Oedipus at Colonus in a Nutshell

Oedipus at Colonus
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As we saw in the previous essay in this series, Oedipus Rex presents the riddle of man without offering any solution. It seems to beg innumerable questions on the nature of man and on the mystery of suffering without giving any answers. It would, however, be a gross and grotesque error to conclude from the moral inconclusiveness of Oedipus Rex that Sophocles lacked the answers to the questions he poses in the second of his Three Theban Plays. In the final play, Oedipus at Colonus, he solves the riddle of man and the mystery of suffering through the moral lessons that Oedipus has learned from the tragic experiences recounted in the earlier play.

Oedipus at Colonus begins several years after the tragic events that brought down the curtain on Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is a broken, blind old man, clad in filthy rags. He is led by his daughter, Antigone, who had been a child at the conclusion of the previous play but is now a young woman. 

In his opening speech, Oedipus answers the riddle that the previous play had presented. He reminds Antigone that “acceptance is the great lesson that suffering teaches,” explaining that the fruit of such acceptance is “nobility.” These words of wisdom, rooted in the humble acceptance of his plight, sets the tone and theme for all that follows.

Like King Lear, Oedipus is a man more sinned against than sinning, and, like Lear, he is ennobled by the acceptance of circumstances that were beyond his control and for which he was, therefore, not to blame. He had killed Laius, the man whom he later discovered to be his father, in self-defense. As for Jocasta, the woman he married oblivious of the fact that she was his mother, she and Laius had wanted to destroy him, their own son, in infancy. Whereas they could be said to be responsible for their own tragic ends, Oedipus was an innocent victim of circumstance. As a blameless victim, Oedipus comes to Colonus in the kingdom of Athens as a gift of the gods: “someone sacred, someone filled with piety and power, bearing a great gift for all your people.”

If Oedipus has become holy through the embrace of his own suffering and is sanctified by his bearing of it, Antigone has also been blessed by her voluntarily laying down her life in her father’s service. As Oedipus says, she had “volunteered for grief” ever since leaving childhood behind and coming into fullness of strength. She had wandered with her father, serving as Oedipus’ guide, sharing his penury and hunger, cutting her feet walking barefoot over thorny ground, “worn down by the drenching rains, the scorching sun at noon.” “You endured it all,” he tells her, “never a second thought for home, a decent life, so long as your father had some care and comfort.”

Oedipus also offers a corrective to the suicidal rage which had characterized his act of self-violence in the final moments of the previous play:

That first day, true, when all my rage was seething,
my dearest wish was death….

But then, as “the smoldering fever broke and died at last,” he had come to realize that his rage had far outrun his wrongs. “I’d lashed myself too much for what I’d done.” He had wished at this point to rebuild his life as a father to his children but had been forcibly separated from them and cast into exile. He had learned to accept his life of wandering poverty, his suffering “received as a gift, a prize to break the heart.”

Theseus, King of Athens, is introduced in a noble light, made manifest in the charity with which he welcomes Oedipus:

I will never shrink
from a stranger, lost as you are now,
or fail to lend a hand and save a life.
I am only a man, well I know,
And I have no more power over tomorrow,
Oedipus, than you.
“Oh Theseus,” Oedipus responds, “so magnanimous, so noble!”

It is at this stage in the drama that the supernatural dimension becomes increasingly apparent. Oedipus tells Theseus that his magnanimity and charity will be rewarded by the gods:

I come with a gift for you,
my own shattered body…no feast for the eyes,
but the gains it holds are greater than great beauty.

When Theseus asks him when the gifts will come to light, Oedipus replies that they will be given after Oedipus’ death. Shortly afterward, Oedipus reminds Theseus that only the gods never age and that only the gods never die. “All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing.” The strength of the earth and the strength of men wastes away and dies.

Creon, King of Thebes and Oedipus’ brother-in-law, is filled with disgust and contempt upon seeing Oedipus and Antigone in their penurious state. His reaction is in stark contrast to Theseus’ charitable response upon first seeing them. Creon sees Antigone as being foolish for her act of self-sacrifice in helping her father, crushed by the life of gloom and poverty she had chosen. Beyond any prospect of a good marriage, Antigone is fit only for coupling with the most uncouth of men, “a prize for the first rough hand” who will take her. He has no inkling of the serenity that Oedipus and Antigone had gained from their willing embrace of suffering. “Our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,” Oedipus tells him, “so long as we can find joy in every hour.” 

Creon, blinded by his pride and the cynicism which is its cankered fruit, has no idea of the peace that passeth understanding of which Oedipus speaks. Theseus, however, sees Oedipus as a prophet who sees more in his blindness than Creon can see with his unblemished eyes. Unlike the contempt with which the blind prophet Tiresias had been treated in the two previous plays, Theseus heeds Oedipus’ words: 

Oh I believe you.
Time and again I’ve seen your prophecies come right,
you never lie. Now tell me what to do. 

Whereas Creon (in Antigone) and Oedipus (in Oedipus Rex) were punished by the gods for their dismissal of the blind prophet, Theseus is rewarded for his faith and trust in the gods with a vision of Oedipus being assumed into heaven at the play’s literally heavenly climax. The theology of this mystical assumption speaks for itself. The man who accepts the suffering that life brings, embracing it with resignation to the will of the gods, will receive his heavenly reward. It is for this reason that the Chorus, in the play’s final lines, beseeches Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, to take comfort from their father’s miraculous end.

Come, my children, weep no more,
raise the dirge no longer. All rests
in the hands of a mighty power.       

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image Credit: Oedipus at Colonus (Public Domain)]

By

Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book is Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019). His website is jpearce.co.

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