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One of the key themes in this masterful tragedy is captured in the very difficult position that Antigone finds herself in. She has to choose between obeying the law of the land, identified in Creon and what he orders her to do in not burying the body of her brother, and obeying the law of the gods, which says that her brother should be buried as custom dictates. This dilemma is captured through the two opposing positions of Antigone and Ismene as the play opens. For example, Ismene says that she is forced to "obey / the ones who stand in power," whereas Antigone argues the opposite, as she says to her sister in the following quote:
Do as you like, dishonour the laws
the gods hold in honour.
For Ismene, she believes that humans who are not in power are "ruled by much stronger hands" and therefore they should submit to this rule. Antigone argues forcibly that human power is nothing to the laws and decrees of the gods, and that to be human we have to obey our conscience. It is impossible for her to "dishonour the laws" that are held in such high esteem by the gods. Antigone therefore makes reference to a higher system of order and belief than mere mortal power, and shows her loyalty towards those values.
The modern day significance of this dilemma is clear. Should humans who are placed in governments or countries where the law goes against higher human values and conscience obey their rules or obey their heart? For example, for Germans under the Third Reich, should they have conspired with the Nazis in the Holocaust, or should they have helped to hide Jews? Was Thoreau right to refuse to pay taxes that went to support a war against Mexico that he completely disagreed with? There are many situations that capture this dilemma in our modern age.
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