Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus

By Sophocles

Oedipus at Colonus Introduction

Did you ever feel like you were born into the wrong family? That maybe you have a secret identity that destiny will reveal to you someday? If so, you might want to be careful what you wish for. Oedipus—one of the heroes of ancient Greek tragedy—was living with a secret identity (secret even to him) and when he found out that the guy he had killed in self-defense was his biological father, and that his wife (and mother of his four children…gulp) was actually his mother, well, he wasn’t too happy. He did get a trilogy of plays written about him though. 

Sophocles is considered one of the great ancient Greek tragedians. Among Sophocles' most famous plays are Oedipus the KingAntigone, and—you guessed it—Oedipus at Colonus. We know what you're thinking: This Sophocles dude really had a thing for writing about Oedipus. You're right: These plays all follow the fall of the great king, Oedipus, and later the tragedies that his children suffer.

The Oedipus plays have had a wide-reaching influence and are particularly notable for inspiring Sigmund Freud’s theory of the "Oedipus Complex," which describes a stage of psychological development in which a child sees their father as an adversarial competitor for his or her mother’s attention (or in non-psychology speak, it’s the kill-the-father-sleep-with-the-mother complex). And while the scientific community has all but skewered the validity of this theory, its influence remains profound, and we can trace it all back to Sophocles.

The three plays are often called a trilogy, but this is technically incorrect. They weren't written to be performed together. In fact they weren't even written in order, kind of like how Star Wars started with Episode 4. Antigone, which comes last chronologically, was the play Sophocles wrote first, around 440 B.C. It wasn't until about 430 B.C that Sophocles produced his masterpiece Oedipus the King. He finally wrote Oedipus at Colonus in 401 B.C., near the end of his life. Also note that the plays were rarely if ever revived during the playwright's lifetime, so it's not like it would have been easy for Sophocles' audiences to compare them.

These facts probably explain some of discrepancies found in the plays. For example, while Creon is the undisputed King at the end of Oedipus the King, in Oedipus at Colonus it’s Polyneices and Eteocles who are battling for the throne. In Antigone, Creon assumes the throne with no mention of the fact that he's ever sat on it before.

Um…what gives? Did someone mess up the translation? Was Sophocles a forgetful playwright? Are these plays supposed to exist in parallel universes (we did mention the Star Wars connection, after all)?

We hate to burst your bubble, but we can probably trust the translation, and it's pretty unlikely that Sophocles forgot what he'd already written. As far as parallel universes go, maybe we're onto something. Each play is a separate interpretation of the myth, not a part of a trilogy in the traditional sense. Sophocles would have been under no obligation to make the plays match up in every detail; he's only reimagining and reinterpreting different aspects and potential outcomes of the same original myth.

Of course, while the plays aren't technically a trilogy and do have discrepancies, they do share many similarities. Several of the key characters put in repeat appearances, including Oedipus, Creon, Teiresias, Ismene, and Antigone. Also, the plays have a lot of the same themes. The plays all deal in some way with the will of man versus the will of the gods. Self-injury and suicide also plague the family until the end. It seems that Oedipus's family is never quite capable of escaping the pollution of his terrible mistakes. Gee, thanks dad. 

What is Oedipus at Colonus About and Why Should I Care?

Oedipus at Colonus, which is sort of a prequel to Antigone and a sequel to Oedipus the King, is like a B-side track on your favorite band’s album: you gotta be a true-blue fan to know about it. Oedipus the King gets all the glory for being gory, and Antigone has been revived countless times as a protest play, pointing out dictatorial tendencies since the fifth century BCE, but Oedipus at Colonus can be forgotten, sandwiched as it is between these two biggies of dramatic literature.

So why should you care about the ancient Greek equivalent of The Two Towers or Catching Fire? Or Attack of the Clones, if we want to keep on with the whole Star Wars connection.

Well, we think it’s Sophocles’ way of comforting us. Oedipus the King comes down hard on disobedience of the law, whether it’s intentional or not (for the sort-of-brutal Greeks there was no difference between first-degree homicide and involuntary manslaughter.) But Oedipus at Colonus shows that, because Oedipus accepts his fate and sees that justice is being served, he gets a semi-happy ending.

Rather than dying the most painful and violent death one might imagine, he’s mercifully swallowed by the earth. (Come on, which would you choose?) He dies with his beloved daughters nearby and even offers Athens a good-luck charm in his secret grave. Oedipus at Colonus is like the free-will answer to fate-heavy Oedipus the King; it shows that we might not have a choice over our destiny, but we have a choice how we want to deal with it. 

Oedipus at Colonus Resources

Websites

Get Your Text
The play, online.

The Gang’s All Here
Read up on Sophocles’ playwriting pals.

Movie or TV Productions

Made for TV
Leave it to the BBC to stage the classic tragedy for a television audience.

Mash up
A 20th-century adaptation of the play.

Articles and Interviews

To pee or not to pee?
Sophocles’ obsession with fate and free will continues to bug philosophers and scientists today.

Disappearing Act
Oedipus’ death site can help us think through modern-day memorials.

Video

Sing It
A clip from the Gospel at Colonus.

Pop Some Corn
Watch a video of Sophocles’ play.

Audio

You Heard it Here First
The audio version of the play.

Images

Where Are They Now?
An 18th-century rendition of Oedipus’ fate.

Fighting Them Off
Here’s another 18th-century painting of Oedipus fighting Creon.

From the Sketchbook
Oedipus curses his son in this drawing.