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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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Historical Context of the Play

Towards the close of Sophocles' life, the glory and power of the great Athenian state was beginning to show the first signs of decay. A ten-year war broke out in 431 B.C. between Athens and Sparta. After it ended in a stalemate, it dragged on for 27 years in all, either in open or barely contained hostilities. In 428 B.C., there was a devastating plague that decimated the Athenian population and claimed the life of Pericles. Then in 413 B.C., Athens lost two armies in its disastrous campaigns in Sicily. Nine years later (in 404 B.C.), Athens suffered humiliating defeat by Sparta


Sophocles was writing this play at a time when Athens was struggling for its life against disruptive forces inside and outside of the city-state. As a result, he incorporates into his play both the glorious reign of Theseus, founder and hero of Athens, and the bitter strife ensuing among the nation states of Greece. Oedipus At Colonus reflects the bitter rivalry between Sparta and Athens through the story of the unrelenting fratricidal enmity between Oedipus' two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. Although set in Athens, Thebes contributes to the background of this play because of the growing hostility it had towards Athens. Sophocles not only pays tribute to Theseus, the enlightened ruler of Athens, but also reminds his contemporary audience that Athens had the blessings of the spirit of Oedipus because he died and was buried at Colonus.

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