The Role of Women in Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone

The women characters in Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone were portrayed in many ways. Each character had her own way of interacting and dealing with the men in her life. Each character is able to be compared against Pericles’ ideal of Athenian womanhood. Many of these women show traits that contrast immensely with this ideal of womanhood, while others fit very well with it.

Pericles, in his funeral speech, showed his feelings about a woman’s place in Athenian society. First, he believed women to be the weaker sex. When speaking to widows at the funeral for warriors, he tells them not to fall into their character, showing that he believes that a woman’s character is weak and vulnerable. He also explains to them that younger women should find someone else and have children, to ease the pain and help them forget about those that they lost. He tells older women to be grateful that the prime of their lives was happy. This shows another view of women held by Pericles: he did not think of women as anything else than a means to an end of producing more children, preferably male so that they could then join the army. In one more statement during this speech, Pericles says, “Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad” (Thucydides, 32). In his view, women should not been seen, heard or talked about in society. He believes that those women who are not spoken of or seen are those who deserve the most glory.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, there are three women characters seen. The most prominent of these is Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother and wife. Before the story begins, Jocasta and her husband, Laius, the king of Thebes, had a baby. An Oracle had told them that the baby would grow up to kill its father and marry its mother. In order to avoid the prophesy, Jocasta has a Herdsman take the baby, Oedipus, to Mt. Cithaeron where he would die. Instead, the Herdsman gives the baby to a man from Corinth, who takes him to the king and queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope. When Oedipus is older, he hears from a prophet that he will kill his father and marry his mother, so he then decides to run away. On his way he kills Laius, a man that he does not know, and he comes to Thebes and lifts the plague of the Sphinx. Jocasta then marries him and he becomes the king of Thebes. The story begins with a plague in Thebes that can be lifted only of Oedipus can find the murderer of Laius. Throughout most of the story, Jocasta does not conform to Pericles’ ideal of Athenian womanhood. She is seen from the very beginning of the play and she speaks up many times. She acts as a mediator or a voice of reason when a fight ensues between Oedipus and her brother Creon. Oedipus hears from a prophet that he is the man who killed Laius, and he then fights with Creon, accusing him of paying off the prophet so that he can take over as king. During this fight, it is revealed that Oedipus and Creon both see Jocasta as an equal. Oedipus agrees that he has equal powers with Jocasta as a ruler, and he then agrees with Creon that all three of them are equals in terms of power in Thebes. This contrasts immensely with Pericles’ view because Jocasta is given power and prestige by both her brother and her husband, and she does not seem to be thought of as weaker than them. The only other female characters in Oedipus are Oedipus and Jocasta’s daughters Antigone and Ismene. In Oedipus, these two characters fit very well with Pericles’ ideal of Athenian womanhood because they are not seen until the very end of the play when Oedipus, who has blinded himself, is sent into exile. They also fit well with this ideal because they do not speak at all.

In Antigone, there are three very different female characters. Antigone herself contrasts immensely with Pericles’ ideal of womanhood. Antigone is furious with Creon, who has become king after Oedipus’s two sons, Polyneices and Eteoclese, have killed each other in battle. Creon declares that because Polyneices fought against the city, he will not be allowed to have a proper burial. Antigone, feeling her first loyalty to her family and not the country, goes against Creon’s law and buries her brother. Instead of doing this secretly, she tells her sister, Ismene, to proclaim it to the town so that everyone knows what she has done. It seems that she wanted to make an example that she believes natural law takes precedence over human law. When Creon finds out and sentences Antigone to death, she argues with him to his face. Finally, when she is sealed in the cave to die, she kills herself first, before she dies naturally, showing her control her own over life. Obviously, this contrasts with Pericles’ ideal of a quiet, unseen woman greatly.

Ismene, Antigone’s sister, does not seem to contrast with Pericles’ ideal as much. Ismene at first tries to talk her sister out of burying her brother. She says that the gods will forgive them because: “we two are by nature women and not fit to fight with men” and “that we are ruled by others stronger than ourselves” (Sophocles, 22). She believes that because they cannot fight Creon, or any man, they cannot go against his orders even if they believe hey should. Antigone buries Polyneices anyway, and Ismene wants no part in it. Here, she is trying to be an ideal woman by Pericles’ standards, and trying to persuade Antigone to do the same. Later, Ismene deviates slightly from this standard when she asks Creon to punish her as well and when she argues a little with Creon over the fact that he is going to deprive his son Haemon of Antigone, his bride. Ismene tries to be an ideal woman by Pericles’ standards throughout the book, although at some points she tends to deviate slightly from this standard.

Finally, Eurydike, Creon’s wife seems to fit in with Pericles’ ideal of womanhood throughout most of the book. She is not seen or heard from at all until the end of the play. This coincides well with Pericles’ ideal. When she learns that he son, Haemon, has killed himself when he saw that Antigone was dead, Eurydike’s character then becomes a great contrast to the ideal. At first she mourns her son in private, but she makes her final statement publicly. She kills herself in public, in front of an alter, while cursing her husband Creon for killing their two sons, Haemon, who has just died and Megareus, who had dies prior to the tart of the play. She blames Creon for their deaths in public, making her final breath and her final action a last stand against him and a public statement, which goes against Pericles’ view of Athenian womanhood.

The woman characters in both Oedipus and Antigone take on many different characteristics and viewpoints that sometimes compare and sometimes contrast with Pericles’ ideal of Athenian womanhood. Jocasta in Oedipus and Antigone in Antigone seem to contrast the most from this ideal while Ismene and Antigone from Oedipus, seem to be the most consistent with this ideal. Ismene and Eurydike from Antigone seem to go along with these ideas but also go against this ideal at various times. In all, Sophocles portrayed many female characters in his plays that both contradicted and went along with Pericles’ ideal of Athenian womanhood to show the broad spectrum of ways in which women can be seen.

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