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Women in Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays

Submitted by admin on Sat, 09/24/2016 - 05:00


Theban Plays of Sophocles picture very strong characters of women. One of the brightest protagonists of the plays is Antigone, who challenged the law of state under penalty of death for the sake of divine law and his brother’s honour. This Antigone’s act of defiance is a good deed, a deeply moral act that made her a heroine of civil disobedience. This act of disobedience eventually caused political and legal reform in Ancient Greece. The plays carry the idea that even in those times, women have the possibility to self-realisation and can be as strong and wise as men. Although living in made-dominated society of Ancient Greek Theban where women are subject to subservient roles, young, teenage Antigone challenges not only royal power of Creon, the ruler, but his masculine power as well by speaking against his policy that violeates divine traditions. All the play long, Creon repeatedly accused her more of her gender than her act of disobedience of his order forbidding burial of Antigone’s brother. Until the very end of the play Antigone stays unshaken, showing to the audience of Ancient Greece that women can be equal to men, as wise and strong as males are and, in her case, even more.


Antigone, the protagonist of Sophocles’ play, comes from what can now be called dysfunctional family. Her father, Oedipus, was once a ruler of Thebes, the same well-known king who solved the riddle of Sphinx (the task was to guess who walks in the morning on four legs, at noon on two, and on three in the evening. Oedipus guesses that it is man). Oedipus, after finding out that he had unknowingly killed his father, King Lauis and married his mother, puts his eyes out and leaves in exile attempting to escape the misery of his disgrace. Antigone, his daughter, follows him in his wonders. After Oedipus’ death in Colonus, his two daughters Antigone and Ismene return to their hometown, Thebes. At that time the Theban throne was taken by Creon after the war between Antigone’s two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles for the power in the town. Eteocles died in the fight for his country and was rendered a decent funeral. But for Polynices Creon ruled that

"...But the body of Polynices, who died miserably-why, a city-wide proclamation, rumor has it, forbids anyone to bury him, even mourn him. He’s to be left unwept, unburied, a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their hearts content.
Such, I hear, is the martial law our good Creon lays down for you and me yes, me, I tell you-and he’s coming here to alert the uninformed in no uncertain terms, and he won’t treat the matter lightly. Whoever disobeys in the least will die, his doom is sealed: stoning to death inside the city walls!

Ismene, Antigone’s sister, obeys the law. She does so because she knows that women are too weak to resist state and men’s power.

Shall we not perish...
If in defiance of the law we cross
A monarch's will?--weak women, think of that,
Not framed by nature to contend with men.
Remember this too that the stronger rules;
We must obey his orders, these or worse.

On the contrary, Antigone openly condemns the decree. The ruling of Creon, she declares, violates the divine law stating that all people should be decently buried in order to be able to live peacefully in afterworld.
Not only does she condemn Creon’s decision, she breaks the ruling by burying Polynices, throwing a ceremonial handful of dust on his body. Arrested by the guard and facing Creon, Antigone admits her disobedience but says that her deed was evoked by the respect for divine law which is precedent over that made by men.
In accusing Antigone, Creon first of all touches upon the matter of sex and her female nature:

But this proud girl, in insolence well-schooled,
First overstepped the established law, and then--
A second and worse act of insolence--
She boasts and glories in her wickedness.
Now if she thus can flout authority
Unpunished, I am woman, she the man.

Figurative in her boldness and courage Antigone acquired what was deemed at that times to be male traits of character. In retaliation, Creon punishes her by sentencing to be buried alive in the tomb notwithstanding the fact that she is betrothed to Haemon, his son. Later, persuaded by the prophet Teiresias, Creon gives up his decision and goes to the tomb to set Antigone free. But his forgiveness came too late: Antigone, not to accept the sentence of Creon passively, hanged herself.
Thus, Sophocles pictures Antigone as the heroine of civil disobedience and inspiration for the movement against tyranny. Moreover, this character is the first embodying resistance to state and men power in the literature. Act of Antigone’s defiance causes legal reform in Thebes.
The character of Antigone envelops law stronger that any other character in works of art throughout Western civilization. No other work of art contains so many contradicting understandings of law found in so dynamic and direct opposition to each other. No other work probed the depth and nuances of law more deeply, the moral grounds of disobedience more vividly and passionately, leaving readers and spectators of the work in wonder and bewilderment as to meaning of the themes touched upon in the play. In no other work is the contradiction of law treated with such clarity and precision and in such mystical manner. Antigone is the character that reveals this contradiction and challenges it. She is the first woman depicted in world literature to articulate opposition between the divine and men-made, between the male and female nature of authority and power of spirit.
Antigone is placed at the Olympus of Greek tragedy, at the origins of legal philosophy and at the roots of feministic worldview.
The Sophocles’ work was described by Hegel as one of the most sublime, and ...consummate works of the aesthetic spirit. Numerous scholars get inspired by Antigone’s resolute firmness that puts under question the entire foundation of state government. In this great work of art, two tragedies encounter in painfully all-too-familiar manner: the tragedy of law and the law of tragedy. In the end of the play it is evident that Antigone has won the moral fight over Creon, her feminine stance challenged the male-made order of things and received moral support and sympathy from the author and spectators.


Every reader can interpret the meaning that Antigone’s character bears in his own way. For ones, she is the first heroine of civil disobedience, others see in her the first feminist character in human history, still for others she is the one articulating fundamental contradiction between divine and normative nature of law, between moral and institutional aspects of power. Others are excited by her endless love and readiness to sacrifice her life for the sake of good for the beloved ones (father Oedipus and brother Polynices). Antigone is not the only woman character depicted by Sophocles. Her sister, Ismene, serves as a contrast to Antigone’s stance, demonstrating common attitude existing at that time concerning the place of women in society and their lack of influence and power. Antigone is the character that challenges such situation, proving that women can be as clever, wise and strong, as men, and even more, powerful in their courage and ability to sacrifice for justice and love.

Works Cited

Sophocles (2000). The Three Theban Plays. Penguin USA.

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