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Gender Issues In Ancient Greece

anne brannen
Gender Issues in ?Antigone?
One of the most devastating problems for the Classical Greeks was the women’s
issue. Women in Classical Greece were not citizens, held no property, and
indeed were not even allowed out of the house except under guard. Their
differed from that of the slaves of Greece only in name. This alone, however
was not a problem — the problem was that the Greeks knew, in their hearts,
that this was wrong. Indeed, their playwrights harangued them about it from
the stage of Athens continually. All of the great Grecian playwrights —
Sophocles, Euripedes, Aristophenes — dealt with the women’s issue. All of
argued, in their various ways, that the women of Greece were not nearly as
incapable and weak as the culture believed them to be. All of them created
female characters of strength and intelligence. But in ?Antigone,? the
discussion reached its peak. Antigone herself, as she stands upon the Grecian
stage, represents the highest ideals of human life — courage and respect for
the gods. A woman, she is nevertheless the exemplum for her society.

But how are we to know this? Does the author let the audience know that
it is
Antigone herself, not Creon, the ?noble-eyed imperator? (453), who is to be
believed? It is almost inconceivable that the audience would be meant to
ignore Creon’s apparently skillful arguments, for he appears to represent all
that the Athenian should strive for. He stands for obedience to the State.

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Surely it is his voice we should obey.
Sophocles does let us know where the truth lies, and he does this, amazingly,
partly through his characterization of Creon. Though Creon seemingly says
intelligent things, there are clues that he is not to be trusted. One
would be
his discussion of incest with Ismene. Torn between her duty to God and her
to the State, Ismene, in the third act, has run to Creon, planning to tell him
of Antigone’s actions in the graveyard: ?O, not for me the dusty hair of
/ But let us now unto the palace go? (465), she cries. But Creon, ignoring
supposedly important information she has to tell — he has, after all, emptied
the Theban coffers, spending money on his advanced spy network in search of
miscreant — asks her, instead, to come home with him. ?How long, O Princess,
O! How long!? he states, suggesting a time for their next meeting: ?Upon the
hour of noon, or / Not upon the hour of six.? To such a pass has the doomed
line of Oedipus come. It is clearly his fault that Ismene throws herself into
the sea outside Thrace.

Of course, it is Ismene’s suicide that is the springboard for the rest of the
action. She has shown herself to be all that the Athenian society desires her
to be: obedient, pretty, sweet-tempered, and dead — but it is not enough.
Obedience has gotten the state nowhere, and women nowhere, and outside the
walls of the city, the dead are still being buried at alarmingly fast rates,
quicker, almost, than Creon can dig them up.

Antigone solves the whole problem. Though she is, indeed, like Ismene, both
pretty and dead at the end, she nevertheless provides a clear example of what
women can do when they are trusted with power, rather than kept at home. For
it is her newly formed women’s rights group, based on the Lysistratan model,
which creates the only solution to the Theban problem. Though Antigone
is dead by the time the group comes up with their stunningly simple plan,
it it
her legacy which informs the decision. ?Not upon the dead nor yet / Upon the
living base thy worth? (521), the Theban women cry, and upon their creation of
a new burial ground, neither within the city, nor without, but within the
of the city itself, they alone stop the civil war which threatens Thebes.
Their ingenious solution provides a liminal space for the disgraced family of
the late king, Oedipus. And the final scene, wherein the entire family joins
Antigone, buried within the walls of Thebes, creates a physical metaphor of
bonding and solidity. The traitor brother Polynices, the depressed sister
Ismene, the political firebrand Antigone, joined with their uncle Creon and
their hot-tempered cousin and his mother, all are together at last in harmony,
united in the purpose of the defense of their beloved city against the Spartan
onslaught, a sort of spiritual and physical mortar to the defensive structure.

It is no wonder that Antigone, the prize winner of the Athenian festival in
which it was performed, captured not only the prize but also the hearts of the
Athenians. Clearly, they recognized themselves in the stage city of Thebes,
and recognized as well the importance of the message of the play, and its
relevance to their own situation. And indeed, had it not been for the
which followed the production of the play, in which the Athenian women were
liberated from their near-slave status, Athens would most probably have lost
the war with Sparta. Only the newly liberated women of Athens, bedecked with
citizen status, womanning the walls of Athens, kept the Spartans out, in the
last battle of the war, in a stirring reproduction of the end scene of
this time with live, rather than dead, defenders. The play provides us with a
useful example of the importance of literature to society, and an important
message for our own time.


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