Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Rules and Order

By Sophocles

Rules and Order

CHORUS. If you wish to speak

And discuss with me, go away from the forbidden place

And speak where it is lawful for

all to speak. Until then, abstain. (166-69)

The Chorus is kind of like a walking, talking rules-and-regulations sign. But at the sacred grove it’s not just “no dogs” and “no bonfires,” nobody is allowed to be there at all. So the fact that Oedipus is ready to set up camp there makes the Chorus pretty nervous.

ANTIGONE. Father, we ought to do as the townsmen do,

Yielding to what we must and hearkening. (171-72)

Listen to Antigone, Oedipus. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or when in Athens, do as the Athenians do and get the heck out of the sacred grove. There’s a reason that the Chorus tiptoes around calling the Furies “the Friendlies;” they’re scared out of their minds that if they make the Furies mad, they will be pulverized.

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

To Creon and not defile the city. (367-68)

Ismene’s brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, would normally be in line to inherit their father’s throne. The problem is that he committed a grave sin, impregnating his mother and producing Polyneices and Eteocles. So since their very existence is against the rules, their taking the throne might cause some big trouble for Thebes.

ISMENE. Should your tomb suffer misfortune, it will bring a heavy burden for them.

[. . .]

For this reason they wish to place you near

Their land, but not so that you would hold sway over even yourself. (402-05)

Rules and more rules in ancient Greece, amirite? Ismene explains that Creon wants Oedipus to come back home to die because he’s afraid that if Oedipus’ tomb is disturbed, it’ll be on him for kicking him out in the first place. So to avoid any consequences for breaking the rules, he wants to get Oedipus buried right where he can see him.

OEDIPUS. This is how it is for me: I was driven away from my land

By my own seed. It is not possible for me

Ever to return again, since I am a patricide. (599-601)

Oedipus recognizes that, even though his crime was unintentional, he did indeed kill his father (that’s what a patricide is; someone who kills their father). Whether intentional or not, it’s definitely against the rules, so he must never go back home or he could cause the gods to destroy his home.

OEDIPUS. Do you have my daughter?

CREON. Yes, and I will have this one here in no long time!

OEDIPUS. Oh strangers, what will you do? Will you betray me

And not drive out the impious one from this land? (821-24)

Oedipus calls Creon “impious” which basically means that he doesn’t respect the gods. Creon has kidnapped Ismene and is in the process of kidnapping Antigone, going against the king of Athens…which is kind of like going against the gods. Law is all tied up with religious rules in this society.

ANTIGONE. You begot him! Therefore, even should he commit

Against you the most impious acts of the most evil men, oh father,

It is not sanctioned by law for you to retaliate against him with evil. (1189-91)

Oedipus is really ticked off at Polyneices because he kicked him out of Thebes after the last family tragedy. He refuses to talk to him, but Antigone reminds him that that, too, is against the rules. She’s a little bit of a party pooper in that sense, but she’s got a point. No matter what happens, Oedipus is Polyneices’ dad and they’ll never be able to change that fact.

OEDIPUS. Therefore, my curses overpower your suppliant seat

And throne—if indeed Justice, spoken of long ago,

Sit wish Zeus, along with the ancient laws. (1380-82)

Justice, Zeus, and “the ancient laws” all sit together ruling over mortals’ lives, according to Oedipus. This means that, even though the rules seem really unfair, he truly believes that there is justice and power contained in them. It’s interesting to see someone who has suffered so much because of the rules believe in them so wholeheartedly.

CHORUS. If it be sanctioned by law for me

 [. . .]

I pray that the beast may go to the pure ground

So that the stranger may set out

For the plains of the dead below. (1556-77)

The Chorus prays that Oedipus can stay in the sacred grove and finally find peace through death. But for this theme we’re really interested in that first line, “If it be sanctioned by law for me.” The Chorus isn’t exactly sure that it’s even allowed to pray for what it’s praying for, so it inserts a caveat to make sure it’s covered. You certainly don't want to risk upsetting the gods—they might just destroy your whole city. 

THESEUS. Oh children, to me that one forbade

That anyone of mortals should approach

Those places or speak

At the sacred grave which that one possesses. (1760-63)

Oedipus created a new rule on his way out, which is fitting since his life was pretty much governed by all sorts of rules. He decreed that no one should ever know where he was buried, because by keeping it a secret it will be a sacred, power-giving place. That seems to satisfy Antigone, who is also into following rules as we’ll see in her play.