The Greek Tragedy
Oedipus at Colonus was written by the great and renowned Greek playwright Sophocles at around 404 B.C. or so. In the play, considered to be one of the best Greek dramas ever written, Sophocles uses the now broken down and old Oedipus as a statement of hope for man. As Oedipus was royalty and honor before his exile from his kingdom of Thebes he is brought down to a poor, blind old man who wonders, “Who will receive the wandering Oedipus today?” (Sophocles 283) most of the time of his life that is now as low as a peasant’s. Although former ruler of Thebes has been blinded and desecrated to the point where he is a beggar, he will not give up on his life and on the life of his two daughters Antigone and Ismene, and his two sons Eteocles and Polynieces who were supposed to help their sorrowful father like true sons and true men but instead they “tend the hearth like girls.”(304).
Yet Oedipus still gives praise to those who have helped him, his daughters Antigone and Ismene, although he has no sight, is poor, and his life is of no meaning to him, he recognizes honor and loyalty when he sees it: “Antigone from the time she left her childhood behind and came into full strength, has volunteered for grief, wandering with me, leading the old misery, hungryHard labor, but you endured it all, never a second though for home, a decent life, so long as your father had some care and comfort. And you, child, in the early days, all unknown to Thebes you left the city, brought your father the oracles, and prophecy said to touch his life. You were my faithful guard, you took that part when I was an exile from the land” (304). It would be hard to think of any suffering more overwhelming than the suffering that was endured by Oedipus: “At the summit of his power he discovered himself damned, by his own pertinacity stubborn persistence discovered that he had horribly offended against the decencies by which men must live. In one day he fell from sovereignty and fame to self- blinded degradation, and later was driven into exile.” (Fitzgerald 145).
In the eyes of all the people, Oedipus was looked at as no better than a slave and was treated as no better than one as well. When being led by his older daughter Antigone after 20 years of exile from his homeland Oedipus and Antigone stumble upon the city of Colonus, a beautiful city governed by King Theseus. Oedipus entering the city in old rags, as a blind poor man is a contrast between Oedipus and the beauty of Colonus of which is easily revealed. (145). Here in the cities are where the Furies dwell. Those who commit severe sins, such as murder in Oedipus’ case, are pursued to these Furies.
Oedipus, well aware that the Furies must punish him as an act of punishment from the gods, asks the chorus to tell him “their awesome names so I can pray to them.” (Sophocles 285). After all that Oedipus has suffered; after killing his own mother and having wed his mother, after being betrayed by his sons, after exile, after blinding himself so he would not have to look into the eyes of the horrors of life, “why is he merely not an obsessed and vindictive old man?” (Fitzgerald 148). Oedipus was and still is an intelligent man in the play, as wee see him going for the supreme importance of the pure man. “During the years in which Oedipus probed his own guilt he has come to terms with it.” (148).
Though he was guilty of murder and of incest relations he has redeemed his sins and is still hopeful for a second chance at life as an honest and noble man in the eyes of the gods. Oedipus is considered to be a large symbol of hope in Oedipus at Colonus. In the play, Oedipus is a protagonist, a good man, a former ruler, who wants to redeem himself for the dreadful sins he has committed some 20 years ago or so. Oedipus’ dress is quite significant in his mark of hope and him the protagonist because in the later years of Sophocles, “he began to stage his men as beggared kings and heroes in rags” (Whitman 146). Sophocles did this to his protagonists to express that true good men have benevolent inner and outer morals and “it is hard to see how the supremacy of man’s inner divinity could have achieved fuller expression than in the shimmering vision of Oedipus.” (146).
The true purpose of Oedipus’ appearance and his purpose in life in Oedipus at Colonus really was to not show that god show mercy on men and men can redeem themselves heavenly in the eyes of the gods but the purpose was bring out the, so called, god and divinity, in men: “Oedipus, beginning with that knowledge, now becomes a god- in the specifically fifth-century sense of a god such as man can become His anguished burden of tragic courage has by its very weight prevented him from turning into the shadow the gods would make for him; for his tragic courage is as divine and inviolable as they.” (146-147). In the plays of Sophocles, the protagonist who is action-oriented is behaving as any hero should and does behave. In Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus does not lack action so he therefore can be regarded as a hero, although his triumph has halted years back. Oedipus would not be considered the best of Sophocles’ heroes if he achieved his successfulness by his own self-destructiveness. (147).
After Creon comes to Colonus to take Oedipus back to Thebes and bury him right outside their borders so the city will not be plagued Oedipus refuses to go and yet persistent Creon does not withdraw. He captures Oedipus’ guide and beloved daughter Antigone so that Oedipus will suffer more than he already has. But still Oedipus remains confident that he will get his revenge on those who harmed him most. Wandering around Greece for 20 years in exile has been a hard feat for Oedipus and for his young daughter but Oedipus still lives, not only because the gods let him live until he has fulfilled his destiny but because he alone knows that he must fulfill his destiny. Although blind Oedipus cannot see, he sees what he must he do before he is to leave the world. When Oedipus’ own sons betray their father he still remains focused on his revenge and he dies at the end but only after he has had his revenge on those who he planned it on and after his daughters are safe from the threat of Thebes and it’s inhabitants and rulers.
Sophocles made it so clear that Oedipus was a representation of hope in Oedipus at Colonus that other playwrights, such as Seneca, a famous Spanish playwright, used characters after Oedipus in his tragedies. However, “In literary quality, Seneca’s tragedies will not bear comparison with Greek tragedy.” (Baade XV). Sophocles made Oedipus such a sign of hope for Seneca, that he began writing tragedies of that stature. (Baade XIV).
Since Oedipus wasn’t allowed exile from Thebes to the mountains by Creon, he was forced to live in the palace as Creon was the king and his two boys grew up to be men. When he finally leaves Thebes and wanders for many years as a beggar with his young daughter Antigone by his side as his guide. “His life is so wretched that he feels death creeping up on him,” but he knows he cannot die until he has had his revenge. (Melchinger 154). An oracle is given to the people of Thebes that the town where Oedipus is dead and buried will be at peace.
Knowing of this oracle, Oedipus still continues on to Athens to seek refuge and redeem his sins. “The play describes how Oedipus approaches death, and how political power tries to seize him in order to secure its own salvation.” (155). Throughout this escapade, Oedipus remains loyal and true to his destiny before he dies in anyway, by force or by act of the gods. This is why Sophocles allows Oedipus a choice of where he should die, because he is so concentrated on the well being of his daughters and on his fates.
One main point of why Oedipus is an icon for all hope is his interaction with the king of Athens/Colonus, King Theseus. Throughout mythology, King Theseus was known for his kindness and goodness and his willingness to help people. When this poor, old, blind, broken down Oedipus enters Colonus and Theseus speaks to him for the first time, he quickly agrees to help the poor man with anything that he asks of him because he knows what suffering he has had and what his life has been like since birth and the fact that Oedipus has carried on this far amazes the young Theseus who is willing to care for this poor beggar: “Such kindness-who could reject such a man? First, in any case, Oedipus is our ally: by mutual rights we owe him hospitality I respect his claims, I’ll never reject the gifts he offers, no, I will settle him in our land, a fellow-citizen with full rights.” (Sophocles 323). These gifts Oedipus offers are the desecration of his body. When he dies he must be put in the grave of the city where he chooses to die and that city will never have disputes and will remain in peace forever.
When blinded Oedipus entered Colonus, Theseus vowed to him he would protect him always and never let anyone take him away against the will of Theseus: “I do know this: no one can take you away from here against my will. Men have threatened for ages, blustered their threats to nothing in their rage I know my name will shield you well, you’ll never come to grief.” (Sophocles 325). When Creon comes to Colonus to “take back Oedipus and give the proper burial he deserves in his true homeland,” Theseus steps in and holds true to his word, his name did shield Oedipus. (Roche 158). Before Oedipus should die and be buried, be buried in Athens, he must continue with his atonement for his sins and purify his soul before he may enter the afterlife.
(Roche 159). In this part of the play Sophocles makes use of that Oedipus is a sign of hope and the fact that Theseus will guard Oedipus makes it evident that Theseus believes in Oedipus’ hopes and desires. Theseus knows Oedipus will properly fulfill his destiny and he has hope in him that Oedipus will die in Athens after his soul is cleansed of all evil, and then all will be at peace. Sophocles has built his plays on the audience knowing the outcome of the end of the play. In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles “constructed scenes to get the most out of the ironic contrast between appearance and reality.” (O’Brien 32). In the play Oedipus seems to the characters in the play to be a poor, blind, helpless old man with no hope or meaning in life.
Yet to the audience Oedipus seems like a strong and confident man who after suffering so much, after what no ordinary man could live to bear through, will not die until he is cleansed of all evil deeds and dies when he so chooses to. In conclusion, it is evident that Oedipus is a very big depiction of hope, not only in Oedipus at Colonus but also in Oedipus the King. Although he seems to the audience in one play as a honest and loyal man who suffers great damage, and in another one who should die and not live the miserable life of not seeing and knowing what you have done in your past. However, careful analyzing of Oedipus will lead the audience to believe Oedipus will not die until he is a pure man, his destiny is fulfilled, and he has a chosen a resting place for all eternity.
- Baade, Eric C. Seneca’s Tragedies: Oedipus, Troades, Agamemnon. Collier-Macmillan Limited, London. 1969.
- Readings on Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus. Fitzgerald, Robert. Green Haven Press, San Diego, California. 1997.
- Melchinger, Siegfried. Sophocles. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, New York. 1974.
- O’Brien, Michael J.Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood cliffs, New Jersey. 1968.
- Roche, Paul.The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. The New English Library Limited, London. New York and Scarborough, Ontario. 1958. Sophocles.
- The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus The King, Oedipus At Colonus. Penguin Books. New York, New York. 1982, 1984.
- Sophocles: A collection of critical essays edited by Thomas Woodward: Oedipus at Colonus. Whitman, Cedric H. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 1966.