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Different portrayals of women in “Antigone” and “Lysistrata”

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The different portrayals of female characters Antigone and Lysistrata illustrate the fundamental nature of the proper Athenian woman. Sophocles’ Antigone allows the reader to see that outrage over social injustices does not give women the excuse to rebel against authority, while Aristophanes’ Lysistrata reveals that challenging authority in the polis becomes acceptable only when it’s faced with destruction through war. Sophocles and Aristophanes use different means to illustrate the same idea; the ideal Athenian woman’s ultimate loyalty lies with her polis. This Greek concept of the proper woman seems so vital when considering Athenian society because both a tragedy and comedy revolve around this concept. The differing roles accorded to Antigone and Lysistrata through their relationships with their families, other women, and society reveals the Athenian idea of the proper woman.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the problems with the main character’s role in relation to her family illustrates that the ideal Athenian woman has final loyalty only to her polis. Antigone, the main character of Sophocles’ tragedy, plays the role of protector in her relationship with her family. In attempting to fulfill her role she rebels against her polis, breaking the command of her king while attempting to defend the honor of her dead brother and family. Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, dies while attempting a hostile takeover of his polis. As punishment for his crimes, Creon, the king, condemns Polyneices, declaring that the people of the polis are not allowed to bury him as he was an enemy of the state and if one was to bury him, the punishment would be death. Antigone decides she must bury he brother to allow him passage to the underworld. She comes to the contradictory conclusion that she will stay loyal to her traitorous brother through blatant disloyalty to her polis.

This role of protector leads Antigone to ignore the possible consequence of her actions. She consciously disregards the king’s proclamation and states, “The time in which I must please those that are dead is longer than I must please those of this world” (Antigone, 164). Antigone mistakenly believes that appeasing the gods of the underworld, is more important than the polis and the gods who protect it. Antigone continues denying the possible outcomes of her betrayal; while attempting to justify her impending treachery and the horrible death she will face as a result of her actions. She deludes herself into believing “No suffering of mine will be enough to make me die ignobly”

(Antigone, 165). Through her role of protector in her relationship with her family Antigone begins her betrayal of her polis; this betrayal eventually leads to her death. Sophocles meant for his audience to realize the foolishness of Antigone’s rebellion against the polis; thereby illustrating that the proper Athenian women has ultimate loyalty to her polis.

Sophocles continues exploring the concept that the ideal Athenian woman has ultimate loyalty to her polis through the relationship between Antigone and her sister. In the tragedy, Ismene represents the ideal Athenian woman because she acknowledges the supremacy of her government. Ismene attempts to convince her sister of the folly of trying to bury their brother, but Antigone plays the role of the accuser. Antigone turns on her sister, because Ismene understands her duty lies with her king and the polis. Ismene cannot comprehend “defiance of the citizenry” because she acknowledges “…my nature does not give me means for that” (Antigone, 164). Practical Ismene attempts to show Antigone the futility of going against their polis, but Antigone completely ignores Ismene’s warnings. Ismene recognizes that Antigone “…desire impossibilities” but she cannot convince her stubborn sister that she goes “…on a fool’s errand!” (Antigone, 165). Through Antigone’s argument with Ismene one comprehends that Ismene and not Antigone exists as Sophocles’ example of the ideal Athenian woman whose final loyalty lies with her polis.

In direct contrast to Antigone, Aristophanes’ heroine Lysistrata plays the role of rebel within her family in order to save her polis. Lysistrata comes to the conclusion that the only way to save Athens from destruction in war comes with defiance of her husband. In her role of rebel within the family, Lysistrata decides to “…compel [her] husband to make peace” by withholding sex from him until he stops his disastrous warring behavior (Lysistrata, 7). She concludes, “…there are a thousand ways of tormenting [him]” that will lead to the ultimate safety of Athens (Lysistrata, 9). Unlike Antigone, Lysistrata realistically considers the possible consequences of her actions. She understands that the consequences of rebellion against her husband could be dire. Lysistrata recognizes that her husband might beat her or even rape her in order to get physical satisfaction, but she also realizes that her husband would, “…soon tire of the game there’s no satisfaction for a man, unless a woman shares it” (Lysistrata, 9). Lysistrata acknowledges that defying her husband will have consequences, but she chooses to realistically face those possible consequences, and continues knowing that her actions will benefit Athens. Aristophanes’ reveals that a woman’s greatest allegiance lies with her polis through Lysistrata’s role of rebel within her family to save Athens.

Lysistrata takes the position of leader in her relationships with other women; she encourages her followers to fight for the betterment of their polis; thus, she exists as the example of the ideal Athenian woman. Lysistrata begins the Greek women’s movement for peace among the polis. She calls a meeting of all of the important women from Athens and Sparta. At the meeting she explains to the women “We must refrain from the male altogether…” in order to have peace (Lysistrata, 7). When the women balk at losing the physical pleasure of sex, Lysistrata clarifies her plan, “We need only sit indoors…employing all our charms and all our arts…they will be wild to lie with us” (Lysistrata, 9). Next, she instructs the women “That will be the time to refuse, and they will hasten to make peace, I am convinced of that!” (Lysistrata, 9).

With her persuasive leadership skills Lysistrata manages to band together all the Greek women to work for peace. Like a general, she effectively delegates the young, more beautiful and fertile women to lead the front battle with abstinence while having the older women, who are in charge of temples to take the acropolis, thus effectively cutting off the men from the money needed to battle. Once she has women working for peace she has to use her leadership role to keep them working together. Lysistrata has to deal with women who begin to miss the physical pleasure they receive from men; “I cannot stop them any longer from lusting after the men. They are all for deserting” (Lysistrata, 31). First she attempts to win the women over with logic, “A little more patience, and the victory will be ours” (Lysistrata, 33). When logic does not sway the women Lysistrata uses her reputation as a leader to convince women of a prophecy she creates on the spot “An oracle promises us success, if only we remain united” (Lysistrata, 33). Lysistrata’s leadership role with other women results in the banding together of all the Greek to stop the war, helping her polis; thus, again illustrating that the proper Athenian women owes her total dedication to her polis.

Lysistrata moves her polis from the chaos of war to order of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata’s plan to deny all Greek men sexual intercourse until they agreed to end the war works. Lysistrata presides over the peace talks. Eventually with Lysistrata presiding over the peace talks the Athenians and Spartans reach a peace accord. Through her role as peacekeeper in relation to her society Lysistrata illustrates the ideal Athenian woman owes ultimate loyalty to her polis.

The portrayal of Antigone and Lysistrata in Greek theatre leads the reader to the realization that the ideal Athenian woman remains ultimately loyal only to her polis. Sophocles illustrates the essence of the perfect Athenian woman through the fate of his character Antigone. Antigone’s final loyalty does not lie with her polis; instead Antigone feels ultimately dedicated to her dead brother and to her family. She revolts against her king and her polis, and as a result of that rebellion she dies. In contrast to Sophocles, Aristophanes illustrates the model Athenian woman through the successes of his character Lysistrata. She encourages her contemporaries to rebel against their husbands in order to force a peace, thereby protecting her polis from destruction. Sophocles and Aristophanes made use of their female characters to illustrate to the Athenian public just what the essence of the proper woman is. Through their theatric examples of the ideal woman Sophocles and Aristophanes manage to help their civilizations through times of chaos and provide contemporary readers a window into women’s roles in the ancient Athenian world.

Works Cited:

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. New York: Dover Publications, Oct. 20, 1994.

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