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...
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