To what Extent does Heaney Present Women as Being Treated as Inferior in the Burial at The Thebes?
Male chauvinism existed since time immemorial. Women are treated mistreat compared to men as portrayed in the Heaney’s play, Burial at the Thebes, which depicts the situation in ancient Greek society. In this setting, women are brought out as inferior and weak compared to men and are isolated from the community. Three characters, Antigone, Ismene, who is sister to Antigone and their uncle Kreon, are used in this book to elucidate this vice. Ismene accepts the segregation of women and to them being inferior to their counterpart men. (Heaney, 56). While Kreon, the political leader of Thebes, shows that women have no political rights and should be subjected to men as political rulers and guides to the ladies. The husband is the head of the family and dictates all the rules in the homestead.
Women are denied their right of inheriting property or political leadership of the deceased parents and only the sons of a king could succeed deceased father. When a ruler had no sons at the time of death, they were succeeded by a male relative, such as a brother. Through this unjust myth, Kreon became the leader of Thebes at the expense of one of the deceased daughters, Ismene and Antigone (Heaney, 54). On the other hand, Antigone openly opposed the oppression of women in society and acted in total freedom. This shows that women are decisive, strong and capable of fighting for their rights and redeem themselves from the oppressor.
Ismene’s character portrays women as very submissive, feeble and inferior compared to men. When her sister Antigone asked for her support to rebel against their uncle, she refuses, not because she hated her sister, but because of fear of the consequences of their action which meant death for both of them (Heaney, 57). Kreon had decided to deny Polyneices a respectful burial like that of his brother because Kreon thought him as a traitor of the state. Antigone asked her sister, Ismene, to give a hand in burying their brother, “He is my brother and deny it as you will, your brother too” (Heaney, 61), to which she responded saying “No, we should be sensible: we are women, born unfit to battle men: and we are subjects, while Kreon is King” (Heaney, 34). Ismenes response portrays women as cowards who aren’t able to fight against men. She also thinks of women as of inferior subjects while Kreon is the King. By feeling feeble Ismene refuse to participate in what is right for the reason that it was opposing the will of a man, their uncle.
Ismene also adds “What is life when I’ve lost you? What is there to love in life (Heaney,, 14) and thereafter attempts to say that they had buried their brother with Antigone for fear of being left alone without a family when her sister is killed. The women of ancient Greece are weak and incapable of supporting her daily life. They were not even allowed to go shopping without the custody of a man. They were only subjected to marriage life to take care of the husband and do the household chores.
Men are viewed as politically informed and powerful while women are poor subjects, secluded and ignorant of the on goings in the political arena. When Antigone inquires whether Ismene was informed about the decree, she says she knew nothing about it (Heaney, 14). She appears to lack information about an occurrence in the political arena surrounding her because of ignorance and social seclusion.
Kreon, Antigones’ uncle and political leader of Thebes portrays the societal expectations of man as the superior gender, whose role is to control and subdue the women. The political rights of women are continually denied, for no good reason. The ruler is angered by the fact that, Antigones, a woman, had buried her brother. He had expected a man to be responsible for the act. He says “I’m no man, she is a man, she’s the king, if she gets away with this” (Heaney, 59). He is a dictator, who believes that Antigone must be punished to show his powers and he goes ahead and sentences her to death.
He is also arrogant towards the women. He says “I’m alive, though, and no woman will rule me” (Heaney, 44). He adds “if we must fall, better to fall to a real man/ and not be called worse than women (Heaney, 22). This is a complete disrespect for women at whom he does not look as at his equals. Kreon orders the guards to arrest and detain both Ismene and Antigone ‘’so that they will act as women and not stray around (Heaney, 14). This clearly illustrates a harsh political setting with deprivation of women’s rights. Women were supposed to be confined indoors. Antigone and Haemon wife commits suicide. This portrays women as emotionally weak and incapable of handling their problems with sobriety.
However, Antigone represents women who are able to free themselves from the captivity of their male counterparts. She refuses to be segregated, comes out as a strong and decisive woman since she individually chooses the right action, and buries her brother even if it cost her life. Her loyalty to the family is attacked by denying Polynices a proper burial. She acts against the law and chooses the god’s law. “And Death is a god/ who wants his laws obeyed” (Heaney, 33). She also confesses of burying her brother when Sentry says “we accuse of her doing it before and this time, both, and she dint deny a thing” (Heaney, 32). She also tells Kreon “I did it. I deny nothing” (Heaney, 32). She is fearless and proud of her actions and refuses to submit to the will of men. She dares the ruler and accepts her punishment boldly unlike her sister who feels inferior as a woman.
Antigone is also defiant in that she defies her uncle’s laws against burying her brother and also as verbal attack on the ruler which angers him to the extent of sentencing her to death despite the fact that she was his niece. She refused to obey her uncle’s order just because he was a man. She fights for equality of men and women unlike the rest of the women in the community (Heaney, 24). Women should be courageous enough to fight for their rights even if it means sacrificing their lives.
When Creon was addressing Haemon, his son, concerning his fiancée’s actions, he stresses the importance of establishing a stronger bond with his father and not with the wife. He adds that “Oh Haemon, never lose your sense of judgment over a woman (Heaney, 43). He views the son’s commitment to his wife as close to a sin, which is unacceptable. He is a dictator who disrespects women in the society.
In conclusion, women in the play burial at the Thebes are portrayed as weak, submissive and inferior to the male counterparts. This is brought out through Ismene, who has accepted the status quo and male domination in the society. She does this out of the fear of punishment given to those who go against the will of the male ruler. Ismene is dependent on other people and fears living without a family. She is willing to die with her sister than live alone. Her character is contrasted to that of her sister Antigone, who is brave, courageous and strong enough to stand for what she believes is right, the god’s will and family loyalty, and refuses to obey the will of men. She goes ahead to burry her brother alone and confesses to doing it (Heaney, 34). She is willing to die for the right course. Creon, the male ruler and uncle to Antigone and Ismene, is a male chauvinist, who represents the men in ancient Greek. He has no respect for women, including his relatives, and is quick to sentence his niece to death penalty for disobeying the law of the land. He has great respect for the laws made by men and disregards the god will. He denies his nephew, whom he terms a traitor, a proper burial ceremony. He punishes Antigone mostly because of her gender and not her misdeeds and also because of his desire to command respect from his subjects who could otherwise have viewed him as a weak leader. He believes that political leadership should run from father to son and never should a woman rule the state. Men are also expected to be the overall heads in family settings, with the woman delegated to a minimal role of a caretaker who should always be secluded indoors.
Heaney, S. The Burial At Thebes. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.