Gender roles in Ancient Greek Society

As seen through the role of Antigone

In an age that confined women to the domestic household and expected them to conform to male dominion and rule, the character of Antigone was unique. In standing up to the male authoritarian rule of the day she thwarted Greek custom and in so doing became a tragic hero herself. By examining Sophocles’ heroine we will take a critical look at the gender roles in ancient Greek society as demonstrated through the characterization of Antigone.

We are introduced to Antigone in the first scene of the play. She meets with her sister, Ismene, to ask her help in burying their brother, Polynices, who lies dead on the battlefield outside the gates of Thebes. He has met his death in battle at the hands of his own brother, Eteocles, who after agreeing to share the kingship with Polynices during alternating years, refused to yield. Angered by his refusal, Polynices mustered an army and returned to take his rightful place by force. War was waged and it resulted in many deaths, including those of the two brothers. Creon, brother of the late Queen Jocasta, and uncle of the brothers as well as Ismene and Antigone, considers Polynices a traitor and orders his body to remain unburied, while Eteocles will be buried with a full hero’s honors. Antigone chafes at the idea of burying one brother but not the other and decides to defy the decree.1 When she explains her plan to bury Polynices to her sister, Ismene is horrified and refuses to help.

“We must keep in mind that first,

We’re born as women, we’re not brought into being

To war with men; and second, that we are ruled

By those whose strength is greater, and we must yield

To this – and to much that’s worse than this.”2

It is here that we first see the “dialectic between the sisters.”3 Antigone is seen as a bold and passionate person, an emotional but fearless individual who can only obey the demand of her conscience, regardless of the consequences. Ismene, on the other hand is seen as timid, compliant, and humanly fearful of the very real consequences of Antigone’s proposed disobedience.4 It is ironic that Ismene is usually thought of as the typical woman of Thebes and that it is Antigone that steps out of her gender role in her masculine defiance of Creon’s decree. In Thebes during Antigone’s time, it was tradition that preparing the dead for burial, mourning and lamentation belonged to the women of the household. Ismene, by refusing to help Antigone with Polynices’ burial, is really the one who is defying Greek custom.5

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Antigone justifies herself to Ismene by pleading her case in terms of her familial duty and reverence to the gods. She states that she must “please those down below for a longer time than those up here, since there I’ll lie forever.”6 She knows that she faces a certain death if caught, and welcomes this eventuality. Her decision coupled with this foreknowledge of her fate brings her character up from a mere woman to the level of heroic figure “because heroes are exceptional individuals set apart from the common run of men by their inflexible adherence to some principle, whatever the cost to themselves and those around them.”7

When she is caught for burying her brother and brought before Creon, she defends her disobedience by citing Zeus and her respect for the divine laws which takes precedence over man made (or Creon’s) laws. Creon’s reaction is one of contempt. He lashes out at her and disdainfully says “For grand ideas are not allowed in someone who’s the slave of others…” alluding to the fact that she, as a woman, is more a slave than a citizen with rights. He goes on to spell it out clearly when he says “I must be no man at all, in fact, and she must be the man, if power like this can rest in her and go unpunished.”8 The logic of Creon’s final line is that Antigone is wrong, not because of her beliefs or for opposing the sanctity of the city, but because she is a woman.9 These last words that Creon speaks ironically turn out to be true. His harsh and unbending “masculine” edict that restricts Antigone from carrying out the “feminine” burial rituals is the very thing that in end emasculates him by resulting in the loss of all the things that he holds dear in his life: his son, his wife, and ultimately, the respect of the people he rules.

Creon sentences Antigone to death, but in a cowardly, round about way. He wants no actual blood on his hands, so he orders that she be sealed into a cave with only a little food and water. Enough to give the gods time to “save” her if they would. He also suspects that Ismene was her accomplice, so he summons her. The guards find her and describe her as “raving out of her wits.” She is the very image of a hysterical woman and the very antithesis of Antigone as Antigone calmly accepts her fate. When Ismene arrives she tries to tell Creon that she is just as guilty as her sister. Antigone denies this and refuses to let her share her fate, and harshly denounces her for being too timid to help when help was first asked for. Ismene then pleads for Antigone’s life to be spared, arguing that Antigone is betrothed to his son. Creon is unrelenting, though and Antigone will die.

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In one last and moving effort to save Antigone, Haemon, her betrothed and the son of Creon, comes speak on her behalf. Knowing full well of his father’s temper and the relative position in which they stand to each other, he makes no sentimental plea; but, self-controlled and calm, and with the utmost deference for his father’s welfare and reputation, he points out to him that the citizens are not with him in the course which he is pursuing. He explains that it is indeed reasonable and wise for a leader of men to listen to the opinion of others. He warns that to be unyielding in his opinions is foolish. Creon will not listen though, and as they argue, Creon is the one who grows more hysterical, unbending and cruel. As Haemon is doing the “manly” thing by trying to protect his intended wife, Creon repeatedly accuses Haemon of “submitting to a woman” or tells him he is the “slave of a woman.”10 Haemon finally realizes that his pleas are in vain. He leaves telling his father that he will never see his face again.

Antigone is taken away and as she goes, she laments that her life has been cut short. Of the things that she mentions she will miss are the trappings of marriage and family. Indeed, up until now, she has maintained that the greatest affiliation to family she could have is that of her parents and brothers. She herself has not even mentioned that she is betrothed to Hameon. Now, as she faces her untimely death, she contemplates a more traditional woman’s life and all she will miss.

“O tomb, O bridal chamber, O deep

Cave of a dwelling place…”

“And now by force of hands he’s leading me

Away without a nuptial bed, without

A wedding ceremony and receiving

No share of marriage nor of rearing children.”11

The old blind prophet Teiresias comes with an urgent message for the king. He tells Creon that the gods are angry with Thebes; they will give their prophet no sign. The city is polluted, and the cause of the pollution is the fact that the dead body of Polynices is still lying unburied outside the gates of Thebes he implores Creon to relent and let the body be buried. Creon refuses, ridiculing the old prophet. Teiresias warns him that the Furies are angry with him for sending Antigone to her death, and that Creon “from your own gut, will give one corpse for other corpses.”12 Creon only then begins to doubt his actions. Now, finally he yields and agrees to bury Polynices and release Antigone. He has until this point been arrogant, prideful and unyielding, not the cool headed, logical and just ruler that he fancies himself to be.

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Creon is determined to set things right on the chance that the old prophet might be right. He rushes to Polynices’ body to administer the proper burial. He then goes to Antigone’s tomb, but death awaits him there. Antigone has hanged herself in her tomb. When Haemon arrives too late to save her, he spits in his fathers face and then takes his own life by falling on his own sword. Creon, distraught at the role he has played in his own son’s death, returns to the palace only to find that news of his son’s death has preceded him home. His wife, Eurydice also commits suicide, blaming Creon, as she does. Clearly Creon has lost control of all he holds dear.

Antigone died standing up for her ideals. Her character goes against everything a woman should be. She is strong, willful and she tragically gives her life for her principles. Creon, in a reversal of roles is week, rash and prideful and he pays the price. The play ends with Creon childless, wifeless, and utterly broken with grief and remorse. Antigone, a mere slip of a girl, has been his undoing.

End Notes

1. Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Reginald Gibbons and Charles Segal. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. Print. (1-60)

2. Sophocles. Antigone. (75-78)

3. Hirai, Masako. Sisters in Literature “Reading Antigone”. London, England: Macmillan Press LTD: 1998. Print. (35)

4. Hirai, Sisters in Literature “Reading Antigone”. (35-37)

5. Bennett, Larry J. and Tyrrell, Wm. Blake. Recapturing Sophocles’ Antigone. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1998. Print. (10-11)

6. Sophocles. Antigone. (91-92)

7. Hirai, Sisters in Literature “Reading Antigone”. (36)

8. Sophocles. Antigone. (524-526)

9. Gordon, Paul. “Misogyny, Dioysianism and a new model of Greek tragedy.” Women’s Studies, 1990, Vol. 17, pp 211-128. Web October 22, 2010. (214)

11. Sophocles. Antigone. (951, 980-983)

12. Sophocles. Antigone. (1135)

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