Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900
Written when Sophocles was about ninety years old and approaching death, Oedipus at Colonus is the dramatist’s valedictory to the stage, to Athens, and to life. In its transcendent spiritual power it is reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). It was probably inevitable that the great Athenian patriot Sophocles should have written a play based on the story of the legendary past of his birthplace. Indeed, two of the high points of this drama are magnificent odes in praise of Colonus and Attica. Oedipus at Colonus represents the culmination of Sophocles’ handling of the Cadmean legend, which he had treated earlier in Antigone (441 b.c.e.) and Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715). It is at the same time his last, luminous affirmation of human dignity in the face of an incomprehensible universe.
The theme of the suppliants, or refugees, pleading for protection, was common in Greek tragedy. Both Aeschylus and Euripides had written patriotic dramas on this subject. The plot formula was simple: People threatened with capture sue a powerful but democratic king for aid and receive it. Oedipus at Colonus is remarkably similar in its patriotic content to Euripides’ The Suppliants (423 b.c.e.). Both plays treat the Theban myth and feature an aspect of the War of Seven Against Thebes; both conform to the same plot formula; and both present Theseus and Athens in a heroic light as the defenders of the weak from tyrannical force.
When Sophocles wrote his play, Athens was in the final throes of the disastrous Peloponnesian War, which would result in Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta. In its arrogance of power, the city had become rapacious and morally degenerate. Sophocles’ purpose in writing this play, at least from a civic viewpoint, was to remind the Athenians of their legendary respect for the rights of the helpless, a respect that up to that point had kept them safe from invaders. With the Greek tragedians, civic welfare depended directly on moral rectitude. By defending Oedipus and his daughters, Theseus ensures the safety of Athens for generations. Sophocles also shows Theseus acting disinterestedly, however, out of concern for the suppliants and thus as a model ruler. The playwright wished to inspire his fellow citizens with the virtues they had cast aside: piety, courage in a good cause, and manliness.
Sophocles’ patriotism went beyond state morality. In his two beautiful choral odes on Colonus and Attica there is an intense, wistful passion for the land itself, for the life it supported, and for the people’s activities there. Sophocles believed that there was something holy about the place. It is not accidental that the entire action of this play takes place before a sacred grove, for he wanted his audience to feel the presence of divinity. The goddesses here were the hideous and awesome Furies, who judge and punish evildoers. As agents of divine justice they preside invisibly over all that occurs in Oedipus at Colonus.
The center of the play, however, is not Theseus or Athens but a frightful beggar who has suffered terribly in his long life—the blind Oedipus. Although he is reconciled to exile, beggary, and blindness, he remains proud and hot-tempered, and he cannot forgive Creon and Polynices, the two men who inflicted exile and penury on him. Oedipus has paid in full for the infamous deeds he committed in ignorance. He rightly insists upon his innocence, not of killing his father, marrying his mother, and having children by her, but of having done these things knowingly. Fate led him into that trap, and the Furies punished him for it. His nobility consists in bearing his suffering with dignity. Even if in his blindness he is the weakest and most pitiful of men, and though he must be led around by a young girl, there is true manliness in him.
By contrast, Creon lives by expediency, using force when persuasion fails but tamely submitting when Theseus gains the upper hand. In pursuing a reasonable goal, namely the defense of Thebes, he is willing to use any means, including kidnapping Oedipus’s only supports, his two daughters. His ruthlessness is distasteful, but even more unpleasant is Polynices’s whining plea for Oedipus’s aid in attacking Thebes. It stems from selfish ambition rather than concern for his poor father. The curses Oedipus levels at Creon, Polynices, Eteocles, and Thebes are justified and apt. For dishonoring a helpless, blind man they deserve the calamity they have incurred.
In this play, Oedipus is preparing for death, as Sophocles must have been as he wrote it. Despite his hard destiny, and despite his power to curse those who have shamed him, Oedipus carries in his breast a profound blessing. In the end, the very Furies who hounded him bestow upon him a tremendous potency in death, the power to protect Athens just as Athens had protected him. The ultimate reason for his suffering remains obscure, but the manhood with which he faced it was the sole blessing he himself received, and that was all he needed. His mysterious and fearsome apotheosis amid flashes of lightning and earth tremors is the tribute the gods pay to Oedipus’s supreme courage. Sophocles here offered his last and most sublime testament to a human being’s ability to take unmerited pain and transform it into glory.