Archive for January, 2023

“Oedipus at Colonus” by Sophocles

All excerpts from “Oidipous at Kolonos” in the post below are taken from the translation by Gregory McCart, published by Everyman.

I have used the usual Anglicised form “Oedipus at Colonus” in the title of this post, since that is how this play is commonly known in English-speaking countries, but in the actual body of the post, I shall be adopting the spellings of proper names as used by Gregory McCart – for instance, Oidipous rather than Oedipus, Kreon rather than Creon, Kolonos rather than Colonus, and so on. However, out of habit, I guess, and no doubt inconsistently, I refer to Sophocles rather than to Sophokles.

Sophocles has a reputation for piety, though I must admit that is not the impression I personally get from my readings. In none of the seven existing plays of his do I find anything in his depiction of divinities that seems to me worthy of reverence. The obvious riposte to this is that my idea of what deserves to be revered is very different from that of the Greeks: that is indeed a fair point. But before we decide whether or not the divinities as presented by Sophocles are indeed worthy of reverence, we need to focus on how precisely he presents them; and how he presents them strikes me as very deeply troubling, even in this late play in which the tragic protagonist finally finds what we may describe – in terms belonging uncomfortably to the Christian age – as “divine grace”.

It is difficult speaking of this play in the context of Sophocles’ other works, since by far the greater proportion of his other work is missing; but fortunately, Oidipous the King, the play to which this play may be regarded as a sequel, has survived. And an even earlier play, Antigone, to which this play may be regarded as a prequel, has also survived. These three plays are sometimes referred to as a trilogy, but we are frequently warned against regarding them as such: they date from very different periods of Sophocles’ life, we are told, and were written as standalones. However, referring to them as a trilogy may not be too far off the mark, since Sophocles appears to have gone out of his way to ensure consistency both of character and of plot between Oidipous at Kolonos and the earlier play Oidipous the King; and further, he places in Oidipous at Kolonos clear references to the events of the even earlier play Antigone. So, although the three plays weren’t conceived or written as a trilogy, Sophocles was clearly keen to knit the plays together in a consistent narrative and thematic web.

(There are also clear references in Oidipous at Kolonos to the mutually destructive enmity between the brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes, the theme of Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes; and if, as is possible, Sophocles had also written a play on this theme – one of the many that are now lost – we may even be justified in speaking of the whole thing as a tetralogy.)

But whatever the consistencies between Oidipous the King and Oidipous at Kolonos, they are very different stylistically. The earlier play is taut in construction, with each scene leading inexorably to the next, with a grim sense of inevitability that itself evokes terror and awe. Oidipous at Kolonos, on the other hand, seems loose and episodic, with no obvious logic knitting the various episodes together. The pace is leisurely, making this by some distance the longest of the existing Greek tragedies. The opening and final scenes are clearly related: in the first scene, Oidipous appear a blind beggar, polluted, hated by the gods, shunned by mankind, led through his wanderings and tended by his faithful daughter, Antigone; and in the final scene, we see a reversal, as Oidipous undergoes a sort of apotheosis: the gods cleanse him of pollution and deem him worthy of acceptance, thus bringing his turbulent life to an unexpectedly serene end. But what happens between is very episodic, and fitting these episodes together into a coherent and unified whole is no easy task.

In the opening scene, Oidipous and Antigone have come to Kolonos, in the outskirts of Athens, and have unwittingly wandered into the sacred grove of the Eumenides. The local people, the chorus, are horrified to see him there, for to intrude upon such sacred ground is a gross impiety; and they urge him to step outside. They are more horrified still to discover who he is: they may feel compassion for him, but are unable to offer hospitality to one so notoriously polluted. Oidipous proclaims his innocence: none of his acts of horror, he says, had been committed with the knowledge of what he was doing. Indeed, for the killing of Laios, he goes further: even if he had known, he says, his action was no crime:

… And yet, how can I be depraved by nature

when I merely fought back after I was injured? Even if I’d known

what I was doing, how can that make me depraved?

This is very different from the Oidipous we had seen at the end of Oidipous the King: there we had left him guilt-stricken, and actually longing to be exiled:

Cast me out of Thebes as soon as possible

to where I’ll not meet up with anyone

Do not condemn me ever while I live

to dwell here in the city of my fathers

[From Oidipous the King, translated by Gregory McCart]

But here, not only do we see Oidipous defiantly proclaim his innocence (he does so three times in the course of the play), we see him harbour a profound resentment and hatred for his brother-in-law Kreon, and for his sons Eteokles and Polyneikes, who, he claims, had forced him into exile against his will. There are clearly discrepancies here between the two plays, and Sophocles is careful to paper over the cracks:

… For on that day, the very moment

when my passion blazed, when even to

be stoned to death was most welcome to me,

no-one came forward to fulfil my craving.

Eventually, when all the pain had mellowed,

I saw my passion had outrun, had punished

more than due, the errors of my past.

This describes what had happened after the end of the previous play: the “pain had mellowed”; he had felt he had already been “punished more than due”; the self-flagellation with which the earlier play had ended had not lasted. Thus, the incongruities between what he had felt at the end of the previous play, and what he feels now, are smoothed over: Oidipous had, effectively, changed his mind.

It would have been easy for Sophocles simply to have departed from the narrative of the previous play; but instead, he seems keen to ensure consistency, and it is hard to see why he should do so – unless, of course, he wanted this play to be seen as a credible continuation of the earlier.

At any rate, the chorus, on hearing Oidipous’ pleas, and his declaration of his own guiltlessness, agrees to leave it to their ruler, the noble Theseus, to decide whether or not Oidipous is to be given refuge.

There are, effectively, three episodes between this opening scene and the final, each involving a visitor from Oidipous’ past.

The first visitor is his daughter, Ismene, who, unlike her sister Antigone, had remained in Thebes, but who had nonetheless remained loyal to her exiled father. The purpose of her appearance is largely expository: she tells of the enmity that has developed between her two brothers, Polyneikes and Eteokles, the sons of Oidipous: Polyneikes, the elder, has been exiled from Thebes, where his younger brother Eteokles now rules; and, having raised an army, is threatening now to attack the city of his birth. Ismene tells also of a prophecy that the presence of Oidipous, alive or dead, will be propitious for the city, and that Kreon is, for that reason, planning to bring Oidipous back – not into the city itself, for he is still polluted, nor even to offer him burial within the city on his death, for his pollution outlasts even his life, but, rather, to keep him just outside the city’s borders, but within its power. Oidipous is, not surprisingly, unimpressed, and rails both against Kreon, and against his two sons. It is at this point that Theseus, the ruler of Athens, enters. Oidipous pleads for refuge, assuring Theseus that his presence in Athens, even when he is dead, would be propitious for the city. But in the course of making this assurance, he presents a very disconcerting picture of the afterlife. Should Athens ever be attacked, he tells Theseus,

At that time, my sleeping, hidden corpse,

cold in their earth, will drink their hot blood,

while Zeus is Zeus, and Apollo true.

Not quite, perhaps, the picture of eternal bliss of the Christian imagination. But the noble Theseus is happy to accept the polluted Oidipous, and assures Oidipous of his friendship and hospitality. In a very solemn passage, instructions are given on the rites that must be followed to atone for Oidipous’ intrusion into the sacred grove of the Eumenides, and Ismene is dispatched to carry them out.

Both the friendship and the hospitality promised by Theseus are put to the test in the second of the three episodes, which is initiated by the entrance of Kreon – the brother-in-law (and also, due to well-known complications, the maternal uncle) of Oidipous. This episode is largely melodramatic: Kreon, duplicitous in all he says and does, tries to persuade Oidipous to return, but Oidipous, knowing what he does, and filled with a bitter and implacable fury, rejects his advances. Kreon then claims that he has already captured Ismene, and proceeds now to capture Antigone also: neither the chorus nor the blind and aged Oidipous can prevent him. Theseus now lives up to his previous declarations of friendship by rescuing the two sisters (the rescue takes place offstage). It is a strange episode in many ways: it involves, among other things, the involvement of the chorus in onstage action (something it is often claimed never happens in Greek drama) as they try, ineffectively, to prevent Antigone from being seized. And these unexpected bursts of action – both the onstage capture of Antigone and the offstage rescue – seem, perhaps, somewhat incongruous given the very leisurely scenes of dialogue that had preceded it.

The third and last of the three episodes before the finale involves another person from Oidipous’ past – his son, Polyneikes, who, as Ismene had told us, has been exiled from Thebes by his brother Eteokles, and who has now raised an army to attack his native city. He has come now for his father’s support in his venture.

We hear of his presence before we see him: Theseus had seen him as a suppliant at the altar of the god Poseidon. Oidipous, still enraged, refuses at first to meet with his son, and Theseus has gently to remind him that Polyneikes is a suppliant at the altar of a god, and “respect for the god must be observed”. It is at this stage that Antigone is given a quite extraordinary speech, invoking not reverence for the gods, but the purely human need for forgiveness and reconciliation:

… Even if he committed

the most atrocious things against you,

to do the same to him in return is not right.

She continues:

… Look

at what you suffered for your parents.

See what’s happened and you’ll realize, I’m sure,

that the result of bitter anger is more bitterness.

Oidipous unbends to the extent of allowing Polyneikes into his presence, but no further. He says afterwards that it was Theseus’ urging that prompted this concession: of Antigone’s impassioned plea he says nothing.

Polyneikes is shocked on seeing his father in such a state: this shock may be feigned, as that of Kreon had been, but it is certainly possible that it may be real – a possibility Oidipous is not prepared even to entertain. Oidipous hears his son out, but responds in the vilest of terms, first lambasting him, and then cursing him with a violence that recalls to a Shakespearean reader Lear’s curses on Goneril:

You vermin! When you had the power and

the throne in Thebes, which now your bother has,

you were the one who drove out your own father.

My curses crush your supplication and

your claim to the throne, if Right, honoured of old,

still sits with the ancient laws of Zeus.

Go! I spit you out! I am not your father!

And he adds to this curse a vatic pronouncement:

… You will die at the hand of your brother

And in turn kill him who banished you.

Before Polyneikes leaves in horror to face the doom his father has prophesied, Sophocles gives him a tender and moving dialogue with his sister Antigone, whose plea for forgiveness and reconciliation had clearly fallen on deaf ears. Here, brother and sister bid other what they both know will be their final farewell. And if Oidipous had foretold earlier the doom awaiting Polyneikes and Eteokles, Polyneikes’ words now foreshadow the doom awaiting Antigone:

… if his curses

are fulfilled, and you happen to

return home, don’t treat me with dishonour.

Lay me in a grave with funeral gifts.

Now we enter the final scene, in which the cursed Oidipous, polluted and hated by the gods, is finally cleansed, and, after so long and such terrible suffering, is accepted. Following immediately from a scene of foretold horror and of heart-rending pathos, the mood changes miraculously: here, at journey’s end, we have a radiant serenity, a sense of wonder and of awe, and a sense, almost, of joy – at least, of as much joy as may be permitted in so deeply tragic a world.

This divine acceptance had been foreseen in the very first scene of the play, in which Oidipous had wandered unwittingly into the sacred grove of the Eumenides. On hearing where he is, he had declared:

Then they may kindly draw me as a suppliant.

I will never leave this resting place.

… This sign draws my life together.

And now, at the end of this play, he senses that the time has come in which he is finally to be “drawn together”: the blind man who previously had been led by his daughter now stands up and walks unaided into the skene, which represents the sacred grove of the Eumenides:

Come. Don’t touch me. Allow me to find

the hallowed grave myself where I will reach

my lot in life and lie covered in this earth.

This way. Here. Walk this way. This way Hermes, the Guide,

himself leads me – and she, goddess below.

Oh light, no light – though once before, my light –

My body feels you now … this last time.

I creep towards my consummation, life

Hidden below.

These broken, cryptic utterances appear to hint at that which cannot be expressed – to the ineffable. Oidipous sees in his blindness divinities hidden from those who can see, and this most turbulent of human lives is granted at last a peace that passeth all understanding. And so the play ends.

However, this leaves two very important questions unanswered – one structural, and the other thematic. Firstly, if this final scene both resolves what we had been presented within the first, and fulfils what Odipous had sensed there, what purpose is served by the scenes that come between? Are they there merely to fill in time while we wait for the finale? If so, we must concede that, whatever its other merits, this is a very ill-constructed play. And related to this is a thematic question: why have the gods granted him this absolution? Is it merely their whim, and nothing more?

In Samson Agonistes, Milton’s closet drama that is very clearly modelled upon this play, we have, once again, a blind man who has forfeited divine grace, but who, by the end, wins back the grace that he had previously been denied him; but Milton shows us very clearly how and why this grace is won back. However, we see nothing comparable here. What we see of Oidipous through the course of this play is merely an inflexible, implacable, and a very angry old man: it is hard to see what the gods have seen in this to justify their final acceptance.

All this may be something that we mortals should not even enquire into, as it is beyond all human understanding. Maybe we should simply accept the arbitrary nature of the blessing conferred by the gods upon Oidipous near his death, as we had accepted the arbitrary nature of the cursed fate they had allotted to him even before his birth. For, after all, the gods are due our reverence, not our questioning. This is certainly a coherent interpretation of this play: as a gospel relating to a later religion tells us, the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. Fair enough. But coherent though such an interpretation may be, it is not, I think, a very satisfactory one, at least from an aesthetic perspective: a work in which the central sections bear little or no relation to its resolution is, by any standards, a poor play, especially when the resolution itself cannot be understood because it lies, we are to understand, beyond the scope of our comprehension.

But there is another interpretation possible – albeit one that is troubling, and not very easy to accept. What if the gods reward Oidipous not despite his obduracy, but because of it? What if Oidipous’ implacability is precisely what renders him worthy of divine grace?

Such an interpretation may seem odd to us, used as we are to relate divinity with what is Good. Surely, it is Antigone’s plea for forgiveness, for reconciliation – the plea that Oidipous so conspicuously ignores – that represents divine will? But there is no reason to think so: Antigone is filled with love and with pity, but, very noticeably, she does not invoke the gods when she makes her plea; Oidipous, in contrast, does invoke the “ancient laws of Zeus” when he curses his son:

… if Right, honoured of old,

still sits with the ancient laws of Zeus …

Even as a corpse, he had told us, he will drink hot blood, “while Zeus is Zeus and Apollo true”.

Antigone’s love and pity, her desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, are human: but Oidipous’ insistence upon the ancient laws, “honoured of old”, is divine. Good and Evil don’t come into this, and neither do such human emotions as love or pity: the gods are beyond such considerations. And if Oidipous shows himself as implacable, he shows himself godlike, for the gods themselves are implacable. Achilles in The Iliad is godlike when he sweeps relentlessly through the Trojan ranks, slaughtering all in his path: he becomes human when, out of pity, he relents to Priam’s plea, but in becoming human, he is no longer godlike.

So where does Sophocles’ own sympathies lie – with the human pleas of Antigone, or the godlike implacability of Oidipous? Now there, it seems to me, is a question not to be asked. Sophocles is a dramatist, depicting the fate of humanity as he sees it; and as he sees it, the gods inhabit a realm beyond human comprehension, and human values such as love and pity and tenderness mean nothing to them. If the gods are worthy of reverence, it is only by virtue of the power they wield over our human fates, and by nothing else. And in the meantime, we humans must endure whatever fate the gods, for whatever reasons of their own, may will upon us.

Such a vision is deeply troubling, but it is, I think, Sophocles’ vision: it is expressed very clearly in his earlier plays, and I do not think that vision had mellowed in this very late (and possibly his last) play. Indeed, by relating this play so clearly to his earlier tragedies, it is reinforced. The gods’ acceptance of Oidipous does not negate or compensate for all the suffering these same gods had earlier inflicted on him; and, as we are reminded, neither will the gods prevent the mutual slaughter of Polyneikes and Eteokles, nor intervene when the good and heroic Antigone – like Cordelia in a later play – hangs in despair in prison. The gods care nothing for the goodness or heroism of Antigone, any more than they will for those of Cordelia.

This play does not end, as it could so easily have done, with the serenity of Oidipous’ cleansing and his acceptance by the gods: it ends, instead, with a reminder of what is yet to come, and which Sophocles had already depicted in one of the bleakest and most despairing of all tragedies: it ends with Antigone asking to be sent back to Thebes, and with Theseus assenting. Sophocles’ audience knew, as do we, what happens next.


Yeats, in his loose version of Oidipous at Kolonos, devised a chorus that takes its cue I think, from the fourth chorus of Sophocles’ play, and in it he distilled what he took to be the play’s essence. It is, I think, the darkest poem I have encountered:

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;

Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;

Delight becomes death-longing, if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,

Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,

As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,

The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;

I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;

Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;

The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

For the post on Oedipus at Colonus on the Wuthering Expectations blog, see here.