Study Guide

Oedipus at Colonus Suffering

By Sophocles

Suffering

OEDIPUS. For my sufferings and the long time that has

Accompanied me and, thirdly, nobility, teach me to acquiesce. (7-8)

For Oedipus, suffering is educational. His long years of suffering, combined with his noble birth, teach him out to just go with the flow. His life sucks, but since he’s used to it, he can deal. It’s not exactly the healthiest way to handle things, but probably better than fighting the gods. 

ANTIGONE. Father, suffering Oedipus, the towers that

Protect the city are, to my eyes, far off. (14-15)

So it’s pretty common for ancient Greek dramatists to use epithets in their plays. These are sort of like nicknames, adjectives that go with names to characterize the person. So if Oedipus’ daughter calls him “suffering Oedipus” all the time, you know that he is not a happy man. 

CHORUS. Zeus, Protector, who in the world is the elder?

OEDIPUS. Surely not one to be judged very happy,

And of the best fate, guardians of this land!

I make that clear! For otherwise I would not shuffle along

Aided by the eyes of others [. . .]. (143-48)

The Chorus doesn’t know whom Oedipus is when he shows up, wandering around all blind and poor. He confirms that he is, indeed, an unhappy sufferer; the suffering Oedipus. We detect a slight bit of sarcasm here when he insists on his unhappy state. If ancient Greek had had a word for “duh” this is where it would have gone handily. 

CHORUS. Alas!

Were you begotten with

Unseeing eyes? Miserable and

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

The Chorus isn’t sure whether Oedipus’ blindness is from birth or not. Of course, if they had seen the first play in the series they would know that it was caused by a self-inflicted wound. Either way, they reckon that anyone who has lived without sight must have suffered, and automatically take pity on him. You could go so far as to say they pity the fool, Mr. T would be proud. 

OEDIPUS. Do you still have hope that the gods will have

Some regard for me, so that I will someday be saved?

ISMENE. I do, father, from the current prophecies. (385-87)

Oedipus’ suffering is the direct result of his sin against the gods. He has to just accept it, wandering about until the gods change their minds and forgive him. To put it into modern, Christian terms, he wants to be “saved” from his suffering, which, unfortunately, actually just means his death. 

CHORUS. It is terrible to awaken the evil,

Oh stranger, that has already lain for so long!

Nevertheless, I feel a passionate longing to know… (510-12)

Ever notice that suffering, when you’re not the one suffering, can be kind of fascinating? Other people’s problems can be very, very interesting, so Oedipus’ suffering inspires the Chorus’ “passionate longing” to know what has happened that would put him in his awful situation. 

CREON. I see you an unhappy stranger,

Always a wanderer, leaning on one

Handmaiden, deprived of livelihood. (745-47)

Creon knew Oedipus from before, way back when, so he can recognize the transformation that Oedipus has undergone. His suffering-induced makeover has made him into a man without a home, with Antigone as his prop (can’t he get a cane?) and without a penny to his name. 

OEDIPUS. What is the deed you are threatening me with?

CREON. Of your two daughters, I have just seized

One and sent her away! The other I will take soon!

OEDIPUS. Oh! (817-20)

Creon hits Oedipus where it hurts. You’d think he’d hit rock bottom, but Creon finds a way to make him even unhappier than he already is. By kidnapping Oedipus’ daughters Creon manages to inspire a cry of despair in the poor guy. That “Oh!” should be read as the sound of pure suffering, the Ancient Greek equivalent of a screamo song.  

OEDIPUS. Dearest of men—for I recognized your voice—

I have suffered terrible things at the hands of this man just now!

THESEUS. What sort of things? Who does you harm, Speak!

OEDIPUS. Creon here, whom you see, has torn away

From me my two children, my only pair! (891-95)

Help us Theseus, you're our only hope. When Theseus comes back to see what the trouble is, he represents Oedipus’ only chance at getting his daughters back. To get from the depths of despair back to his regular, mild suffering, Oedipus needs Theseus to save him. The language he uses to describe his pain, having his children “torn away” reflects the violent act of tearing out his eyes, so his suffering must be great.

CHORUS. The stranger, lord, is a good man. His misfortunes

Are all destructive, and he deserves to be helped. (1014-15)

This is such a curious phrase. The Chorus has decided that Oedipus isn’t so bad after all, more just down on his luck. But what do you make of this “his misfortunes are all destructive” line? It’s as though he should be helped because of all the destruction he has endured. But what misfortune isn’t destructive?