DATE: produced posthumously in 401, written in 407/6
CHARACTERS: Oedipus, Antigone, Stranger, Ismene, Theseus, Kreon, Polyneikes, Messenger
CHORUS: men of Colonus
SETTING: the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, a village just outside Athens
After many years of wandering the blind and accursed Oedipus and his daughter Antigone arrive at Colonus, near Athens. Upon hearing from a stranger that he has reached the grove of the Eumenides (the Dread Goddesses), he realizes that he has reached the end of his journey. The chorus are at first appalled to learn that this is the cursed Oedipus, but after hearing his plea agree to let the king (Theseus) decide. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, arrives unexpectedly, bringing news that Kreon has been sent to bring Oedipus back to Thebes – an oracle has declared that his presence will aid any city that possesses him – then Theseus arrives and grants Oedipus refuge in his kingdom. Kreon has already taken Ismene prisoner and carries off Antigone, leaving Oedipus alone. The chorus summon aid from Theseus, who rescues Oedipus’ daughters and announces that a stranger from Argos wishes to speak with Oedipus. This is Oedipus’ estranged son, Polyneikes, who asks his father to help him regain his rightful rule in Thebes, but a furious Oedipus rejects him and curses both his sons. Thunder now echoes through the grove and Oedipus then realizes his time has come. Only Theseus witnesses the final fate of Oedipus, who at last comes to his rest.
Sophocles’ last play finally ends the story of the cursed Oedipus. The playwright has added unexpected elements to the story (the arrival of Ismene and Polyneikes, a blustering and arrogant Kreon). We see Oedipus go from the helpless blind man led by his daughter to the man who strides confidently on his own to meet his destiny. He will become a “hero,” a mortal worshiped with honors and sacrifices, and we witness the change from suffering human to something more than man. Heroes in Greek myth are traditionally angry, and in his response to Kreon and then to Polyneikes he begins to assume this status. As with Philoktetes, we wonder whether his anger is too much, as his furious response will doom not only his sons but also Antigone. Colonus was Sophocles’ birthplace, and a magnificent choral ode celebrates the beauty of that place. The play continues the repeated theme of Athens as the place where suppliants and fugitives may find refuge, although in this play Athens is ruled by King Theseus, and is not the democracy it is elsewhere.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005