedy with the exception of featuring a bold and headstrong female in the lead role. Antigone by Sophocles is a play that challenged the status quo and views on women during the time period the original story was written.

Women in ancient Greece had little to no rights in comparison to male citizens. Women were unable to vote, own land, inherit, etc. A woman’s purpose in life was the birthing and raising of children and her place was usually in the home. Ancient Greece had a reputation of favoring men and viewing women as submissive. A woman was always under the control of a male figure whether it be her husband or her father. Antigone explores a disparity between the behavior that was expected of women and the reality of their role in society. In the play, Creon expects Antigone to take a subservient and secondary role as seen in typical Greek societies but she challenges these notions and presents formidable opposition to the men around her.

In his Poetics, Aristotle focuses his discussion on tragedy which serves to arouse emotions of pity and fear. The titular character, Antigone, defies the king’s edict that her brother remain unburied at the peril of her own life leading the king to act brazen in response to Antigone’s defiance. Following Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, Antigone imitates a single event of considerable magnitude that result in serious consequences.

The play starts out with Antigone declaring to her sister Ismene that she will bury her brother Polyneices. Antigone’s two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles fought over Thebes resulting in both of their deaths.Antigone asks Ismene to assist her in the burial of Polyneices, “His body…Help me to lift/ And lay your brother’s body,” but she refuses in fear of Creon’s decree.(p.8) King Creon proclaims Eteocles a hero and Polyneices a traitor, “he is forbidden/ Any ceremonial whatsoever. …Nobody is to treat him otherwise/ Than as the obscenity he was and is.”(p.17)He bans the burial of Polyneices and sets the punishment as death. Antigone buries Polyneices and willingly faces her punishment because she believes what she did was right. Antigone faces the punishment leading Haemon to kill himself out of sadness and Eurydice to kill herself following Haemon’s death.

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Antigone defies entrenched gender roles as exemplified by her uncle Creon’s attitude towards her. Antigone chooses to express her dissatisfaction with what she believes to be the unethical new regime of King Creon by burying her brother’s body. She resolves to sacrifice her own life in the service of a greater justice. According to Aristotle, when it comes to character, a poet should aim for four things. First, the hero must be ‘good,’ and thus manifest moral purpose in his speech. Second, the hero must have propriety, or ‘manly valor.’ Thirdly, the hero must be ‘true to life.’ And finally, the hero must be consistent. Aristotle states in Poetics that, “even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless…There is a type of manly valour; but valour in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate.” Antigone goes against that statement and the status quo by presenting us with three strong female characters: Antigone, the strong willed protagonist; Ismene, the sister of Antigone, and Eurydice, the wife of Creon.

Antigone never fears Creon and his laws, and openly defies them and upon being caught in the act of burying her brother, Antigone does not hide from what she’s done and even confesses to it,” I disobeyed because the law was not/ The law of Zeus nor the law ordained.”(p.29) Her sister, Ismene initially refuses to take part in the unlawful act of burying her brother but shows potential to be a strong character when she begs Antigone to help after realizing her mistake. Ismene starts out by encapsulating the normative role of a Greek women in ancient Greek society but evolves throughout the story by aligning herself with her sister and her beliefs. The public also stands behind Antigone as she aligns herself with the gods and defies Creon and his unfair edicts.

Eurydice is only seen near the end, when she decided to curse Creon and kill herself after his actions lead to the suicide of their son, Haemon, “The sword was two-edged, and so was her grief/ For her two sons, for Megareus killed/ Defending Thebes and Haemon, who killed himself./ But then as the dark stole down over her eyes,/ She called you death-dealer and cursed your name.”(p.71,72). Eurydice and Antigone’s show of bravery throughout this play defies gender roles of her time, and makes her death meaningful. Antigone’s death, though by her own hand, was caused by Creon and his misguided laws. Creon later realizes his ignorance and curses himself, “And keep your distance. Everything I’ve touched I have destroyed. I’ve nobody to turn to,/ Nowhere I can go. My recklessness and pride I paid for in the end. The blow came quick.”(p.74) Antigone’s choices show her strong will, and continuous love for those she has lost.

Antigone features a valorous and clever titular character that challenges Aristotle’s view on women and the lack of their ability to be a strong character and the ancient Greek society’s view on women. Throughout this play, Antigone continues to prove that a woman can make a good and believable tragic hero. Antigone stands for the ideas that women should be able to speak out against injustices and that they shouldn’t be confined to the typical household roles.

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The Role of Women in Antigone. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-role-of-women-in-antigone/
“The Role of Women in Antigone.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-role-of-women-in-antigone/
The Role of Women in Antigone. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-role-of-women-in-antigone/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
The Role of Women in Antigone [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-role-of-women-in-antigone/
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