Oedipus at Colonus

Introduction to Oedipus at Colonus

This is the second Theban play in the Theban Trilogy written by Sophocles. It was recognized after his death in 406 BC. Later, it is stated that the play was staged at the festival in which his grandson produced it. Interestingly, he was also named Sophocles as per family traditions. Where the timeline of the incident of Oedipus Colonus is concerned, it happens between the exile of Oedipus and Creon’s rise in which Antigone faces his wrath for burying his brother. The story of the play shows the final days of Oedipus, the legendary king of the Grecian plays.

Summary of Oedipus at Colonus

The story starts with the arrival of Oedipus in Athens with his daughter, Antigone. They mistakenly stand for a while on the spot considered holy with its association with Eumenides, the goddess. When a local Athenian sees them, Oedipus asks him to carry his message to Theseus, the incumbent king, to meet him. He also informs Antigone that the god had prophesied his death in his land. The Chorus, then, emerges, interviewing Oedipus about his identity when Ismene, his second daughter, arrives after having news from Apollo. She reveals that both of her sons, Eteocles and Polynices, are fighting over the right to rule the city. The oracle concludes that if Oedipus is buried in his city, it would bring peace with it. As the mandatory ruling duo of Polynices and Creon know this, they are rushing to claim Oedipus to win peace, while Oedipus, like always, stays adamant to extend any assistance to his sons. He remains silent during his exile.

When King Theseus arrives, he politely inquires Oedipus about his desire to which he appeals him to permit him to live in Athens at the expanse of enraging his sons. Theseus immediately agrees. Creon becomes incensed and orders his abduction failure of which prompts him to bring his daughters to take him to Thebes. As he notices the harassment, Theseus intervenes to bring back his daughters. Meanwhile, the son of Oedipus, Polynices also arrives and requests him to accompany him which Oedipus rejects. Antigone sees the tussle, intervenes and asks Oedipus to pay heed to his son who adheres to his version of the story that Eteocles has not proved a good son. However, Oedipus, seeing diversions of his son, curses him for silently looking during his banishment and predicts that both will die in the fighting. Polynices unwillingly listens to his father’s internal strife, turns to Antigone and tells her that they should offer his burial rites in case of his death at which the sister expresses her love for her brother and leaves Athens.

Once again the Chorus appears during the thunder and lightning when Oedipus declares the arrival of his final time. He requests Theseus to perform proper burial rites after his death to invite divine blessings. He also asks him not to reveal his burial place to anyone except his real children with the advice that if they keep to it, they may rule the city peacefully. After this, he guides them to his grave. Soon a messenger arrives to announce his death, causing mourning of the daughters. During this sad atmosphere, Antigone expresses her dismay over her bleak future at which Theseus arrives to console the sisters, but he refuses to disclose the grave of their father. They finally request him to provide them a passage to Thebes so that they could prevent a war between their brothers to save them.

Major Themes in Oedipus at Colonus

  1. Social Traditions: The play shows the power of the social traditions through the final days of Oedipus. Though he had faced suffering, exile, and subsequent shame because of his former act, it is binding upon Creon to rule justly. Social norms dictate that a death must be given a proper and appropriate burial that Creon has vowed to deny to Polynices, the brother of Eteocles and son of Oedipus. He faces charges of anti-state rebellion and a traitor which means the state punishment exceeds loyalty to family or religion. That is why when Polynices dies, Antigone faces stiff resistance from Ismene for burying her brother, while Creon faces the wrath of God for showing disrespect to a dead person.
  2. Prophesies: The theme of prophecies is intertwined with the life of the characters of Oedipus at Colonus as Oedipus as the King. Oedipus and Jocasta both suffer because of prophecies and now Oedipus sees his sons fighting against each other because of those prophecies. However, he instructs Theseus on where to bury him with full knowledge to his children to keep the city calm and peaceful. On the other hand, Creon, too, depends on prophecies and sends a messenger to Delphi to know the oracle about the burial of Polynices.
  3. Free Will: The play shows the theme of free will through Oedipus who has prophesied staring in his face about breaking the ethical framework of marrying his mother and slaying his father. Sadly, he could not avert them despite his best efforts. The same goes for Jocasta. Both could have averted their fate. The same goes for Creon in this episode but he, too, demonstrates the same proclivity of falling into the trap of gods and facing the divine wrath. It shows that human beings have no free will at all.
  4. Fate: The play shows the theme of fate through Oedipus as it continues to accompany him even in his last days. He is fated to be buried by King Theseus, while Creon is fated to prove his stubbornness, though, he could have acted otherwise. This shows that when a person is fated to take action, come what may, he goes on that path decided for him.
  5. Suffering: Almost all the characters in Oedipus at Colonus undergo some sort of suffering. Oedipus suffers for his sons and their quarrel, while Creon suffers as he ignores the oracle of Delphi. Antigone suffers as her brothers have died fighting and double suffers as she does not get permission to bury her brother, Polynices, without violating the order of the state. Similarly, Ismene, too, suffers as she could not bury her father or take part in the burial of her brother,
  6. Redemption: Redemption through suffering for defying the divine retribution is another major theme of this play. Although Creon accuses Polynices of transgressing the state orders as the reason that his death is justified. Creon also disobeys the divine law for which he has to redeem himself through the death of his near and dear ones.
  7. Justice: The theme of justice in the play emerges through Oedipus as well as the death of his son, Polynices. Oedipus declares that he does not deserve what he has suffered for as it does not seem a punishment for his crime except some blasphemous remarks. The same goes against Polynices who does not accept Creon’s dictatorial reign and rises against it. Yet, he deserves a respectable burial denied to him.
  8. Old Age: The theme of old age and the blessings associated with it is significant due to the old age of Oedipus. His old age, however, becomes a source of blessings for Athenians and the progeny of Theseus for keeping his burial place a secret.
  9. Exile: The theme of exile is significant as it focuses the exile of Oedipus. He tries to seek favor and final refuge from Theseus after coming to Athens. He demands it in return for eternal blessings for the city as well as to allow one of his children to rule the kingdom.

Major Characters in Oedipus at Colonus

  1. Oedipus: Oedipus is the protagonist of two our the three plays in the Oedipus trilogy. He is a fragile old man in this part and on the verge of passing to the other world. His elder daughter seems to assist him in his movements, yet his voice and resolution do not falter in the face of probing from the Athenians until their king, Theseus enters and offers him shelter in lieu of blessings for the city and his progeny. He shows the sufferings of his past life and also of the internal strife of his sons, the stubborn behavior of his brother-in-law, Creon, including then the death of his sons. Yet, his eloquence and rhetorical excellence speak through his persuasive arguments.
  2. Antigone: The second significant character, Antigone, the elder daughter of Oedipus, appears on the stage guiding her father. Despite permission for her to live in Thebes, she leaves the city to assist her father as he guides her and briefs her about the existing political scenario of Thebes. She also interacts with the locals when they raise objections about their arrival at the divine spot, helps her father in cleaning the spot, and also informs her sister, Ismene, about their condition. Up to this point, her character demonstrates, love, responsibility, care, and political awareness.
  3. The Chorus: Typically, the Grecian Chorus is a group of elders that demonstrates its mild reaction when things do not synchronize with the Grecian culture, religion, or social norms. Their situation only extends to giving advice and they cannot force it, or they are not empowered to enforce it upon others, let alone on kings, or royals such as Theseus, or Oedipus. Despite its expression of horror, objection, and somewhat hostile remarks to the arrival of Oedipus, the Chorus finally reconciles to the idea of permitting Oedipus to be buried in Athens for the greater good of the city.
  4. Creon: Despite his being low in status to Oedipus, Creon assumes the role of the king of Thebes after Oedipus loses the grace of gods as well as the legitimacy to rule the city. He takes up the charge during the crisis and proves his mettle, yet he also loses the grace of gods when he rules against the divine or social law of permitting appropriate and respectable burial to Polynices, the son of Oedipus, and falls to the same low a la Oedipus. However, in comparison to Oedipus, he is direct and concise.
  5. Polynices: Polynices is Oedipus’ son as well as the brother of Antigone, two protagonists of the previous plays in the same trilogy. Although he helps the Thebans to exile his father, he faces the same situation that leads to his death in that Creon refuses him a proper burial after which Antigone comes to bury him.
  6. Theseus: Theseus becomes the king of Athens where he has the power to permit Oedipus to be buried or not. When he comes to the long-lasting blessing that the city and his offspring will have on his burial, he decides in its favor and also vows to do what Oedipus requests him.
  7. A Citizen: The Citizen appears in the very beginning when Oedipus arrives at the grove near Athens with Antigone and asks the person about the city and its ruler.
  8. Ismene: Ismene is the younger daughter of Oedipus and sister of Polynices yet she appeals to her sister not to rebel against the kingdom by burying their brother, Polynices, who fought against the alliance of Creon and Eteocles.
  9. A Messenger: The messenger is the only witness to the death of Oedipus, who conveys the information to Theseus.
  10. Eteocles: Although he does not appear on the stage, his presence stays throughout the play for joining hands with Creon and killing his brother, Polynices.

Writing Style of Oedipus at Colonus

The entire Oedipus trilogy, including the Oedipus at Colonus is poetic and direct. However, the elevation, pitch, and directness in it are more apparent than in the other two of the trilogy. The sentences are short, direct, and forceful, specifically, when Oedipus speaks. For poetic devices, Sophocles has relied heavily on personifications, metaphors, alliteration, and paradoxes.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in Oedipus at Colonus

  1. Action: The main action of Oedipus at Colonus comprises the story of Oedipus, his return to Athens to be buried there, and Creon’s excesses of not permitting burial to Polynices. The rising action occurs when Oedipus receives full support from Theseus against Creon’s insistence. The falling action, however, occurs when Oedipus breathes his last.
  2. Anaphora: The play shows examples of anaphora in the following sentences,
    i. But in ignorance I came where I did and
    I suffered; but those at whose hands I suffered,
    I was knowingly destroyed by them. (291-293)
    ii. They are . . . wherever they are. Terrible
    what lies between them now. (368-369)
    Ach, those two! In their nature, in their way of life,
    they mimic Egyptian habits. (370-371)
    iii. You’re not doing yourself any good now, 930
    and you haven’t done any good in the past—the way
    you oppose your friends, give free rein to your rage. (930-933)
    These examples show the repetitious use of “I suffered”, “They are”, “in their” and “any good.”
  3. Allusions: The play shows the use of allusions in the sentences given below,
    i. Dearest son of Aegeus, none but the gods
    escape old age and death; all else
    time in its relentless flood sweeps away. (671-673)
    ii. And where this happens,
    my cold corpse—asleep, unseen—will drink
    their warm blood, if Zeus is still Zeus,
    and his son, Phoebus Apollo, speaks the pure truth. (687-690)
    These examples show the use of allusions such as the mention of Aegeus, Zeus, and Apollo.
  4. Antagonist: Creon is the antagonist of the play as he not only assassinates Polynices, the son of Oedipus but also refuses proper burial him.
  5. Conflict: Oedipus at Colonus shows various conflicts; a conflict between Polynices and his brother allied to Creon, a conflict between Antigone and Creon for burying Polynices, a conflict between Oedipus and Theseus for his burial in Athens, and a conflict in the mind of Theseus whether to allow Oedipus to be buried in Athens or not.
  6. Characters: Oedipus at Colonus shows dynamic as well as static characters. Oedipus, the legendary king, is a dynamic character as he witnesses a considerable transformation in his behavior and actions in this play. However, all other characters are static characters such as Antigone, Ismene, the Messenger, or Theseus.
  7. Climax: The play reaches its climax when Oedipus miraculously breathes his last.
  8. Deus Ex Machina: The play shows the use of Deux ex Machina in the examples given below,
    i. It mustn’t be entered; no one can live there. It
    belongs to
    the Goddesses—the daughters of the earth, of
    the dark! (45-48)
    ii. Blessed Poseidon has a home here,
    and the god who brought us fire, the Titan
    Prometheus. (61-63)
    iii. And Apollo said there would be signs:
    earthquake or thunder, or the bolts of Zeus
    lighting up the sky in flashes. (108-110)
    These examples show the use of supernatural elements such as goddesses, Poseidon, Apollo, and even Zeus.
  9. Hyperbole: Oedipus at Colonus shows various examples of hyperboles in the following sentences,
    i. Here
    the sweet-throated nightingale throngs with song
    glades the wind or sun won’t touch. (742-744)
    ii. Streams that flow here from the wide Cephisus
    never sleep and never empty: (753-754)
    iii. Miserable man! Can’t the years give you sense?
    Are you just living to bring contempt on old age? (866-867)
    These examples exaggerate such as never the wind or the sun has touched anything, nor the streams sleep, or for that matter, nor the years give sense to anybody.
  10. Imagery: Oedipus at Colonus shows the use of imagery in the below examples,
    i. The strength of earth and of the body fades,
    trust dies and distrust flourishes,
    and the same spirit never endures
    between friend and friend, city and city. (674-677)
    ii. So
    if fair weather is what holds now
    between you and Thebes, boundless time
    in its motion gives birth to nights and days
    beyond number, and in their course
    this concord between you will grow to discord
    over a word, a little word, and war
    will shatter it. (680-687))
    iii. Here is bright-shining white Colonus. Here
    the sweet-throated nightingale throngs with song
    glades the wind or sun won’t touch.
    The wine-flecked ivy grows
    in these thick untrodden groves of the god.
    Fruit trees are free here from frigid winter
    and here with his immortal nurses roams the
    roistering Dionysus. (741-748)
    These examples show images of feelings, color, movement, and sight.
  11. Metaphor: Oedipus at Colonus shows good use of various metaphors in the following sentences,
    i. No need to tell me. Time has taught me that. (27)
    ii. And in the battle
    between them,
    which grips them as tightly as they their own spears,
    may the end of it depend on me. (459-462)
    iii. But then
    when my troubles were no longer young
    and I began to see my passion had pushed me too far. (474-476)
    iv. I’d blamed myself too much for my mistakes,
    then, after all that time, the city
    chose to use force and drive me out. (478-480)
    v. In a misery-laden bed the city
    locked me into a ruinous marriage.
    I knew nothing. (572-574)
    vi. Dearest son of Aegeus, none but the gods
    escape old age and death; all else
    time in its relentless flood sweeps away. (671-673)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the play such as the first shows the time as a teacher, the second shows the battle as having grips, the fourth and the fifth show the city as people, while the last one shows the time as a flooding river.
  12. Mood: Oedipus at Colonus shows an elevated but very formal mood in the beginning but turns out poignant and tragic as it moves forward.
  13. Motif: Most important motifs of the play, Oedipus at Colonus, are truth, death, and murder.
  14. Oxymoron: The play shows good use of oxymorons in the following sentences,
    i. For some now, for others later,
    joy becomes bitter, then bitterness joy. (678-679)
    The words “bitterness joy” shows the opposing ideas joined together.
  15. Paradox: The play shows the use of paradoxes as given below,
    i. He asks little and gets less, though even less
    than little is enough—since the long
    companionship of time, and bitter trouble. (4-7)
    ii. So with eyes averted we slip by them in silence
    letting them hear without words
    the reverence alive in our minds. (145-146)
    iii. Think
    how they look on good men and on bad,
    how the unrighteous one never escapes them. (398-400)
    iv. So when I am no longer, then I’m a man? (428)
    These examples show contradictory ideas presented in the verses such as the first one showing little and more, the second showing the silence and noise, and the third showing good and bad men.
  16. Personification: The play shows examples of personifications in the following sentences,
    i. No need to tell me. Time has taught me that. (27)
    ii. What good is it if Athens stands alone, as they say,
    a god-fearing city—alone able to save
    the sick, afflicted stranger. (285-287)
    iii. Don’t darken bright Athens, that happy city,
    with unrighteous acts. (301-302)
    iv. I’d blamed myself too much for my mistakes,
    then, after all that time, the city
    chose to use force and drive me out. (478-480)
    v. He In a misery-laden bed the city
    locked me into a ruinous marriage.
    I knew nothing. (572-574)
    These examples show as if time and the city have life and emotions of their own.
  17. Repetition: The play shows the use of repetitions as given in the below examples,
    i. The lord of the city is lord of this place, too. (77)
    ii. Long-suffering man
    leaning on a stranger in this strange land:
    be ready to hate what this city’s learned to hate
    and to hold in high esteem what it holds dear (194-197)
    iii. Do you think it’s me you hurt with these words,
    or will they wound your own wounded condition? (863-864)
    These examples show repetitions of different things and ideas such as “lord”, “hate” and “wound.”
  18. Rhetorical Questions: The play shows good use of rhetorical questions in several places. A few examples are given below,
    i. What country is this? Antigone, child
    of a blind old man: Whose city is it?
    Who’ll offer any pitiful gift today
    to wandering Oedipus, the homeless man? (1-4)
    ii. What ground? And which gods? Whose sacred place? (44)
    iii. Why? To come and speak to you? For what? (81)
    iv. Who was the man? Where is he gone?
    What secret spot has he scurried to now? (136-137)
    This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed by different characters not to elicit answers but to stress the underlined idea.
  19. Simile: The play shows various similes as a few are given in the below examples,
    i. What good is
    a good name if it fades like morning dew? (275-276)
    ii. For one living soul, I believe,
    is as good as ten thousand to pay the debt 540
    fulfilled by this ritual. (539-541)
    iii. About that shattering sorrow you wrestled with—
    ungovernable as the sea. (556-557)
    iv. And I’ll not bind you with an oath, like a coward. (720)
    v. Away! Go! Now I speak for these men too:
    Don’t stand in my way there like a guard
    blockading the place where I’m to live. (875-877)
    These similes show that things have been compared directly with the words “as” and “like” such as the first shows name compared to the morning dew, the second shows sorrows compared to the sea, and the third shows him comparing himself to a coward and the last one shows comparing the person to a guard.