Notes on Oedipus at Colonus
Sir Richard Jebb's commentary at Perseus.tufts.edu
Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. [Primarily covers Oedipus the King, but useful nonetheless] [amz link]
Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. [amz link]
Setting: Colonus, on the outskirts of Athens, at the Sacred grove of the Erinyes, also known as the Eumenides (in Roman nomenclature, the furies). The Erinyes were female goddesses of the underworld. They persecuted violators of oaths and natural laws. They were agents of mad vengence and severe retribution. You did not want to mess with the Erinyes. So feared were they that they were named "The Kindly Ones" so as not to offend and incur their wrath.
In the prologue, Oedipus transgresses the space of chtonic deities (recall how he unwittingly transgressed the laws of kinship by murdering his father and marrying his mother) by wandering into the sacred grove and resting upon a rock. Oedipus, now an old man at the end of his life, has been reduced to a wandering, blind vagabond. A stranger approaches him and his daughter Antigone, who has been tending to his needs. The stranger hails him with alarm, saying you're trespassing Oedipus. Get out of there. When informed that he has wandered into the shrine for the "daughters of Earth and Gloom", Oedipus recognizes that he has reached his final resting place, and immediately he asks for mercy. He asks for Theseus to be sent for. Theseus is the legendary king of Athens. Oedipus wants to exchange a gift for a small act of kindness: sanctuary at Colonus.
The theme of finding one's way home is central to the play. Oedipus, born of Thebes, has no desire to go back there at the end of this life, with good reason, as we will soon discover. For years, Oedipus has been homeless, an unwelcome pariah, driven out of every land. Destiny has called him to this place. Phoebus foretold that, in addition to his many woes, he would find asylum at this place. He wishes for death, a merciful end to his suffering.
The parados ushers in the chorus of citizens of colonus, who express alarm about the presence of the intruder. Who is this man? Upon seeing that he is blind and old, they take pity on him. They insist that he move out of the sanctuary while promising not to drag him away. When the chorus demands that he name himself, Oedipus reluctantly tells them the truth. They recoil in horror: get away! But what of your promise, Oedipus asks. Antigone pleads with them to have mercy.
In the first episode, Oedipus reminds them of Athens' reputation for religiosity, for tolerance, as the harbor for strangers in distress. He also staunchly defends his innocence, saying in effect, I am a man more sinned against than sinning, that the crimes I committed were done out of ignorance; moreover, I have suffered to the point of holiness and righteousness, and that I bring good tidings to your city. The citizens are persuaded to let Theseus decide the case. Here we have a glimpse of what Athens represents for Sophocles. It is the city of civilization, of reasoned debate, tolerance, sanctuary for victims, a city of laws. This is decidedly at odds with the city state of Thebes, which is rife with chaos, broken kinship bonds, plagues, civil war, authoritarianism, and disloyalty. In Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge, Charles Segal writes
Athens often functions in classical tragedy as the place for the recovery and reintegration of a conflicted personality and for the successful resolution of familial conflict, whereas Thebes...is the pace for disastrous confusions of identity and unresolved family conflicts. Thus at Thebes...Oedipus is pulled back into his family's self-destructive, accursed past, and can only repeat it, even though he is under the illusion that he is finding a new identity. At Athens... he begins with full clarity about the relations of past and present, wanderer and citizen, weakness and strength, and he escapes all the attempts to drag him back to Thebes. (44)
Oedipus's daughter Ismene approaches with news from Thebes. Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene have an emotional reunion, where Oedipus indicates that he is closer to his daughters, who have been his supporters, than to his treacherous sons Eteiocles and Polyneices, who were responsible for expelling him from Thebes. Antigone has been his caretaker, and Ismene has been his eyes on the ground in Thebes, watching out for his interests. Oedipus's sons on the other hand, had colluded with Creon in a power sharing arrangement. Initially, Creon was the regent of Thebes. When the boys came of age, they were going to share the throne by taking turns. The younger boy Eteiocles drove Polyneices out of the city. Polyneices meanwhile has cemented an alliance with other cities and has planned an invasion.
Ismene has other news of great interest to Oedipus. A new oracle has revealed that the dueling factions will seek to bring Oedipus back to them for safety. He has new powers of protection bestowed on him by the gods. Creon is on the way to entice him back, but there is a catch. They will station Oedipus (or his body once dead) at the border of Theban land, since he remains "damaged goods" due to the taboos he once violated. Oedipus is firm in his defiance. He will not return home under any circumstances. When they banished him, they severed a sacred father/son bond. Oedipus is bitterly resentful at the betrayal. Moreover, Oedipus is heeding the prophecies, unlike his behavior in Oedipus Rex, where he attempted to outflank his destiny. At this point in the play, the citizens instruct Oedipus that he must atone for his trespassing onto the sacred ground of the Erinyes. They tell him how to do it: pour holy water into carved bowls garlanded with wool from yearling ewe, pour the libations. And pour a bowl of honey and water, no wine (wine was never drunk by the Erinyes). Then strew nine olive boughs and say a prayer. Ismene is assigned the task of performing the rite, since Oedipus is too blind and feeble to accomplish it. (We do not have confirmation that Isemene was able to complete this task. Later in the play, she may have been abducted by Creon's henchmen before getting to the designated spot.)
Next comes another choral interlude in the form of what the Greek theater called a Kommos, which is a lyrical dialogue between the actors and the chorus. The subject of the kommos involves the citizens' need to hear the story of Oedipus's life. Oedipus painfully recounts his tragic fate and maintains his legal innocence.
Next comes the entrance of Theseus, the legendary king of Athens. Theseus is the "good guy" in the play. He is the model of a great leader: wise, shrewd, patient, poised, ready to act quickly when the situation warrants, magnanimous, civilized, and rational. Oedipus asks him for protection and sanctuary and promises to confer a blessing on Athens upon his death. Theseus promises him and publically adopts Oedipus as a citizen of Athens. This is an important moment in the play, and it is a reversal from the attitudes expressed by the citizen chorus not too many lines before. Athens represents the higher aspirations of civilization. It combines a reverence for the gods with a level of humane empathy for the suffering.
The chorus now sings an ode to Colonus, Oedipus new and final home. They celebrate the beauty of the land, the honorableness of Attica, their excellence in horsemanship, and the bounty provided by Poseidon, god of the sea.
The second episode begins with the entrance of Creon, who has come to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes. He has come, he says, to take Oedipus back to where he belongs and to preserve the honor of Thebes and the royal household.
In reply, Oedipus rips into Creon with indignation. He says, 'now you want me back, but where were you when I wanted to stay? You had me cast out. And now you don't really want me back, you want to keep me on the border for protection. You don't care about me at all. You want to use me like a guard. In conclusion, he curses the land and his sons.
Having failed to argue his case, Creon shows his true colors, an violently seizes Ismene and Antigone, taking them hostage. And he is on the verge of seizing Oedipus himself. Theseus enters to prevent the abduction. Theseus acts swiftly, dispatching his men to intercept Creon's soldiers and return the girls to Oedipus. We see here a stark contrast between Theseus and Creon. The one is righteous, pious, and follows the rule of law. The other is cunning, cynical, and uncivil. This sets the stage for how his character will be depicted in Antigone. In this scene Oedipus's delivers a powerful defence of his innocence, how he was helpless against fate.
In the second stasimon, the chorus imagines the swift recapture of Ismene and Antigone, and they call upon the gods to come to their aid.
The third episode begins with the reunion of Oedipus and his daughters. Oedipus gives thanks to Theseus for his help. He wants to kiss him on the cheek but remembers that this would be inappropriate, given his "polluted" identity. Theseus informs Oedipus that a relative of his is making offerings to Poseidon and wishes to speak with him. Oedipus realizes that it is his son Polyneices and he'd prefer not to speak to him. Antigone pleads on her brother's behalf, and Theseus sends for Polyneices to come.
The third stasimon is a sober, tragic ode on old age and death. They turn our thoughts to Oedipus approaching end. Not to be born is best of all, they say, and death is the final deliverer for those who have outlived their life's joy.
The fourth episode centers on the interview between Polyneices and Oedipus. He is crying. He pities his father's suffering and he reproaches himself. Oedipus gives him the silent treatment. Polyneices is on a mission though. He wants to persuade Oedipus to join his side in the struggle for Thebes. The oracles have decreed that Oedipus's endorsement will ensure their victory. He promises to reestablish Oedipus in his home at Thebes.
Oedipus launches into a bitter condemnation of Polyneices. He curses both of his sons, dooming them to die in battle at each other's hands. My interpretation of this scene (and of all Oedipus's curses in the play) is that Oedipus has become the human mouthpiece for the Eumenides. He has suffered and earned the right to speak on their behalf. The old blind man has the righteous indigination of truth and retribution on his side. The scene closes with an intimate conversation between Antigone and her brother. She implores him not to attack Thebes. He insists he must go into battle and asks her to give him proper burial rites, which foreshadows the play Antigone, wherein Antigone will defy the state decrees to honor her blood tie duties.
We now have another Kommos section in which the chorus comments on the dreadful curse just pronounced, when suddenly, a peal of thunder is heard. The presence of Zeus announces that Oedipus's end is near. Oedipus is ready to get on with it and asks Antigone to bring Theseus quickly. He tells Theseus that his time has come, and he, without assitance, will lead Theseus to the place where death will take him. Only Theseus will be shown the spot. It is a secret to all others. After Oedipus dies, so long as the spot is protected, Attica will be protected from invaders, and Thebes will pose no threat. He leads them into the sacred grove.
The fourth stasimon chant a hymn to the soul passing from Oedipus.
In the exodos, a messenger tells of what he saw before Oedipus died. The narrative captures the sense of great mystery surrounding Oedipus's passing. We are left with the impression that a kind of salvation for Oedipus's spirit has been bestowed on him. He vanished into thin air or into the earth. We are not sure. But something mystical happened, and the secret will be preserved. The daughters appear, grieving and desirous of seeing their father's grave. Theseus reminds them of his promise to Oedipus (he, unlike the Thebans, is a man of his word). Antigone then asks him to let her and Ismene return to Thebes. She intends to prevent the death of her brothers. Though this play ends with the merciful and mystically benevolent death of a pariah turned protector, Sophocles leaves off with the gravitational pull of Thebes. The tragic cycle will be continued.
So what is this play about? It's about old age, death, the sufferings incurred in a long life. Remember, this was probably Sophocles's final play, and it was performed posthumously. It's about learning to accept one's death with nobility. It's also about the definition of home. Home is the death, the non-being you were born out of and to which you will return. It is also, for the living, not necessarily the physical place of origin, but the place where you are accepted by others. Oedipus has suffered the plight of the scapegoat his whole life. He's been the exile, doomed to wander for the sins of his father, his mother, and his sons. At Colonus, Oedipus finally achieves a state of grace, in the sanctuary of those dark chthonic powers of retribution. There is a poetic justice at work here. I also think the play is about the way a society treats the suffering. The contrast between the Thebans and the Athenians is striking. Thebes represents chaos, violation of natural law, a lack of respect for family and for the gods, a place where momentary power is more important than tradition, loyalty and blood ties. Athens is the place of balance, righteous power, civilized debate, and tolerance. They refuse to exile Oedipus. They accept him into their sacred place. There is a historical bittersweetness here, though. Athens was about to lose the Pelopponesian war when this play was performed. Perhaps Sophocles was reminding his Athenian audience of what was in danger of being lost?
The plot of Oedipus at Colonus revolves around a series of persuasive speeches or pleas. Oedipus persuades the Athenians to accept him at Colonus. Creon attempts to persuade Oedipus to come back to Thebes. Polyneices attempts to persuade Oedipus to join his side in the civil war against his brother and Creon. Oedipus is pulled at from both sides of the struggle, but now that he has found a new home at Colonus, he has the power to defend his innocence and to curse his enemies, even his own sons. The play culminates in the mysterious death of Oedipus. In effect, the play's main conflict centers on what to do with Oedipus's body. Who will benefit from his powers of protection? Creon and Eteiocles, Polyneices, or Theseus (Athens). The winner is Athens, not because they argued successfully for it, but because they showed mercy and acceptance towards an old, feeble, pariah.