“I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.” ~ Mary Wollstonecraft
Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Sophocles’ “Antigone” are written in two vastly time periods but both focus on the role of women in their respective eras. It is observed that the inherent strength of the women protagonists in both the plays is related and parallel, irrespective of the age they have been written.
Henrik Ibsen was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as the “father of modern drama” and is one of the founders of modernism in the field of theatre. His plays are thought to be appalling and often immoral to many of his era because Victorian values of family life were very different to his ideas. Norwegian playwright, Ibsen’s, “A Doll’s House” is a scornful criticism of traditional and conventional roles of men and women in Victorian marriage. The play centers around the roles of a woman: a mother and a wife. As the plot of the play builds up, the emancipation of women is recognized and brought out to the audience particularly through the following dialogue, “Listen, Torvald. I have heard that when a wife deserts her husband’s house, as I am doing now, he is legally freed from all obligations toward her. In any case I set you free from all your obligations. You are not to feel yourself bound in the slightest way, any more than I shall.” 1(Act iii). Similarly, in ancient Greece many playwrights used mythological stories to animadvert on social and political issues of their time. This is what Sophocles intended to do when he wrote Antigone. Greek playwright Sophocles wrote this play as his last piece in the Theban Trilogy around 442 B.C. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, fights for burial of her brother Polyneices against the decree of her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebe, “will you lend your hands to mine, to lift the body?”2 (38). It is a plot that revolves around the “unwritten law” of the gods against the laws of mankind, family relationships against state laws, and more notably man against woman.
As the two playwrights have portrayed the true role of a woman in their individual plays during their respective aeon, it is very important to note the social background of both Greece and Norway. In the 18th century women were the ‘creative source of human life’, as said by many critics. They were considered naturally weaker than men, both mentally and physically. Wifehood and motherhood were viewed as women’s most significant livelihood in Norway. They were forbidden to put themselves into any other role of their choice. Also, formal education was never the concern for girls, however, they must learn to cook, clean and care for children. Likewise, women didn’t have any right to vote, serve on juries or own property in Greece. They always forced to have a guardian beyond themselves. The guardian of a woman before marriage- her father; and after the
marriage- her husband. Adding to that, their main duty was to give sexual gratification and be a perfect marionette in the social gatherings. Their treatment was similar to that of slaves, only difference was in the way they were addressed.
Therefore, to show the audiences the general attitude, atmosphere and mood created for women within families, Sophocles and Ibsen develop the storyline of their plays around the socio- political scenario taking into account the close knit relationships within the Helmers and the family of the king of Thebes.
According to critics, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House examines various social issues of the society. Critic, Gail Finney explains that in A Doll’s House, “Ibsen is really arguing for social justice.”3 In support of that New York Times contributor Walter Goodman declared that A Doll’s House is “a great document of feminism”4 as Ibsen’s concerns about the position of women in society are brought to life in the play. He believed that women had a right to develop their own individuality, but in reality, their role was often self-sacrificial.
Nora, the main character of the play, lives in a dream world, a child fantasy, where everything is perfect, and everything seems to look like a pretty picture, “If that were to happen, I don’t suppose I should care whether I owed money or not.”5 (Act i) Her character is pampered by her own dominant husband as she is called by several names, “skylark”, “spendthrift”, and “squirrel”6. Yet, towards the end of the play she decides to step out of the delusion and look beyond her family. Her first step towards it was by making a decision to leave her husband, her home and her children in order to find herself. Nora’s last words are hopeful, yet her final action is less optimistic, “Both you and I have to be so changed…I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.” 7(Act iii) Just as she slams the door it symbolizes the finality of their relationship.
Nora leaves the role of the doll like wife which she played her whole life, and wishes to become an independent self-confident adult. Many critics simply did not accept the idea that a submissive woman of the first two acts could display so much strength in the third act. The audience just cannot visualize a woman displaying the kind of behavior demonstrated by Nora as it was beyond their comprehension that a woman would voluntarily choose to sacrifice her children in order to seek her own identity. On the other hand, reputed critic Finney claims that “Nora is an icon of women’s liberation.”8 Also, he thought 19th century feminists praised Ibsen’s work and “saw it as a warning of what would happen when women in general woke up to the injustices that had been committed against them”.9 Adding to that view, the character of Nora, from Ibsen’s point of view, displays and shares with the audiences that a woman lacks the knowledge that a man has about the world outside.
Overall, Ibsen has shown a journey of an ordinary woman in Norway who is eligible to take care of her home, children and husband. Though, there is a lot more undiscovered in her life. Thus, for Nora the struggle begins after she abandons her family and relationships of home.
On the other hand, Sophocles’ characters are complex in terms of their emotions yet simplistic in terms of their moral code of demeanor. De Romilly, a critic, says that “Sophocles’ characters have different mentalities because each embodies a different moral ideal, to which he or she adheres.”10 Hence, the character of Antigone in Sophocles’ play is very important as she appears as a young girl who rises up alone against state power and leads the tragedy. Her sister Ismene describes Antigone as “You seem so dark and grim”11 (25). Likewise, in looking at the first few exchanges between Ismene and Antigone in the play, it is greatly apparent that there are plenty of societal issues surrounding women from ancient Greece, “We must remember that we were born women, not to fight against men.”12 (54- 55) Furthermore, to emphasize on the social issues a point of view suggests that Creon is the protagonist and Antigone the antagonist. This is because it was not suitable for a woman to have a leading role in a play. It is also worth noting that there is a similarity between the name of the heroine Antigone and the term antagonist. This gives the audience the feeling that Antigone has been fated to be the antagonist and to die for it in a tragic manner.
Further, when Antigone was led away to be buried alive she makes a statement which many critics have felt is a contradiction to her character, “If I were a mother, and my children were rotting in deathâ€¦taken on this task against the city’s will.”13 (871-874). This dialogue makes her appear less noble than she is in the opening scene. Different to A Doll’s House, Sophocles enhances Antigone’s boldness and courage from the opening of the play. Her character has been consistent and steady. She stood by her stand all the time and could bare all the consequences of the act. The writer has intentionally shown Antigone as a chivalrous and a daring character. He intends to portray that women have been caged and need to speak out their opinions in the society. This play has become the means of communication between the playwright the audience. The first message conveyed is whenever a woman performs an act which is against the wish and will of a man the woman is penalized and could be placed away from the society, as seen in the play with Antigone. Antigone stands as a role model to all of them. Her characteristics express that a woman has her point of view and she should put across to the society, whether it be right or wrong.
To conclude, it is noticed that the inherent strength of a woman’s nature has not changed considering the periods the plays have been written in. The audience feels that the role and the treatment given to a woman presented in both the eras had become a norm and accustomed by everybody in the society. Nobody ever tried to change it or protest against it until we experienced such playwrights conveying a strong impacting message through their respective plays. The audience observes that as the intentions of the playwrights, Ibsen and Sophocles are similar; the theme surrounding the two female protagonists is akin. Further, the characters hold the similar inherent strength because, as mentioned earlier, it was the way everybody looked at the gender. They were known to be inferior to men and it continued till late 19th century until the economies of Europe did not require women in the workforce.
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