Male-dominant societies are just as common now as they were back then. Women throughout history have constantly stood in the shadows of men. Three characters from Sophocles’ Antigone will be examined to show the portrayal of women in Greek society. The ideal of women being weak and inferior to men and kept segregated was just that in Greek society and is portrayed through the character Ismene, who is Antigone’s sister. The idea of how some Athenians wanted to believe men were the superior ones and women were deprived of all political rights and kept under strict control can be proven through Kreon who is ruler of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle. The character Antigone shows us in reality how some women enjoyed more freedom than given credit for. She accomplishes this by stepping out of her place as a woman in society and showing us that women are strong and capable of making their own decisions when she decides to go against Creon.
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The ideal of women being seen as weak and inferior to men is shown through Antigone’s sister Ismene. Ismene’s cowardly nature is shown from the beginning when Antigone comes to her and shares the news of how Kreon had given their brother Eteokles a proper burial and decided to leave their other brother Polyneices unburied (Sophocles, Antigone 27-31). Antigone believes that this is wrong and that Polyneices deserves to have a proper burial and asks for her sister’s help in burying him, Ismene’s responds by saying, “No we should be sensible: / we are women, born unfit to battle men; / and we are subjects, while Kreon is king” (73-75). This clearly shows Ismene’s cowardly nature when she says women cannot fight men. Ismene also displays how inferior she feels women are to men when she says they are just subjects and Kreon is king. There were rules enforced on women that basically deprived them of freedom, “rules that both considered them inferior and made them so” (Cantarella 51). This feeling of inferiority stops Ismene from doing what she knows is right just because it would mean standing up to a man. “What is life when I’ve lost you? / What is there to love in life?” (Sophocles, 673-674) She is continually revealed as a damsel in distress when she tries to take credit in burying Polyneices with Antigone for fear she would be left alone, once again displaying her weakness. “Weak…perhaps even incapable of lasting feelings, she was destined for marriage…That is what woman is and it should not be surprising as she was taught to put marriage above everything else” (28). This ideal of women being seen as weak , not capable of lasting feelings, and that their sole purpose was to get married was very common during those times, especially in the eyes of men.”Normally a wife serves her husband…Her husband does the shopping” (“Sex and Difference” 27). This shows a sign of incapability on the part of the woman as she is not even able to shop because from the male perspective she is not capable of doing so. The power men held is shown through the segregation of women. “The seclusion of women within the home had developed into an ideal…” (Blundell 73). This seclusion is revealed in Sophocles’ work when Antigone comes to ask Ismene if she had heard the news of the decree and Ismene responds she has not heard anything (Sophocles 11-16). One can interpret Ismene’s lack of knowledge of the political affairs going on around her to be because of her seclusion.
Some Athenians wanted to believe men were the superior ones and women were deprived of all political rights and kept under strict control can be proven through Kreon who is ruler of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle. Kreon is portrayed as a leader who is arrogant and a tyrant in Sophocles’ Antigone. At first he thinks that a man had done the deed of burying Polyneices, but when he finds out that Antigone had done it he is further infuriated because she is a woman. “I’m no man- / she is a man, she’s the king- / if she gets away with this” (Sophocles 589-591). He believes that as king he has the right to say what goes and his laws must always be upheld. He says that if she is left unpunished then that would show that he’s powerless. Kreon shows Antigone who’s in charge when he sentences her to death. His arrogant nature and sexist attitude towards women is revealed when he says, “I’m alive though, and no woman will rule me” (646). Kreon continues by saying, “If we must fall, better to fall to a real man/ and not be called worse than women” (823-824). Clearly demonstrating his lack of respect for women because he says if he needs to fall than it is better to fall to the hands of a man than a woman. Therefore expressing his thoughts of how he does not feel women to be his equal.
How women were deprived of all political rights is proven through the fact that, “there was women’s total exclusion from any form of political participation” (Cantarella 51). Kreon reveals how they kept under strict control when he tells the guards to take both Ismene, even though she had nothing to do with burying her brother, and Antigone and lock them away inside so that they will act as women and not stray around (Sophocles 715-716). According to Cantarella, “Women were increasingly excluded…they were actually confined within the walls of the house (in a part of the house called the gynaecaeum)” (40). This gives the idea that women were supposed to be kept locked indoors and not run about in society.
Antigone shows us in reality how some women enjoyed more freedom than given credit for. She accomplishes this by stepping out of her place as a woman in society and showing us that women are strong and capable of making their own decisions. She proved to be strong when she follows her conscious instead of the law of the land which she knew was wrong. By not following the law of the land Antigone also proved that women are capable of making their own decisions. Firstly, she opposes the king’s law by burying her brother. “And Death is a god / who wants his laws obeyed” (Sophocles 634-635). She believed that the laws of the gods are more important than that of the king which is why she gave her brother a proper burial. Secondly, Antigone does not deny once that she is the one who buried her brother when caught. This is proven by the Sentry who tells Kreon, “We accuse of her doing it before and this time, both, / and she didn’t deny a thing (530-531). Her determination is shown when she accepts the consequences of her actions with pride. When faced against Kreon she says, “I did it. I deny nothing” (541). Not even trying to hide anything she openly lets Kreon know that it was her who was responsible for breaking his law. Antigone’s actions characterize her as one who is courageous, willing and capable of standing up to men. Unlike her sister Ismene she refuses to give into the role of a woman who is helpless, weak-willed and submissive.
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The ideal of women being kept under strict control and secluded if possible could only be practised effectively among those who were wealthy (Blundell 73). If there were no wells in the courtyard of homes and no slave-girl to get the water, women would have had to go the public fountains regularly themselves (73). Even though a number of male writers do not talk about the friendships between females it is certain that they existed (73). It is also known that women went to each other’s houses for burrowing salt (73). They also went to each other’s homes to assist women when they were in labour, or for the celebration of a new born baby (73). “Even upper-class women would have been expected to appear in public when they were performing religious duties or attending weddings or funerals” (73). This shows that the idea of women being kept inside the home and under strict control was just an ideal and not reality. As mentioned earlier even though the husband did the shopping, this did not stop some of the women from “running stalls in the market-place selling flowers, vegetables or bread (74). Under such circumstances it is rather hard to say that Athenian women were segregated, deprived of all political rights and kept under strict control when they are out and about selling items. This further proves that in reality some women enjoyed more freedom than what some thought.
In conclusion, the ideal of women being weak and inferior to men was portrayed though Ismene. Her weakness and feeling of inferiority is shown throughout Sophocles’ Antigone but most notably in the beginning when Antigone asks for her help in burying their brother. She refuses and displays how inferior she feels women are compared to men when she says they are just subjects and Kreon is king. The belief that men were the superior ones and women were deprived of all political rights and kept under strict control can be proven through Kreon the ruler of Thebes. Women were excluded from participating in political affairs of any form (Cantarella 51). Kreon reveals the strict control under which women were kept when he tells the guards to take both Ismene and Antigone and lock them away inside so that they will act as women and not stray around (Sophocles 715-716). Antigone on the other hand proved that women had more freedom than given credit for when she decides to go against Kreon and do what she felt was right by burying her brother. She shows that women are strong and capable of making their own decisions. Also, even though women were said to be segregated there are a number of incidences which proved that that really was not the case for all women.
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