Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Family

By Sophocles


OEDIPUS. What do you say, child?

ANTIGONE. It is your child, my blood sister,

Whom I see! Right now you will know her by her voice!

ISMENE. Oh father and sister—two names

That are sweetest to me! (322-25)

Oedipus, Antigone, and Ismene have fallen far from the Theban palace where they used to live, and now they only have each other. Ismene isn’t exaggerating when she says that “father” and “sister” are the sweetest names to her; the family relationships are the only ones left in their tragic lives.

OEDIPUS. Child, have you come?

ISMENE. Oh father, ill-fated one, to see you!

OEDIPUS. Oh seed, of the same blood!

ISMENE. Wretched lives! (327-30)

Oedipus’ crime caused his children to be born to an unholy union, that of himself and his mother. So the family ties are also the proof and reminder of his tragedy; that’s why they call each other “ill-fated” and “wretched,” even though they are “of the same blood.” It’s the blood that’s causing the problem.

OEDIPUS. Touch me, child.

ISMENE. I touch you both together.

OEDIPUS. Her hand and mine?

ISMENE. And mine, an ill-fated one, is the third. (330-33)

When Ismene shows up, Oedipus can’t see her, so he wants her to touch him. This way he can feel her. This moment, where the sisters and father all hold hands, is powerful because the family has found its way back to each other even in the middle of all this pain and suffering. It’s a visual, physical representation of their bond.

OEDIPUS. Where are the blood brothers—the young men who are fit for labor? (335)

Oedipus doesn’t take long before he notices that even though he has his daughters with him, he’s missing his sons. And this absence is disgusting for him; the italics point out his anger with his sons, and the question is sarcastic. The young men are fit for labor, but it’s the young women who are actually doing it.

OEDIPUS. [. . .] But she believes that having a life in a home

Is of secondary importance, if her father has nurture. (351-52)

Antigone is like the perfect child. She, instead of staying comfortably at home where her brothers are fighting each other to the death over the throne, has decided to follow her blind father into exile. It’s like the ancient Greek version of a pillow with “home is where the heart is” embroidered onto it. 

ISMENE. First they strove among themselves how to leave the throne

To Creon and not defile the city.

They contemplated, through reason, the ancient destruction of the family,

How it beset your miserable house. (367-70)

Ismene explains how her brothers have gone into a civil war, brother versus brother, to see who would inherit the throne. In the meantime their uncle Creon takes over while they fight it out. The brothers realize that neither of them should really be on the throne because their family is cursed, but their thirst for power overrides that realization. Yeah, we're pretty sure that won't end well. 

ISMENE. And the younger one, inferior in age,

Deprives the one born before, Polyneices, of the throne

And has driven him from the land of his fathers. (374-76)

Ismene’s younger brother has cut the line and stepped into the throne ahead of his older brother, who really should be the first to inherit the kingship. When he sends Polyneices into exile he is not only just separating him from the throne; he’s also separating him from his ancestral home.

OEDIPUS. Will they also cover me in burial with the dust of Thebes?

ISMENE. No, the blood of your kin does not allow you, oh father. (406-07)

Oedipus is concerned that if he is taken back to Thebes and buried there, that the burial won't be done properly. When Ismene says that “the blood of your kin” doesn’t allow him to be buried properly, she means that his family members won’t let him. He has been ultimately rejected by his sons and brother-in-law.

OEDIPUS. Did some one of my sons hear these things?

ISMENE. Both, equally, and they know it well.

OEDIPUS. And once they heard these things, did they—the most evil of men!

--Place the tyranny before longing for me?

ISMENE. It pains me to hear these things, but nevertheless I must bear them. (416-20)

Oedipus hopes that his sons still care about him, but they care more about power than family. The division of the family goes along gender lines, maybe because the girls aren’t able to take the throne so its power doesn’t distract them from their family duty? Or maybe they’re just better people than their brothers.

OEDIPUS. [. . .] But they—their father’s own!—

Who could have helped their father, did not wish

To do so! For the lack of a small word from them,

I was driven out forever, an exile, a beggar. (441-44)

Oedipus takes his punishment from the gods without complaining too much. He gets it that he has to face the consequences of his fate. But he just can’t forgive his family for turning their backs on him. There they had a choice, unlike the divine justice he’s facing. Poor Eddie (can we call him Eddie?).