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[personal profile] griffin_cordray
If you're familiar with Sophocles' play Antigone, you may remember Ismene as a passive, law-abiding worrywart who refuses to help her sister bury their dead brother Polyneices. Ismene instead appeals to Antigone's sense of civic obedience, which Antigone has no problem flouting. Eventually Antigone gives up trying to persuade her sister into helping her, and eventually she announces, "I would not want you as a partner if you asked." Ismene still promises to keep Antigone's civil disobedience a secret, but Antigone demands she "shout it out" and let the whole city know of her holy deed. Later on, when Antigone gets caught red-handed, Ismene tries to share the blame but Antigone, apparently disgusted, refuses to let her take part in her guilt.

For about 2,400 years, Ismene has been interpreted as the shameful coward to her sister's proud martyr, and her claim that she helped her sister has been consistently read as a lie, or a show of solidarity at best. But Dr. Bonnie Honig of Northwestern University wrote in 2009 a paper that radically reorganized my own understanding of Ismene's character and makes me wonder if we've all just been incredibly blind in our reading.

In her paper, titled "Ismene's Forced Choice: Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles' Antigone," Honig establishes through a solid close-reading of the text a new theory explaining the second burial of Polyneices. A quick scan of Wikipedia established the most popular and current readings of the issue, but curiously enough, though there's a whole section dedicated to the "problem of the second burial," it is frequently considered as an "act that seems to be completely unmotivated by anything other than a plot necessity so that she could be caught in the act of disobedience" -- an act, therefore, that must be justified somehow by means external to the text.

Of the five critics cited (which admittedly is a very tiny sample of Antigone scholars, but nevertheless), not a single one suggests what Honig suggests. And if you follow that link you'll see how cumbersome and convoluted those readings tend to be. That's a problem. Sophocles' play tends to be extremely streamlined, and Antigone showcases a magnificent economy of speech -- every word is meaningful, no line is wasted. There has to be a simpler solution to the problem of the second burial than what has previously been suggested.

So what does Honig have to say about this? She begins by setting up the initial problem:

The violations are plural. Creon’s edict is violated twice. The first
time, at night, unwitnessed, someone performs a symbolic burial ritual: the
body is not buried but dusted. The story of what happened that first time
is told to Creon by a sentry, a sighted man who did not see it, in a scene
that mirrors a later scene with Tiresias, a sightless man who sees all. [...]

The sentry explains to Creon that he and his companions, posted
by Creon to guard the body and prevent anyone from burying it, somehow
failed to see something that must have happened right before their eyes.
Someone came in the night and sprinkled dust over the body of Polynices
in clear violation of Creon’s edict. [...]

The sentry soon returns to Creon with a prisoner: Antigone.
Although the sentry congratulates himself on finding the culprit, his success
is not a product of good detective work but rather of good fortune.
There was a second violation of Creon’s edict—a second burial. And this
time Antigone was caught in the act; the guards witnessed her performing
the rites for Polynices. In the ensuing scene with Creon and in centuries
of interpretation since, the assumption is that this second act of burial was
committed by the same person who performed the first. In fact, the mystery
of the first burial is never solved.

Honig discusses other interpretations of this unsolved mystery, and then begins to offer textual evidence to lead into her argument:

First, when Antigone is caught by the guards and then brought
before Creon, she does not only confess, she also is said not to deny violating
Creon’s edict. Confession and non-denial are not exactly the same

More to the point, the style of the first burial is not at all in keeping
with Antigone’s character. Her “shout-it-from-the-rooftops” attitude
is hardly in evidence in the secret nocturnal performance so quietly performed
that the guards miss it.

Honig goes on to present an argument that cleans up all the problems that critics have encountered when trying to explain the second burial, namely:

If Ismene did it, we no longer need to puzzle out why Antigone might have
buried Polynices twice, nor why the gods would intervene, seemingly settling
too early the question posed by this tragedy, that of the (in)justice of
Polynices’ exposure. Instead, we have two sisters, two burials. And each
is done in the characteristic style of each sister. The first, Ismene-like, sub
rosa, quiet, under cover of darkness, performed exactly to a tee as Ismene
counseled Antigone to do it in the play’s first scene: “Then don’t, at least,
blurt this out to anyone. Keep it a secret” (84–85 [98–99]).11 The second,
true to Antigone, is performed with loud keening and vengeful cries out
in the open, in the noontime sun: “The sun stood dead above our heads,
a huge white ball in the noon sky, beating, blazing down,” the sentry tells
Creon (415–17 [460–62]).

So what it boils down to is that Ismene's "lie" wasn't, in fact, a lie, that Ismene performed the first (and therefore truly efficacious) burial. All the tumblers clicked into place for me here and the text swung open like a door. It makes perfect sense. It's clear, streamlined, consistent for the characters' motivations and convictions, and gives purpose and admirable strength and loyalty to a character who has routinely existed as an object of disgust and derision for readers. I'm one hundred percent convinced!

Furthermore, this generates interesting possibilities for new feminist readings of the play. I'm led to understand that traditionally many feminists have had Serious Issues with Ismene as she is conceptualized as the cowardly, duplicitous, anti-sisterhood foil to Antigone's fuck-the-police maraudering. But I'd argue that this reading totally reclaims her for sorority, as a figurehead for quiet determination. I'd be interested in reading more on this theme.

(Definitely get a copy of the full paper if you can; there's a ton of stuff there that I didn't get into in this post, but is absolutely worth ruminating over. You can find it in Arethusa, Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 29-68.)
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