Antigone and Ismene in Oedipus at Colonus
Behold this Oedipus, –/ him who knew the famous riddles and was a man most masterful;/ not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot– see him now and see the breakers of misfortune swallow him! ” (Oedipus the King, 1524-1527). Now that Oedipus has lost everything– his wife, mother, kingdom, and all power– his existence rests entirely on the aid of his two daughters. However, that dependence is not evenly distributed between Antigone and Ismene.
Even though both daughters provide assistance to Oedipus, the relationship that Oedipus has with Ismene is weaker in comparison to the firm and unwavering relationship that he has with Antigone. Oedipus’s incompetence is evident from the very beginning of the play, explaining why he relies on Antigone time and again. When they arrive at the sacred grove at Colonus, Oedipus asks Antigone to leave him and find out if anyone lives nearby, and she says that she can see a man approaching. To which Oedipus follows with more inquiries: “Is he coming this way?
Has he started towards us? ” (I, 30). Even after the stranger leaves, Oedipus cannot tell that he has exited until Antigone tells him so. Antigone also aids Oedipus by warning him that she sees the Chorus approaching. Oedipus, once a great intellectual, is not even capable of responding to a simple request of his name without the aid of Antigone: “My child, what can I say to them? ” (ii, 214). Additionally, Oedipus seems to need help with every little move he makes, even for the mere act of being seated: “Help me sit down; take care of the blind man. ” (I, 21).
Luckily for Oedipus, his relationship with Antigone reaches a point where Antigone no longer needs instructions from her father; it is assured that she will help him: “After so long, you need not tell me father” (I, 22). Even though Antigone helps her father with everything, Oedipus’s reliance on Antigone seems to weigh greatly on her ability to see for him, emphasizing Oedipus’s blindness and impotence, as well as the strength of Oedipus’s relationship with Antigone. Oedipus and Antigone have a mutual commitment to each other, supporting the fact that their rapport is greater than the attachment between Oedipus and Ismene.
When Ismene and Antigone are freed from Creon’s guards, Oedipus only requests to feel the touch of Antigone to make sure that she is safe. To which Antigone steadfastly replies, “It shall be as you ask; I wish it as much as you” (v, 1106). Oedipus even directly states that Antigone is most cherished by him: “I have what is dearest to me in the world. / To die, now, would not be so terrible,/ Since [Antigone is] near me” (v, 1110-1111). Their relationship is so strong that even after Oedipus goes off to die Antigone cannot stand to be without him.
Antigone even goes so far as to ask why she could not join him, whereas Ismene selfishly replies, “O pity! What is left for me? ” (v, 1715). Not once does Antigone hesitate about her sense of duty to her father; Ismene, on the other hand, does not seem as unswerving. Upon exploration of Ismene’s reaction to her father’s death, especially in contrast to that of Antigone’s, the reader sees that her devotion to Oedipus is irresolute. When Antigone suggests running back to find Oedipus after he leaves to die, Ismene cowardly replies, “Why, what shall we do? (viii, 1723). After Oedipus departs, Antigone is left longing for her father while Ismene appears to already have forgotten him: “For what [are you longing], — tell me! ” (viii, 1725). Ismene even makes excuses in order to avoid visiting her father: “But that is not permitted. Do you not see? ” (viii, 1728). At first glance, one can see that the zealous feelings that Antigone holds for her father are not reflected in Ismene. Ismene is not nearly so close with her father, as she is of no use with respect to Oedipus’s most terrible loss–his sight.
As a matter of fact, it seems that Ismene has some difficulty with her own sight as well. Ismene’s first lines are about her not being able to see her father and sister: “O father and sister together! Dearest voices! / Now I have found you– how, I scarcely know–/ I don’t know how I shall see you through my tears! ” (ii, 324-326). Immediately thereafter, she exclaims that she can hardly bear to look at her father because of the cruel fate that he has suffered. Ismene seems to be distracted by pity and shame in a way that Antigone is not.
Giving further support for the fact that Ismene’s dedication to Oedipus does not seem as great as Antigone’s. Although Ismene’s assistance is not as important to the sightless Oedipus, she does offer some practical help to her father. It is Ismene who goes to perform the rites of atonement to appease the spirits on whose ground Oedipus and Antigone trespassed at the beginning of the play. Ismene is the one that tells Oedipus of Polyneices whereabouts. She lets her father know that Creon is coming to Oedipus with which Oedipus replies to hear more from Ismene: “To do what, daughter?
Tell me about this” (ii, 398). It is also from Ismene that Oedipus learns that Creon and Polyneices, separately and on the advice of the oracles, seek Oedipus’s blessing and body to aid them in their battles for control of Thebes. The information that Ismene provides is essential to Oedipus and in choosing where to be buried after his death, thus, Oedipus is also dependent on Ismene to a great extent. Given Oedipus’s faltering and lack of self-reliance, he would not be able to survive without the help of both of his daughters.
They both assist Oedipus, and it seems that this assistance takes the form of accommodation; Ismene most likely takes the place of Oedipus’s ears whereas Antigone takes the place of his eyes. But one aspect that must not be overlooked is the fact that Oedipus still has his ears and his sense of hearing. Oedipus’s reliance on Antigone for the tragic loss of his eyes combined with the utter dedication that Antigone and Oedipus have to each other demonstrates that Oedipus has a stronger bond with Antigone than he ever did with Ismene.