Oedipus at Colonus
The last tragic drama of Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), the longest of all, was staged by the playwright’s namesake grandson in 401 B.C. The beloved poet of the Athenians returns to a subject that preoccupied him more than twenty years ago. In Oedipus Rex the hero, a potent king at Thebes, collapses under the revelation of his own past and blinds himself. In Oedipus at Colonus, by contrast, the same hero, now an exiled and wandering old man, finds expiation and a glorious conclusion of earthly life in Athens.
Oedipus at Colonus is a very personal play. Sophocles, in old age himself, places the stage at Colonus, the deme of his own origin, and shows an old and powerless Oedipus, accompanied by his daughter Antigone – later Ismene also appears –, reaching Eumenides’ grove to be found there and realizing that, according to a Delphic oracle, this is the place of his death. At the end of the play, Oedipus is received by the gods with heroic honours, just as Sophocles, famous for his piety throughout his life, was subsequently honoured with heroic cult by the Athenians under the name of Dexion. About fifteen years after the performance of the play, Plato established his Academy in the same deme.
Oedipus at Colonus is a rather static play. Oedipus, present on stage from the beginning until almost the end of the tragedy, deals, now peacefully and then in an agitated manner, with the last challenges of his fate. His two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, on the verge of a war for Thebes’ rule, arrive, one after the other, in order to persuade him to follow them. A Delphic oracle has announced that the victory will be with the one who manages to have the father on his side. Oedipus vigorously denies to help them both. With the powerful king of Athens Theseus steadily on his side, Oedipus opposes his sons’ extortions and remains in Colonus waiting for the end. At the last scene of the play, Oedipus is personally addressed by the gods and, having first bid his daughters farewell and received Theseus’ oath promising lifelong support for them, mysteriously disappears. His wretched earthly life is concluded with a wondrously redemptive end.
In Oedipus at Colonus the main subject revolves around the desirable conciliation of tragic man with the past and with mortality, a conciliation that comes as the result of a superior vision supervening on old age (cf. Pl. Symp. 219a). Sophocles, who is reported to have said in his old age about erotic desire that “he has gladly escaped an oppressive and merciless tyrant” (Pl. Rep. 329B-c), shows death to be the fulfilment of a life lived in full tension and underscores, in this way, the inner unity of opposites.