Both the Antigone and the Oresteia contain examples of strong women who parish and weak women who survive. Clytemnestra and Antigone, when stepping beyond the role of the traditional Greek woman, find themselves at the brink of disaster. Both, in the end, meet death, forced to take responsibility for their actions. At the same time, two different female characters, Electra and Ismene, refuse to act and in turn are left unharmed at the conclusion of the book. The task of the reader, then, becomes to identify which is the nobler course.
Ismene, in Sophocles’ Antigone, refuses to take part in her sister’s defiance, frightened by Creon’s decree. She is weak, unwilling to risk herself for the sake of her father and unable to transcend the boundaries of Grecian womanhood:
We must remember that we are women born
Unapt to cope with men... to exceed
is madness, and not wisdom. (3)
Because of this decision, Ismene is able to avoid death, but at what cost? She loses the respect of her sister, who accuses her of being “a friend in words” only (21). She denies her faith, and she betrays the memory of her father. Yet it is she, in the end, who survives.
Electra, of the Oresteia, is similar in character. Upon the moment of her father’s murder, she calls not for strength so that she herself may rise against her mother, but instead calls for Orestes to avenge her father’s death:
I pray you that Orestes may come here
with luck back to him...
Let one come to redeem the house. (99-100)
She too does not attempt to exceed her place as a woman and depends instead upon “a man strong with the spear” to save her household (100). Yet there exists a key difference between Ismene and Electra—Electra, as revealed in her conversations with her brother, at least has noble intentions. She agrees with and supports the actions of Orestes, at least in spirit, unlike Ismene, who condemns what her sister is forced to do. Yet, in the end, Electra does nothing, and thus faces no consequences.
Clytemnestra, however, is quite the opposite sort of woman. Instead of remaining weak and confined within the female sphere, she rises to take control of her kingdom. As a woman, Clytemnestra is forceful, determined, and independent, and indeed, these traits may seem admirable. But with further analysis, Clytemnestra’s motives reveal her to be quite a bit less noble—she commits murder in order to maintain power, finds a submissive man with whom she may do as she pleases, and betrays her children by killing their father. It is for this reason that Clytemnestra is punished.
Like Clytemnestra, Antigone too is a strong, convicted woman. In addition, however, Antigone’s intentions—to uphold divine law, to honor her brother—are also pure. She makes a decision based on her principles and conceptions of faith and morality rather than on selfish needs or wants. And although she pays the ultimate price by refusing to yield to Creon, doing any less would have meant compromising her beliefs. In this way, Antigone dies almost as a martyr to her brother’s memory, perhaps the most noble of all actions.
Thus, Antigone is the only one of the four major female characters in the Antigone and Oresteia to both be a strong woman willing to step out of traditional female positions and to be a crusader with honorable intentions. In fact, these four characters represent a full spectrum of possible attitudes towards life, state, family, and religion. The question then becomes whether it is nobler and more admirable to die for one beliefs or to compromise them in order to live. For me, the answer is clear.