David Sarkies's Reviews > Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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Feb 16, 2016

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bookshelves: tragedy
Read from July 11 to 13, 2005

A Theban Addendum
5 May 2012

This is a rather unusual play in that while it is connected with the main Theban epic, it does not seem to sit well within the epic cycle. Rather it seems to be an attempt by Sophocles to explore some of the unanswered questions that arose within both the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannos, particularly as whether Oedipus was truly guilty of his actions (he was not as they were done in ignorance) as well as how Creon basically became a jerk. I say that because in Oedipus Tyrannos he seems to be a rather decent person, but in the Antigone he is a brutal tyrant. We also have interactions with Polynicies, one of Oedipus' sons and the one who fled Thebes after his brother Etocles took the throne, and then returned with an army in an attempt to retake it.

The play sits between Oedipus Tyrannos and the Antigone, though it was probably the last play that Sophocles wrote. In fact he never saw it performed as he had died, though I suspect that since it was written around the time that Athens finally fell to the Spartans that the annual Dionysia was probably cancelled. However it was performed, and it also became one of the seven plays of Sophocles that have survived down to modern times. A friend of mine considers this to be her favourite Greek play, however I am still a little confused with it because it really does not seem to deal with any particular legend, and I got the impression that my Classical Studies lecturer didn't particularly think much of it either.

The play is set in Colonus, which was a small village outside of Athens (though I did a Google Maps search and found that it is now a suburb of Athens that lies to the Northwest of the Acropolis, just slightly to the west of the main Athens Railway station, though I doubt you will find any ancient ruins there). The village itself is located in Attica which means that it comes under the jurisdiction of Athens, though quite possibly during the Peloponesian War it was located outside of the Long Walls and as such would have been overrun by the Spartans.

When Oedipus arrives he is chided by the inhabitants for despoiling a sacred site, and this sets the tone of the entire play. Oedipus has been tainted with sin in that he had committed patricide (the murder of one's father) and incest, and even mentions that his daughters are also his sisters, and his sons are equally his brothers. It sort of creates a really strange, and somewhat unnatural, relationship with his children/siblings. However one of the ideas that I get out of this play is the that the Greeks considered incest (and to an extent patricide) wrong. Still, I am personally not convinced that Oedipus did anything wrong, though I have discussed this in detail previously under Oedipus Tyrannos, so there is no need for me to go over old ground here. However, there is still the idea of incest, which seems to play a significant role in this play, and that is because both Ismene and Antigone are major characters. However for some reason Creon arrives at Colonus to take them back, and forcefully that that.

I guess this is about Oedipus' coming to terms with his fate, and in a way allowing him to be cleansed. He does begin to go through a cleansing ritual, but unfortunately this is interrupted when Creon arrives and forcefully removes Ismene, who is going out to collect the pure spring water that is required in the ritual. Theseus also makes an appearance in this play as king of Athens. This confuses me a bit since in other plays (by Euripides) he is king of Athens during Heracles' reign in Thebes. However I guess that is not the point, but rather, like in Heracles Furens, Theseus once again plays the role of the psychologist and friend who helps Oedipus come to terms with his past. Unlike Herakles, who suffered from combat trauma and PTSD, Oedipus suffers from guilt and a persecution complex. This, honestly, is not surprising. Simply put, somebody in heaven must seriously hate this guy because as I have repeatedly said: he has done nothing wrong, he was only a victim of destiny.

Polynicies also makes an appearance in this play. He was kicked out of Thebes when his brother Etocles took the throne. Both Creon and Polynicies want Oedipus to return to Thebes, most likely to settle the dispute between the two brothers, and both become incredibly hostile and agitated when he refuses to do so. Creon even goes to the extent of kidnapping his daughters to attempt to bring him back. We see a very nasty Creon in this play, and this extends much further when we get to Antigone. We obviously know what happens: Polynicies raises and army and attacks Thebes, and in the ensuring battle, loses and dies, but not before killing Etocles. What happens afterwards I shall leave for when I finish Antigone (and you can also refer to Seven Against Thebes).

The play ends with Oedipus' death and his ascension to the Blessed Realms. Oedipus' death is actually incredibly dignified, and deserving of a man who fate has simply turned around and slapped him in the face. One thing I noted is that even Creon, for as much of a prick that he is, recognises Oedipus' benevolent rule in Thebes. Unfortunately nothing like that comes about again. I am doubtful that it is Oedipus that is cursed, but rather the city itself (and it has probably something to do with the father of Laertius feeding human flesh to his enemy: another very, very, bad thing in Greek society). One thing I am not willing to do is to link this tragedy to Athens' hatred of Thebes, and vice versa. Okay, Creon and Theseus come to blows, and it is ordained there that Thebes and Athens were to become enemies, but this is what they call rewriting the past. It is very interesting that Oedipus went to the Blessed Realms, since that is a reward set aside for only the greatest of heroes (Achilles being one of them), so I guess for a man who suffered as much as Oedipus did, it is probably the gods (and in particular Zeus) turning around and saying, 'hey, this didn't happen because of anything you did, but rather the actions of your ancestors, so because you suffered so in life you will be rewarded in death'.
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