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. Antigone comments to Ismene, regarding Creon's edict, that "He has no right to keep me from my own." Related to this theme is the question of whether Antigone's will to bury her brother is based on rational thought or instinct, a debate whose contributors include Goethe.
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" (An. 671). 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 outweigh Creon's.
Natural law and contemporary legal institutions
In Antigone, Sophocles asks the question, which law is greater: the gods' or man's. Sophocles votes for the law of the gods. He does this in order to save Athens from the moral destruction which seems imminent. Sophocles wants to warn his countrymen about hubris, or arrogance, because he believes this will be their downfall. In Antigone, the hubris of Creon is on display.
Creon's decree to leave Polynices 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. Herodotus discussed how members of each city would collect their own dead after a large battle to bury them. 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 Polynices. Since he is a citizen of Thebes, it would have been natural for the Thebans to bury him. Creon is telling his people that Polynices 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 Polynices, Creon is essentially placing him on the level of the other attackers—the foreign Argives. For Creon, the fact that Polynices 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 Polynices 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 Polynices 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 honor to her family, and to honor the higher law of the gods. She repeatedly declares that she must act to please "those that are dead" (An. 77), because they hold more weight than any ruler, that is the weight of divine law. 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 believes that there are rights that are inalienable because they come from the highest authority, or authority itself, that is the divine law.
While he rejects Antigone's actions based on family honor, Creon appears to value family himself. When talking to Haemon, Creon demands of him not only obedience as a citizen, but also as a son. Creon says "everything else shall be second to your father's decision" ("An." 640–641). His emphasis on being Haemon's father rather than his king may seem odd, especially in light of the fact that Creon elsewhere advocates obedience to the state above all else. It is not clear how he would personally handle these two values in conflict, but it is a moot point in the play, for, as absolute ruler of Thebes, Creon is the state, and the state is Creon. It is clear how he feels about these two values in conflict when encountered in another person, Antigone: loyalty to the state comes before family fealty, and he sentences her to death.
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.
Love for family
Antigone's love for family is shown when she buries her brother, Polynices. Haemon was deeply in love with his cousin and fiancée Antigone, and he killed himself in grief when he found out that his beloved Antigone had hanged herself.