Study Guide

Ismene in Antigone

By Sophocles


Diary Of A Wimpy Sister

Ismene is Antigone Lite. She first puts in an appearance along with her sister at the end of Oedipus the King,  and both girls seem to be symbolic of the legacy of shame left by Oedipus's mistakes. In Oedipus at Colonus, Ismene shows great loyalty to her father when she alerts him to the situation with Creon. She shows devotion once more when she returns with Antigone to Thebes. In Antigone, however, we see that Ismene's loyalty only extends so far. Though she agrees morally with Antigone’s decision to bury Polyneices, she is afraid to risk her own life:

I scorn them not, but to defy the State
Or break her ordinance I have no skill.
A specious pretext. I will go alone
To lap my dearest brother in the grave.
My poor, fond sister, how I fear for thee!
O waste no fears on me; look to thyself.

Like her sister, Ismene seems to value family ties and the laws of the gods over the laws of man. However, she's just not gutsy enough to stand up for her beliefs. The courage to stand beside her sister does eventually come to Ismene. When Creon arrests both daughters of Oedipus, Ismene asks that she be executed alongside Antigone. Antigone, however, scorns Ismene's belated attempt at righteousness:

O sister, scorn me not, let me but share
Thy work of piety, and with thee die.
Claim not a work in which thou hadst no hand;
One death sufficeth. Wherefore should'st thou die?
What would life profit me bereft of thee?
Ask Creon, he's thy kinsman and best friend.
Why taunt me? Find'st thou pleasure in these gibes?
'Tis a sad mockery, if indeed I mock.
O say if I can help thee even now.
No, save thyself; I grudge not thy escape.
Is e'en this boon denied, to share thy lot?
Yea, for thou chosed'st life, and I to die.

At the urging of the Chorus, Creon eventually relents on executing Ismene. The girl ends the play with her life intact, but her self-worth in shreds.

Before we close the book on Ismene, we'd just like to recognize that the strong will that her sister is often praised for is also the thing that causes three suicides. If Antigone were a bit more like her sister, this wouldn't be a tragedy at all. Ismene's argument at the beginning of the play is that their family has suffered enough. What's the point of bringing more sorrow? Antigone and Ismene have had to live with the stigma Oedipus's horrific mistakes their whole lives. To top it all off, their two beloved brothers have just murdered each other. We can see Ismene's point. Is Ismene really that bad for just wanting to finally live in peace?

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