Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How do Antigone and Ismene's brothers die in Oedipus at Colonus?

Quick answer:

Antigone and Ismene's brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, kill each other in battle in a civil war when Eteocles refuses to yield the throne of Thebes to his brother, according to an agreement they made that they would rule Thebes year-by-year, on an alternating basis.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Antigone and Ismene appear as children near the end of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, after Oedipus blinds himself at the sight of his dead mother, also his wife, who committed suicide. Antigone and Ismene's brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, don't appear in Oedipus Rex, but Oedipus asks King Creon to protect them.

It appears that Oedipus will be separated from his children in exile, but Antigone agrees to accompany Oedipus in his banishment from Thebes, and Ismene, Polynices, and Eteocles choose to remain in Thebes under King Creon's protection until the brothers are old enough to rule Thebes on their own.

In Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus and Antigone travel to Colonus, which is to be Oedipus's final resting place.

Meanwhile in Thebes, Polynices and Eteocles have grown up, and they agree to rule Thebes together, alternating being king from year to year.

Ismene has travelled to Colonus to give Oedipus the news that Eteocles served as king first, but at the end of the year, Eteocles refuses to give up the throne to Polynices. Polynices raises an army against Eteocles, and a civil war will likely occur unless Polynices withdraws his army and agrees to let Eteocles continue to rule Thebes.

Ismene tells Oedipus that an oracle has declared that whoever Oedipus supports in the war will win the war and serve as king.

Polynices travels to Colonus, ostensibly to visit Oedipus and beg for his forgiveness and his blessing. In fact, Polynices only wants Oedipus's support in the civil war to fulfill the prophecy of the oracle.

Oedipus sees through the ruse, denounces Polynices as a hypocrite, and curses him.

OEDIPUS. Begone, abhorred, disowned, no son of mine,
Thou vilest of the vile! and take with thee
This curse I leave thee as my last bequest:—
Never to win by arms thy native land,
No, nor return to Argos in the Vale,
But by a kinsman's hand to die and slay
Him who expelled thee.

Ismene pleads with Polynices not to take his army to Thebes to fight against Eteocles, but since Oedipus refused to support him, Polynices knows that he will be killed if he fights against his brother, and he decides to die for his right to be king.

Polynices returns to his army, and the story is taken up by Aeschylus in his play Seven Against Thebes.

Rather than yield the throne to Polynices, who is threatening civil war, Eteocles prepares the city for an attack from Polynices's army and announces that he will face his brother himself.

ETEOCLES. I will myself go forth
And match me with him; who hath fairer claim?
Ruler, against one fain to snatch the rule,
Brother with brother matched, and foe with foe,
Will I confront the issue.

At the height of the ensuing battle, Polynices and Eteocles face each other, and a messenger reports the result of their fight:

MESSENGER. Over a city saved, the while its lords,
Twin leaders of the fight, have parcelled out
With forged arbitrament of Scythian steel
The full division of their fatherland,
And, as their father's imprecation bade,
Shall have their due of land, a twofold grave.
So is the city saved; the earth has drunk
Blood of twin princes, by each other slain.

Polynices and Eteocles kill each other in battle, fulfilling the prophecy of the oracle that without Oedipus's support and blessing, neither Polynices nor Eteocles could prevail in the battle.

Polynices and Eteocles also fulfilled Oedipus's curse and prophecy:

OEDIPUS. Never to win by arms thy native land,
... But by a kinsman's hand to die and slay him who expelled thee. (Oedipus at Colonus)

Polynices would never rule Thebes, and whoever killed Polynices—his own brother, Eteocles—would be killed by Polynices.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial