Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Power

By Sophocles


OEDIPUS. Does someone rule over them or does they say rest with the multitude?

STRANGER. They are ruled by the king of the town. (66-67)

Oedipus is referring to the possibility of democracy, even though he himself is from a kingdom. In fact, he used to be the tyrant—or king—of Thebes, before he was run out. So it’s pretty interesting that he is open to the idea that a city might rule itself. In this case though, nope, there’s a king in charge. No democracy…yet. 

OEDIPUS. [ . . .] When your sovereign

Comes, whoever is your leader,

Then he will listen and know everything. Before

This do not become evil in any way. (288-91)

Oedipus holds off the anger of the crowds by calling for their leader. It’s like a scene from an old sci-fi movie where the aliens ask to be taken to whoever’s in charge, and it probably isn’t a bad tactic. Because the Chorus knows that Theseus is coming, they can wait before making a decision about what to do with Oedipus.

ISMENE. But now, from the gods and from an accursed mind

There has come upon the thrice miserable pair an evil strife,

To seize command and the tyrannical power. (371-73)

Ismene is talking about her brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. She calls them the thrice-miserable pair, meaning they’ve been cursed three times. First by the gods and again from an “accursed mind." But the third cause of their pain is their own lust for power, which makes them fight each other. 

And the younger one, inferior in age,

Deprives the one before, Polyneices, of the throne

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

Ismene repeats her brothers’ birth order excessively, which probably means it's important. Eteocles is not only younger, but also inferior in age (read: immature). Polyneices is “the one before,” meaning older. She’s probably emphasizing this birth order because the younger one is on the throne, which is not the usual chain of command. 

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 wants to know whether or not his sons have heard about his misfortune, and unfortunately they do know and just don’t seem to care. When he asks whether they “place the tyranny before longing for me” he is referring to the throne. Tyranny is power, and the boys have valued power over their love for their father.

OEDIPUS. Then may the gods never quench

The fated strife! May the end

Of this battle between the two—which they

Grasp with raised spears—lie with me! (421-24)

Oedipus is so hurt by his sons’ neglect that he decides to curse them (keep that in mind next time you ignore your parents). Their battle over power will be their undoing; Oedipus has decided that since they’re so obsessed with power that it should consume them completely, causing their deaths.

OEDIPUS. But those others have chosen—instead of him who begot them—the throne,

To wield the scepter and to be tyrant over the land.

But they will not gain this ally at all! (448-50)

He’s still feeling the pain over his sons. They have chosen the throne and the scepter, symbols of kingly power, over “him who begot them” aka, their dad. For him, this is the ultimate crime. He will never forgive them for it, no matter how hard they beg (which we see when he rejects Polyneices later on).

THESEUS. Nevertheless, even when I am not present, I know that

My name will guard you against suffering evil. (666-67)

Theseus is the king of Athens, and has promised to protect Oedipus. The symbolic power of being a king is such that Theseus can leave, and the fact that he has announced that Oedipus is under his protection will be enough to make the citizens of Athens protect him, standing in for their king. What loyal subjects they are. 

THESEUS. So, I tell you now what I said before—

Have someone bring the girls here as quickly as possible,

Unless you wish to be a resident alien of this land

By force, and not voluntarily. I am speaking to you

My mind as well as from my tongue! (932-36)

Theseus has to wield his power against Creon, who starts acting like a boss on someone else’s territory. The euphemism of making Creon “a resident alien of this land by force” basically means capturing and imprisoning him in Athens, not allowing him to go home. 

THESEUS. Leave now, with your threats! You, Oedipus, stay here

At rest; and have faith in us that

If I do not die first, I will not stop

Until I restore our authority over your children. (1038-41)

The fight over the girls is really a test of power. Creon is trying to assert his power by taking his nieces away from their father. Theseus has to step up and stop Creon not only because he cares about Oedipus, but also because he can’t have another king coming to his land and making his own rules.