Antigone and Ismene Outside the Gates

Humans understood as rule-bearing, rule-bound creatures does not start with a notion of the "state" or "city," but with family itself.

Antigone and Ismene Outside the Gates

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I'm thinking a lot about how "Antigone" works as a drama. I'm reading the play with my students, and I keep discovering how Sophocles does not waste a single line. Below, I've written out some thoughts on the opening scene, where Antigone and Ismene meet outside Thebes to discuss the dishonor shown Polyneices' corpse.

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Antigone and Ismene Outside the Gates

At the opening of Sophocles' "Antigone," two sisters have a disagreement, out of which arises an incredible decision. Before I talk more about that disagreement, I should address why "Antigone" should be spoken of at all. Plenty feel informed because they watch or read the news daily. What could a two-thousand year old play possibly tell us that we need to know?

Sophocles' achievement, I hold, is the unease he introduces to the body politic about law itself. It is near impossible, after "Antigone," to argue that the law is just by the mere fact of being law. The skepticism of the drama runs deep, as the city and its lawmakers present only the most obvious critique. If there are "natural" dictates, if there is a law of the gods, why are so many led to bloody, disastrous ends? It isn't enough to accuse someone of a lack of thought or piety. Why do those who stand for what is right receive punishment?

If you're in high school and are reading this, you might be tempted to say something like the following. "Whatever. We all know there are unjust laws. Big deal." I myself had a version of this sentiment, once. It was senior year in high school. I read "Antigone" and thought that it couldn't simply be saying there's a conflict between the law of the gods and the law of man. I didn't know then—and I didn't know this in college, either—what to do with that idea. I vaguely understood that dramatic tension had to be built from seeing characters to which you were drawn. But I couldn't tell you how that's necessary for our understanding and transmission of ethical ideas and questions. How it almost makes no sense to say something like "stealing is wrong." How the words call, to each of our minds, different sorts of experiences and sometimes vastly different ethical notions.

That may be too high-concept for our time. The everyday import of "Antigone:" ever curse a co-worker under your breath because they wouldn't follow the rules? Even though you knew the rules were terrible? We've all done that, but our society takes this to extremes. There's a whole class of people who pride themselves on obeying and defending stupid rules. It's hard to believe how hopelessly conventional and predictable we are nowadays, but that's what happens when one believes one's consumption is authoritative. I get a paycheck and He looks like he makes sense often operate as rationalizations for vicious injustices.


I don't remember talking about "Antigone" in high school. I think we were told to read it on our own, then write a paper on it. (I could be wrong about this, but I have distinct memories of other things taught in that class.) In college, we tried to have a serious discussion about it for a class on political thought, but that discussion went nowhere. The instructor did describe Creon as potentially being a "modern secular ruler," but none of us were reading as closely as he was. I don't think any of us knew how to do such a thing.

A few words about Antigone's anguished, angry test of her sister beginning the play would have made my educational experience much richer:

Ismene, sister of my blood and heart,
Do you see how Zeus would in our lives fulfil
The Fate of Oedipus, a world of heartache!
For what of pain, affliction, outrage, shame,
Is lacking in our fortunes, yours and mine?
And now this proclamation of to-day
Made by our Captain-General to the State,
What can its purport be? Did you hear and heed,
Or are you deaf when friends are banned as foes?

(l. 1-10, translation Storr)

Following Seth Benardete, I feel the first line is closer to something like "O dear [koinon], sisterly head of Ismene" (my Greek is terrible, I'm just messing around with the jumble of words). What I believe is that Antigone comments on Ismene the way family members introduce us to themselves: "you look just like your uncle, my own brother!" She sees the physical resemblance and is moved. It might be hard to conceive of family seeing us as other parts of family as a bad thing: they don't mean any harm by this, no? However, I would urge you to consider those in your own family who've felt neglected, whose achievements are ignored in favor of gossip or events from decades ago. Who can be driven to despair and fury because they are not allowed to know who they are as individuals.

Antigone sees Ismene as family, and family is paramount. No less than "Zeus" fulfills "The Fate of Oedipus," taking special care to inflict "pain, affliction, outrage, shame" on Oedipus' relations. One might be tempted to think anyone suffering bad fortune in Ancient Greece would talk this way, but we have reason to believe this is peculiar to Antigone. Ismene, a few lines later, struggles to process the murder of her brothers and whether the enemy army has truly fled. She's not as attuned to the divine will operative in her family's affairs. Antigone, though, sees her line as the concern of both gods and rulers. No less than the "Captain-General," the authority in Thebes, has pronounced on it.

You can imagine Antigone talking herself into her angry shot at her sister: "Did you hear and heed, / Or are you deaf when friends are banned as foes?" Already Sophocles has left us with an incredible puzzle. Antigone positions herself to reject her sister despite seeing herself in her shape. If being family isn't good enough to be family, what hope is there for unity by means of religion? Law? Demanding continual loyalty only begs the question. If we are to be united, it would seem, we need to be accepted as who we are.

This is made all the more complicated, of course, by the simple fact that Antigone is right. Her brother ought to be buried, as contra Hegel, Creon's law is the mark of a despot more than an actual law.


The majority of readers, I suppose, get mad at Ismene for trying to admonish Antigone by saying things like this:

Weak women, think of that  
Not framed by nature to contend with men.
Remember this too that the stronger rules;
We must obey his orders, these or worse.

(l. 60-64)

Ismene does not impress Antigone with this rhetoric, and truth be told, it is rather pathetic. However, Ismene manages a quite remarkable feat as regards the house of Oedipus. She, unlike her parents and siblings, manages to avoid self-destruction. I submit her words are unpersuasive and contradictory because she's realistic. This is the curse of Cassandra, perhaps. If you can actually explain how things are and therefore what will happen, you will be ignored. If people could see what was happening to them, they wouldn't need you.

Ismene's assessment of her family's fate is uncanny. She does not let herself be distracted by her love for them. She is cold, almost impersonal, as she recounts how they undid themselves:

Remind yourself, sister, of our father's fate,
Abhorred, dishonoured, self-convinced of sin,
Blinded, himself his executioner.
Think of his mother-wife (ill-sorted names)
Done by a noose herself had twined to death.
And last, our hapless brethren in one day,
Both in a mutual destiny involved,  
Self-slaughtered, both the slayer and the slain.
Remind yourself, sister, we are left alone;
Shall we not perish most wretched of all,
If in defiance of the law we cross
A monarch's will?

(l. 49-60)

Ismene is so incredibly rational here it is hard to see what she is doing. We might look at this as a summary of horrible deaths. Anyone could have said this to Antigone! But note how she emphasizes, for someone completely in love with the idea of her family, the struggles of those relations themselves. Those struggles involve one common theme: taking justice, what is right/what I have by right, so seriously that everything is sacrificed for it. Oedipus is "self-convinced of sin," so he blinds himself. He believed himself self-made, and then hated who he was. Iocasta did not need to kill herself, but she did not want to live with the guilt of being wrong. And the brothers of Antigone and Ismene refused to give up what they believed was their inheritance.

So it would be most wretched of all to defy the law, because the other family members had at least the pretense of achieving justice. Ismene, at this point, could advocate for a number of alternative strategies. Petitioning the ruler, pleading for the mercy of the city, finding sympathizers for their cause. Instead she declares women "weak" and says the stronger must be obeyed. One might argue that she's not being realistic in her despair. However, a perfectly acceptable staging of "Antigone" would feature corpses all over the opening scene, as Antigone and Ismene meet on a battlefield.

Ismene does know what's at stake. She is more than willing to not tell anyone of Antigone's plan (l. 84-85); she declares that she, too, buried her brother when Creon rages (l. 536-537). This nearly gets her killed. Ultimately, one might say, realism is only as good as the justice it serves. This does not seem to be a terribly comforting thought.


What does a close-reading of the familial drama have to do with our unease at the concept of law? Everything. One must not try to read "law" into Antigone and Ismene's argument, but rather understand what law is in general. Though we try to deny it, for practical purposes the law tells you who is and who is not your family. The problem can be approached from the opposite direction, too. We know what rules are because of our families; that's how we learn to obey and command. Humans understood as rule-bearing, rule-bound creatures does not start with a notion of the "state" or "city," but with family itself.

If one understands the family and law as inseparable, a lot of political phenomena that are difficult to explain become a bit clearer. I'm thinking of how many people brought their relatives to arrest Congress and destroy Capitol Hill on January 6th. The American situation is not the Greek one. Sophocles articulated the problem of law, and other thinkers built on his achievement. Our situation is hopelessly blind. Many of our brightest still think "economic anxiety" animates a radical and dangerous faction. They haven't stopped to consider that for some, family can do no wrong.