Reading classical texts through the lens of gender is a modern concept, and yet it is important to seek out these representations especially in ancient patriarchal societies. Much of the extant sources that are available from antiquity are written by men, aside from rare examples like Sappho and Sulpicia, and are intended for a male audience. It can be difficult to extract a feminine voice from classical literature, but through the later influx of female readers and feminist scholarship new interpretations of traditional texts have been opened up by seeing things from a female perspective. Claudine Herrmann summarises this when saying “women have learned to see women through the eyes of men”, which is particularly resonant when discussing the ancient representation of women. Carving out space to see the voice of women, even if filtered through that of a man, is essential in understanding the feminist reading of classical literature, and there are in fact plenty of examples of interesting and subversive concepts of a ‘woman’ to be found. Sophocles’ Antigone is an example of a text that has a lot to yield when looking through the lens of gender.
In order to read a classical text through the lens of gender, one must first consider the general ideas presented by feminist theory. The binary difference between man and woman is one of the most pervasive ones throughout history and in society in general. Subsequently, as Bennett and Royle write, “all literary texts can be thought about in terms of how they represent gender difference and how far they may be said to reinforce or question gender-role stereotypes”. This is the essential idea behind reading a text through the lens of gender, as it is in the difference between the genders that we find interest. The concept of gender itself, however, is not so simple and where the gender difference lies is debated among scholars. The relationship between the biological and presumed behavioural differences in gender is debatable: essentialism suggests that the nature of men and women is predicated on their biological aspects in that a man has a penis and a woman does not, and along with this comes certain stereotypes. This is opposed to constructivism, which argues that gender is a social construct and that each individual person has their own agency to build a gender identity unique to themselves away from society. The quote from Simone de Beauvoir stating “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” projects a constructivist idea of womanhood in which literature is a large part in learning what it means to be a woman as various stereotypes can be enforced or rejected through the portrayal of different kinds of women. In classics, it is important to remember that the culture and society differed to modern times drastically, and so the notions of gender, whether essentialist or constructivist, were still a product of ancient times.
The gender stereotypes of women as passive, subordinate and inferior to men emerge to us from antiquity through literature. However, producing feminist readings of classical texts illuminates a new perspective, whether intended by the author or not, and adds a layer of complexity which shows that gender difference is not as restricted in classics as one may think. Emerging feminist scholarship and criticism has allowed for a new outlook on classics, for example the increasing number of women reading the Odyssey and realising the importance of the women in Odysseus’ story. This led to Samuel Butler to suggest that it was absurd for Homer to depict so many female voices unless the Odyssey was written by a woman, an idea that is largely refuted but is interesting in terms of realising the power of women reading classical texts from a female perspective and how this threatens the male-centric outlook that was previously dominant. Additionally, the increased awareness of the somewhat uncomfortable prevalence of violence, particularly sexual violence, against women in texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses emerged with feminism, along with seeking to rewrite and reimagine these situations from a female perspective. An example of this is Sylvia Plath’s Virgin in a Tree which reimagines from Daphne’s perspective the unglamorous process of being turned into a tree, rather than the romantic view that Ovid takes. Fowler illustrates this when writing “women’s poetry was more directly linked to the rise of feminist criticism and was fuelled by overtly political strategies of reclamation, revision, and impersonation” and argues that women are more interested in figures that men would often overlook in classical literature, such as Daphne (as shown by Plath), Persephone, Antigone, Philomela and Eurydice. The importance of women reading and reinterpreting classical literature is the core of how gender affects the readings of these ancient texts and keeps classics relevant in the modern age as it allows for new interpretations from a new perspective.
It is undeniable that both ancient Greek and ancient Roman societies were inherently patriarchal and restrictive to women: the predominant voices that emerge in literature are male. One must look through this masculine filter to find evidence of women, whether that be in real life or how they were perceived in literature. In Sophocles’ Antigone the portrayal of the central heroine may be filtered through a man’s voice, but there is still much to analyse in terms of the gender presentation in the play. Antigone has been viewed as a ‘feminist’ play in scholarship for a long time, and Antigone in particular as a ‘feminist’ character; but how is she interpreted in this way? Goldhill argues that it is through her acts of sisterhood, going back to the first line of the play being “My own flesh and blood – dear sister, dear Ismene”, which immediately emphasises her priorities as a woman and the bond she has with her sister that transcends a male influence. However, Ismene is often viewed as a foil for Antigone in that she “seems indisputably a “woman” in her weakness, her fear, her submissive obedience, her tears, madness, hysteria” according to Irigaray. In the opening conversation of the play, Ismene is immediately contrasted with the head-strong Antigone and appears to conform not only to Creon as the king but also Creon as a male source of authority when she says, “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men…we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands”; she directly correlates the power that Creon has over them with the gender imbalance between them. This reinforces essentialist ideas and the notion that women are inherently inferior to men and incapable of having power over them that was accepted as truth in the ancient world. Antigone’s language, on the other hand, is continuously defiant and subversive of the gendered power difference between her and Creon; rather than accepting her position as an inferior and as a woman she rails against it, even saying “he has no right to keep me from my own” which illustrates her defiant nature.
The idea that Antigone as a woman represents kinship and the family bonds is something that was explored by the critic Hegel: this is summarised by Goldhill in saying “Hegel’s reading of Antigone depends on an opposition of family kinship and state authority, and it is precisely on his valuation of kinship, and on his construction of the family, that feminist criticism has focused”. By reading Antigone as representative of the kinship of family dynamics, Hegel is placing her in the realm of something familiar to the stereotype of a woman, and perhaps ignores the idea that Antigone transcends these bounds in order to enter the space of politics simply by challenging state authority. It is true that the motivations behind Antigone’s actions are for the sake of her family as she wants to honour her brother by burying him, and that the central relationship is in fact that between Antigone and Polyneices. But in doing so, she enters the realm of power reserved for men, and her direct defiance of Creon not only honours her family but is also a politically charged act. The opposition of kinship and the state, and how Antigone traverses through both, is inherently connected to the gender opposition between them.
The central conflict between Antigone and Creon is one of the binary oppositions: between uncle and niece, male and female, and state and family. According to Hoy, “Hegel focuses on the binaries of divine law and human law, family and state, and women and men”, which directly correlates the binary opposites that each of the characters represents with their respective genders: they are all intertwined. The gendered conflict between them is not reflected simply through their actions, but also through speech. Phallogocentrism is a term used by critics, particularly in French feminist scholarship, to describe the inherent masculine way in which language is used and to show that the patriarchy is pervasive in all aspects of society, even language. As Bennett and Royle accurately point out, “The ‘logo’ of ‘phallogocentrism’ points us towards the argument…that the very notions of truth, reason, rationality, the proper, meaning, etc. are phallocentric”, and thus these things are deemed as something that women are excluded from. Despite this, Antigone transcends not only her role as a woman but also her allotted language and rationality as a woman when engaging with Creon, plainly stating that she disobeyed him when she says “I did it. I don’t deny a thing”. By saying this Butler argues that she not only performs the action of burying her brother but she “refuses the linguistic possibility of severing herself from the deed” as “the only way the doer is attached to the deed is through the linguistic assertion of the connection”. Since the action of Greek tragedies happens offstage and the audience are restricted to hearing speeches about it rather than seeing it visually, Antigone’s total assertion of her defiant deed is an instance of her taking ownership of this action regardless of the negative consequences that she is certainly aware of. She says that death is not an issue for her and seems to have accepted the tragic repercussions of her actions as she knows that by disobeying Creon she has isolated herself. Wiltshire argues that Antigone’s disobedience is especially potent with her as the female heroine of the story, but that Sophocles also perhaps frames her as her own antagonist with Creon as the natural hero. This intentionally places the conflict between the masculine and the feminine and so automatically implies a gender imbalance between the two characters: Creon repeatedly scorns the fact that he is being outdone by a woman specifically, such as when he says “I am not the man, not now: she is the man if this victory goes to her”. Here, he is directly associating victory in this conflict with gender as it would be emasculating for him to lose to her primarily as she is a woman and represents everything that is contrary to his rigid ideals. Thus, the main conflict of the play can be boiled down to the binary opposition of gender; all the other problems can be said to stem from this clash of masculine and feminine.
Overall, gender can affect our readings of classical texts massively. It allows scholarship and modern readers, especially modern female readers, to find nuances in the texts that may not necessarily have been intended by the author, but which can find spaces for women within a largely masculine canon of literature. By reading the character of Antigone as a feminist figure, new and exciting readings of ancient texts can appear as the concept of gender evolves and changes in our own society.
Antigone – Sophocles (translated by Fagles)
Virgin in a Tree – Sylvia Plath (1958)
Bennett A. and Royle N. (2016) Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Oxon: Routledge
Butler, J. (2000) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press
De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex, London: Vintage
Fowler, R. (2008) ‘‘This tart fable’: Daphne and Apollo in Modern Women’s Poetry’ in V. Zadjko and M. Leonard ed., Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 381-398
Goldhill, S. (2008) ‘Antigone and the politics of sisterhood’ in V. Zadjko and M. Leonard ed., Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hoy, J. (2009) ‘Hegel, Antigone, and Feminist Critique: The Spirit of Ancient Greece’ in K. Westphal ed., The Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 172-189
Irigaray, L. (1974) Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by G. Gill. New York: Cornell University Press.
Mills, P. (1986) ‘Hegel’s Antigone’, The Owl of Minerva 17, 131-152
Wiltshire, S. (1976) ‘Antigone’s Disobedience’, Arethusa 9, 29-36