E-mail me at mcclainm@optonline.net Visit my Facebook page View my LinkedIn profile

Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles

Summary by Michael L McClain
Translation by Robert Fitzgerald


When Oedipus and Antigone stop to rest in a grove outside Athens, a local citizen tells them they must leave because the place is sacred to the Furies. Oedipus says that he will never leave - this will be his final resting place. He asks the stranger to summon Theseus, with the message that a small favor will gain him much. After the stranger leaves, Oedipus tells Antigone that Apollo told him that he would come to rest among the sacred Furies, "conferring benefit on those who received me/A curse on those who have driven me away." (90) Apollo told him that earthquakes, lightning and thunder would signal the place.

When the citizens of Colonus arrive to drive him from the grove, Oedipus reluctantly tells them his name, provoking a demand that he leave immediately. Antigone pleads with them on his behalf: "He never knew what he did." Oedipus echoes her argument saying he was more the victim than the agent of his actions. He tells them not to force him away, promising advantage to the Athenians if they let him stay.

While waiting for Theseus, Antigone spots Ismene hurrying toward them. She tells them that after Oedipus left Thebes, his sons agreed that Creon should rule in consideration of the ancient family curse. But lust for power overcame them and the younger brother banished Polyneices from Thebes, who went to Argos to raise an army. She also brings news of an oracle that Oedipus will be much solicited both before his death and after for the welfare of the people. She tells him that Creon is coming to bring him to a place just outside Thebes. He wants to have him nearby; but will not bring him into the city, nor bury him there, because of the pollution. Oedipus curses his sons. He says that after his initial rage, he wanted to return to Thebes, but they drove him out. When he was in disgrace, they did nothing. Now he will be the savior of Athens. Ismene goes to offer sacrifice. Still waiting for Theseus, the citizens ask Oedipus about his past. You suffered, they say; you sinned. "No, I did not sin!" he retorts, arguing that his ignorance made him innocent before the law and before god.

Theseus arrives to offer Oedipus hospitality. In return, Oedipus offers the gift of himself, saying that Theseus will understand after Oedipus has been buried. He asks for protection, telling him that his sons will try to force his return, fearing oracles that they will be struck down by Athens. Theseus promises protection, declaring Oedipus a citizen of Athens. The citizens sing of the beauty and fecundity of the place and the glory of Athens.

Creon arrives with soldiers saying he has been delegated to bring Oedipus home. Oedipus will have none of it, cursing him for throwing him out when he wanted to return. He tells Creon that he knows his plan to settle him outside the city "so the city may escape my curse/Escape the punishment by Athens." Again he curses his sons. Creon responds by ordering his guards to take Antigone and Ismene. As he tries to take Oedipus as well, Theseus returns, orders his men to rescue the girls, and denounces Creon for violating his sovereignty. When Creon pleads that he did not realize that Theseus would be concerned with a parricide, Oedipus protests that he killed his father against his will: "It was God's pleasure/And perhaps our race had angered him long ago." Again he protests his innocence, saying that anyone would have done the same in the situation. Theseus requires Creon to lead him to the girls as the men sing of his prowess.

When Theseus returns with Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus thanks him profusely. Theseus tells him that a man has come, asking to speak to Oedipus. Recognizing that it is Polyneices, Oedipus refuses to see him, but concedes to the requests of Theseus and Antigone. Polyneices tells the story of his banishment and his marriage into the family of Adrastus. After describing the heroes who will attack the gates of Thebes, he begs Oedipus to support him, citing the oracles that say whomever Oedipus supports shall come to power. Oedipus responds by cursing his son, recalling that when Polyneices held power, he banished Oedipus as well. He disowns both brothers, telling Polyneices that they will kill one another. As Polyneices goes to his doom, he asks his sisters to make sure he has a decent burial.

As Polyneices leaves, Oedipus hears a clap of thunder. He sends for Theseus knowing that the time has come. He will give Theseus the blessing he promised in return for his kindness. When the king arrives, Oedipus tells him that he will soon lead him to the place where he must die. He makes Theseus swear that he will not reveal the place to anyone except his son at the end of his life. Oedipus leads Theseus and his daughters into the grove, following a voice from God. The citizens pray to Athena and the gods of the underworld.

A messenger emerges from the grove to describe Oedipus' end. Some way down the path, he stopped to bathe and offer libations to the dead. As he was declaring his love for his daughters, a voice called his name. He entrusted his daughters to the care of Theseus and sent them away, leaving only the king to witness his end. As they were leaving the grove, they turned and saw only Theseus, his hands shielding his face, as if from something awful. No one but Theseus knows what happened to Oedipus. The citizens offer their sympathies to Antigone and Ismene, but they agree that he died as he wanted to. When Theseus comes out of the grove, Antigone begs him to take her to where her father left him, but Theseus refuses. He agrees however, to help the girls return to Thebes to try to stop the war.