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Thread: What happens to Ismene?

  1. #1
    This or That Literary_Cat's Avatar
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    What happens to Ismene?

    The Oedipus Trilogy was my serious summer read, but I found myself quite alarmed when I reached the end of Antigone. My question is: What happens to Ismene, Antigone's sister?

    At the end of Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Ismene are brought out to bid their father Oedipus fare well; in Oedipus at Colonnus, Ismene plays a rather important role in beseeching the gods to allow her father to live uncursed on holy ground; and of course in Antigone, Ismene acts as a foil to her noble and stubborn sister. But after she attempts to share responsibility with Antigone for burying her brother Polynices, she disappears. What happens to her? (Does she die?)

    Sophocles seems to ignore her fate completely--and I find this unsettling. Can anyone help?
    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

    ~Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear. Dune.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by Literary_Cat View Post
    The Oedipus Trilogy was my serious summer read, but I found myself quite alarmed when I reached the end of Antigone. My question is: What happens to Ismene, Antigone's sister?
    ...
    Sophocles seems to ignore her fate completely--and I find this unsettling. Can anyone help?
    This is an interesting question. Evidently, there was some story about Ismene getting involved in a love affair that led to her death, but I don't think Sophocles really intended for his audience to have this in mind. In fact, it seems that he might have transformed this story into Antigone's fatal love affair with Haimon.

    What is more interesting, perhaps, is that the open-ended-ness of Ismene's fate had such an unsettling and disturbing effect. I wonder if this has to do with the practice of reading the three plays together as a single unit, in the order Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonnus, and then Antigone. This is quite different than the way Sophocles intended for the plays to be received -- as three separate live performances. In fact, Antigone was produced first, then, probably more than a decade later, Oedipus Rex, and then, a few decades after that (after Sophocles had already died, in fact), Oedipus at Colonnus.

    If Antigone is taken by itself, the focus is so intense on the conflict between Creon and Antigone that I suppose many audiences are willing to accept the ambiguity of Ismene's fate, just as most audiences don't find it unsettling that the fate of Juliet's nurse is left open-ended in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Similarly with Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonnus, in which the two sisters play even smaller roles.

    I suppose that when all three plays are read together as a single entity, on the other hand, Ismene's importance could be accidentally amplified by her repeated presence. In addition, someone who reads all three plays together as a single entity might be more apt to read it in the way one would read a novel like Les Miserables, expecting all the major characters to come to some kind of resolution in the end. Perhaps this is partly responsible for the unsettling feeling.
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

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    This or That Literary_Cat's Avatar
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    Ah--as a student of the novel, I see where my fault originated. Perhaps I shall tell her story some day. Thank you for your response, bluevictim.
    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

    ~Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear. Dune.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Literary_Cat View Post
    Perhaps I shall tell her story some day.
    A similar impulse may have inspired Sophocles to write Antigone. Prior to Sophocles, there was little mention of the daughters of Oedipus.
    Thank you for your response, bluevictim.
    You're welcome.
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

  5. #5
    laudator temporis acti andave_ya's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bluevictim View Post
    I suppose that when all three plays are read together as a single entity, on the other hand, Ismene's importance could be accidentally amplified by her repeated presence. In addition, someone who reads all three plays together as a single entity might be more apt to read it in the way one would read a novel like Les Miserables, expecting all the major characters to come to some kind of resolution in the end. Perhaps this is partly responsible for the unsettling feeling.
    Ohh, that's really interesting, thanks for posting. I too wondered what happened to Ismene -- I just finished the Theban Plays and I read them as a single entity so yes, I suppose I was expecting a resolution for all the main characters. Thanks for clarifying on that.
    "The time has come," the Walrus said,
    "To talk of many things:
    Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
    Of cabbages--and kings--
    And why the sea is boiling hot--
    And whether pigs have wings."

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    I actually wondered the same thing. I'm writing a story about how Ismene is forced to become Queen of Thebes after Creon commits suicide not long after the deaths of Eurydice and Haimon. Seeing as she's the last living person of the royal family, she is forced to become queen.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by emfayemc View Post
    I actually wondered the same thing. I'm writing a story about how Ismene is forced to become Queen of Thebes after Creon commits suicide not long after the deaths of Eurydice and Haimon. Seeing as she's the last living person of the royal family, she is forced to become queen.
    Sounds like an interesting parallel novel. Good luck!
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

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    If Ismene simply disappeared from the play, we'd have no real concern. The moment that raises the question is Antigone's referring to herself as "the last daughter of the house of your kings" (Braun). Since Ismene is younger and presumably still alive, what could this line mean? One of my students suggests that Antigone rejects Ismene as not worthy of her royal heritage. In other words, Antigone views herself as the last of the "royal" blood. With some creative reading, that explanation could be extrapolated from earlier lines. It's the best idea I've heard.

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