Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles is an Oedipus play I had never read. I much prefer Antigone and Oedipus the King because they have so much more tension and drama. Oedipus at Colonus suffers from too much tying up of loose ends.
If you recall at the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus finds out that he has unwittingly fulfilled the oracle’s prophecy and killed his father and married his mother. In their anguish, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his eyes. Fast forward a few years and we have Oedipus in exile from Thebes, wandering the land an old, blind beggar with his daughter Antigone at his side serving as his eyes. They arrive at the sacred grove of the Eumenides (Kindly Ones, aka Furies) outside of Athens and nearby the town of Colonus.
There is another oracle prophecy that says Oedipus will finally come to rest and die on foreign soil and his grave will provide protection to the city. Somehow Oedipus knows that this sacred grove is where his journey ends, but not before we have many threats, arguments, and moaning and groaning about the gods and fate.
The chorus, a group of men from Colonus, threaten to chase him off for violating the sacred grove and, when they discover who he is, for being a cursed and vile being. But old Oedipus rallies his strength and defends himself by declaring that all that happened was not his fault:
But no, no- –
how could you call me guilty, how by nature?
I was attacked- -struck in self-defense.
Why even if I had known what I was doing,
how could that make me guilty? But in fact,
knowing nothing, no, I went…the way I went- –
but the ones who made me suffer, they knew full well,
they wanted to destroy me.
Oedipus makes this argument in varying words no less than three times during the play. He is not to blame, his fate was decided before he was even born. The ones who are to blame are the ones, Creon to be exact, who forced him into exile and suffering. The argument works, the chorus feels bad for him and they let him stay as long as he performs a cleansing ritual for the violation of the grove. Oedipus must have used up all his strength arguing because he has his other daughter, Ismene, who has tracked him down because she was worried about him, perform the ritual on his behalf.
In the meantime, Theseus, king of Athens shows up and Oedipus offers to die there in order to benefit the Athenians who have been kind enough to take him in. Theseus says, great thanks! and exits stage left.
Then Creon shows up. Creon knows of the prophecy regarding the grave of Oedipus and wants to get him back to Thebes so they can have the benefit his grave will confer. Creon speaks honeyed words but when Oedipus refuses to comply, Creon declares they had captured Ismene while she was performing the cleansing ritual and now Creon’s men grab Antigone from Oedipus and set off with her, figuring Oedipus will give in for the sake of his daughters. But then Thesus, hearing of the ruckus, reappears, and chases down Creon and his men, retrieving Antigone and Ismene, and giving the Thebans a boot in the backside.
But wait! That’s not all! Now Polynices, Oedipus’s eldest son appears to ask that Oedipus bless him and return to Thebes with him. Polynices has been exiled by his younger brother Eteocles, and in his anger, Polynices has planned and schemed and raised an army from Argos to march on Thebes. But Oedipus is angry at both his sons who did nothing to keep him from being sent into exile or to help him afterwards. Instead of a blessing, Polynices and Eteocles get a curse- -brother to kill brother and neither to rule Thebes- -thus setting up the story of Seven Against Thebes (as earlier told in a play by Aeschylus, but of course all these stories are much older than the plays). As Polynices leaves, he begs his sisters that if he is to die, that they please see he gets a proper burial thereby setting up the story of Antigone and her doom.
After all that, thunder booms and lightening flashes across the sky, a signal to Oedipus that his death is nigh. He calls for Theseus who arrives forthwith and the two, along with both daughters and a convenient messenger who will come back in a little bit and tell us all what happened, disappear to the location of Oedipus’s soon to be grave. But the grave is not a grave, because as the messenger tells us, Oedipus is bodily taken by the gods. Nonetheless, the location of the grave that is not a grave is now sacred and a protection to Athens. Many years in the future when Athens defeats an army that comes marching from Thebes, it will be said that Oedipus’s grave protected the city as Oedipus had promised.
There is some interesting historical background regarding this play. Sophocles died sometime in 406-5 B.C. and Oedipus at Colonus was the last play he wrote. It was not performed, however until 401 B.C. because of Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and subsequent enslavement by the Spartans. Finally, in 401, free from the Spartans and able at last to resume the annual Dionysian festival, the play had its viewing. In describing the play I glossed over the parts that pretty much amount to hymns to the greatness of Athens, so we can imagine that after five years of harsh Spartan rule, the Athenians must have been rather affected by words like these:
And there is a marvel here, I have not heard its equal
nothing famed in the vast expanse of Asia, nothing
like it in Pelops’ broad Dorian island
ever sprang to light- –
a creation self-creating, never conquered,
a terror to our enemies and their spears,
it flourishes to greatness in our soil,
the gray-leafed olive, mother, nurse of children,
perennial generations growing from her roots,
the eternal eyes of Guardian Zeus
look down upon her always,
great Athena too
her eyes gray-green and gleaming as the sea.
There are more verses just like the above, praising Poseidon and his might and his gift of horses and strong sea ships. It’s almost enough to bring to tears to my eyes.
We have only seven plays that Sophocles wrote. Supposedly the library at Alexandria had copies of all the plays, but time and neglect and a lack of interest for what, even then, seemed like ancient plays, has erased almost all of them and we are lucky to have the ones we do. I have now read three of them and will be seeking out the remaining four.