Oedipus at Colonus: Outcast and Prophet

Oedipus at Colonus is the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays, though it was not written as the sequel to Oedipus the King/Tyrant which is the first Theban play. The three ‘Theban Plays’ (the third of which is Antigone) were written for separate groupings of plays, and the other plays in the groupings have been lost. Oedipus at Colonus was performed before Oedipus the King/Tyrant. It is not surprising that the Theban Plays are often taken as a trilogy, since they do fit together fairly neatly and Sophocles must have been kept to a very consistent version of the stories of Thebes under Laius, Oedipus and Creon across various writings and performances. There are a great many other version of these stores in myth and in drama, which we will not go into, bıt the reader of Greek tragedies should be aware of the flexibility of Greek myths and the many different versions.

Oedipus at Colonus is the Athenian play in the Theban Plays, since Colonus itself was part of Athens, and is still a recognised district of the city. In Ancient time it was outside the walls but not very far. The play gives the impression of being a bit further away than in Sophocles’s own time. A recognition possibly that Athens was smaller in the deep past, since these plays along with Homer refer to the Mycenaean Greek world 800 years before Golden Age Athens. The play reinforces the sacredness of Athens by making Colonus a sacred place, suitable for the death of Oedipus who has become sacral rather than polluted in this play. The play has a big streak of Athenian propaganda running through, just as Shakespeare’s plays were conditioned by Tudor and Jacobean state propaganda. Oedipus, the fallen King of Thebes, turned prophetic figure and innocent victim finds justice and protection in Athens, where Thebans still try to reach him and persecute him. First Creon appears using force against Oedipus’ daughters Ismeme and Antigone in an an attempt to induce Oedipus to return to Thebes. Oedipus recognises immediately that Creon only wants him to go back to Thebes for his own reasons of the strategies of power. King Theseus of Athens, who appeared earlier offering protection to Oedipus, returns just in time from worshipping Poseidon to rescue Oedipus. A stranger arrives a bit later, who turns out to be Oedipus’ son Eteocoles, seeking help in his struggle with his brother Polyneices and with Creon. It is Theseus who persuades Oedipus to talk to Eteocles, emphasising the role of the Athenian ruler as a judge and wise guide to all the Greeks. Oedipus refuses to assist Eteocles and curses the city. This is part of a complete abandonment of Thebes and a acceptance of Athens as his real homeland. However, his daughters are prepared to return to Thebes after the ‘death’ of Oedipus, so returning to the curse made by their father.

Oedipus’ death at the end of the play is not a cşear case of death, as no one sees him die and his body disappears. One suggested possibility is that he has been allowed to pass to the world of the death without pain, a rather modest favour from the gods, since the world of the dead is itself a very gloomy place of ghostly semi-conscious existence. There is some play with the possibility that  Oedipus has been taken by the gods to their own world, which can happen in Greek mythology. There is no direct suggestion that this happened, but it’s possibility is allowed. In any case, Oedipus has moved from King-Tyrant to something more like Tiresias, the blind prophet persecuted by Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus when he claims that Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother. Oedipus blinded himself at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, linking him with Tiresias. As with Tireseas there is some play with the other forms of perception he has, though less with prophetic qualities. We learn that Oedipus sees with his ears, so that the use of language is emphasised over vision. A way of thinking which has an interesting relation with drama as a form.

Oedipus in some way passes on the sacral power of the Theban monarchy by telling Theseus a secret before his death, or disappearance. The content of the secret is not revealed to the audience, but we do learn that the secret protects Athens from future Theban kings. The protection of Oedipus by Theseus is very surprising for Creon, who states that Oedipus is polluted and therefore unworthy of sacred places in Athens. Theseus shows himself to be a better provider of hospitality than Creon, so reinforcing the idea of Athens as the moral leader and therefore the judge of Greece. Oedipus himself argues that he is the innocent victim of fate and a curse on the house of the Kings of Thebes.He regards all his polluting acts as accidents with no blame for himself. This is open to question, his murder of Laius is surely motivated  by his excessive anger at being challenged at the crossroads outside Thebes. Athens enables him to move from polluted refugee to wise man close to the gods.