63. Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (406 BC)

Plot : Exiled Oedipus, aged and blinded, and supported only by his younger daughter Antigone, finally reaches Colonus, an outlying village near Athens, seeking refuge in his dying days. After being granted friendship and protection from King Theseus, he is then warned by his other daughter Ismene that a new prophecy has been announced, and that only Oedipus’ patronage, (and possession of his earthly remains after his death) will allow an aspirant to succeed to the throne of Thebes.  Creon and Polynices both separately track down Oedipus, falsely claiming they only want Oedipus to return to live in comfort in Thebes, but meaning to imprison him on the borderlands, where they will gain the advantage foretold by the Oracle but not pollute the city or antagonize the population.

Failing to convince Oedipus to return willingly, Creon abducts both Antigone and Ismene, but Theseus  and his men force their return, setting up bad blood between the two cities. Polynices is sent packing by Oedipus with the curse that his attempt to win Thebes by force will end with his own death and that of his brother Eteocles at each other’ hands. Oedipus then dies in quite mysterious and divinely  provided circumstances, with only Theseus as witness.

I read the Penguin Black Classic The Theban Plays translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 9780140440034)

My thoughts : Like a Wimbledon rally, the Greek plays keep ricocheting back and forth between the curses of the Atreus and Oedipus families. While Oedipus at Colonus is perhaps not the strongest of Sophocles’ plays, it wraps up the tale and provides poor Oedipus with some dignity and a pain free death.Much is also made of Athens as the home of justice.

The order of events is somewhat different than the Euripidean Phoencian Women, with the banishment of Oedipus occurring long before the  attack on Thebes by Polynices and his armies, and Antigone intending to return to Thebes after her father’s death to try and stop his curse from leading to the death of both her brothers  – the woman’s a saint!

And I feel a little less manly (or a little more Egyptian) after reading Oedipus’ angry reaction to the failure of his sons to seek him out and care for him as his daughters have.

Oedipus : What then? They ape Egyptian manners, do they, where men keep house and do embroidery while wives go out to earn the daily bread?”                                               page 81.

Favourite lines/passages :

The Chorus of Colonus citizens make their village sound like a paradise on Earth

“Here in our white Colonus, stranger guest,

of all earth’s lovely lands the loveliest,

Fine horses breed, and leaf-enfolded vales

Are thronged with sweetly-singing nightingales,

screened in deep arbours, ivy, dark as wine,

and tangled bowers of berry-clustered vine;

To whose dark avenues and windless courts

The Grape-god with his nursing nymphs resorts”                    Chorus, page 92

and Antigone describes the last moments of her beloved father

 “As you would have wished for him;

Not in the peril of war,

Nor in the sea ;

But by a swift invisible hand

He was lifted away to the far dark shore.

And dark as death shall our night be.”                                     Antigone, page 121.

Personal rating : The third of Sophocles’ plays of the Oedipus legend only gets a 6, probably as I tire of the story more than any particular fault with the play. I gave the other two instalments, Oedipius the King and Antigone both 8, so the ‘trilogy’ is definitely worth reading.

Also in that year : Around this time (407 BC) Plato becomes a student of Socrates. More of them later.

Next: Sophocles’ last play, Electra.


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