Prompt: 11. …Nietzsche’s argument about tragedy…
“Ismene, who?” seems to be the general consensus upon a first-time reading of the Greek tragedy Antigone. For those unfamiliar with the play, some context: Antigone is the third of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles. The previous two, Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus Coloneus, concentrate on the mythical king Oedipus who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus dies under mysterious circumstances, and his sons (slash brothers – incest makes familial relations complicated) Polyneices and Eteocles fight to the death for his throne. King Creon declares Polyneices a traitor to Thebes for initiating civil war and bans the citizens from burying his corpse on pain of stoning to death. By the time Antigone begins, Antigone and Ismene are the last of this cursed family line. Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother Polyneices, but Ismene refuses. Creon catches Antigone in the act and sentences her to be sealed into a cave for the remainder of her life. A domino effect of death proceeds (Antigone chooses death over buried life and hangs herself, her fiancé and Creon’s son Haemon falls on his sword, Creon’s wife Eurydice stabs herself), and by the end of Antigone, only a broken and regretful Creon is left standing. Ismene too is presumably alive within the palace, but we don’t really care about her at that point.
We don’t really care about Ismene at any point. While everyone around her is hell-bent on killing themselves spectacularly, Ismene is silent and stationary inside the royal palace. Initial impressions of the play would hardly deem her the most riveting of characters and would certainly not deem her an equal to the daring headliner who is her sister. Bonnie Honig describes, “For centuries, Ismene has been cast as the inert, drab backdrop against which her more colorful sister stands out.” Some work has been done to recover Ismene, but by and large the focus of readership and scholarship has always been on Antigone. This is an unfortunate oversight because we should care about Ismene. In fact, the opening words of the play, “ō koinon autadelphon Ismēnēs,” tell us that Ismene is just as important as Antigone (Badger 73, italics mine). Koinon means common, and Antigone’s greeting can be translated to something like, “Ismene, my own sister, sharing the self-same blood.” Furthermore, Antigone and Ismene use the grammatically dual number to refer to themselves as a “pair” of sisters (Ludwig 206). Thus, Ismene should not be thought of as less than Antigone but as equal and opposing.
I posit a new way of reading Antigone, one that maintains the parity between the two sisters. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche defines “two competing but also complementary impulses in Greek culture,” the Apollonian and the Dionysian (34). The first refers to Apollo, the god of light and dream, and the second to Dionysus, the god of intoxication and rapture. What exactly is the relationship between the two? Nietzsche states, “So the difficult relation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in tragedy should really be symbolized through a fraternal bond between both deities” (84). And just as the two deities share a fraternal bond, so do Antigone and Ismene share a sororal bond. By applying Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian theory to Antigone, we can more clearly see that Ismene is not a backdrop to Antigone but a force in herself. Reading Ismene as an Apollonian embodiment and Antigone as a Dionysian embodiment highlights the doubleness of their fate and provides new insights into the dynamics of their relationship.
Ismene functions as the avatar of Apollo in Antigone. Apollo is linked with “visible form, comprehensible knowledge, and moderation,” and no character in the play better deserves the descriptor of “moderate” than Ismene. (Ansell-Pearson and Large 34). Concerned with the practicalities of everyday survival, she is prudent, rational, and adaptable. When Antigone urges her to defy Creon’s edict and bury their brother, Ismene demurs, “I know/that wild and futile action makes no sense” (Sophocles 68-70). Conventional readings peg Ismene as passive, even cowardly, compared to her heroic sister, yet it is precisely her mundanity that makes her so relatable. Slavoj Žižek argues, “the figure with which we can identify is her sister Ismene—kind, considerate, sensitive, prepared to give way and compromise, pathetic, ‘human’ in contrast to Antigone, who goes to the limits” (qtd. in Honig). We readers may prefer to imagine ourselves in the role of passionate martyr rather than that of compliant survivor, but we must admit that majority of us would be Ismenes and not Antigones in a given scenario. Antigone may catch our eye, but Ismene is our known quantity.
Ismene also exhibits the Apollonian artistic features. Apollo is the god of the plastic or representational arts, architecture in particular, and Ismene is bound to the royal palace. The stage directions in Antigone serve as an attestation. A sampling: Antigone and Ismene emerge from the royal palace, Ismene returns to the palace, Ismene is brought from the palace under guard, and Antigone and Ismene are taken inside. After being taken inside the palace with Antigone, we understand that Ismene remains in the palace for the rest of the play. This insistent grounding of Ismene in the palace can partially be explained by the fact that the setting of the play is in front of the palace, but other characters are allowed to enter and leave by side entrances or to complete unseen actions outside the palace (e.g. Antigone burying her brother) whereas Ismene is decidedly not. In addition to architecture, Ismene is associated with language. Antigone spurns her with a, “I cannot love a friend whose love is words,” and Ismene protests, “At least I was not silent. You were warned” (Sophocles 543-544, 556). Although Nietzsche does not directly assign language to the dominion of Apollo or Dionysus, in other works he reflects on “the extent to which human life is immersed in illusions and dream images […] and sees only the form of things” and offers the chief cause of the “conceited nature of human knowing” as language (Ansell-Pearson and Large 39). The associations of form, dream images, and illusory knowing with language seem to place language and thus Ismene as well firmly in the Apollonian field.
It follows that Antigone is her Dionysian counterpart, although she is not as perfect a fit. The editor’s’ footnote in The Birth of Tragedy suggests that Antigone’s sense of religious ritual puts her in line with Apollo, which seems odd considering that Dionysus is linked with “formless flux, mystical intuition, and excess” (Ansell-Pearson and Large 34). There are multiple candidates in the play for the descriptor of “excess,” but Antigone is the most saliently intransigent. The Chorus remarks of her Icarian overreaching, “You went to the furthest verge/of daring, but there you found/the high foundation of justice, and fell” (Sophocles 852-854). Moreover, mysticism seems to correlate well with religion, and Antigone repeatedly refers to the gods, proclaiming that she is obeying their “unwritten and unfailing laws” instead of the man-made laws of the city (Sophocles 454). However, Nietzsche portrays the Olympians as “born of dream” and as such, more Apollonian as Dionysian. Consequently, Antigone’s role as a pseudo-representative of the Olympian gods would be considered Apollonian as well. Another inconsistency: Antigone’s uncompromising will appears to preclude the other Dionysian quality of flux. Unlike Creon who experiences anagnorisis or Ismene who later decides to stand with Antigone, Antigone makes a decision and sticks with it. The only real change that occurs in Antigone is her physical/spiritual transition from not-dead to dead.
If Ismene is easily analogized to Apollo, then Antigone represents a complicated and at times inverted Dionysus. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian sanctifies pain, consecrates the future in the past, and ultimately symbolizes the primacy of a life-drive (Ansell-Pearson and Large 37). Acceptance of suffering is indeed treated as a noble achievement in the play; the Chorus states that Antigone will “have gone like a god” to her fate, and Antigone’s numerous monologues about her forthcoming death straddle the line between mournful and anticipatory – evidence which supports the Dionysian Antigone allegory. On the other hand, the Lacanian reading of Antigone diagnoses her with a death drive, which sounds like the exact opposite of the Dionysian life-drive. As Terry Eagleton states, Antigone “has been declaring from the outset ‘I am dead and desire death.’” Her central motivation is the obsessive need to bury the corpse of Polyneices; it isn’t much of a stretch to extend this fixation from the act of burying the corpse to the corpse itself and death more broadly. She says outright, “My life died long ago/and that has made me fit to help the dead” (Sophocles 559-560). For Antigone, the true life is not the life she has been living, and her future is found with the past, or more precisely, the passed. She hopes to rejoin her family, or as she puts it – “To my own people,” in the underworld. Antigone explains her logic to Ismene, “Longer the time in which to please the dead/than that for those up here. /There shall I lie forever” (Sophocles 75-78). Eternity cannot be not found “up here.” Rather, eternity is found in death. Antigone’s death drive is really a reflected life-drive since, for the Dionysian, eternal return is found in destruction of the individual.
Having established Ismene as an Apollonian figure and Antigone as a Dionysian figure, we can now examine their dynamic. Nietzsche characterizes the interaction of the Apollonian and Dionysian as thus: “And so, wherever the Dionysian broke through, the Apollonian was cancelled, absorbed, and annihilated” (53). Antigone tends to come off as a little cold to Ismene, but we note that this is hardly the same thing as “annihilation.” But, symbolically, annihilation might just be exactly what Antigone enacts on Ismene. We mentioned in the beginning that Ismene pales in comparison to her sister. In some sense, the presence of the Dionysian Antigone whittles away at the presence of the Apollonian Ismene. Other parts of the play seem to set up this dynamic as well. For example, the Chorus sings an ode about how man has conquered everything on earth except for death:
Language, and thought like the wind
and the feelings that make the town,
he has taught himself, and shelter against the cold,
[…] There’s only death
that he cannot find an escape from.
We have already demonstrated that the Apollonian Ismene is linked with language as well as the palace, which appears in this ode as the trappings of civilization (i.e. “the town” and “shelter against the cold”). We have also shown that Antigone is linked with death. Put those two affiliations together, and we infer from the ode that death in the form of Antigone smashes through the defenses of civilized life in the form of Ismene.
So does Antigone succeed in obliterating Ismene? Let’s go to Ismene’s last appearance in the play to check. Ismene claims to be Antigone’s accomplice, Antigone refuses to let Ismene join her doomed fate, Creon sends Antigone and Ismene into the palace, Antigone alone proceeds to the cave, and catch-all ruination ensues. And that’s it. Not only does Ismene not make a reappearance on the stage, but we never hear mention of her again in the play. I should say, we very deliberately do not hear mention of her again. Simon Goldhill argues in Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy that the “discourse of the play through Antigone’s language” essentially kills Ismene off (244). Antigone tells the Chorus, “I am last of your royal line,” an assertion that plainly ignores the fact that Ismene is A, alive, and B, also of the royal line (Sophocles 941). Ismene is no longer of the house of Oedipus – understandable. Perhaps Antigone feels that her refusal to bury Polyneices merited an excommunication from the family. Fine. That still doesn’t mean Ismene has been completely annihilated. But Antigone also sings, “Unwept, no wedding-song, unfriended, now I go” (Sophocles 878). Earlier on, the Chorus explicitly observes that Ismene mourns her sister with “tears on her lovely face” (Sophocles 530). With that in mind, the bemoaning about solitary fate sounds unwarranted and suggests an almost amnesic Antigone. Hello, has she completely forgotten Ismene? Her crying sister? Her mourning friend? Antigone doesn’t just speak Ismene out of her family; she speaks her out of existence. Antigone erases Ismene from the memory of the play.
Note that Ismene’s erasure occurs almost simultaneously with Antigone’s own death. Antigone “kills her off” in the speech right before she is led away to the sealed cave. We learn secondhand from the messenger later on that Antigone hangs herself in the cave, but her song with the chorus is her last onstage appearance. Nietzsche proposes that tragedy involves a clash between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, that these two forces are absolutely necessary to each other and the tragedy itself. If the Dionysian and Apollonian are inextricably bound to each other, then so are the fates of Ismene and Antigone. Antigone depends on Ismene, and Ismene depends on Antigone. Their natures can only be expressed in each other’s presence, and once one is gone the other cannot stay for long. The effect of their synchronous disappearances is that of mutual destruction. However, due to the abiding nature of the Dionysian and Apollonian, neither of the sisters are completely annihilated. Ismene may have been obliterated from the story, but she remains in the world. Similarly, Antigone has died, but her continuation lies in death. The two sisters are alive and dead at the same time. Hence, the Dionysian does not triumph over the Apollonian or vice versa. Rather, the two forces operate in tandem to form the tragedy. A Dionysian-Apollonian interpretation of Antigone reveals that Antigone and Ismene are in fact equal players in the world of the play.
Bonnie Honig. “Ismene’s Forced Choice: Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles’ Antigone.” Arethusa, vol. 44 no. 1, 2011, pp. 29-68. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/413524.
Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” The Nietzsche Reader, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson and Duncan Large, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Jonathan Badger. Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy. Routledge, 2013.
Jonathan Strauss. Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality. Fordham University Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web.
Paul W. Ludwig. “Fraternity in Antigone.” Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver, edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merril, and Adam Schulman, Lexington Books, 2010.
Simon Goldhill. Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff, The University of Chicago Press, 1954.
Terry Eagleton. “Lacan’s Antigone.” 2010. http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559213.001.0001/acprof-9780199559213-chapter-6