Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Strength: Part III (Sisters, Sisters)

Antigone: resident bad*ss of Classical Greek Theatre
Remember that one time I promised to write a three-part series on womanly strength? 
Yeah, neither do I. 
Well, peeps, this blog post has been sitting in the "edit posts" box for a good while now. 
So it's time to let the poor thing see the light of day. 

Trees on a Margin of a Stream

"I am not made for hatred, but for love."

As soon as I read those words in Sophocles play, chills ran up and down my spine, and I instantly fell head over heels in love with Antigone. I was swept up into the drama of this beautifully fierce, stern woman fighting tooth and nail for her brother's honor. By uttering these wise and fateful words, Antigone is publicly declaring her own strength. She is issuing a bold challenge to Creon in the most audacious and public manner possible. Hers is not the wisest, nor maybe even the most loving course of action, but it creates thrilling drama. And from the moment she sets foot onstage, Antigone is enamored with her own sensational crisis. Through her enthusiasm for her own saga, we, her audience, are caught up by the dazzling spectacle as well. Antigone exudes power and strength; she thirsts for a glorious deed to perform; a dramatic death to die; an outstanding undertaking that the whole world will hear of; she hungers for hot deeds “that chill the blood” (5). But Antigone fails to live up to her self-proclaimed vocation to love.

Throughout Antigone, the themes of life and death are prevalent. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, represents life, while Antigone embraces death. Antigone often harps on death and the deceased. She speaks of her brothers, her father and mother, her family who are all dead and gone. She often describes these dead as her witnesses.
Ismene, on the other hand, is clearly more concerned about her sister-about her living family. She recounts with shame and horror the stories of her father’s and her mother’s death, and she calls her brothers “wretched”(4). Instead, Ismene is more concerned with Antigone’s life and Antigone’s well being. Antigone herself makes it emphatically clear by declaring, “We both have made our choices: life, and death” (17).

Throughout the first scene of the play, while Antigone is wrapped up in her righteous anger and building plans to restore Polyneices’ honor, Ismene attempts to counsel her passionate sister towards prudence. As Ismene sees it, the only tangible outcome of her sister’s rash law breaking will be Antigone’s death. She describes Antigone’s act of defiance as madness and hopeless. Antigone concedes that her act is folly, but she obstinately refuses to back down. Antigone lashes out at her sister, “Your words have won their just reward: my hatred” (5). Ismene manages to take these wounding words in stride. She responds at the end of the scene, “Remember, though your act is foolish, that those who love you do so with all their hearts” (5).

When she is facing Creon, Antigone valiantly declares, “I am not made for hatred, but for love” (16). While her act of service to her brother is certainly one of love, the hatred that she has demonstrated towards Ismene lessens the value of her words. Antigone grows hostile and frustrated with her sister in the first scene, and brusquely turns a deaf ear to Ismene’s genuinely concerned sisterly advice. And when Ismene stands up to Creon with her sister, Antigone brushes her aside. In fact, Antigone never truly demonstrates any love whatsoever towards Ismene. Although Antigone makes constant protestations of love for her dead brothers, she never mentions her love for her living sister.

But Ismene’s love for her sister is entire, unwavering, and selfless. When Creon condemns Antigone to death, Ismene is willing to share in her sister’s fate. While Antigone is still alive, Ismene fights for her and defends her. She tries to reason her out of her feckless endeavor to bury their brother. Despite her efforts, she only succeeds in angering her sister, but Ismene responds to Antigone’s anger not with a curse, but with a blessing. Antigone accuses Ismene of loving only in words. But that is precisely the opposite of what Ismene does. Ismene supports Antigone and like the most faithful of allies she never stops fighting for her. Constantly watching out for those she loves, Ismene does not seek glory for herself, but would rather seeks the safety of her beloved sister. Ismene demonstrates her own brand of redoubtable courage by holding onto life, holding onto hope.
Haemon, Antigone’s betrothed, makes this metaphor:

Trees on the margin of a stream in winter:
Those yielding to the flood save every twig,
And those resisting perish root and branch (21).

These two trees paint a perfectly analogous picture to the two sisters. Ismene has the tender and firm resilience that endures against all odds. She is a tree that bends with the tide. She will not fight the flood, and she emerges unscathed, with every twig intact. She will emerge the victor. Antigone has the fortitude to push back, to resist at all costs.. Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France, said "The most powerful weapon is the human soul on fire." And Antigone's soul is definitely on fire. Antigone is dedicated to her cause, and she will stop at nothing to accomplish it. She is pure iron. Unbending, unyielding. Terrifyingly sure she is in the right. Tragically, her courage fails her. She snaps.

Although Antigone has been racing towards death since the beginning of the play, when she finally arrives on death’s threshold her resolve weakens. She has lost the resolve that she once possessed. She mourns for herself as she approaches death. Her bravado has vanished. Antigone is truly afraid to die. She does not have the dignity to face an honorable death. Although previously she dismissed Ismene’s offer to die with her, she now moans, “No fellowship have I; no others can share my doom”(25). Her short life concludes in suicide, the most hopeless of all deaths. A portrait of determined strength throughout the play, when Antigone finally reaches the denouement, she snaps under pressure. Even the strongest tree can crack.

Antigone’s stubbornness and persistence serve her cause well, but they inevitably lead to her destruction. Antigone’s courage is commendable and impressive. But the raw passion of love, unchecked by wisdom, leads to folly. Boldly and fearlessly, Antigone stands up to Creon and that enrages him all the more. Her refusal to back down or budge even the slightest inch causes him to question his kingly authority and his manhood. Antigone is resolutely rooted in her cause. She will bury Polyneices, and absolutely nothing- neither an edict of the king nor the pleas of her sister- will stop her. What adds to Creon’s terror is Antigone’s audacious assertion that the Thebans all support her act of defiance. Creon claims, “All of these Thebans disagree with you”(15). Antigone retorts, “No. They agree, but they control their tongues” (15). Antigone will not be silenced; she will not hide in secrecy. When Ismene promises she will keep Antigone’s actions a secret, Antigone is quick to correct her. She commands Ismene to announce to the whole world what she means to do. Although the audience knows Antigone’s impending doom, her tragic fate does nothing to lessen the overwhelming force and fortitude of the tree in its prime.

Ismene’s resilient strength proves more enduring and courageous than the brittle force of Antigone’s passion. Ismene alone emerges from the events of the play unscathed. Her brand of strength lacks the splendor, the dramatic attraction, and the grandeur of Antigone’s bravado, yet hers rings the most true. Never does she renege on her word. She remains true to Antigone until the bitter end. She loves her sister with all her heart. She begs to die with her, to share in her fate. Ismene asks of Antigone, “What happiness can I have when you are gone?” (17) When Antigone refuses to let her share in her death, Ismene fights for Antigone’s life. Ismene’s love endures tide and time. She is the bending tree that will not snap.

Although she does not reap the glory and the fame that Antigone does, Ismene appears to be the stronger character. Antigone tells Ismene, “To love in words alone is not enough” (16). But Antigone is teaching her sister a lesson Ismene has mastered before her. Ismene does not make any pretensions or any show; she is a much less public figure than Antigone. Her sister takes front and center; the fiery monologues are for Antigone, not Ismene. But the few words Ismene does utter paint the delicate portrait of a wise young woman, one who is loyal, brave and honest. Ismene rises to her sister’s challenge, and proves that she is indeed not made for hatred, but for love.

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