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 King, Antigone, 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
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.
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.
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.
Get Your Text
The play, online.
The Gang’s All Here
Read up on Sophocles’ playwriting pals.
Made for TV
Leave it to the BBC to stage the classic tragedy for a television audience.
A 20th-century adaptation of the play.
To pee or not to pee?
Sophocles’ obsession with fate and free will continues to bug philosophers and scientists today.
Oedipus’ death site can help us think through modern-day memorials.
A clip from the Gospel at Colonus.
Pop Some Corn
Watch a video of Sophocles’ play.
You Heard it Here First
The audio version of the play.
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.