Ismene is a foil to Antigone. In all the Theban plays, Ismene flits before our vision as a mild, quiet, and devoted girl-devoted to the father, brothers and the sister. In The Oedipus Rex, Ismene did appear, but she said nothing. Antigone and Ismene stood before this disconsolate and helpless father, who had nothing to offer them except sorrow and tears.
In The Oedipus at Colonus Ismene appeared, but there also she was in the background. Devoted and affectionate to her father, she stayed at Thebes, but her heart was all the while with her father in exile. Antigone led the blind man across the different land. At Athens Ismene met her father and sister. She came there as a messenger and brought the sad tidings that their two brothers were engaged in an internecine war. When Creon ordered his guards to take away Antigone and Ismene as hostage of their father, both the sisters stood in awe, and did not know how to record their protest. When Oedipus mysteriously disappeared forever, Ismene became disconsolate, and thought of dying:
“I cannot tell; and that I could lie
In death beside him, and not live
The life that will be mine.”
Antigone, ever stronger than Ismene, suggested that she [Antigone) should die. Ismene in despair asked:
“And what shall I do all alone and helpless?
Where shall I live without a friend?”
In the Antigone, Ismene, though more active, was still as helpless. She was a typical woman, who wished to do many noble things, but at the time of execution her courage failed her. She had no spirit for the deed of daring. Later, however, she expressed her eagerness to share the punishment and even death with her stronger and nobler sister. Ismene was as dutiful and affectionate to her brother as Antigone. But she had not in her the making of a Joan of Arc. Her temper was softer: she was less heroic. She had, however, more of commonsense and amiability.
Antigone and Ismene are sharply contrasted right from the beginning. Antigone had unwomanly strength and extraordinary courage. But towards the end she became distinctly womanly, although she courted death for a noble cause. Ismene was womanly all through, although, in the course of time she gathered ample strength.
In The Oedipus at Colonus we left Ismene as a helpless girl. At the beginning of the Antigone she was equally helpless, and shaking like an asp.
“My poor Antigone, if this is really true,
What more can I do, or undo, to help you?”
As Antigone sought her help in burying the dead body of Polynices, Ismene recoiled:
“Now we two left; and what will be the end of us,
If we transgress the law and defy our King?”
Women, she felt, were subordinate to men. It appears as if Ismene was the forerunner of Aristotle, who in his Poetics said that a woman’s glory consisted in submission. That is why she said:
“I cannot act
Against the State I am not strong enough.”
It was, no doubt, a candid confession. But with all her wishful thinking and pious resolution, she was not expected to help Antigone. But with all her weakness, she had sturdy common sense. That is why she advised Antigone:
“At least be secret. Do not breathe a word,
I’ll not betray your secret.”
Not that Ismene was devoid of principles. But she had not the courage to practice what she professed, or to be more precise, what she felt. It is common sense which made her think that Antigone was destined to fail in her mission. Antigone taunted at her, and at times, rebuked her for cowardice. But Ismene remained loyal to her in mind.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the apparently weak woman that Ismene was, she was changed beyond recognition at a later stage in the play. She bore no grudge against Antigone, although she had remonstrated with her. Creon got Antigone arrested and condemned her to death. It was then that Ismene. in answer to his query if she had a share in the burying, fearlessly said:
“I did it-yes-if she will let me say so.
I am as much to blame as she is.”
To Antigone she said:
“But I am not ashamed to stand beside you
Now in your hour of trial, Antigone.”
At the beginning of the play we are ready to accept Bowra’s view that “She [Antigone] is absorbed in the dead, but Ismene continues ordinary life of the living,” but later Ismene showed unprecedented courage and determination.
Antigone deserves to be compared with Electra and Ismene with Chrysothemis. Sophocles seems to have repeated himself in the delineation of both the characters. Electra also requested Chrysothemis to avenge the death of their father. Chrysothemis recoiled like Ismene, although she did not lack good intentions. Electra like Antigone wanted to bear the brunt all alone. Chrysothemis was more prudent and pliant and, therefore, refused to accept the responsibility.
Chrysothemis though so much like Ismene in many respects, certainly did not show the courage, displayed by Ismene.
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