Reading worksheet

Question 1.  In a single complete sentence please tell me what the word “it” refers to in the line “I knew it well.”  What did Antigone know well?  What is the “it” referencing?

HINT: The word “it” is a pronoun.  Like the word says, a pro-noun, stands in for a noun.  In other words, “it” refers to some “thing” (a noun names a person, place, or thing) already mentioned and named.  To find out the reference of any pronoun you need to go backwards in the text to find the prior reference. 

 In order to understand what the word “it” refers to you, need to understand what Ismene is referring to when she says “Not a word . . .” at line 11. 

 The “it” in line 18 refers back to the same thing Ismene is referencing when in response to Antigone’s question, Ismene says: I haven’t heard a word about whatever you are referring to. 

 So, to know what “it” in line 18 refers to you must figure out what it is that Ismene has not heard a word about.  (Whew!).  If you are just reading my typing, then this is confusing.  Just look at the opening lines of the play.  They will be clearer.

*Whatever it is that this “it” refers to, it is declared, by Antigone, to be the worst evil that has ever befallen their family.

What exactly is this new and most terrible evil?  In their family this is pretty high bar to clear because they have certainly seen some “evils” haven’t they?

Their father (Oedipus) killed his birth father on the road, then Oedipus unknowingly married his own birth mother, and when they all found out the truth (his four children are the product of incest) their Dad pulled out his eyes and wandered off to die and Mother hanged herself out of horror and shame.  Then their two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, killed each other in combat.

So, what could be worse than all of that?  What could this new “evil” be?

When Antigone reviews Creon’s proclamation she says this at line 33 (look for the little numbers in the margins):

That is what the worthy Creon

has proclaimed for you and me—for me I tell you—((Ant. 33).

What do these words mean?  It is pretty clear what the proclamation does to Polyneices, or to his dead body.  The proclamation made by Creon says that the body of Polyneices is to be left unburied, to be eaten by the birds.

But the words I just quoted are spoken by Antigone and they say the proclamation does something to Antigone and Ismene . . . “for you and me.”


Question 2.  Write a sentence (or two) in which you explain what is the new and terrible evil hidden in the proclamation.  What evil does the proclamation send to the two sisters?  What does it attempt to force them to do or not to do?  What exactly is the evil they are now faced with?

(Hint: The new and most awful evil she is referring to is not that their brother might be left, unburied, on the battlefield to be eaten by birds. So, the answer you are looking for is not an evil that will befall Polyneices’s dead body.  He is dead already. 

 Nor is the evil in question the fact that the two sisters might now be executed by their uncle.  That’s closer, because this answer acknowledges that the “evil” coming their way is directed not at the dead body of Polyneices but it is directed at the two sisters..  Still, it isl not the answer you want.

 No, the evil in question here is an evil that could befall the two sisters, which means it is an evil that involves them doing something awful or evil. 

 One last hint: remember that in the Greek world doing what is right is not really the goal, the goal is to avoid doing evil.  Not to do what is wrong is the Greek version of doing what is right.  If you can avoid doing evil, then you are doing what is right.  And what is it that is most likely to cause anyone to do something they know they shouldn’t do?  It is the fear of death that makes people do wrong.

 So, now try to answer the question: What exactly is this new evil headed their way?

*At line 43 Antigone says: “Here is this hand, will you help it to lift the dead man.”

Then, at line 69 Antigone says: “I would not urge you now: nor if you wanted / to act would I be glad to have you with me.”


Question 3.  In a single sentence say what it is that Antigone is asking her sister to do at line 43.


Question 4.  In a single sentence say what it is Antigone refusing or denying her sister at line 69.

*Let’s think about the difference between what Antigone is saying at line 43 and what Antigone is saying at line 69.

If you can explain what causes Antigone to shift


  • asking for Ismene’s help


  • insisting that she would not now accept Ismene’s help even if Ismene were to offer it

. . . then you are well on your way to understanding what the two sisters are actually arguing about.


It appears that Antigone and Ismene are arguing over whether or not to leave their brother unburied.  Is that the answer we are looking for?  No.  It would be false to say that the two sisters are arguing because one sister wants to bury Polyneices and the other sister does not want to see him buried?

Ismene never says that she wants to see Polyneices left unburied.

Ismene never says that she wants to see Polyneices left unburied.  What she says is this: awful as it is to leave him unburied, under the circumstances we must leave him unburied.

Why would Ismene think they must obey the proclamation?

Well take another look at the opening lines of Ismene’s long speech.  She begins with a list.

  • First, our father . . .
  • then our mother . . .
  • then, third, just the other day our two brothers . . .
  • “and now there are only the two of us left . . .”

So, if you want to understand what Ismene is thinking you need to recognize that it has something to do with the fact that all the other members of their family are dead.

Ismene thinks that awful as it is to contemplate, they simply must leave Polyneices unburied because, as women, they have an even higher obligation, even more fundamental than their obligation to bury the dead members of their family.

As women and as the last two living members of their family, they must do what is necessary to preserve the family.  Ismene represents the reasonable view that their obligation under the circumstances (see the list, above) is to stay alive in order to marry and have children.  To choose to bury Polyneices at this point would mean abandoning their family because if the two sisters die then the family will go extinct.

So, let’s outline Ismene’s position first, and then we will try to construct Antigone’s position.

*What are the two sisters actually arguing about?

 First reading and analysis.

  • It appears that the two sisters are arguing over whether or not to bury Polyneices; (because of course they are arguing about this, but the question is why, what is the underlying cause of their surface disagreement?)
  • And yet neither sister actually wishes to see Polyneices’s body left unburied.
  • Rather, Ismene thinks that they must leave him unburied in order to preserve the family.

Conclude that what the two sisters are really arguing about is the preservation of the family.

Ismene knows that everyone else is already dead and so unless the two of them survive and have children (new family members) then the family of Oedipus will go extinct.  If the two of them bury Polyneices and are executed, that means the extinction of their family.

Second reading and analysis.

  • It appears that the two sisters are arguing over whether or not to do what is necessary to preserve the family.
  • And yet neither sister is opposed to preserving the family.
  • Rather, Antigone thinks that to preserve the family they must bury Polyneices and die doing so, while Ismene thinks they must remain alive to make more family members.

Conclude that the two sisters are really arguing about is what it means to preserve the family. 

Again, Ismene thinks the only way to preserve the family is to stay alive and make babies.  What could Antigone possibly understand by “preservation” of the family.

Third reading and final analysis.

  • The two sisters are arguing over whether or not to bury Polyneices because they disagree about what it means to preserve the family.
  • And the two sisters disagree about what it means to preserve the family because they represent two fundamentally different ideas of what it means to be human.
  • Ismene thinks, quite reasonably, that you can’t really be a human being unless you are biologically alive. (Ismene doubtless knows that other factors are important too, but at the very least you can’t be a good human or a bad human unless you are at the very least biologically alive).
  • Antigone thinks that what defines you as a human is not simply whether or not you are biologically alive, but whether or not you are living honorably or dishonorably.

So, . . . Antigone believes that in order to preserve the family you need to preserve the family honor.  Ismene believes that it makes no sense to talk about preserving the family honor if there are no more living members of the family.

That’s a whole lot to cover so I’m now going to ask you some simple questions to make sure you are following this set of interlocking arguments.


Question 5.  In a single sentence say why it is that after hearing Ismene’s speech Antigone suddenly changes her mind.  After hearing Ismene’s long speech, rather than asking for her help as she had before, Antigone instead refuses her sister’s help at line 69.

After hearing what her sister, Ismene, says in her long speech “we are only women” . . . Antigone changes from asking for her help “here is this hand, will you help” . . . to refusing to allow Ismene to help.  Why?

HINT: In your answer to question 4 you already said WHAT Antigone is refusing.  She is refusing her sister’s help in burying their brother’s body.  Now your job is to say WHY Antigone now suddenly refuses her sister’s help. 

 HINT #2: Whose job is it to bury the dead?  It is the job of the state or government?  No.  It is of course, the obligation of your family to “bury” and honor the dead in your family. 

Now, tell me why Ismene would suddenly no longer allowed to help in the burial.


Question 6.  Which of the two sisters agrees with Creon and wants to see Polyneices left to be eaten by the birds?

HINT: Before you answer, be sure to re-read “First Reading and Analysis” just above

ISMENE’S ARGUMENT:  When Ismene thinks about preserving the family she is thinking, quite reasonably, that if there are no members of the family left alive then they have failed to preserve the family.  And if they bury Polyneices then they will both be executed.  So Ismene thinks, quite reasonably, that they can’t afford to be heroic in this case because their prime responsibility is to preserve the family.


Question 7- 8.  Now I want you to play the role of Antigone and write a two to three sentence response to Ismene in which Antigone argues in favor of preserving the family, but in a different sense from what Ismene means by “preservation.”

HINT: Your goal is to have Antigone agree with the absolute importance of preserving the family, but come to the opposite conclusion as to what they must do, and why.

The problem or question that drives the opening clash between the two sisters is a clash of two fundamentally different views of what defines us as human beings.


Question 9.  In a single complete sentence tell me what Ismene thinks is required for a human being to be a human being.

HINT: I call her position or opinion the “biological” definition of what it means to be human.



Question 10.  In a single sentence tell me what Antigone thinks defines us as the humans that we are, marking us as fully human or not fully mature humans?

HINT: I call her position the “heroic” definition of what it means to be a human.

To complete this Reading Worksheet you will be following the same process you used for your previous assignments.

  • Open a document and give it this title at the top of the page: Reading Worksheet Antigone-Ismene
  • Copy the Answer Sheet (just below). Then paste it into your new document.  Now you can write your answers directly onto it.
  • When you have completed your answers, hit SAVE, and then upload to CANVAS.