Ismenes Indecisiveness in Antigone
The play Antigone is usually thought of as either the tragedy of Creon or the tragedy of Antigone, but it is just as much the tragedy of Antigone’s sister Ismene. In the play, Antigone and Creon hold on to two different ideals, Antigone to the ideal of sororal duty and holy rights, while Creon holds on to the rules of his kingdom, dominated by the laws of men and of reason. Ismene is obsessed by her role as a woman, choosing to ignore her feelings of obligation towards her family, and remaining completely indecisive and inactive, as she believes a woman should. By the end of the play she is left in the same position as Creon, without any family in the world and feeling partially responsible for the outcome. If Ismene had stood up and done something either to stop Creon from sentencing Antigone to death, or to help Antigone in burying Polyneices, she would in the end be with her family in life or in death, and be better of than being left alone on earth alive. Also the actions of the characters in the play are very comparable to the ideas and strategies of the Greeks and Spartans
Ismene’s indecisiveness and lack of action is starkly contrasted with the actions and beliefs of Creon and Antigone, the characters who are most often thought of as the victims. For Antigone, the punishment that characterizes her as a victim is the sacrifice of her life for her personal beliefs about the honor and duty associated with family ties. Antigone’s death at the end of the play illustrates the fact that she is willing to die as long as she knows that her brother has received proper burial rites. On the other side there is Creon, who can be thought of as a stubborn and terrible king, but who really is acting just like Antigone, holding onto what he believes firmly in. As Antigone blatantly ignores the laws of the city, and only acts in the direction fulfilling the requirements of holy rites, Creon acts in parallel by ignoring the laws of the divine and only following the laws which as king it is his duty to uphold and preserve. Antigone clearly gives her opinion of the situation, and outlines her values that are so important to her while speaking to her sister. “Be as you choose to be; but for myself I will bury him. It will be good to die, so doing. I shall lie by his side, loving him as he loved me; I shall be a criminal-but a religious one.” (Line 82-87)
In a similar way Creon shows his true sentiment in talking to his son Haemon. When Haemon questions his father’s judgment, Creon explains what is the most important of all values to him, “But he that breaches the law or does it violence or thinks to dictate to those who govern him shall never have my good word.” (717-720).
After looking at the actions and beliefs of Creon and Antigone, it is possible to contrast them with the inaction of Ismene. In the opening lines of the play Antigone attempts to recruit Ismene to her cause, hoping that Ismene will be willing to help bury Polynices. Instead, Ismene tells Antigone that as women they are better off choosing a course of inaction and letting themselves be subservient to the rule of men (70-78). Ismene also reminds Antigone that extravagant action is not sensible, and it would instead be better to let Polynices remain unburied. This preference towards inaction is not only remindful about the typical role of a woman during the time, but it can also be seen in Thucydides in the general strategy of the Spartans. Later in the play, once Antigone has been sentenced to the punishment of death by Creon, Ismene realizes how much her decision has cost her. Antigone’s death means that Ismene will be orphaned not only by her father and mother, both of whom have already died, but by all of her siblings as well. When Ismene realizes that she will be left alone, she begs Antigone to allow her to follow her in death, reminding Antigone that “What life is there for me, once I have lost you?” (604). This is the exact opposite of Ismene’s ways earlier in the play, when she praised inaction and didn’t want to be involved in the burying of Polyneices. Ismene has showed herself to be a character with wavering emotions, changing her mind rather than being able to follow through on any one course of action. Before Ismene realizes that she will be left alone if Antigone dies, she states that she will not act in defiance of Creon (96), however, when Creon asks who it was that buried Polynices, Ismene is quick to lie to Creon and inform him that she took part in the burial along with Antigone (589-590). Again, Ismene switches from one belief to another. Ismene claims that she wants to die alongside Antigone (600), yet, unlike Antigone, she doesn’t commit suicide. She is a character who doesn’t have the strength to take this kind of action. Ismene is a woman plagued by inaction and indecisiveness. She constantly changes her mind, never once does she actually follow through and act upon any decision she appears to make. Ismene is the victim due to her own inherent weaknesses.
Creon and Antigone are both marked by the same flaw: fanaticism. Creon does not yield to the traditional customs that involve the honoring of kin and the dead, while Antigone is so rash in her actions that if she had only been able to wait and plead her cause more to Creon, she could have been allowed to live. In the end they are both punished, but so is Ismene. She, like Creon, loses all that remains of her cursed family by the end of the play. Yet her flaw is not seen through her actions, but rather through her inability to take any action.
According to Thucydides, Athenians value decisiveness and swift action, preferring to act toward a goal rather than waiting for something to happen. An example of these values can be found in the Corinthian speech to the Spartan assembly in Book I Chapter 70. The characteristics of the Spartans are in sharp contrast to the Athenian ideals. The Spartans are described by the Corinthians as too inactive and passive, always waiting for something to happen instead of acting beforehand. While Creon and Antigone are distinctly separated in their beliefs, in how they handle their beliefs they are very similar. This clearly defines Antigone and Creon in the play as characters acting more in the way thought to be Athenian, and Ismene in a manner much more typical of the Spartans. The characters’ different approaches to the situation encapsulate the conflict of ideals that is about to take place with the Peloponnesian war.
Many arguments are made that the play is the tragedy of Creon because his entire family is dead at the end of the play and he is left alone. Antigone’s fate is not quite as terrible because she knew all along and anticipated that her own death was a serious possibility if she attempted to bury her brother. Ismene is now in the same position as Creon, completely alone, but her story of doing nothing while her sister dies is far sadder and more depressing than Creon’s, because for him at least there was a point where he could rectify the problem. All he had to do was originally listen to the advice of the blind prophet Tereisas. Ismene never has this moment where she is able to really fix the problems that have come about. She is the only survivor of her family that has been spiraling towards complete destruction for a very long time. While she survives a woman such as her, doesn’t really survive in the sense that she will have a life after Antigone’s death. Her life before this point was centered on her family, and after this point the life that she will have will be far different from the one she has known.