Sophocles’ Antigone: Challenging the role of Women in the Oikos (household) and the Polis (City-State)
((I got really bored, so here, have some ramblings))
Antigone is, arguably, the first published play in the Three Theban Plays series by Sophocles; the Ancient Greek poet. It is a Greek Tragedy that centres around the Theban/Oedipus Mythos and is commonly thought to have been written during or sometime prior to 441 BC.
A convention of Greek Tragedy, as Aristotle noted in his 'Unities: Definition of Tragedy' was that the action takes place within one day, and ”real-time” for example, if the play lasted three hours to watch, then the action in the play itself was three hours long; the events takes place in one location and is fluid, therefore there are no flashbacks or disjointed action.
Before the beginning of the play, Antigone’s twin brothers Polynices and Eteocles killed each other fighting in the Civil war of Thebes. Creon, theirs and Antigone’s Uncle has now become King and he has decided that Eteocles die a hero, whilst Polynices (who had marched on the city) should die a traitor, out in the open for the crows and dogs.
The play begins with Antigone asking her sister to help bury Polynices, despite the fact that Creon, the new King has forbade it.
The contrast of Antigone and her sister Ismene in the Prologos (opening of the story) is incredibly obvious.
Ismene represents the archetypal Theban/Athenian woman, she abides by the laws of the Polis (the city state) and the Oikos (the household) whereas Antigone challenges both of these in a way that a woman would not have done.
She is a brave, grief-consumed woman who values the honour of the Gods (a body must have the proper funeral rites to pass to the other side) and the honour of giving her brother a proper burial over the fixed laws of the Polis and Oikos.
Whereas Ismene, fearing the death penalty, refuses to aid her sister in burying their brother and instead submits to the family and state laws.
It is important to note that Creon is Antigone’s Uncle. He is the head of the Oikos, he adopts the role of Father to the family. He is not only her superior and elder, but he is also a man where she is only a woman. By defying his edict she challenges the role of a woman by disobeying not only her King, but also her Uncle. Her elder and superior in age, relation and gender and in this way Antigone smashes the traditional conventions of a submissive Theban/Athenian woman because Creon is also her King. She defies his edict to bury her brother, this is breaking the law, so not only is she challenging the role of women in the oikos, she is challenging the role of a citizen in the Polis, favouring the Gods over the city-state laws.
Antigone is portrayed as fierce and noble, and as a reader one tends to respect and relate to her emotions (unlike other notable Greek tragedy heroines like Medea and to a lesser extent Electra). Antigone is completely just in wanting to bury her own brother, but this is where the question lies, should she have buried her brother? Or should she just have submitted to the law? Antigone declares that she ”would suffer nothing as great as death without glory” which could indicate that she indeed gains her wish; she dies after having seen to her brothers proper funeral rites, she goes down amongst the dead a hero in many ways. In this sense, it could be argued that despite the title of the play, Creon is infact the tragic hero in Antigone, he loses his neice, his son and his wife all due to his ego, rage and pride.
Antigone died a martyr and a hero, challenging the roles of women in the city state and the family; and although she dies we do feel sympathy and pity and we do respect and relate to her, thus proving her to be one of Histories and Literature’s finest heroines.