Did Translators of Sophocles Silence Ismene Because of Her Sexual History?

A line in ‘Antigone’ mysteriously migrated from Ismene’s mouth to her sister’s. Why?

What happened to Ismene? In one version of Sophocles’ Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus turns away from her interlocutor, Kreon, the ruler of Thebes, and addresses Haemon, his son, in absentia. Dearest Haemon! she says, how your father does you wrong. In another version, her sister, the doomed Antigone, replaces Ismene in the spotlight and speaks the very same line.

Ismene has been cheated of the line for hundreds of years by translators and editors, her words stolen out of her mouth and given to her sister. The transfer of the line may well be an example of the perpetuation of an age-old injustice against women who are seen as insufficiently pure.

I first discovered this when the line threw a wrench into my homework, or what passed for homework in my somewhat eccentric homeschool regimen.

The transfer of the line may well be an example of the perpetuation of an age-old injustice against women who are seen as insufficiently pure.

Mom, my homeschool educator, had elected to spare me the failings of the California public school curriculum, by far the most glaring of which in Mom’s eyes was that the system, unforgivably, allowed kids to ascend from K to 12 without once being asked to conjugate an irregular Ionic verb or scan an Alcaic stanza.

On that afternoon, Mom tasked me with translating a passage from the second episode of Sophocles’ Antigone. And I cheated. Instead of committing the passage in Greek to memory, as Mom insisted, I visited the nearby Will and Ariel Durant branch of the LA Public Library and cribbed from a translation from the shelves — the well-known David Grene version. I revamped the Grene lines so that they sounded as if they’d been composed by me, Mom’s wayward son. When I brought my work home, I checked it against the Greek text of the play — Mom favored R.D. Dawe’s 1979 Teubner edition — just in case Grene had taken liberties. Mom was exceptionally good at detecting liberties.

And in fact, Grene had done something sketchy, so it seemed — or else Dawe had. The passage assigned was the short back-and-forth between Ismene and Kreon just before Ismene and Antigone are led away by Kreon’s guards at the end of the episode. Kreon speaks a line, then Ismene, then Kreon, and so on: stichomythia, a volleying form of dialogue common in Greek tragedy. Ismene says something like Seriously, you would kill your own son’s future bride? (This and subsequent translations are mine, not Grene’s.) Kreon answers crassly, Oh sure. No shortage of other fields for him to plow. Ismene says, But he’ll never find anyone as suited to him as my sister! Kreon says, Ugh. Suited or not, my sons will never marry enemies of the state.

At this point in the Grene translation, Ismene answers, which makes sense, because in stichomythia usually the same two characters volley without interruption for a solid page of text or two. But in Dawe’s Greek text, Antigone steps in and speaks the line: O most beloved Haemon, how your father dishonors you. That made sense too, because Antigone would naturally address her future husband as “dearest” or “most beloved,” while the endearment seemed a little on the strong side for timid, reserved Ismene. So what was the deal here? Why had the line flipped? To which of the sisters had Sophocles actually given the line?

Mom handled the confusion via our usual homeschool routine, by assigning me to improvise an essay that led off with one of her gnomic utterances: in this case, “I, Ismene, am a daughter of Oedipus, and I have been silenced.”

After she critiqued (meticulously) the essay, Mom walked me through the evidence: the aforementioned Dawe Greek text; a 1978 commentary on Sophocles by Jan Coenraad Kamerbeek which we frequently consulted (“let’s see what friend Kamerbeek has to say”), and the famous Jebb commentary on Antigone, first published in 1888. Each of these editions has been highly influential in its own way, and each gives the line in question, line 572, to Antigone, not Ismene. But this apparent consensus, spanning nearly a hundred years, is a relatively new development.

Without exception, in every one of the early manuscripts of Antigone — that is, all the versions of the text that survived into the 13th through 15th centuries — line 572 is spoken by Ismene. When the play was set in print for the first time, by Aldus Manutius in 1502, in Venice, the line assignment changed: Antigone spoke the line. Many subsequent editors accepted the switch either on the authority of the Aldine edition or according to their own logic. There are, Mom said, technical issues adduced by editors to justify the emendation, but these can be dismissed (for reasons she explained, but which I won’t get into). The true basis for the change is the propensity of male editors — nearly all the editors of Sophocles have been men — to idealize and sentimentalize Antigone, and the discomfort of the editors at a heroine who, in a play culminating in the dual suicides of her and her betrothed, doesn’t once explicitly profess her love for him. Putting line 572 in Antigone’s mouth thrusts her forward, heroically, into the spotlight at a key pivot in the drama, and transforms her into a character who, conventionally, apostrophizes her lover in explicit endearment: O dearest Haemon.

Putting line 572 in Antigone’s mouth thrusts her forward into the spotlight at a key pivot in the drama.

Mom’s reasoning seemed convincing enough, and as I discovered later, agrees with other views of why the line assignment changed. But eventually I came to believe that Mom hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the problem. (“Getting to the bottom” ranked high in Mom’s repertoire of injunctions and often figured in her critiques of my daily essays.)

Let’s first assess the scope of the damage. The editio princeps (first printed edition) of the plays of Sophocles, the Aldine — an easily available, portable version of the plays — disseminated whatever errors it contained with unprecedented efficiency throughout Europe and beyond, not only to readers of Greek, but through translations based on the Aldine Greek text. The Aldine, with Antigone speaking line 572, remained the most influential edition of Sophocles for over three centuries. It was superseded in the middle of the 19th century by a spate of important German and English commentaries, yet many of these, though they drew upon new scholarship, still seized upon line 572 as an opportunity to silence Ismene and put her sister front and center. And now we come to Jebb and his famous commentary, first published in 1888.

The central place of Jebb’s commentary in my childhood household, more than a century later, reflects its longstanding outsized influence: for generations, the Jebb Antigone dominated in the teaching of the difficulties of the play. Even now, Jebb is considered an invaluable resource, as can be appreciated by a quick online scan of undergrad syllabi, many of which rely on Jebb and Jebb alone. Beyond the academic value of Sir Jebb (knighted in 1900 for his contributions to classical scholarship), the commentary, along with Jebb’s other Sophocles commentaries, exerts a potent influence owing to its prominence in the Perseus Digital Library, by far the most widely used repository of classical texts converted into device-friendly bytes. Access to Perseus is irresistible for student learners, as each text is packaged conveniently along with a commentary, translation, links to lexicons, vocabulary tools, and more. And in Perseus, Jebb rules over what survives of Sophocles. For each of the seven extant plays, the sole available commentary at Perseus is Jebb’s; only two (and not Antigone) are provided with an alternative translation. The profound consequence of this near-monopoly is that Jebb’s choice to take line 572 away from Ismene remains in force and continues to make a strong impression on readers both in English, via the translation, and Greek, via the commentary. (The Greek text of Sophocles at Perseus isn’t Jebb’s; it’s from the 1912 edition of the widely read Loeb Classical Library series. But it, too, mutes Ismene at the line apostrophizing Haemon.)

How is it possible for an editor like Jebb or, later, Dawe (1978) and Kamerbeek (1978) and others, to approach a venerable classical text like Antigone, which has a manuscript tradition dating back centuries and centuries — that is, a family of handwritten manuscripts descended from the “official” copies made in the 4th century BCE — and in a single editorial decision, upend the tradition? The manuscripts for Antigone diverge at numerous important points because of copying errors and differences of interpretation, but they’re unanimous in attributing line 572 to Ismene. What entitles an editor to blatantly contradict the unanimity and essentially rewrite the text?

The short answer is that even the oldest and most reliable manuscripts are notorious for failures to accurately label which character speaks which line. In many cases an error is repaired by an editor early in the manuscript history, and the repair is universally accepted without controversy as a repair, an obviously necessary correction. In others, the unreliability of the earliest copyists leaves open an opportunity for editors to impose their own biases, quirks, and editorial agendas.

But the longer answer, as regards line 572 of Antigone specifically, involves the unacknowledged influence of Ismene’s sexual behavior in the classical tradition. Or, as Mom might have formulated it: “I am a daughter of Oedipus, and I have been unjustly silenced because of my sexual history.”

The unreliability of the earliest copyists leaves open an opportunity for editors to impose their own biases, quirks, and editorial agendas.

Within the play itself, the sexuality of the two sisters remains implicit: there is no overt sexual history written into the play for either sister. To the extent that there is sexuality within the frame of the play, it’s entirely sanctioned and belongs only to Antigone in unrealized potential in her role as Haemon’s future bride. Ismene as a character in the play traditionally has been viewed as a foil for Antigone, timid in contrast to Antigone’s recklessness, choosing subservience and conformity when Antigone opts for defiance. Whereas sexuality attaches to Antigone through her connection with Haemon, Ismene has neither future husband nor past or present suitors.

Outside the frame, though, looms a wholly different history for Ismene. The paucity of surviving ancient Greek texts makes it difficult to know exactly how Ismene and Antigone figured into myth and literature prior to their appearance in Sophocles’ Antigone in or around 441 BCE. What is known with certainty, however, is that the archaic poet Mimnermos, writing in the late 7th century BCE, mentioned an incident in the life of Ismene that’s strikingly at odds with the character of Ismene as portrayed in Antigone. The incident has been transmitted indirectly, in a hypothesis (i.e. brief introductory comment) to Antigone written by Salustios, a 5th-century CE rhetorician. Here’s the relevant passage in the hypothesis: “Mimnermos, however, says that Ismene, while dallying with Theoklymenos, was killed by Tydeus who acted at the behest of the goddess Athena.”

This murder can’t easily be reconciled with the events in Sophocles’ Antigone, because Tydeus is one of the seven warriors who joined forces to attack Thebes and were repulsed by, among others, Eteocles, Antigone’s brother whom she buries in defiance of Kreon’s edict: when the play begins, the battle is over and Tydeus is already dead. The word I’ve translated as “dallying” (prosomilousan) can have both innocent and euphemistic meaning. That it has the latter meaning here is proved by a vase by the artist known as the Tydeus painter, which depicts the moment just before the murder.

The Tydeus painter worked in the mid-6th century BCE and almost surely would have been familiar with the incident recounted by Mimnermos. In any case, other vases corroborate the evidence. On the vase in question, now in the Louvre, Ismene reclines on a kline (couch), unclothed, her right arm raised defensively against the drawn sword of Tydeus, who grips her shoulder with his left hand. Meanwhile Theoklymenos, also naked, flees while looking back — not at Ismene, it appears, but at the sword. The setting of the murder is debated — possibly inside the royal palace at Thebes; more intriguingly, in the interior of the temple of Athena where, it’s been conjectured, Ismene is a priestess of the goddess and has incurred her wrath by trysting at the temple: thus Athena’s command to Tydeus to punish her.

This isn’t the Ismene we know from Antigone.

All in all, the Tydeus vase and the Salustios quote, along with other scant remnants, point to a pre-Sophoclean literary tradition concerned with Oedipus, his children, and the battle at Thebes. The epic poems Thebais (nearly all lost) and Oedipodea (same) were at the centers of the tradition. In this tradition as we’ve received it, a key feature is the contrasting prominence, in the bits and pieces that remain, of Ismene and her sister. Ismene survives vividly thanks to the preservation of the incident that blends sex and death. Antigone, on the other hand, is scarcely known at all. Her name doesn’t appear until the 5th century, when Antigone was written, and her involvement in the burial of her brother is mentioned for the first time only a couple of decades before Sophocles’ play, in the closing scenes of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Moreover, for an editor, like Jebb, approaching the play with the intent to craft a new edition, the prominence of Ismene in the earlier tradition is magnified by the fact that her tryst and the violence that ensued, as described by Mimnermos, is appended to the play itself — that is, in the early manuscript versions of the play, the hypothesis written by Salustios either immediately precedes the first lines of the play, or follows the last lines. The upshot is that in the space around the text, Antigone figures only in her 5th-century heroic version, as the sister who defiantly buries her brother, while Ismene is referenced as the woman whom a goddess ordered to be killed because of a sexual transgression.

Ismene is referenced as the woman whom a goddess ordered to be killed because of a sexual transgression.

In terms of sexual history, Antigone enters the play as essentially a blank slate; Ismene at best is guilty of a liaison with an enemy warrior, at worst the desecration, through illicit sex, of the very temple in which she may be a priestess (a priestess, no less, of the patron goddess of the city in which the play was first performed).

Against this background, it’s easy enough to reconstruct, especially for a 19th-century editor like Jebb, the logic that would lead to silencing Ismene at line 572.

The editor already knows that the attribution of the line is in dispute; the famous Aldine switched the line to Antigone, and so did major editions in the 19th century prior to Jebb’s (e.g. Boeckh, 1843; Campbell, 1871; Dindorf, 1873). The attribution of the line thus is open for consideration. If Ismene speaks the line, the line is spoken by a character whose transgressive sexual history literally has become attached to the text of the play. From this tainted character’s mouth is uttered an appeal to rectitude and honor: O dearest Haemon, how far your father goes in dishonoring you! Where’s the propriety, so a biased editor might reason, in Ismene with her unseemly past addressing as “dearest” the betrothed of the (sexually) faultless, idealized and sentimentalized heroine? Isn’t the endearment sullied if uttered by Ismene?

But if Antigone speaks the line, then, in Jebb’s words, “this solitary reference to her love heightens in a wonderful degree our sense of her unselfish devotion to a sacred duty.” The duty — the burial of her brother — is performed by a woman distinguished by, again in Jebb’s words, “intense tenderness, purity, and depth of domestic affection.” The word “purity” is curious here because the play itself touches only lightly on themes of purity of character. “Purity” seems instead to reflect the editor’s awareness of the contrast between the two sisters in their histories outside the play’s frame. To transfer the line to Antigone reinforces this contrast of sexual histories: the editorial decision removes troublesome Ismene in favor of allowing Antigone to speak from her heart in a burst of “pure” romantic love.

If Ismene speaks the line, it’s spoken by a character whose transgressive sexual history has become attached to the text of the play.

Now let’s survey, once more, the damage done.

To some extent Ismene’s silencing has been mitigated by recent scholarship that defends the unanimity of the earliest manuscripts in assigning line 572 to Ismene, as well as by translations, such as Grene (1991) and Fagles (1982), that let Ismene voice the line. Still, beginning with the publication of the Aldine in 1502, the influence of the texts that silence her has been enormous, both for readers of Greek and readers in translation. Friedrich Hölderlin’s renowned translation into German (1804) follows the Aldine and silences Ismene. So does the the widely-read Harvard Classics translation of 1909, a version whose influence persists online. Ismene is silenced as well in H.D.F. Kitto’s 1962 Oxford World’s Classics translation; on Amazon, Kitto currently ranks #25 in ancient and classical drama. These are just a few of the line-572 disfiguring translations. As for Greek editions, the Oxford Kitto is itself based on the Greek text of another high-profile Oxford, the 1924 A.C. Pearson installment in the prestigious Oxford Classical Texts series. (It wasn’t until 1990 that Pearson was replaced by a new OCT Sophocles that gives the line back to its rightful owner.) Then there are all the aforementioned commentaries and their continuing influence, most notably Jebb’s, which, instead of receding into the past, has expanded its influence thanks to its stark online prominence at Perseus Digital Library.

And to paraphrase Mom, an early adopter of Perseus who synthesized her enthusiasm for homeschool rigor with a fondness for new technology, “Reading in translation is a sin that can be forgiven, but reading without a commentary is laziness of the worst kind.”

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