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 did not always adhere to the general outline that Aristotle described. It must be remembered, too, that Aristotle wrote the De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) more than half a century after the death of Sophocles. To force Oedipus at Colonus to fit Aristotle’s form of the “perfect tragedy” would damage the work. One of the great appeals of the Oedipus at Colonus is that its structure is so unlike that of any other tragedy.
Oedipus at Colonus was Sophocles’ final homage to the district in which he was born and to that area’s most famous hero. Written in a period when Athens was already losing the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans, this play reminds the Athenians of their own glorious past and of the hero who protected them. In the tragedy’s most famous ode (lines 668-719), Sophocles celebrates, not only the physical beauty of Athens and Colonus, but also its civic virtues: its hospitality, its perseverance, its ability to recover even from the most formidable opposition and defeat. These virtues, the poet suggests, could yet be the salvation of Athens if the city’s people would renew their confidence in their gods, their heroes, and themselves.
Like the perfected Athens that Sophocles describes, Oedipus in this tragedy draws his strength from some mysterious source. Despite years as a blind beggar, Oedipus becomes restored to moral strength as the plot unfolds. He spurns the treachery first of Creon and then of Polyneices. Finally, without even permitting anyone to guide him (lines 1520-1521), Oedipus himself leads Theseus into the grove where his miraculous transformation will take place. The account given by the messenger (lines 1586-1665) is not the death of a blind, old beggar but the apotheosis of a hero. Like Athens herself, Oedipus may have been guilty of many crimes, but he has been chosen by the gods to be special and is elevated at the very moment when he had seemed most humbled.
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...
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