Sophocles’ play Antigone presents us with three different types of women: Antigone, the strong-willed protagonist; Ismene, the weak sister of Antigone; and Eurydice, wife of Creon. Each of these characters’ personalities, lifestyles, and choices directly affects the character’s mortality. The women characters in Antigone show great contrast, the most prominent being life and death. By analyzing the female characters, it can be seen that those who die, Antigone and Eurydice, share certain aspects that the survivor, Ismene does not; they are opposites of each other in nearly every way.
The first opposite found, strong versus weak, plays a prominent role in this play. Antigone’s role within the play is much stronger than Ismene’s or Eurydice’s on various occasions. Antigone never fears Creon and his laws, and openly defies them, twice. Upon being caught in the act, Antigone does not hide from what she’s done, she confesses to it, “Yes, I confess; I will not deny my deed,” (Greene 487 pp 198).
Antigone has a stronger familial bond with her brother, whom she believes deserves a proper burial, than her sister, Ismene, who refuses all participation in the unlawful act. After Creon has caught Antigone, he calls on Ismene, falsely assuming her participation in the illegal burial, and asks if she did it, Ismene replies “I did it, yes-if she will say I did it…,” (Greene 590 pp 202). Only when Ismene fears her sister has told on her, does she show that she has the potential to be a strong character, like Antigone.
Eurydice, who is not as prominent in the play as many other characters, is also portrayed as weaker than Antigone. Eurydice, being Creon’s wife stands behind him in all that he does. She supports him in his decisions, until his actions lead to the suicide of their son, Haemon. This puts Eurydice over the edge, at which point she kills herself. Both Antigone and Eurydice share the mental and physical strength to kill themselves for their loved ones.
Similar to strength, but just as important in this play, is bravery. Antigone’s show of bravery throughout this play defies gender roles of her time, and makes her death meaningful. Other characters in this play kill themselves because someone they love dies, but Antigone’s death, though by her own hand, was caused by Creon and his misguided laws. The Chorus in the play praises her choices by saying, “Yes, you go to the place where the dead are hidden, but you go with distinction and praise…it was your own choice and alone among mankind you will descend, alive, to that world of death,” (Greene 878-884 pp 213). Antigone’s choices show her strong will, and continuous love for those she has lost. Antigone willingly gives her life to ensure her brother gets to the underworld safely, and once she does that she kills herself to be with her family in the after life.
The character of Ismene shows no sign of this bravery, and this conformity to Creon’s way of thinking preserves her life. She continuously takes on the common subordinate role women usually are portrayed in, saying such things as “…You ought to realize we are only women, not meant in nature to fight against men…” (Greene 70-71 pp 183) and “…bury him in secret; I will be silent, too,” (Greene 98 pp 184). Ismene does all she can to try to convince her sister to change her mind.
The women in this play share a commonality in their love for their family, but Antigone is the only one who is not afraid to prove it. Family is, not only the leading cause of death of women within this play, but the basis for this entire play. It is Antigone’s lineage that began all of this chaos in the first place, as stated by Ismene, “…Consider sister how our father died…how he himself struck out the sight of his two eyes…Then, mother and wife…did shame violently on her life…Third, our two brothers…Each killed the other…,” (Greene 56-65 pp 183).
Antigone proves her undying love to the dead members of her family by taking her own life, and in a way disowning Ismene for not doing the same. Ismene fears the punishment associated with burying her brother, and therefore refuses to do anything which would endanger her life. After Ismene’s “confession,” Antigone refuses to let Ismene have any false glory, “Justice will not allow you what you refused and I will have none of your partnership” (Greene 592 pp 202).
Similar to Antigone, Eurydice gives up her life for a loved one. The bond between mother and son is much stronger than that of husband and wife, and it’s this bond that leads Eurydice to take her own life once she hears that her son has taken his own life. A character known as Second Messenger recounts her death, “The queen is dead. She was indeed true mother of the dead son. She died, poor lady, by recent violence upon herself,” (Greene 1358-1360 pp 229).
With whom these women align themselves seems to be a deciding factor in their life or death within the play. There are the women who, in the end, align themselves behind Creon and his rule, and those who believe in other forces. Antigone goes against Creon’s laws, believing that since Creon will eventually die, his proclamation (concerning her brother’s burial) holds no power. She thinks only the Gods have enough power to declare who should be buried and who shouldn’t saying, “…it was not Zeus that made the proclamation; nor did Justice, which lives with those below, enact such laws as that, for mankind…,” (Greene 494-496 pp 198). This belief eventually leads to the actions which cause Antigone’s death in the play.
Her sister, however, believes Creon is right and shouldn’t be defied, saying “…we are ruled, by those who are stronger…,” (Greene, 72 pp 183). By being obedient to the King of Thebes, Ismene preserves her life, but at what cost, if everyone she loves dies in the process?
The exception to this is Eurydice, whose character isn’t explored deep enough to discover her true feelings, but she did align herself with her son by the end of the play, killing herself to be with him. The two female characters who did not believe faithfully in Creon died, while the subordinate female survived.
Being a woman in and of itself plays a big part in the morality of these female characters. According to the website Ancient Greek Civilizations: the Women of Athens, marriage is a right of passage for girls to become women, (“The Women of Athens”). Eurydice is the only married women within the play, leaving us to believe Antigone and Ismene are still girls. However, in death, Antigone says herself that her “…husband is to be the Lord of Death,” (Greene, 877 pp 213). Jana Shopkorn, who created a website entitled “‘Til Death Do Us Part: Marriage and Funeral Rites in Classical Athens,” says that “Death before marriage signifies a marriage with the underworld,” (Shopkorn). Following this line of thinking, the only woman who survives was in fact a girl, and being married was a curse, of sorts, for Eurydice and Antigone.
Through the analysis of the only 3 females in Sophocles’ play Antigone, we discover a wide array of contrasting characteristics. The dynamics between these characters provides insight into their mortality within the play. The two female characters that die in this play, Antigone and Eurydice, share many similarities that Ismene, the sole female survivor does not possess. Their opposing personalities, lifestyles, and choices throughout the play can be directly correlated to their death or survival in this play.
- Greene, David & Lattimore, Richmond (Ed.). (1991). Greek Tragedies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Shopkorn, Jana. “Til Death Do Us Part: Marriage and Funeral Rites in Classical Athens.” 6 Oct 2008 < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/classes/JSp.html>.
- “The Women of Athens.” Ancient Greek Civilizations. 8 Oct 2008 <http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/aegean/culture/womenofathens.html>.