“Though the gods see well, they do so late”

February 18, 2009

Oidipous at Colonus is the third of Sophocles’ Theban plays, which collectively relate the tragic events that befall Oidipous and his family. In the chronology of the myth, the actions of this play occur after King Oidipous and before Antigone; however, rather than being a bridge between the two, Oidipous at Colonus is more of a response to its predecessor, King Oidipous. It answers simple questions such as what occurs after King Oidipous ends, but it also tackles more complex issues such as the role of free will and the relative justice of Oidipous’ cruel fate. The play takes the stance that Oidipous committed all his crimes out of ignorance rather than malice, guided by his unavoidable destiny, and thus while he is “polluted” and must be punished for transgressing in life, he is permitted a measure of redemption after his death.

The most basic question that Oidipous at Colonus answers is what happens to the title character and his family after the events of King Oidipous reach their conclusion. The final image of the latter play is Oidipous’ shameful, powerless retreat into the palace from which he had emerged so proudly in the beginning. Oidipous at Colonus introduces him as a blind beggar who has been wandering as an exile for an indeterminate but presumably lengthy amount of time, led by his daughter Antigone. He describes his expulsion from the city as unwanted, despite his demands to be allowed to leave at the end of King Oidipous; he tells Kreon that “when I’d had my fill / of rage, and it was sweet to pass my life at home, that’s when you thrust me forth and cast me out” (Blondell 768-70). This indicates that his notorious rashness has been somewhat quelled, and that he is no longer as quick to act in anger as he once was, instead favoring the intellect that was supposed to be his claim to fame. Oidipous also discusses how his sons Polyneices and Eteokles did nothing to prevent the punishment and stayed at home like women while his daughters left home to join him, one as his caregiver and the other to give him news of the events occurring back in Thebes. From other characters, it is revealed that his sons, who were conspicuously absent from the previous play, are about to engage in their ill-fated war with each other that will lead to their deaths at one another’s hands. It is interesting to note that though he called for his daughters at the end of King Oidipous, he had no interest in facing his sons, perhaps foreshadowing the impassable rift that was to form between them. Kreon, meanwhile, appears to be in a similar position to the one he previously occupied, having all the power of kingship without the associated pitfalls, albeit having ruled Thebes as an interim leader until Oidipous’ sons took over.

Thematically speaking, the largest issue that Oidipous at Colonus seeks to tackle in response to King Oidipous is that of free will versus fate. The action of the latter is driven by the prophecies that surround and permeate it, from the first revelation by Kreon that the king’s murderer must be driven from the city, to Tiresias’ ignored pronouncements, to the long-dismissed prediction that Laios’ son would be his undoing, to Oidipous’ own concern that he would kill his own father and marry his mother. While initially eager to embrace Kreon’s information, Oidipous repeatedly ignores or attempts to avoid the terms of the other prophecies and, in doing so, eventually fulfills them. This can be perceived as an argument for free will and fate as not being mutually exclusive; for example, in freely choosing to flee from the people who he thought were his parents, he brought about his destiny to meet his real father and kill him, and subsequently to marry his mother. In Oidipous at Colonus, however, Oidipous strongly argues that he is not fully responsible for the ills that befell him. He tells the chorus, “I bore evil, strangers, bore it against my will–god be my witness! / None of those things was my own choice” (Blondell 521-2). He acknowledges that he committed inexcusable acts, but argues that he did not do so willingly, implying that he was guided by the more powerful force of fate. In answering Kreon’s accusations later, Oidipous once again refers to the “appalling circumstances that I bore–oh woe / is me!–against my will” (Blondell 963-4). The word “bore,” while referring specifically to his production of children from an incestuous relationship, also more generally references the prophecies that he brought to fruition.

While the question of fate and free will is addressed through Oidipous’ attempts to absolve himself of responsibility for his actions by claiming they were not his choice, it is also approached on a purely character-centric level through observation of Oidipous’ contrasting engagements with prophecy in the two plays. As previously noted, in King Oidipous, the title character ignores, rejects, or tries to escape the destiny foretold to him by the Delphic oracle and Tiresias. This implies an underlying pride; Oidipous believes that he is intelligent or powerful enough to avoid his fate, despite the fact that it is ordained by the gods, and so in a way he is positioning himself as an equal to those gods. However, in Oidipous at Colonus, his actions and those of the other characters are slavishly devoted to the prophecy surrounding Oidipous’ burial site, namely that the city-state in which he is buried will be victorious in some future war. When he realizes that he has arrived at the place where he will die, Oidipous is eager to “round the post of my long-suffering life” (Blondell 91) because he knows that he will be “dwelling with profit to the ones who took me in” (Blondell 92), namely the Athenians, to whom he intends to offer his body after death. Instead of fleeing from his destiny, as he had before, he embraces it as inevitable and even desirable. After Oidipous makes his pact with Theseus, Kreon, having thrown Oidipous out of Thebes previously, attempts to persuade him to return and be buried there instead. This is reasonable, as the prophecy does not specify where Oidipous’ corpse must be buried; Kreon is thus free to seek it for Thebes, although he is immediately rejected. After Kreon is taken away and the kidnapped Antigone and Ismene are retrieved, a final example of acceptance of destiny is enacted by Polyneices upon hearing his father’s pronouncements about his destined mutual fratricide. Antigone begs him, “Turn round your army, back… don’t destroy the city and yourself” (Blondell 1416-7). He refuses, claiming that he wouldn’t be able to face his men if he stopped the war and lived in exile; most importantly, he says that he “won’t report the detrimental news at all” (Blondell 1429) because he doesn’t want to disappoint his troops. He acknowledges the inevitability of the prophecy uttered by his own father, who apparently acquired his abilities once he lost his sight.

Having asserted that Oidipous was guided more by destiny than choice, the next natural question raised is whether Oidipous’ punishments were appropriate or disproportionate to his crimes. More specifically, if Oidipous committed evil acts out of ignorance, is it reasonable to punish him as if he had done the same things knowing that they were wrong? Sophocles appears to answer both in the affirmative and the negative. At one point, Oidipous emphatically proclaims, “I did nothing!… I accepted / a gift. How I wish… I had never taken that reward for my help” (Blondell 539-41). This description of his marriage to his mother divorces it from the barbaric act of incest that it was and instead characterizes it as an innocent action that was not unreasonable under the circumstances. Later, in describing the murder of his father, he states that “I murdered and destroyed him, caught by doom, / but clean under the law: I came to this in ignorance” (Blondell 547-8). While he killed his father, the fact that he didn’t know it was his father, or a king, and that he arguably committed the act in self-defense absolves him of some, if not all, guilt. However, private guilt is less grave than public shame; he nonetheless transgressed, and his subsequent fall from power, self-mutilation and exile from Thebes are all the outcomes of his ill-fated actions. In the same way that he was destined to do wrong, he was destined to be punished for it. But because he was ignorant of his crimes until they had already been committed, and thus in one sense was morally innocent, in Oidipous at Colonus he is offered a chance to redeem himself by becoming a blessing in death rather than a curse in life.

In addressing the questions and thematic issues raised by King Oidipous in Oidipous at Colonus, Sophocles invites a re-examination of the earlier play, which yields a number of interesting parallels and reversals. For example, in the beginning of King Oidipous, Oidipous emerges from the palace to confront the suppliants that have amassed outside; in Oidipous at Colonus, he himself is a suppliant begging for an audience with Theseus. In the earlier play, Oidipous dooms himself by making pronouncements before having all the facts at his disposal; in the later play, the chorus agrees to aid Oidipous before learning who he is, and then regrets it and accuses him of trickery. Oidipous is initially rejected as a polluting influence by the people of Thebes; then, he is sought out as a blessing. Because of all these connections, the later play, in a way, is only narratively satisfying as a supplement to its predecessor, while the earlier play is best understood when viewed through the hindsight provided by its successor. As Oidipous finally gains a spiritual second sight at the end of Oidipous of Colonus, so too do readers of the play gain the insight that they previously lacked at the end of King Oidipous.

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