Antigone – Importance of gender in the opening scene
In looking at the first few exchanges between Ismene and Antigone by Sophocles, it is greatly apparent that there are plenty of social issues surrounding women from ancient Greece. In looking at the contextual background of the playwright, the representation of the women within the play and at the imagined response of a contemporary and ancient audience; we can see that this play raises many gender and socially related issues.
Looking briefly at the contextual element to the play in terms of the playwright, it is worth considering that Sophocles himself was a political writer. He was elected by lot to become one of nine generals to command during an ancient skirmish. This took place the same year he wrote the play ‘Antigone’. His fame for writing this play propelled him into fame among his peers and fellow citizens.
Even within the play itself we can see that there is a political effort. This comes directly from the protagonist King Creon. He wants to rule fairly but firmly. His power as, not only a King, but as a human being come into focus to an audience as he must decided whether or not to go against his heart by killing his niece for disobeying a law he laid down. This is also a law he could quite simply change, but he doesn’t. This would directly give any audience the notion that the ideal ruler is someone who can put the matters of their heart to one side and put the greater good of the people first.
When we meet the characters in the first scene, it is important to note what they actually say about each other and their knowledge of their own social status. When we meet Antigone, she is the first character to speak. The audience later learns that she is the antagonist of the play as she rebels against the protagonist, Creon. It is also worth noting that there is a similarity between the name of the heroine Antigone and the term antagonist. This gives the audience, especially of ancient Greece the feeling that Antigone has been fated to be the antagonist and to die for it in a tragic manner. Her sister Ismene who is the second character the audience will meet initially describes Antigone. “You seem so dark and grim” (25) says Ismene of her sister.
This tells us that the mood of the other character is somber; letting us know that this play is a tragic one and has no element of comedy to come. When Ismene hears of Antigone’s plan to bury their brother’s body, we are given the hint that her behavior is not usual, “so desperate” and “so fiery” are the words used to describe Antigone’s frame of mind. If another woman can say this, then a more contemporary issue of stereotyping women as rash and emotional is raised. The audience and the reader see at this very early point in the play that Antigone is determined to carry her mission to bury her beloved brother to the grave with her. Antigone says about the punishment of death “I will lie with the one I love and loved by him”. Here, she shows no fear over disobeying the king. This in a broader sense demonstrates the patriotic sensibility that the Greeks feel toward their own families. This would communicate well to the ancient audience.
In meeting Ismene, we are introduced to a wiser woman in terms of her knowing where she stands socially and knowing the consequences of rebellious actions. Ismene serves a tool of the play. She helps the antagonist to become more resolute about her actions. This gives Ismene the role of messenger of the play, as in keeping with Greek theatrical traditions. Ismene has suffered just as much as Antigone has done “no joy or pain has come my way” (16). Yet although she concedes that the sisters “were robbed of our two brothers” (17), she still accepts the will of the King “I must obey the ones who stand in power”.
Ultimately, what is translated to an audience is that the woman who resisted the Kings law dies and the woman who doesn’t resist lives on. This would give a type of warning to an ancient Greek audience, but to a modern audience, it would instill a feeling that Antigone had become a martyr; dying for what she believed in.
The representation of women is somewhat lost though by how the play came into existence. We should not forget that this pathos inducing play showing the emotional struggles of two women, especially Antigone, is written by a man. It is also essential to remember that male actors dressed up as women performed this play. There literally is not female input into this play at all and dramatically has an impact on the audience when they take into consideration this fact. There is a lot of room, therefore, for error in the representation of women in general from ancient Greece and the reader and audience member is a lost as to how a Greek woman, royal or not, would have acted. We can now only ask ourselves how would we react to this as an enlightened, contemporary society.
The answer must be that we still see the tragic element to the play. This play set out to be a tragedy in ancient Greece and when we see that the death of Antigone as the pivot back then, we must see the untimely death of a young woman tragic too. Thus we find we are of a common understanding with our ancient Greek counterparts.
Ultimately, this first few minutes of the play, tell us a great deal about not only the two characters involved, but also about the society they lived in. We can merely reflect on the social changes between our culture and theirs, yet the implications that we, the audience receive about women are quite prominent not only sociably for them, but for us now. It also quite alarming that women had no input to this play or any other and only the experience of the playwright, actor and mask-maker survive to this day to form our knowledge.