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A well-established theme in Antigone is the right of the individual to reject society’s infringement on her freedom to perform a personal obligation, obvious in Antigone’s refusal to let Creon dictate what she is allowed to do with her family members. She says to Ismene about Creon’s edict, “He has no right to keep me from my own.” Related to this theme is the question whether Antigone’s will to bury her brother is based on rational thought or instinct.
Natural law and contemporary legal institutions
One important issue in the play is the clash of values between Creon and Antigone. Creon advocates obedience to human-made laws while Antigone stresses the higher laws of duty to the gods and one’s family. The play is supports the supremacy of Natural Law, and Creon realizes only after he loses the lives of all his family that he was mistaken to place the law of the state above the law of the gods. This focus, much influenced by the modern ideas of Human Rights, conceals the classical Athenian laws of succession. Antigone’s status as an epikler daughter would require that Haemon follow her into the house of her ancestors (not, as in normal marriage, Antigone move to his house). He would have to renounce any hope to have legitimate successors of his own – a terrible fate both for Creon and Haemon, whose lineage would come to an end. This legal detail provides a second motif and adds a specific, psychological relevance to the moral importance of the play.
The contrasting views of Creon and Antigone with regard to laws higher than those of state inform their different conclusions about civil disobedience. Creon demands obedience to the law above all else, right or wrong. He says that “there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority”. Antigone responds with the idea that state law is not absolute, and that it can be broken in civil disobedience in extreme cases, such as honoring the gods, whose rule and authority outweighs Creon’s.
The concept of citizenship appears most clearly in the values clash between Creon and Antigone. Creon defines citizenship as utmost obedience to the will of the state, and thus condemns Antigone to death when he feels that she has abandoned her citizenship by disobeying him. Antigone allows more room for individualism within the role of the citizen. The debate over citizenship, however, extends beyond just the argument between Creon and Antigone.
Creon’s decree to leave Polyneices unburied in itself makes a bold statement about what it means to be a citizen, and what constitutes abdication of citizenship. It was the firmly kept custom of the Greeks that each city was responsible for the burial of its citizens.
the Greeks considered burial a sign of recognition of citizenship and affiliation. In Antigone, it is therefore natural that the people of Thebes did not bury the Argives, but very striking that Creon prohibited the burial of Polyneices. Since he is a citizen of Thebes, it would have been natural for the Thebans to bury him. Creon is telling his people that Polyneices has distanced himself from them, and that they are prohibited from treating him as a fellow-citizen and burying him as is the custom for citizens.
In prohibiting the people of Thebes from burying Polyneices, Creon is essentially placing him on the level of the other attackers—the foreign Argives. For Creon, the fact that Polyneices has attacked the city effectively revokes his citizenship and makes him a foreigner. As defined by this decree, citizenship is based on loyalty. It is revoked when Polyneices commits what in Creon’s eyes amounts to treason. When pitted against Antigone’s view, this understanding of citizenship creates a new axis of conflict.
Antigone does not deny that Polyneices has betrayed the state, she simply acts as if this betrayal does not rob him of the connection that he would have otherwise had with the city. Creon, on the other hand, believes that citizenship is a contract; it is not absolute or inalienable, and can be lost in certain circumstances. These two opposing views- that citizenship is absolute and undeniable and alternatively that citizenship is based on certain behavior- are known respectively as citizenship ‘by nature’ and citizenship ‘by law.’
Antigone’s determination to bury Polynices arises from a desire to bring honour to her family, not just to the gods. She repeatedly declares that she must act to please “those that are dead” because they hold more weight than any ruler. In the opening scene, she makes an emotional appeal to her sister Ismene saying that they must protect their brother out of sisterly love, even if he did betray their state. Antigone makes very few references to the gods, and so it is very easy to interpret much of her reasoning for honoring higher laws as those referencing laws of family honour, not divine laws.
Creon appears to value family heavily himself as well. This is one of the few areas where Creon and Antigone’s values seem to align. When talking to Haemon, Creon demands of him not only obedience as a citizen, but also as a son. Creon even goes so far as to say “everything else shall be second to your father’s decision”. This stance seems extreme, especially in light of the fact that Creon elsewhere advocates obedience to the state above all else. While it is not clear how he would handle these two values in conflict, it is clear that even for Creon, family occupies a place as high if not higher than the state.
Portrayal of the Gods
In Antigone as well as the other Theban Plays, there are very few references to the gods. Hades is the god who is most commonly referred to, but he is referred to more as a personification of Death. Zeus is referenced a total of 13 times by name in the entire play, and Apollo is referenced only as a personification of prophecy. This lack of mention portrays the tragic events that occur as the result of human error, and not divine intervention. The gods are portrayed as chthonic*, as near the beginning there is a reference to “Justice who dwells with the gods beneath the earth.” Sophocles references Olympus twice in Antigone. This contrasts with the other Athenian tragedians, who reference Olympus often.