Antigone’s Greatest Enemy: Ismene

Another sampling of my academic writing.

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Antigone’s Greatest Enemy: Ismene

A common interpretation of Sophocles’ play, Antigone, is that Creon is the greatest adversary to Antigone’s will, and ultimately his obstinacy led to her suicide [and the tragic end to his lineage]. While I agree Creon’s initial decision to deny Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, a proper burial was the beginning of her downfall, it was actually her sister, Ismene, who led to her destruction (Moses 1984). Within this essay, I will illustrate how Sophocles’ portrayal of Ismene proved fatal to Antigone, and I will provide textual evidence for Creon’s minimal influence on the ultimate fate of Antigone.

To immediately evidence Ismene’s deleterious influence on her sister, I can point to the opening act: Antigone’s conversation with Ismene. The sisters share remorse for their brother’s fate, and Antigone requests Ismene’s help in providing proper burial to please the gods (Moses 1984). Not only does Ismene refuse aid, she also rebukes Antigone:

Nay, we must remember, first, that we were born women, who should not strive with men; . . . so that we must obey in these things, and in things still harder (Moses 1984).

In denying her sister, Ismene made the physical task of burying Polyneices exponentially more laborious, which resulted in an insufficient grave and the need for Antigone to repeat the process later in the play, where she was eventually caught (Moses 1984). In addition, Ismene’s valuation of acquiescence to the laws of man over providing aid to her sister in her time of need wounded Antigone’s already tenuous attachment to worldly relationships; if the last member of her bloodline would not stand beside her, what reason for her to live? Already in this first scene we see evidence that Ismene will be the downfall of Antigone, and Sophocles intentionally placed this sisterly discourse before any interactions with men.

To further illustrate how Ismene, not Creon, is the true opposing force in Antigone, I must address Creon’s discovery of Antigone’s guilt in the burial of Polyneices. Instead of finding joy in the discovery, Creon is dismayed to learn of Antigone’s act:

What portent from the gods is this? My soul is amazed . . .
O luckless, and child of luckless sire–of Oedipus! What does this mean (Moses 1984)?

Creon fights against the guard’s revelation, refusing to believe Antigone could defy his order (Moses 1984). In an act of bravado [to illustrate his power as king and as a man], he announces immediately that she shall be killed; yet, despite this proclamation, he continues discourse with her, and eventually Ismene is brought in for questioning (Moses 1984). If Creon were truly the intended adversary and fatal character for Antigone’s will, his punishment would have been swift and without hesitation. In Sophocles’ portrayal of Creon, we see a man grieved by the act of a beloved kin, and though desperate to demonstrate power in his new role, he’s eager to find a loophole for Antigone.

While many argue that Antigone’s death sentence from Creon is concrete evidence for his role as her greatest enemy, it’s actually the final conversation between sisters that lands the fatal blow. When Ismene is led in to witness, she arrives weeping and declares herself a companion to the crime:

I have done the deed, if she allows my claim, and share the burden of the charge (Moses 1984).

In falsely declaring partnership with Antigone, Ismene insulted the sacrifice made by her sister, and cheapened her act before the gods. Antigone rebuked her, restating her claim that she acted alone:

Do not share my death nor claim deeds to which you have not put your hand;. . . Your choice was to live, mine to die (Moses 1984).

Despite her reiteration, Creon’s heart was softened by Ismene’s ignominious declaration, and he ordered Antigone entombed alive instead of executed (Moses 1984). This solitude and her failed divine sacrifice, both products of Ismene’s actions, led Antigone to commit suicide (Moses 1984). Where Creon had spared her life, Ismene had pushed her to the brink.

While it cannot be denied that Creon’s denial of Polyneices’ burial and his entombing punishment played a role in Antigone’s downfall, it was ultimately the words, actions, and inactions of Ismene that led to Antigone’s suicide. From her initial denial of aid to her false claim of partnership in the burial, Ismene proved fallacious and dishonoring to Antigone. Creon may have initiated the process, but Ismene was the catalyst in her sister’s death and the play’s tragic end.

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The bane of my existence is word limits!! For the first two essays, the professor capped us at 750 words – which is barely enough room to get the conversation started! So if my work seems oddly truncated, this is why!

Thanks for reading,

~ Victoria Elizabeth

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