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Electra and Antigone and the Meaning of Liberty for Greek Women

The roles of women in Greek tragedies were written as major characters portrayed as villains, victims, or heroines. In these roles, they show a desire for liberty, and show its meaning. In Antigone, Antigone shows what liberty means to her: the right to do the right thing by higher authority. Her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed one another. Eteocles has been buried, but Creon has ordered Polynices’ body left unburied, food for birds and dogs. Antigone defies Creon, performing burial rights over Polynices’ body. Arrested, she will not bend to Creon’s orders, and is condemned to be entombed alive.

In her classical confrontation with Creon, he insists she obey his decree, while she asserts her right to follow a higher law, a law which allows and requires her to honor her brother, regardless of what mortals demand. Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.

Not through dread of any human pride could I answer to the gods for breaking these. Die I must,-I knew that well (how should I not? )-even without thy edicts. But if I am to die before my time, I count that a gain: for when any one lives, as I do, compassed about with evils, can such an one find aught but gain in death? (Sophocles, Antigone) Awaiting execution, she is the victim: Ah, I am mocked! In the name of our fathers’ gods, can ye not wait till I am gone,-must ye taunt me to my face, O my city, and ye, her wealthy sons?

Ah, fount of Dirce, and thou holy ground of Thebe whose chariots are many; ye, at least, will bear me witness, in what sort, unwept of friends, and by what laws I pass to the rock-closed prison of my strange tomb, ah me unhappy! who have no home on the earth or in the shades, no home with the living or with the dead. (Sophocles, Antigone) Her sister Ismene, who initially refused to join her out of fear of Creon’s power, realizes after Antgone is caught, that Antigone’s is the proper course. Ismene tries to confess with her, but Antigone rejects the offer with a coldness that is almost villainous.

ISMENE: Nay, sister, reject me not, but let me die with thee, and duly honour the dead. ANTIGONE: Share not thou my death, nor claim deeds to which thou hast not put thy hand: my death will suffice. (Sophocles, Antigone) In Electra, Electra faces a plight similar to Antigone’s, a prisoner in her father’s house. She mourns her father, Agamemnon, slain by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Long after her father’s death, Electra mourns, hoping that her exiled brother, Orestes, will return. Then she learns that Orestes has been killed.

A stranger arrives, actually Orestes in disguise, bearing an urn supposedly holding his ashes. When Orestes reveals himself, they move to avenge their father’s death. They murder Clytemnestra, and when Aegisthus returns, they present her draped body as that of Orestes. When he lifts the drape to see his queen dead, they seize him and lead him away to die. Again, liberty means doing right, even to defying man’s laws. Near the beginning of the play, she is a victim. Alone, watched by her hated mother, her sister unwilling to help her. She begins the play with lamentations:

O thou pure sunlight, and thou air, earth’s canopy, how often have ye heard the strains of my lament, the wild blows dealt against this bleeding breast, when dark night fails! And my wretched couch in yonder house of woe knows well, ere now, how I keep the watches of the night,- how often I bewail my hapless sire; to whom deadly Ares gave not of his gifts in a strange land, but my mother, and her mate Aegisthus, cleft his head with murderous axe, as woodmen fell an oak. And for this no plaint bursts from any lip save mine, when thou, my father, hath died a death so cruel and so piteous!

She shows her courage in continuing to stand against her mother even as her sister tries to convince her that she has no choice: Strange indeed, that thou, the daughter of such a sire as thine, shouldst forget him, and think only of thy mother! All thy admonitions to me have been taught by her; no word is thine own. Then take thy choice,- to be imprudent; or prudent, but forgetful of thy friends: thou, who hast just said that, couldst thou find the strength, thou wouldst show thy hatred of them; yet, when I am doing my utmost to avenge my sire, thou givest no aid, but seekest to turn thy sister from her deed.

Does not this crown our miseries with cowardice? For tell me,- Or let me tell thee,- what I should gain by ceasing from these laments? Do not live? – miserably, I know, yet well enough for me. And I vex them, thus rendering honour to the dead, if pleasure can be felt in that world. But thou, who tellest me of thy hatred, hatest in word alone, while in deeds thou art with the slayers of thy sire. I, then, would never yield to them, though I were promised the gifts which now make thee proud; thine be the richly-spread table and the life of luxury.

For me, be it food enough that I do not wound mine own conscience; I covet not such privilege as thine,- nor wouldst thou, wert thou wise. But now, when thou mightest be called daughter of the noblest father among men, be called the child of thy mother; so shall thy baseness be most widely seen, in betrayal of thy dead sire and of thy kindred. As she and Orestes wreak their vengeance, she shows the coldness of a villain: CLYTEMNESTRA (within) My son, my son, have pity on thy mother! ELECTRA Thou hadst none for him, nor for the father that begat him. * * * CLYTEMNESTRA (within) Oh, I am smitten!

ELECTRA Smite, if thou canst, once more! CLYTEMNESTRA (within) Ah, woe is me again! ELECTRA: Would that the woe were for Aegisthus too! AEGISTHUS: Where then may be the strangers? Tell me. ELECTRA: Within; they have found a way to the heart of their hostess. AEGISTHUS: Have they in truth reported him dead? ELECTRA: Nay, not reported only; they have shown him. AEGISTHUS: Can I, then, see the corpse with mine own eyes? ELECTRA: Thou canst, indeed; and ’tis no enviable sight. AEGISTHUS: Indeed, thou hast given me a joyful greeting, beyond thy wont. ELECTRA: Joy be thine, if in these things thou findest joy.

AEGISTHUS: Silence, I say, and throw wide the gates, for all Mycenaeans and Argives to behold; that, if any of them were once buoyed on empty hopes from this man, now, seeing him dead, they may receive my curb, instead of waiting till my chastisement make them wise perforce! ELECTRA: No loyalty is lacking on my part; time hath taught me the prudence of concord with the stronger. (The central doors of the palace are thrown open and a shrouded corpse is disclosed. ORESTES and PYLADES stand near it. ) AEGISTHUS: O Zeus, I behold that which hath not fallen save by the doom of jealous Heaven; but, if Nemesis attend that word, be it unsaid!

Take all the covering from the face, that kinship, at least, may receive the tribute of lament from me also. ORESTES: Lift the veil thyself; not my part this, but thine, to look upon these relics, and to greet them kindly. AEGISTHUS: ‘Tis good counsel, and I will follow it. – (To ELECTRA) But thou-call me Clytemnestra, if she is within. ORESTES: Lo, she is near thee: turn not thine eyes elsewhere. (AEGISTHUS removes the face-cloth from the corpse. ) AEGISTHUS: O, what sight is this! * * * Oh lost, undone! Yet suffer me to say one word… ELECTRA: In heaven’s name, my brother, suffer him not to speak further,

or to plead at length! When mortals are in the meshes of fate, how can such respite avail one who is to die? No,- slay him forthwith, and cast his corpse to the creatures from whom such as he should have burial, far from our sight! To me, nothing but this can make amends for the woes of the past. Notably, she insists that Aegisthus corpse be desecrated just as the corpse of Polynices was.


Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. R. C. Jebb. Internet Classics Archive. Undated, accessed Feb. 8, 2007. Available at <http://classics. mit. edu/Sophocles/antigone. html>. Internet.

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