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The Prudent Dissident: Unheroic Resistance in Sophocles' Antigone

  • Jennet Kirkpatrick

Most contemporary political theorists who have interpreted Sophocles' Antigone have focused on the fearsome clash between Antigone and Creon. The relationship between Antigone and her weaker, more cautious sister Ismene has not garnered similar attention. This essay addresses this gap by revisiting the tantalizing possibility that Ismene played a more significant role in resisting Creon than has often been assumed. The essay shifts the analysis of Antigone, first, by illuminating the complex and fraught relationship between two women and emphasizing the political and legal challenges that they face together as women. Second, the essay shifts focus from vertical power relations—that is, between the individual and government—to horizontal power relations between disempowered outsiders. On this reading, Antigone reveals less about the downfall of a character than it does about the political power of the weak and disadvantaged.

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1 Hegel, G. W. F., The History of Philosophy, trans. Simson, E. S. Haldane and Frances H. (New York: Humanities Press, 1892), 1:441.

2 Woolf, Virginia, “On Not Knowing Greek,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. McNeillie, Andrew, (London: Hogarth, 1994), 4:42.

3 Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, ed. Mrs.Shelley, (London: Moxon, 1840), 2:335.

4 Steiner, George, Antigones (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 144. Also see Goldhill, Simon, “Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood,” in Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, ed. Zajko, Vanda and Leonard, Miriam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 141163.

5 Linforth, Ivan M., Antigone and Creon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 211. Linforth notes that spectators of the play may “feel more resentment toward Ismene than Antigone herself expresses. Their sympathy for Ismene's devotion and sense of loss could not outweigh their settled admiration and sympathy for Antigone” (ibid.). Also see Elshtain, Jean Bethke, “Antigone's Daughters Reconsidered: Continuing Reflections on Women, Politics, and Power,” in Life-World and Politics: Between Modernity and Postmodernity, ed. White, Stephen K. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 222235.

6 Harry, J. E., Studies in Sophocles, University of Cincinnati Studies 2, vol. 7, no. 3 (Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati, 1911), 2025; Rouse, W. H. D., “The Two Burials in Antigone,” Classical Review 25, no. 2 (1911): 4042. For a more recent examination of Ismene's role in the first burial, see Honig, Bonnie, “Ismene's Forced Choice: Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles' Antigone,” Arethusa 44, no. 1 (2011): 2968. My argument differs from Honig's in that it focuses on the sisters as distinct exemplars of resistance, while Honig examines their solidarity, arguing that the sisters represent the Lacanian concept of the ethical as a “forced choice.”

7 Bradshaw, A. T. von S., “The Watchman Scenes in the Antigone,” Classical Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1962): 200–11; Butler, Judith P., Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Held, George F., “Antigone's Dual Motivation for the Double Burial,” Hermes 111, no. 2 (1983): 190201; Jebb, R. C., Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments, vol. 3, The Antigone (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1897); Kitto, H. D. F., Form and Meaning in Drama (London: Methuen, 1956); Macnaghten, Hugh, The Antigone of Sophocles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1926); Margon, Joseph S., “The First Burial of Polyneices,” Classical Journal 64, no. 7 (1969): 289295, and The Second Burial of Polyneices,” Classical Journal 68, no. 1 (1972): 3949; Rockwell, K. A., “Antigone: The 'Double Burial' Again,” Mnemosyne 17, no. 2 (1964): 156–57; Rose, J. L., “The Problem of the Second Burial in Sophocles' Antigone,” Classical Journal 47, no. 6 (1952): 219–51; Rothaus, Richard M., “The Single Burial of Polyneices,” Classical Journal 85, no. 3 (1990): 209–17; Whitehorne, J. E. G., “The Background to Polyneices' Disinterment and Reburial,” Greece & Rome 30, no. 2 (1983): 129–42.

8 Scott, James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

9 Butler, Antigone's Claim; Dietz, Mary G., “Citizenship with a Feminist Face: The Problem with Maternal Thinking,” Political Theory 13, no. 1 (1985): 1937; Elshtain, Jean Bethke, “Antigone's Daughters,” Democracy: A Journal of Political Renewal and Radical Change 2 (1982): 4659; Elshtain, “Antigone's Daughters Reconsidered”; Euben, J. Peter, Corrupting Youth: Political Education, Democratic Culture, and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Holland, Catherine A., “After Antigone: Women, the Past, and the Future of Feminist Political Thought,” American Journal of Political Science 42, no. 4 (1998): 1108–32; Honig, Bonnie, “Antigone's Laments, Creon's Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception,” Political Theory 37, no. 1 (2009): 543; Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice”; Markell, Patchen, Bound by Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Nussbaum, Martha C., The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, rev. ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Saxonhouse, Arlene W., Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Zerilli, Linda M. G., “Machiavelli's Sisters: Women and 'the Conversation' of Political Theory,” Political Theory 19, no. 2 (1991): 252–76.

10 Dahl, Robert, Modern Political Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 41. See 50–51 for Dahl's discussion of power as “the domain of coercive influence” that alters the behavior of agents by severe penalty or deprivation.

11 Arendt, Hannah, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 142–43. Also see Ball, Terence, “New Faces of Power,” in Rethinking Power, ed. Wartenberg, Thomas E. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 1431; Isaac, Jeffrey C., “Beyond the Three Faces of Power: A Realist Critique,” in Rethinking Power, 3255.

12 Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 25, 41.

13 Hobsbawm, Eric, “Peasants and Politics,” Journal of Peasant Studies 1, no. 1 (1965): 13.

14 Unless otherwise noted, I use Elizabeth Wyckoff's translation of the Antigone in Sophocles I, in The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. Grene, David and Lattimore, Richmond (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

15 The role and significance of the minor characters is subject to debate. Rothaus notes, for instance, that “such an important action cannot be attributed to a minor character” like Ismene, while Benardete remarks, “Ismene stands next to Antigone as the most important figure in the play” (Rothaus, “The Single Burial of Polyneices,” 209; Benardete, Seth, Sacred Transgressions: A Reading of Sophocles' Antigone [South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's, 1999], 11). Also see Frank, Jill, “The Antigone's Law,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 2 (2006): 336340; Saunders, A. N. W., “Plot and Character in Sophocles,” Greece & Rome 4, no. 10 (1934): 1323; Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity.

16 Translation by Grene, David, in Sophocles I, ed. Grene, and Lattimore, , 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Wycoff translates lines 39–40 “If things have reached this stage, what can I do, poor sister, that will help to make or mend it?”

17 It is possible that Ismene does not see herself as deceitful even if she is. On the intriguing relationship between cunning, appearance, and self-deception, see Herzog, Don, Cunning (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 71121.

18 More orthodox interpretations argue that responsibility for the first burial lies with Antigone or the gods. For the first argument, see Rose, “The Problem of the Second Burial”; Bradshaw, “The Watchman Scenes in the Antigone”; Held, “Antigone's Dual Motivation”; Rockwell, “Antigone: The 'Double Burial' Again”; Rothaus, “The Single Burial of Polyneices”; Whitehorne, “The Background to Polyneices' Disinterment and Reburial.” For the second argument, see Adams, S. M., “The Antigone of Sophocles,” Phoenix 9, no. 2 (1955): 4762; Kitto, H. D. F., Sophocles, Dramatist and Philosopher (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5657; Segal, Charles, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 159–61.

19 Honig, Macnaghten, and Rouse believe Antigone is unaware of Ismene's role in the first burial, a situation that adds dramatic tension to their second exchange (Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice,” 22; Rouse, “The Two Burials in Antigone,” 41–42; Macnaghten, The Antigone of Sophocles, xiv). On this reading, it is difficult to make sense of the guard's description of Antigone in lines 423–28. Why would Antigone curse those who had stripped the body if she did not know that Ismene acted? If, however, Ismene informed Antigone of the burial, then line 556—“At least I was not silent. You were warned”—may refer to this exchange.

20 The pool of suspects is sizable. It is possible, for instance, that a non-Theban passerby buried the body without knowledge of Creon's decree. See Agathias, , The Histories, trans. Frendo, Joseph D. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1975), 13; Benardete, Sacred Transgressions, 33–34, 62. On this practice, also see Harrison, E. L., “Three Notes on Sophocles,” Classical Review 12, no. 1 (1962): 13.

21 The requirements of Greek burial in the play are subject to much debate, as is the question whether the first two burials are actual or symbolic. See Harrison, “Three Notes on Sophocles”; Margon, “The Second Burial of Polyneices”; Whitehorne, “The Background to Polyneices' Disinterment and Reburial.”

22 In Euripides' Suppliants, Theseus describes burial rites as “a Panhellenic law” (526). While much is unknown about the eniausia, it is clear that Athenians understood this duty to the dead to be of great importance. Eniausiai were so significant that a childless Athenian man could adopt an heir for the sole purpose of ensuring that annual visits were conducted. And, in the case of a legal dispute over inheritance, failure to visit the tomb by an heir could be used to contest the kinship claim. The eniausia also played a role in the political process. Before appointment to a political office, an Athenian citizen had to prove that he had regularly fulfilled the requirements of eniausia. See Garland, Robert, The Greek Way of Death, 2nd ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 104–20; Humphreys, S. C., The Family, Women and Death: Comparative Studies, 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 8588. The significance of tomb visits is also emphasized in Sophocles' Electra, in which much of the action unfolds around separate visits by Orestes and Chrysothemis to Agamemnon's tomb.

23 Of Antigone's confession (433–34), Adams notes that it “seems necessary to point out that this Greek does not and can not mean that she confessed to both burials” (Adams, “The Antigone of Sophocles,” 53). Segal points out that Antigone's “confession to ‘both acts,’ ambiguous in any case, makes as good sense as part of her defiant spirit as a statement of what really happened. Note the similar ambiguity in her defiant confession of 443 and her possessive reaction to the deed at Ismene's confession in 536–9” (Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 443). Also see Butler, Antigone's Claim, 7–9; Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice,” 12–13.

24 The chorus supplies the description of Ismene's entrance, and it seems odd that they would take her lament to be for a still-living Antigone.

25 Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice”; Jebb, Sophocles, 3:xxix; Simpson, A. W. and Millar, C. M. H., “A Note on Sophocles' Antigone, Lines 531–81,” Greece & Rome 17, no. 50 (1948): 7881; Adams, “The Antigone of Sophocles”; Sheppard, J. T., The Wisdom of Sophocles (London: Allen and Unwin, 1947). Among scholars focused on the relationship between Ismene and Antigone, there is no agreement on whether they act as enemies, as friends, or as both. See Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice”; Simpson and Millar, “A Note on Sophocles' Antigone, Lines 531–81”; Tyrell, W. Blake and Bennett, Larry J., “Sophocles' Enemy Sisters,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 15/16 (2009): 118.

26 These inconsistencies may help explain why literary reinterpretations of Antigone have been more generous to Ismene, both by narrating events from her perspective (as Yannis Ritsos does in her poem Ismene) and by depicting Ismene as a figure of resistance. In his 1944 version, Jean Anouilh portrays her as a late-blooming resister, while in Satoh Makoto's Ismene, Ismene defies and deceives Creon by switching her brothers' sheet-covered bodies. Jean Anouilh, Antigone, in Five Plays (London: Methuen, 1987); Ritsos, Yannos, “Ismene,” in The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannos Ritsos (Boston: Godine, 1977); Satoh Makoto, Ismene, in Alternative Japanese Drama, ed. Rolf, Robert T. and Gillespie, John K. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).

27 Harry calls the first burial “the work of the erstwhile shrinking Ismene” rather “than of the fearless Antigone” (Harry, “Studies in Sophocles,” 22). Honig notes that the first burial is “Ismene-like, subtle, sub-rosa, quiet, under cover of darkness, performed exactly … as Ismene herself counseled Antigone” (Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice,” 15).

28 Harry, “Studies in Sophocles”; Honig, “Ismene's Forced Choice”; Macnaghten, Antigone of Sophocles; Rouse, “The Two Burials in Antigone.”

29 Charles Segal comments, “Why Antigone returns for this second burial is one of the most puzzling details of the plot” (Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 159). Honig points out that burying Polyneices twice is excessive (Honig, “Antigone's Laments, Creon's Grief,” 37). Jebb's initial explanation—Antigone returns to pour the libations on the body—is controversial. Rouse asks “how the Antigone of the rest of the play could be so foolish” to forget the libations on her first visit and “so reckless to haunt the spot where her deed was done: so strong to plan, so weak to do” (Rouse, “The Two Burials in Antigone,” 41). Also see Margon, “The Second Burial of Polyneices,” 40, 48–49.

30 It may be that Antigone returns to the body because she knows that the guards have uncovered it, and thus she cries out like a “bitter bird” when she sees the body stripped of earth. While certainly credible in terms of her character, this interpretation does not explain how Antigone knew that the guards had swept away the dirt on the corpse. As Whitehorne notes, “the trap (if it is a trap) is never set by making any announcement that they have exhumed Polyneices, nor does the text give us any reason to suppose that Antigone's return to the body is motivated by anything she may have heard or suspected to this effect” (Whitehorne, “Background to Polyneices' Disinterment,” 139). If, instead, Antigone knows of Ismene's perfunctory efforts and goes to correct them, her cry may signify anguish over the exposure of her brother's body and distress at her sister's perfunctory burial.

31 Heidegger, Martin, Hölderlin's Hymn “The Ister,” trans. McNeill, William and Davis, Julia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 98.

32 Knox, Bernard M. W., The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 69.

33 Margon, “The First Burial of Polyneices,” 293.

34 Ibid., 293–94.

35 Hugh Lloyd-Jones translates the final line of Ismene's speech “for there is no sense in actions that exceed our powers” (Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, ed., Sophocles: Antigone, the Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994], 11).

36 As Goldhill observes, these questions about gender difference extend to sibling relations as well (“Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood,” 156).

37 Benardete notes that although the word for woman (gunē) occurs eighteen times over the course of the play, Antigone never uses the word. Antigone is “anti-generation, the true offspring of an incestuous marriage” (Benardete, Sacred Transgressions, 10, 61). According to Saxonhouse, “Antigone neuters herself; she is neither male nor female. Her name captures her stand: anti-gone, against birth, against generation” (Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity, 69). Butler writes that when Antigone speaks to Creon, she “becomes manly; in being spoken to, he is unmanned, and so neither maintains their position within gender and the disturbance of kinship appears to destabilize gender throughout the play” (Butler, Antigone's Claim, 10).

38 Saxonhouse observes that Antigone becomes a “warrior whose glory can be achieved only at the moment of death” (Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity, 70). Benardete notes that “Antigone borrows the language appropriate to the patriot soldier whose dying on behalf of his country coincides with his fighting” (Benardete, Sacred Transgressions, 11–12) .

39 Butler, Antigone's Claim; Euben, Corrupting Youth; Markell, Bound by Recognition, 73–74, 80–82.

40 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Gordon, Colin (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 256–57; Mahmood, Saba, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also see Kirkpatrick, Jennet, Uncivil Disobedience: Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

41 Phillipe Nonet writes that Antigone's law “is never capable of being written: it is strictly speaking unsayable. Because it is unsayable, Sophocles must leave it unsaid. … Antigone's living law is Antigone” (Nonet, Antigone's Law,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 2 [2006]: 324).

42 Zerilli, Linda M. G., Signifying Woman: Culture and Chaos in Rousseau, Burke, and Mill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

43 On the contextual significance of the transition from Homeric funerary practices and those of fifth-century democratic Athens and women's role in administering traditional burial rites, see Honig, “Antigone's Laments, Creon's Grief”; Bennett, Larry J. and Tyrrell, W. Blake, “Sophocles' Antigone and Funeral Oratory,” American Journal of Philology 111, no. 4 (1990): 441–56.

44 Mark Griffith observes that “one of the most distinctive signs of ‘femininity’ on the tragic stage is a failure to speak at all (Sophocles' Iole, Aeschylus' Iphigenia or Helen, Euripides' veiled Alcestis), or an inability to keep on speaking—whether this silence is brought about by intimidation, by rhetorical convention, or by physical removal (Sophocles' Chrysothemis or Tecmessa, Euripides' Phaedra or Alcestis, Aeschylus' Cassandra, Io, or—ultimately—Clytemnestra)” (Griffith, “Antigone and Her Sister(s): Embodying Women in Greek Tragedy,” in Making Silence Speak: Women's Voices in Greek Literature and Society, ed. Lardinois, Andre and McClure, Laura [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001], 123–24).

45 Honig, “Antigone's Laments, Creon's Grief.”

46 As Griffith notes, there is no authentic or unified voice of a woman that emerges from the play; the duties, expectations, and roles do not cohere tidily (Griffith, “Antigone and Her Sister(s)").

47 Saxonhouse, Arlene W., “Another Antigone: The Emergence of the Female Political Actor in Euripides' Phoenician Women,” Political Theory 33, no. 4 (2005): 474; Steiner, Antigones, 85, 209–11; Benardete, Sacred Transgressions, 1–2; Goldhill, “Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood,” 145–46, 52–56.

48 Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity, 9–15, 198–200. In Book II of the Politics, for instance, Aristotle asks what citizens should share together (koinon) in the city, and in particular if they should share children, women, and property as Plato's Republic seems to suggest. For Aristotle, inquiring into the koinon of the city means exploring what draws citizens together, what unites them in common purpose or, as Carnes Lord translates koinon, what joins them in partnership (Aristotle, , The Politics, trans. Lord, Carnes [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 55).

49 Perhaps to emphasize their familial connection even further, Antigone mentions Oedipus in the following line (2) and reminds Ismene that they share both a mother and a father.

50 Brann, Eva, “Welcome to Colonus,” Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2007, 5556.

51 In explicating koinon autadelphon kara, Eva Brann observes that Antigone and Ismene “are even, as it were, their own children by being in two generations at once” (ibid., 56).

52 Benardete, Sacred Transgressions, 2.

53 Steiner, Antigones, 209. Also see Loraux, Nicole, “La main d'Antigone,” Métis 1, no. 2 (1986): 165–96. In this respect, Antigone's opening line is reminiscent of her inability (or unwillingness) to draw a distinction between Polyneices, who attacked Thebes, and Eteocles, who died defending the city. To Antigone, her brothers are the same: “Death yearns for equal law for all the dead” (520).

54 Wood, Gordon S., The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 58.

55 Jill Frank asks, “Where might we look for the Antigone's law, grounded in the human practice of justice, that is a combination of human art and activity, respectful of what is, and appropriate to the world of plurality that is the polis? The answer, I think, lies in a figure in the poem who, despite her age, seems to know how to pay attention to human matters and ‘wait’: Ismene” (Frank, “The Antigone's Law,” 339). Also see Eliot, George, “The Antigone and Its Moral,” in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Pinney, Thomas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 265.

56 Goldhill ties this line to Ismene's erasure, observing, “Ismene is treated as if she were indeed no longer alive or no longer kin, no longer of the common blood. Ismene is written—spoken—out of the family line. This silencing is all too often repeated, rather than analyzed by the critics” (Goldhill, “Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood,” 157).

I am grateful to Lars Rensmann, Arlene Saxonhouse, Mariah Zeisberg, and Froma Zeitlin for their comments. Arlene Saxonhouse also helped translate several key passages of the play.

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