Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

Oedipus at Colonus Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oedipus at Colonus was written in 406 b.c.e., shortly before Sophocles’ death, and was not performed until five years later. Since the play dates to about forty years after the Antigone and more than twenty years after Oedipus Tyrannus, it is not surprising that the figures of Creon, Antigone, and even Oedipus himself seem somewhat different from Sophocles’ earlier presentation of them. Creon, in particular, is wholly unlike his depiction in the other two plays. The Creon of Antigone was stubborn and mistaken but he did, at least, attempt to do what was right as he understood it. The Creon of Oedipus Tyrannus was patient and reasonable, a minor character who was completely sympathetic during his brief appearance on the stage. In Oedipus at Colonus, Creon is pure evil; his function is to provide a villainous foil for Oedipus and Theseus, and that he does to perfection.

Creon’s role as the stereotypical villain in this work makes Oedipus at Colonus, like Electra, seem more like a melodrama than a tragedy in structure. For example, there is in this work no fall of a noble character to a more humble position, no reversal of fortune from good to evil, no “tragic flaw.” Indeed, by the end of the play Oedipus is elevated from poverty to heroic status and will be worshiped even among the gods after his death. Yet it must be remembered that Greek tragedy...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Oedipus at Colonus Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Many years have passed since King Oedipus discovered to his horror that he had murdered his father and married his mother, with whom he has children. After having blinded himself and given up his royal authority in Thebes, he has been cared for by his faithful daughters, Antigone and Ismene. When internal strife breaks out in Thebes, Oedipus is believed to be the cause of the trouble because of the curse the gods had put upon his family, and he is banished from the city.

Oedipus and Antigone wander far. At last, they arrive at an olive grove in Colonus, a sacred place near Athens. A man of Colonus warns the strangers that the grove in which they have stopped is sacred to the Furies. Oedipus, having known supreme mortal suffering, replies that he knows the Furies well and that he will remain in the grove. Disturbed, the man of Colonus states that he will have to report this irregularity to Theseus, the king of Athens and overlord of Colonus. Oedipus replies that he will welcome the king, for he has important words to say to Theseus.

The old men of Colonus, who fear the Furies, are upset at Oedipus’s calm in the grove. They inquire, from a discreet distance, the identity of the blind stranger and are horror-stricken to learn that he is the infamous king of Thebes whose dreadful story the whole civilized world had heard. Fearing the terrible wrath of the gods, they order him and his daughter to leave. Oedipus is able to quiet them, however, by explaining that he has suffered greatly, despite never having consciously sinned against the gods. To the mystification of the old men, he hints that he has strange powers and will bring good fortune to the land that provides a place of refuge for him.

Ismene, another daughter of Oedipus, arrives in the grove at Colonus after searching throughout Greece for her father and sister. She brings Oedipus the unhappy news that his two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, have fought for supremacy in Thebes. When Polynices was defeated, he was banished to Argos, where he is now gathering a host to return to Thebes. Ismene also informs her father that the Oracle of Delphi has prophesied that Thebes is doomed to terrible misfortune if Oedipus should be buried anywhere but in that city. With this prophecy in mind, the Thebans hope that...

(The entire section is 938 words.)