Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Old Age

By Sophocles

Old Age

ANTIGONE. Rest your limbs here on the rough rock.

For you have been sent forth on a road that is long for an old man. (19-20)

Antigone’s invitation isn’t so attractive. Resting on a “rough rock” isn't really the nicest way to end a day of hiking. She recognizes that her father’s age affects his ability to move, and that he needs more rest because of it. The road she’s talking about is literal, the road they walk on, but also figurative: his difficult life. 

OEDIPUS. Pity this wretched phantom of a man,

Oedipus. For mine is not the form of old. (109-110)

Oedipus doesn’t feel like himself anymore, because the years have transformed him. He doesn’t even look like himself (his form is different) and compares himself to a phantom. This might be foreshadowing; he is about to die, after all. Old age is like a pre-death for Oedipus. 

ANTIGONE. Be silent. For here come some who are

Aged in years, watchmen of where you sit. (111-12)

Oedipus isn’t the only oldster in this play. The Chorus is also made up of old men, the “watchmen” of the grove. These guys are basically the old people who sit around all day and watch the world pass by. Their job is to protect the sacred field, and maybe their advanced age is a sign of all of their wisdom. They are the only ones in the play who act rationally, especially compared to Creon and Polyneices.

CHORUS. Alas!

Were you begotten with

Unseeing eyes? Miserable and

Long has your life been, as I would guess. (149-52)

The Chorus recognizes that Oedipus is blind, and they guess that if he were born blind he must have had a miserable life. They also slip a little indirect observation in, too; his life must have been “long.” It’s not just wrinkles and salt-and-pepper hair that gives Oedipus his elderly look; it’s also the suffering on his face that adds to his aged appearance.

ANTIGONE. Let step fit step,

Lean your old body forward,

Onto my loving hand. (199-201)

Antigone dedicates her life to supporting her father; literally. Her youthful body has to stand in for his, showing him where to step, holding up his weight. This is the picture of love, because old age is, for Oedipus at least, nothing but trouble. 

OEDIPUS. [. . .] My body would not have the strength

To shuffle along, desolate, without someone to guide me. 

Oedipus recognizes that Antigone is sort of his life force in his old age. He can’t really walk all that well, so he uses her strength, like an energy vampire, in order to get around. But is it really his physical strength that is lacking in the twilight years? Or is it more like his hope is running out and he needs her young attitude to protect him? 

OEDIPUS. I come to give this miserable body of mine

As a gift to you, not a serious thing to behold, but

The gains from it are superior to any beautiful form. (576-78)

Ha! Oedipus is offering his body up to Theseus as a gift. But not like that. No, he believes that his body will be a good luck charm if it’s buried in Athens. He acknowledges that it’s not that sexy (“not a serious thing to behold”) but the power is not in the appearances; his body may be old but it’s a darn attractive good luck charm.

OEDIPUS. Oh dearest child of Aegeus! Only for the gods

Is there never old age or death!

All other things almighty time confounds.

The strength of earth decays, that of the body decays,

Trust dies, and distrust blossoms forth. (607-11)

Old age is related to decay in Oedipus at Colonus. It’s all about things breaking down and returning to the earth. And Oedipus is pretty much back to the soil. But old age is also a sign of being human, as is death. This explains why Oedipus reminds us that the gods are the only ones who don’t have to deal with fine lines and the crypt.

CHORUS. Be confident! It will be by your side! For even if I am old,

The strength of this land has not grown old! (726-27)

Oedipus just said that the gods are the only ones who don’t grow old (see above), but actually the Chorus has a really good point. The land doesn’t get old and feeble either. The people who live in Athens, and Oedipus, too, have grown old. But the city is always renewing itself with young blood, making it forever young

CREON. I have not come with any wish to take any action, since

I am old, and I know that I have come to a city

That has great strength, if any in Greece does. (733-34)

Creon admits, Oedipus isn’t the only one who’s getting old. He relates youth to being able to take action and get things done. But Creon is no spring chicken. He knows that he’s an old fart and that the Athenians can take him in a heartbeat. That’s why he first tries using his nice words to get Oedipus to do what he wants.