The thematic parallels between Sophocles’ play Antigone (441 BC) and King Lear (1608) by William Shakespeare present a skewed power dynamic between the roles of men and women as the conflict unfolds. In King Lear, Reagan and Goneril emasculate their husbands and Lear, while in Antigone fixed roles are reinforced playing out the stereotypes of men and women. The displays of gender essentialism throughout each work provides a framework in which to view these ideas. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz explains that “[e]ssentialism entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times … Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristics, given attributes, and historical functions” (qtd. Shekhawat 9). While both works present characters that are often considered feminists, Antigone affirms gender essentialism while King Lear rebukes this theory.
In Antigone, gender norms systematically oppress women and enforce the classification of gender into masculine and feminine. According to Female Acts in Greek Tragedy by Helene Foley, “ancient Greece left a legacy that reinforced symbolic links between female, ‘nature,’ domestic/private, emotion/the irrational, and passivity and male, culture, public, rational/the self-controlled, and activity” (333). The advice Ismene gave to Antigone to “[r]emember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men” (Sophocles 50) points to an inferior power position. The gendered assumptions that inform civil obedience and the inferior power position women hold in Theban society are shown. This advice reflects gender essentialism while implying that the role a man has is aligned with order and command whilst a woman is obliged to listen and obey the commands. Ismene concedes that “I’m forced, I have no choice – I must obey the ones who stand in power” (Sophocles 50). Her resigned conclusion where the state of feeling forced shows that Ismene as a woman is limited by the ideology that put men in power. Her submission to male authority shows gender essentialism in a framework that is constructed by Creon. Creon’s insistence to “never lose your sense of judgment over a woman” (Sophocles 63) revealing a male