Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

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"Not To Be Born Is Best"

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Context: In this sequel to Sophocles' better known play, Oedipus the King, the aged, cursed Oedipus has now wandered in exile from his native Thebes to Colonus, a sacred wooded area near Athens. Here, the gods have predicted, he will die. The troubles of Oedipus and the entire house of Cadmus, from which he is descended, have been many. Unknowingly, Oedipus had once killed his father, married his own mother, and sired children by that marriage. When he discovers his wrong doings (the subject of Oedipus the King), Oedipus blinded himself and declared self-exile. Now twenty years have passed, and, though Oedipus has reached a certain state of ennoblement through suffering, troubles continue to befall his family. His sons have disassociated themselves from their father and, in fact, have been instrumental in urging him out of Thebes. Furthermore, they are warring between themselves over control of that city. Antigone and Ismene, tending to their father in his helpless condition, are kidnaped by Creon of Thebes when Oedipus refuses to return to his home city to save it from a curse. Reflecting on all these misfortunes, the Chorus–in the Greek tragedy the commentator on the action–philosophizes on the inevitable miseries of life, concluding that it would be best if man were never born or, if being born, he could die early in life. Thus man would escape life's calamities.

Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when a man hath seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.
For when he hath seen youth go by, with its light follies, what troublous affliction is strange to his lot, what suffering is not therein?–envy, factions, strife, battles and slaughters; and, last of all, age claims him for her own,–age, dispraised, infirm, unsociable, unfriended, with whom all woe of woe abides.

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