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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Oedipus that most people are familiar with is not present in this narrative about the end of his life. While still King of Thebes, you may remember, Oedipus learned that he had killed his father and married his mother. The revelation that he had not been able to outwit or outrun this horrific fate predicted for him by the Oracle of Delphi moved the guilt-wracked Oedipus to put out his eyes. Now a blind wanderer reduced to the rags on his back, the Oedipus who reaches Colonus is the very definition of the cliché “older but wiser.” Still capable of exhibiting familiar tendencies toward stubbornness but also well-equipped with the qualities that made him king, the years of wandering have supplied the once-haughty Oedipus with a newfound humility and acceptance that some types of knowledge are not his to possess.
Most people who read or attend a performance of Oedipus at Colonus will already be familiar with the daughter of the former King of Thebes as a result of exposure to the far more popular play featuring her name in the title. The Antigone who is the star of her own story is not dramatically difference from the Antigone who attends to her father as he arrives at Colonus to find peace with himself before casting off the mortal coil. Antigone is extremely loyal; not just to her father, but also to her brother Polynices whose loyalty to both his sister and father do not reach nearly the same admirable levels.
Oedipus has a younger daughter who did not get the star treatment that has made Antigone a household name. Ismene is on a search for her dad and big sis when the paths of all three cross at Colonus. Her urgency is the result of yet another prophecy from busybody Oracle of Delphi. This time the Oracle’s warning to Oedipus is concerned with which of his two sons will inherit the reign at Thebes, presenting the old blind wanderer with a distinct choice of consequences should his final resting state be in Thebes or Attica.
Here’s another familiar name showing up in the narrative that brings the life Oedipus to a close. Creon, in case you have forgotten, is the brother-in-law of Oedipus. Following the self-exile of Oedipus and because the former king’s sons were still too young to rule over Thebes themselves, he took over rule until one of his nephews reaches majority. In the meantime, his interest in his brother-in-law post-blindness is all self-interest. Remember that if Oedipus dies on Theban soil, the kingship goes to his son Eteocles. Creon is eager to beat back the forces of Polynices who gets the crown should Oedipus pass in Attica.
The oldest son of Oedipus who was forced into exile following a disagreement with his brother Eteocles. Not content to have his right to primogeniture obstructed, Polynices raises an army while in Argos to take back what he considers rightfully his. Polynices says all the rights words about his desire to bring his blind father to his side, but he is out for the purposes of self-aggrandizement every bit as much as Creon.
The king of Athens appoints himself as the protector of Oedipus. What sets Theseus apart from the rest of the men in this play is that he has a sincere belief that if Oedipus does not make it back to Thebes before death, the result will be a period of great prosperity for everyone in Athens.
The Chorus of Elders
Oedipus at Colonus is a Greek drama, after all, and what is a Greek drama without a chorus to sing songs that comment upon the action and expand upon the themes?
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