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 status 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 them 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. 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 duty 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 youth, / But let us now unto the palace go” (465), she cries. But Creon, ignoring the 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 the 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 herself 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 walls 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 movement 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 Antigone, 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.