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Sophocles’ prolific writing has rarely produced a woman of such stern strength of character as “Antigone”. Inversely the comedy of Aristophanes “Lysistrat” was among the first to introduce a strong willed female protagonist, who is not a goddess. The treatment of both great writers differs in the fact that the backdrops and the moods are distinctly different. While Sophocles zeroed in on the sombre tragedy, Aristophanes chose to inject feminist revolt against domination through zestful comedy. From a gender perspective it is important to study the motives behind the actions of the lead characters in both the plays.
There have been suicides and suicides in Greek tragedies (which almost define Greek tragedies). Sophocles’ Antigone commits suicide in the dark dungeon left to starve to death. But unlike the suicide of their mother Jocasta who decides to end her life when she learns that her marital relationship with Oedipus was incestuous, Antigone’s death is a defiant protest against the tyranny of her uncle Creon and an emphasis of her strongly held belief, that her brother should be accorded a proper burial.
There have been few examples of valour from Greek women who defied the norms of either their contemporary society or their king for a symbolic gesture rather than a cause. In the case of Antigone it was the burial rights to one of her two dead brothers which drives her to go against the will of the ruler, Creon. “Antigone” begins after both the warring brothers have apparently killed each other and since Polynices revolted against the state and led an Argive army to overthrow his brother Eteocles, he is deemed to be a sinner against the state.
Thus Creone, brother of Jocasta, who becomes the ruler decrees his body to be deprived of proper burial rites to ensure that his soul rots beyond redemption. Antigone, in the beginning of the play expresses her wish to accord her brother proper burial. It is a symbolic depiction of Antigone’s moral strength that she decides to go ahead in her chosen course though she is unable to enlist the support of her more timid sister Ismene.
This is a marked deviation from the depiction of women in Greek literature of the time where women were always looked upon as dependent on others for the strength of their convictions. Antigone succeeds in her stated mission and when this becomes known to Creone, an argument rages on the choice between the natural law and man-made laws. In another daring drift from established norm, the chorus in Sophocles’ play have the moral courage to call the path of their emperor as the more evil.
Creone’s son and Antigone’s fiance Haemon comes to her defence and the ensuing debate on the justice of natural laws which should supersede man made laws is a dramatist’s delight. Creone, however, decides to leave Antigone to starve to death in a sealed cave as her prison. The blind prophet Tiresias also advocates against punishment to Antigone and says he will pay “corpse for corpse, and flesh for flesh”. The declaration of Tiresias that Creon is causing moral pollution causes a change of heart in Creone. His moral dilemma leads him to conclude that Polynices should be buried and Antigone should be pardoned.
But by this time, Hameon reaches Antigone’s cave with the intention of saving her only to find that she has committed suicide by hanging herself, much like her mother Jocasta before her. When Creon reaches the cave he finds Hameon grieving over Antigone and he takes his life by stabbing himself as Creon approaches him. This leads Eurydice, Creon’s wife to give up her life in the grief of her son’s untimely death. Thus Creon loses all his loved ones due to his one fatal erring conviction to hold the laws of the state above the natural law.
The tragic flaw, is thus justified in Sophocles’ “Antigone”. It is easy to categorize the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes as a lewd comedy designed to entertain the Greek literature and drama lovers with a lampooning of the results if women begin to take an interest in affairs of national importance. It is also very convenient to visualize male actors playing all the important roles of the play and the “male” male characters wearing erect phalluses to depict their masculinity might have led to uproarious laughter.
However, with passing time and the aid of retrospection help us to begin to understand that Aristophanes might have devoted considerable time and emotional energy in trying to decipher what goes through the hearts and heads of women of his time who were modelled to be subservient and detached from the affairs of the state. Lysistrata leads a domestic and non violent non-cooperation movement (though the medium of non cooperation seldom ventures beyond the conventional sexual subjugation) to convince the men of the time to end the long standing war (apparently the Peloponnesian war) and bring back peace.
The play is an apparent comedy that it depicts women as sex crazed and spine less characters for whom rising beyond their daily chores is a daunting task. Except fro Lysistrata, no other woman comes across as strong willed enough to contribute in any way to the cause of the play. One can imagine the gusty laughter the scene involving the swearing of oath by drinking wine from a shield as it was a portrayal of women as being incapable of self restraint (from all good things in life, including wine and sex).
Though Lysistrata as a play has a lot of titillate the viewers, it has been seen in modern light as a commentary on the plight of women who have no say in the affairs of the state entirely decide by the men but have to silently suffer the consequences. This has remained unchanged even after the liberation ages of the 20th century. Aristophanes does manage to draw a caricature of Greek women as incapable of with holding sex or thinking beyond sex as the only weapon in her armour to control or change society.
It is possible though to excuse this caricature as Aristophanes’ attempt not to ruffle the feathers of his contemporary society while at the same time recording for future history that women did harbour different opinions on the approaches of the state to war and peace. The widowhood and martyrdom of a mother who loses her children to the ravages of war are not mentioned, perhaps because they would have added the much relegated sobriety to this deemed comedy.
Gender domination is a visible thread in Lysistrata, but whether Aristophanes designed this play as a comic fiction based on improbable scenarios of liberated women questioning state policies, or as an underhanded attempt to depict female angst of his contemporary Greek society is debatable. However Lysistrata has remained current and meaningful to this date due to its universal themes of Peace being preferred over War and has helped several social commentators put across their point during the several un necessary wars that dot world history to date be it the Vietnam war or the latest invasion of Iraq.
Whatever be the motivation, both Sophocles and Aristophanes manage to leave behind a piece of Literature which continues to engage readers and historians in a healthy debate on the premium placed on female equality by writers from the Greek age to the present day.
Works Cited or used as reference
Henderson, Jeffrey (contributor) Lysistrata by Aristophanes, London : Oxford University Press, 1990 Translated by Gibbons, Reginald and Segal, Charles Antigone by Sophocles, NewYork : Oxford University Press US, 2003