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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Unfickle Finger of Fate
Thematic issues relating to the fact that you can’t escape your destiny and you can cheat fate run throughout the entire Oedipus saga. Oedipus winds up at the Grove of the Furies precisely because he has spent the bulk of his adult life dealing with the consequences of trying to escape destiny and cheat fate. The really great thing about this last entry in the tale of the life of Oedipus, however, is that there is one more appointment with fate courtesy of the oracle that started all this mess waiting for him: the very prophecy that foretold his incest and his patricide also foretold that the Grove of the Furies would be where he meet his death.
Life is Suffering
The Buddha died in 484 B.C. Sophocles completed writing Oedipus at Colonus in 406 B.C. Some might suggest there is a connection there because any way you slice it, this play—indeed, the entire Oedipus trilogy—is very Zen-like in its philosophy that life is suffering. Sometimes it seems as if Oedipus is bound to suffer no matter what he does, but of course that is not the case. Oedipus suffers because he fails to serenely accept the fate that is for all intensive purposes kicking sand right in his face. Oedipus suffers mightily, but the intensity of his pain is also unnecessary because he lets unnatural acts he committed eat away at him despite the fact that he didn’t even know he was committing them at the time.
Guilt is Suffering
The suffering that Oedipus struggles with is the result of guilt. What Oedipus in Colonus adds to the saga is alleviation. Oedipus has been allowing guilt and shame to drive him almost to the point of devastation, but by the time he reaches the Grove of the Furies a significant change has come over him that has been missing up to now: he has realized and accepted that you can’t really feel the depths of guilt for committing taboo actions you never intended to commit. Oedipus finally acknowledges that guilt and shame cannot overcome him for committing incest and patricide since he not only did he never intend to commit those taboos, he never even knew he was committing them.
Redemption for defying the Gods is not a recurring theme in the myths of the ancient Greeks. Punishment for transgressions usually continue forever with redemptive properties or else it takes the passage of millennia and the arrival of a new philosopher to cast an existentialist glow on the transgressions of a figure like—say—Sisyphus. In the Grove of the Furies, however, Oedipus reaches for and is granted atonement and finds redemption as he disappears into the spheres of the forgiven.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Redemption is hard to find in in many ancient Greek tragedies, but justice may even more difficult. At least, justice in the sense that the modern mind expects. Finding justice takes Oedipus as long as finding redemption, but perhaps that redemption is tied specifically to discovery of justice. Oedipus finds justice not from his family or from the city he ruled but in the form of Theseus, King of Athens who brings it all to fore when he tells current King of Thebes, Creon:: "You have come to a city that practices justice, that sanctions nothing without law."
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