Traits and Values Associated with Femininity in Antigone
The conventionally accepted roles of both males and females in ancient Grecian society were well defined and manifested. Women were considered the weaker of the sexes and, thus, were expected to remain in the home and perform their domestic duties, while the men were to be rulers and bread-winners. The woman’s voice was not heard on any issues affecting the society as her opinions were thought unworthy of consideration.
She was required merely to reproduce, to execute her domestic duties well and to submit incontestably to the authority of the men. In essence the Greeks valued their women almost as little as a common slave was valued. These values and traits associated with femininity in ancient Grecian societies are demonstrated throughout Sophocles mythical account of a woman of Thebes named Anigone.
He however recognized that these beliefs about women were not representative of how women of ancient Greece were and thus highlighted the strength and importance of the role of women in Grecian society through his epic poem, proving that despite popular ancient Grecian beliefs, women were as strong and courageous as men and were prepared to face the consequences of actions they believed to be honourable. All women were not foolish and blindly submissive. Though mythical, this traditional story provides some insight into the goings on of Grecian society as myths, as stated by Moya K.
Mason, “often include some basic beliefs about life, society, and what roles men and women play in a culture. ” Generally, women in ancient Greece were deemed powerless, incompetent and possessors of insufficient intellect. According to James Thompson, B. A. , M. Ed. , women were thought to be the lesser important of the sexes and not much more intelligent than the average child. Many of the Greek writers of this time portrayed women as strong emotionally but mentally weak.
Thus they were seen as unfit to be leaders and considered as candidates for constant protection from themselves and others were to be protected against them. A system knows as the Guardian was developed to manage this supposed negative quality in women (Thompson, par. 2). The emotional nature of a woman was assumed to be an undesirable quality for leadership. Consequently, men had the upper hand in the affairs within the home and the community at large as their perceived impassive nature was thought to be an ideal quality of a leader.
They were the ones who drafted laws and made decisions single-handedly, though these laws ultimately affected the entire population of that particular Grecian community. Even as children, females were less valued than their male counterparts and, therefore, were not allowed to attend school. Formal training was regarded as necessary for them since ultimately their contributions to society would only be domestic. Formal schooling was reserved for boys who would need to be educated and intelligent enough to make judicious decisions as future leaders.
Ironically, despite being thought of as ignorant and helpless, women were regarded as crafty and cunning, and able to contrive the evilest of deeds. It was thought that it was in the nature of a woman to be evil. A vengeful persona was considered an undesirable quality in women and was deeply unappreciated but was a glorified quality in men. Also it seemed that ancient Greek males were allowed to flirt and have several extramarital sexual affairs while, except for the goddesses, women were expected to remain chaste.
A man was given right, by law to kill on the spot any man he found having sex with his wife or any other woman closely related to him (such as his mother or daughter). Under the aforementioned guardianship a man was thought to have ownership over his wife. As soon as she became his wife she was placed under his watch and control. Before her marriage, each woman living in ancient Greece was under the guardianship of her father or one of her close blood male relatives who controlled every aspect of her life. Except for inexpensive items, she could not “buy anything own property or enter into contracts” (Thompson, par 3).
Property ownership could only be achieved through gifts, dowry and inheritance. The most important role of women in ancient Greece, especially married women, was considered to be the production of lawful children and the execution if household chores. Also she was required to literally remain inside the home, except she was attending a special event as in those days women found in the streets were either assumed to be enslaved, a harlot, a concubine or a woman who had to find work outside of the home because of poverty (Thompson, par. 8).
It was also considered respectable for a woman to remain out of sight and audible range when the man of the house had guests. Evidently, women of ancient Greece were subjected to what modern day women may consider harsh and unfair treatment as a result of some irrational beliefs and practices that were given judicial recognition. Because of fear of facing the consequences that may arise from contesting these laws, many women living during that period made no attempt to do so. So they remained as they were considered to be – weak and helpless – because of fear.
Sophocles’ mythical anecdote of Antigone, however, shows the apparently unseen characteristics of women, though not all women, in ancient Greece. They were not as weak, helpless and unwise as they were believed to have been but were strong willed individuals, possessing strong characters and competent of making sound decisions. The main character, Antigone, was one of the first women in history recorded to have broken this trend of the submissive woman and defied the invincible authority of man. Her sister Ismene, however, is portrayed as how women were traditionally believed to be – submissive and weak.
Sophocles’ epic poem shows how Greek society, particularly men, at that time valued and regarded their female citizens. Male chauvinists and how they stereotyped females are represented by the tyrannical king of Thebes, Creon. Antigone’s character symbolized the brave, vehement, woman who was courageous enough to do what she felt was right despite the consequences; Ismene represented the submissive woman who would take no part in defying the laws of Creon regardless of how unjust they were as she viewed her duty as being to honour the decrees of the land.
Throughout the poem many of Antigone’s actions demonstrate her gallantry as a woman who would not allow the fear of being punished for defiance of the law to deter her from doing what she knew to be moral. Her brother, Polynices, had been killed fighting against Thebes, and though to bury and mourn him was considered prohibited by Creon, Antigone was determined to honour him by giving him a proper burial. Vengeance was not a trait considered desirable in a woman, but Antigone was a fierce woman who was passionate about what she believed to be just and right and she acted on her beliefs.
When Creon learned that someone honoured Polynices with a burial he was enraged, but even more so when he found out that it was a woman (as in those days women were thought to have been, and in fact, were required to be entirely submissive to male authority), especially to that of the king, and he was appalled that any woman would wish to defy his commands. He was determined to show Antigone that no woman would undermine his authority by sentencing her to death. Antigone epitomizes what the Greeks considered to be a crafty woman. Creon considered her cunning for having plotted to bury her brother whom Creon regarded as a traitor.
He saw her act as evil and as daring rebellion against his commands. Antigone’s bravery was demonstrated further in the poem when she justified her actions and proudly accepted the consequences she was about to experience. She takes full responsibility for her actions and is still able to remain strong through her sentencing because she truly believed that she had performed an honourable deed. Antigone disproved the popular belief that women were weak by courageously challenging a man, which was beyond what was considered acceptable in ancient Greece.
In the play, Ismene represented the women of Thebes who were terrified to speak out because of fear of chastisement from male authority. Women in ancient Greece were regarded as weak and expected to be submissive and obedient to male authority. They were also lead to believe that they were helpless had no control and would be defeated if they opposed the males. As Ismene said to Antigone when she approached her and requested that she, Ismene, join her in rebellion against Creon and assist with the burial of their brother, “Remember we are women / we’re not born to contend with men.
Then too / we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands / so we must submit in this, and things still worse” (Antigone. 74-77). Instead of fighting against the injustice that is being meted out to her brother, Polynices, by Creon, she analyzed the consequences and then decided that she would not to do what she knew to be morally right if it meant contending with a man. She regarded Antigone here as Greek women were thought to be during that time – acting on emotions rather than rational.
Ismene’s lack of moral fibre is also illustrated when she attempted to take credit for the burial of Polynices with Antigone. She was willing to share responsibility for a legal misdemeanour, in which she had no part, just so she would be faced with a death sentence as she is so fearful to live without her sister. The disrespect and disregard which Creon has for women is demonstrated when he refers to Ismene as foolish and having no mind for wanting to share responsibility with Antigone for the burial of Polynices.
There are also a number of male chauvinist perspectives exhibited by Creon throughout the poem. Creon was a harsh ruler and he had no compassion on persons he considered criminals, especially Antigone, because she was a woman. He counselled his son Haemon, husband of Antigone with these words, “we must defend the men who live by law / never let some woman triumph over us / Better to fall from power, if fall we must / at the hands of a man – never be rated / inferior to a woman, never” (Antigone. 757-761).
Creon demonstrated here his belief that women were inferior to men, unreasonable, lacked intellect and must be punished for acting irrationally. Sophocles’ play was one of the first pieces of prose that emphasized how the roles and values of women were viewed in ancient Greece and shed light on the contrast between the sexist beliefs about women that existed at the time, and the way women really were. Women were not simply subordinate and weak as Ismene was, and as all women were believed to be, but had traits of strength and courage, like Antigone, as well.