Perhaps the single most interesting tidbit relating to the background of Oedipus at Colonus may be apocryphal, but its authenticity or lack thereof does nothing to lessen the symbolic lesson everyone can learn. The son of the playwright Sophocles had brought suit to the court system of the ancient Greeks to may a play for his father’s impressive estate on claims of incompetency due to his advanced age. The defense strategy of then 90-years-old Sophocles was to read excerpts from his latest play which he had only just recently completed; a sequel to his massively successfully tragedy about the Theban king who blinds himself after learning he has fulfilled the very destiny he has spent his adult life trying to avoid: killing his father and marrying his mother. That sequel was titled Oedipus at Colonus and upon completion of the recitation by Sophocles, the jurors immediately dismissed the case his son had brought against him.
The lesson to be gained from Sophocles Goes to Court has nothing to do with the level of historical authenticity. The value of that story lies in the fact that Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was much closer to being 100 years old than he was to any of the mandatory retirement ages in place in American today. In consideration of his advanced age, it is also likely that Sophocles wrote his final play as he was dying, whether he was aware of it or not. The circumstances surrounding the composition of the play are also, as one might suspect, apparent in the content of the story itself. Taking place long after the more familiar events from the life Oedipus, what happens to the former king of Thebes in the Colonus of the title is a reflection and meditation upon the life an old man that could only have been written by an old man reflecting and meditating upon his own long life.
If all this background somehow seems somehow familiar but strangely different, that’s because it may be reminding you somehow of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In a way, Oedipus at Colonus is the King Lear of Sophocles. Both of these plays revolve around a tragic monarch undone by his own hubris attaining a level of redemption through the purification that comes with recognizing man’s tiny little fraction of control over the course of random fate swirling around him through the passage of time. Both Lear and Oedipus have gone from the heights of power and respect to the lowest levels of pathetic suffering, yet both manage to come on the other side and finally die with a measure of dignity.
Aside from the symbolic appearance of a thunderstorm that arrives just in time for the purposes of purification, however, the two narratives have very little else in common. Where Shakespeare produced in Lear one of his most coherent intermingling of major plot and subplot that perfect creates parallels between disconnected characters and disconnected scenes, Oedipus at Colonus almost plays out like a TV series. In fact, the ancient Greek drama term “episode” used to describe an individual scene is probably never more appropriately utilized in its modern meaning than in the final plays written by Sophocles. Each scene really does have the feeling of a self-contained episode of a TV series in which the only element linking them together is the figure of Oedipus himself. This structure actually serves to instill Oedipus at Colonus with a familiarity that would make it a much more effective introduction to ancient Greek drama than its trilogy siblings Oedipus Rex and Antigone. The consistent absence of this entry in the Oedipus cycle from standard literature curricula at both the high school and college level in favor of the likelihood of a student being assigned either or both of the other plays more than once in their education career only serves to underscore the flaws in the association of tradition and standardization in the academic process.
Of course, it is also worth noting that while the structure of Oedipus at Colonus might facilitate teaching ancient Greek drama to students raised on the episodic nature of television, the content is another story entirely. The demographic most likely to connect with this chapter in the life of Oedipus are those nearing the age of the title character and Sophocles at the time he wrote it. The play stands as a quite lyrical meditation of the past and affirmation of the value of life and the gift that really is being allowed to live a long and eventful one.