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Female Characters in “Antigone” by Sophocles and “Othello” by Shakespeare


Patriarchy is the core of numerous societies around the world, which has different effects on the lives of people, particularly women. In a traditionally patriarchal society, females experience oppression and discrimination due to their innate features, which puts them in difficult situations. The role of women in society has for a long time been a topic discussed by philosophers, intellectuals, and politicians. Moreover, writers also extensively portrayed female characters in their books and showed their perspectives on the impact of patriarchy on women. In many ways, literature incentivized people to explore ideas about women which were not actually practiced in reality. As a result, many female literary characters became inspirational role models for women who read books. Sophocles’ Antigone and Shakespeare’s Othello are books which were written in different time periods, societies, and cultures. Nevertheless, they both portray strong female characters who employ different strategies in order to take control of their lives despite living in a patriarchal environment. Antigone, the main character of Sophocles’ play, takes control by self-reliance and loyalty to her beliefs, while Emilia from Othello does it by challenging the existing patriarchal norms.

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An Analysis of Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone

Antigone can easily be considered one of the first feminist characters in western literature since she demonstrates qualities which are contrary to those expected from women in a patriarchal society. Antigone is a sister of Eteocles and Polynices, two brothers who die fighting each other for the throne of Thebes, which then passes to Creon. The new king refuses to bury Polynices since he believes him to be a traitor who illegally attacked Eteocles and issue a decree stipulating punishment for everyone lamenting Polynices (Sophocles 21). Essentially, the situation which Antigone faces is extremely challenging since her attempt to bury Polynices entails a direct threat to her life. Moreover, as a woman, Antigone cannot, under any circumstances, participate freely in the political sphere of Thebes. Creon himself openly states his perspective by saying, “No woman’s going to be in charge as long as I’m alive” (Sophocles 33). Thus, any of Antigone’s actions are guaranteed to be considered civil disobedience and a decision to go against the will of Creon, as well as the established gender norms promoted in society.

Nevertheless, Antigone, understanding all risks, still decides to bury her brother Polynices which can be considered a manifestation of her independence and self-reliance. In fact, the burying of a dead person, irrespective of their status, is essential because it is a religious obligation and an act of honoring the Gods. Thus, Antigone shows her commitment to her beliefs in the face of imminent danger and fulfills not only her responsibility to her family but also her faith. Antigone explains her decision by stating, “I’m pleasing those I most should please” (Sophocles 17). In other words, Antigone is not afraid of facing any hardship because she is loyal to her Gods and ready to act heroically. Antigone recognizes that her situation is difficult but calls herself “A righteous criminal” (Sophocles 16). Such actions of Antigone highlight her disobedience not only against the decree of Creon but also against the patriarchal order of the society she lives in. Essentially, Antigone openly shows her disagreement with the institutional patriarchy and decides to defy it by not abiding by the established rules of conduct and laws such as Creon’s decree.

At the same time, it is possible to say that Antigone’s burial of Polynices is not a manifestation of Antigone’s independence but only her desire to honor her family. Yet, Antigone’s disagreement with Ismene, her sister, reveals that the act of burial of Polynices is more than just a fulfillment of a familial obligation. Ismene actually confronts Antigone and says, “We are born as women and not made to fight with men” (Sophocles 16). The words of Ismene enable the reader to understand that the position of women in the patriarchal society. Basically, Sophocles intentionally uses Ismene as a character who stresses how unconventional Antigone’s beliefs are. Ismene constitutes an obedient woman who has been taught not to participate in any controversial activities, while Antigone refuses to accept the situation when she is considered inferior to men. Thus, the burial of her brother constitutes a perfect opportunity for her to openly demonstrate her opposition to the state of affairs.

An Analysis of Emilia in Shakespeare’s Othello

It is clear that the main female character of Shakespeare’s Othello is Desdemona, who becomes a victim of a patriarchal society. At the same time, Desdemona, due to her obedience, cannot be considered a woman who takes control of her life and, at least, makes an attempt to rebel against the rule of men. Instead, she decides to be completely dependent on her husband and tolerate all of his demeaning actions towards her. Desdemona is in love with Othello, and she does not want to be independent and free, she even states, “His unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love” (Shakespeare 91). Essentially, Desdemona is ready to die at the hands of Othello, and even death cannot stop her from loving him. Nevertheless, Shakespeare also introduces a female character who can be viewed as opposite to Desdemona, namely, Emilia, who is well aware of all the disadvantages of a patriarchal society.

Emilia is a character who does not appear in every scene of the book, yet, she still plays a significant role because she exemplifies a woman who challenges patriarchy. For instance, Emilia is not afraid of holding conversations about equality between the two sexes and the need for women to have the same rights as men. For instance, Emilia highlights her perspective on gender equality by saying, “Let husbands know, their wives have sense like them” (Shakespeare 96). Emilia does not accept the existing patriarchal roles where women are inferior to men and generally considered as objects and possessions. Instead, Emilia refers to the idea that men and women are physically alike and, therefore, they should be equal in all other aspects, including rights.

Emilia does not believe that women should be passive and tolerant towards the inappropriate behavior of their husbands and must be able to act in a similar fashion. Speaking of relationships in marriage, she states, “Then let them use us well. Else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (Shakespeare 97). Emilia believes that equality between men and women must also affect their marital obligations, and women should have the option of retaliating if their husbands fail to act correctly. Such words once again defy the norms of society, which imply that women must never judge their husbands’ actions or in any way oppose them. Yet, Shakespeare shows the results of women’s obedience in an environment where they are subject to constant oppression on the part of patriarchy by providing the example of Desdemona.

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Emilia is also a female character who challenges the patriarchal authority openly without the fear of facing the consequences. When Othello kills Desdemona, Emilia tells him, “This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven than thou wast worthy her” (Shakespeare 112). Thus, Emilia openly states that Othello will go to hell for his murder of Desdemona, making him face the truth. The scene demonstrates Emilia’s independence and refusal to be obedient, despite being only a mistress of Desdemona. Emilia tells what she really thinks and is ready to sacrifice her life for the truth and the ability to challenge the patriarchal system. As a result, Emilia stays in complete control of her life and does not play the standard role of a silent woman who would tolerate even the death of her mistress.


Female characters, Antigone and Emilia, from Sophocles’ Antigone and Shakespeare’s Othello, constitute examples of independent women who do not lose control of their lives, despite living in patriarchal societies. Antigone is a woman who decided to bury her brother because she believed that it was the right way to act. She intentionally violated the king’s decree but thus demonstrated her independence and self-reliance. Essentially, while being advised not to bury Polynices even by her sister, Antigone fulfilled her religious and familial obligation. Emilia is in many ways similar to Antigone because she also was not afraid of challenging the patriarchal norms. She promoted the idea of equality between men and women, including in marriage, and refused to stay silent and obedient. Thus, Antione and Emilia can be considered who took control of their lives and openly showed their independence.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2020.

Sophocles. Antigone and Other Tragedies. Oxford University Press, 2020.

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