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  • Sophocles’s Enemy Sisters: Antigone and Ismene
  • Wm. Blake Tyrrell (bio) and Larry J. Bennett

At the core of the Oedipus myth, as Sophocles presents it, is the proposition that all masculine relationships are based on reciprocal acts of violence. Laius, taking his cue from the oracle, violently rejects Oedipus out of fear that his son will seize his throne and invade his conjugal bed. Oedipus, taking his cue from the oracle, does away with Laius, violently rebuffs the sphinx, then takes their places—as king and “scourge of the city,” respectively. Again, Oedipus, taking his cue from the oracle, plots the death of that unknown figure who may be seeking to usurp his own position. Oedipus, Creon, and Tiresias, each taking his cue from the oracle, seek one another’s downfall.

All these acts of violence gradually wear away the differences that exist not only in the same family but throughout the community.

—René Girard, Violence and the Sacred

René Girard does not include feminine relationships in his assessment of the Oedipus myth, yet the same redundancy that characterizes the males marks the females.1 Jocasta conjoins in one person multiple and redundant social roles: she is the mother and wife of the same person, for which she [End Page 1] hangs herself, leaving for Oedipus “many pains that a mother’s furies fulfilled” (Homer Odyssey 11.279–80). Her daughters, their father’s sisters, manifest kinship redundancy in two persons. Incest produces circularly, reverting to a sibling of the parent rather than moving forward with a descendant. The absence of linear progression from one generation to the next creates a sameness and equilibrium that thwart separation and individuality. Oedipus’s brothers/sons fail in their adult roles, because neither can overcome the other’s right to the throne of Thebes and the mastery of its royal household. They are enemy brothers locked in reciprocal violence.2 Antigone and Ismene have escaped notice not only as enemy sisters but even as products of the same incest. Audiences for Sophocles’s Antigone have viewed them as “normal” women and cooperated with his characters in emphasizing the differences between them. They have assumed from Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon and resistance to Creon that she is the elder, more mature sister.3 They tend to accept without question that Antigone engages in burial rituals with Polyneices’s corpse (241–58) and returns to it (442–35).4 Bernard M. W. Knox’s critically powerful concept of the “Sophoclean hero” has bolstered this view of Antigone while reducing Ismene to a foil, and abetted the tendency of modern producers of the play to cast an older or more famous actress in the role of Antigone.5 Naturalistic readings like that of C. M. Bowra—“seeing that Ismene is her only close relative in the world, Antigone is remarkably cold to her”6—have masked the source and hence the vehemence of Antigone’s fury.

That the reciprocity of the violence between Ismene and Antigone has gone unnoticed is understandable in view of the familiarity of the conflict between their brothers. Males in Greek society pursued difference by striving to excel as aristoi (best) in competition for prestige, wealth, and power.7 Whenever Eteocles and Polyneices came together, each asserted a right to Oedipus’s household and throne that was equally matched, and violence ensued from the equilibrium. On the other hand, Greek women were not supposed to compete with one another for distinction. They wove wool for clothes, maintained the household, and cared for the children, the sick, and the dead, activities that required cooperation away from public view.8 Proximity to other women was the norm and desideratum. Moreover, lawgivers like Solon based their funeral legislation on the premise that every woman wanted to participate in mourning.9 For the sake of public tranquillity, legislators tried to limit the numbers of women participants by imposing restrictions according to degrees of kinship, for instance, to children of fifth cousins. In this context, women were interchangeable, and the places they held during birth, coming of age in wedding ceremonies, and death, [End Page 2] were open to more than one woman. Closeness and...


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