Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

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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 Oedipus will return from his exile. Oedipus, however, mindful of his banishment and of the faithlessness of his sons, declares that he will remain in Colonus and that the land of Attica will be his tomb.

Informed of the arrival of Oedipus, Theseus goes to Colonus and welcomes the pitiful old man and his daughters. Oedipus offers his body to Attica and Colonus and prophesies that it will bring good fortune to Attica if he is buried in its soil. Theseus, who knows exile, is sympathetic; he promises to care for Oedipus and to protect the old man from seizure by any Theban.

After Theseus returns to Athens, Creon, the former regent of Thebes, comes to the grove with his followers. Deceitfully, he urges Oedipus to return with him to Thebes, but Oedipus is aware of Creon’s motives and reviles him for his duplicity. Oedipus curses Thebes for the way it has disavowed him in his great suffering. Creon’s men, at the command of their leader, seize Antigone and Ismene and carry them away. Blind Oedipus and the aged men of Colonus are too old and feeble to prevent their capture. By the time Creon attempts to seize...

(This entire section contains 938 words.)

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Oedipus, however, the alarm has been sounded, and Theseus returns to confront Creon and to order the return of Antigone and Ismene. Asked to explain his actions, Creon weakly argues that he has come to rid Attica of the taint that Oedipus surely will place on the kingdom if its citizens offer shelter to any of the cursed progeny of Cadmus. Theseus checks Creon and rescues Oedipus’s two daughters.

Polynices, Oedipus’s older son, has been searching for his father. Hoping to see the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle fulfilled, but also for his own selfish ends, the young man comes to the olive grove. With professions of repentance and filial devotion he begs Oedipus to return with him to Argos. Oedipus knows that his son wishes only to ensure the success of his expedition against his brother, Eteocles, who is in authority at Thebes. He hears Polynices out in silence; then he denounces both sons as traitors. Vehemently, he prophesies that Polynices and Eteocles will die by violence. Polynices, impressed by his father’s words but still ambitious and arrogant, ignores Antigone’s pleas to spare their native city. He departs, convinced that he is going to certain death.

Three rolls of thunder presage the impending death of old Oedipus. Impatiently, but at the same time with a certain air of resignation, Oedipus calls for Theseus. Guiding the king and his two daughters to a nearby grotto, he predicts that as long as his burial place remains a secret known only to Theseus and his male descendants, Attica will successfully resist all invasions. After begging Theseus to protect Antigone and Ismene, he dismisses his daughters. Only Theseus is with Oedipus when he suddenly disappears. Antigone and Ismene try to return to their father’s tomb, but Theseus, true to his solemn promise, prevents them. He does, however, second them in their desire to return to Thebes, that they might prevent the dreadful bloodshed that threatens their native city because of Polynices and Eteocles.