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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay on Oedipus at Colonus was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 198-200.

The Oedipus Coloneus (Oedipus at Colonus), that "most tender of poems," as Cicero calls it, has a peculiar and distinctive charm of tone such as no other Greek tragedy possesses. In scenes of pensive beauty it shows us the calm, tranquil, and not inglorious close of a stormy and disastrous life. Oedipus, an exile from Thebes, has wandered for many years from land to land, blind and helpless, and bearing the stain of unutterable guilt. At length he reaches Colonus, and sits down to rest beside a leafy enclosure. He is told that it is the grove of the "Holy Goddesses." In a moment he remembers the prediction of Apollo, and recognizes that his end is at hand. At the same time tidings of a new oracle are brought, which tells that his person, both in life and death, is of sacred importance, and will confer safety and prosperity on the land which possesses it. The gods have at length relented from their wrath, and bestowed upon him, at the end of his life, some recompense for his former sufferings. A kind of mysterious splendour surrounds his dying moments, and instead of being an outcast upon earth, he now becomes an object of emulous contention. The Thebans would fain induce him to return. But he renounces the country which had abandoned him to his misery, and attaches himself to Athens, where it was the will of heaven that he should die.

There is little action in the story, which seems at first sight hardly suitable for a tragedy. But Sophocles has contrived to supply the necessary dramatic movement by the introduction of Creon and Polyneices, who are contending for the sovereignty of Thebes. On hearing the news of the oracle, and the importance of Oedipus, they come to implore his assistance; and their prayers and threats, and the scornful refusals of Oedipus, occupy the middle of the play, and provide those scenes of conflict and opposing passion which are the essence of the drama. Another dramatic effect of the most impressive kind is introduced at the close. Oedipus has hitherto been exhibited as a feeble and helpless old man, who cannot move a step without the guidance of his daughter. Suddenly there comes a flash of lightning and a burst of thunder -- the signs predicted by the oracle. The bystanders are dazed and stupefied; but Oedipus, who understands the meaning of the omen, is transformed into another man. In the midst of the general terror and amazement he alone is strong, calm, and collected; and instead of requiring assistance himself, he becomes the guide and conductor of others, and with firm steps leads the way to the place appointed for his grave. This sudden change of attitude recalls the similar scene at the end of the Trachiniae, and is even more beautiful and pathetic.

The fiery passions displayed by Oedipus during the central portion of the play are in startling contrast with the air of resignation which pervades the commencement and the close. Misfortune has not cured his faults of temper, and he still exhibits on occasion the same violent impetuosity as in former times. The hatred with which he renounces his country, and the malignity with which he pronounces the curse upon his sons, are almost distressing in their intensity, and go far beyond what even the ancients, with all their glorification of revenge, considered pardonable. At the same time this passionate want of self-control is not unnatural in an old man half-distracted by his sufferings, and reminds us of the hysterical outbursts of Lear. And further than this, the object of Sophocles was, not to depict a perfect character, but to write an impressive play. If Oedipus had shown the same peaceful resignation throughout, the effect would have been tedious and monotonous. The violence of the central scenes imparts the requisite variety.

There seems no reason to doubt the express testimony of the ancients, that the Oedipus Coloneus was composed when Sophocles was approaching his ninetieth year. This being so, it derives an additional pathos from the circumstances of its production; and the cheerful hope with which the care-worn Oedipus looks forward to his death, as a release from the troubles and sufferings of life, cannot fail to be regarded as having a personal application, and as reflecting the feelings of the aged poet.

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