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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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At the beginning and the end of his first long speech, Oedipus emphasizes that Athens is famed for its acts of generosity and humanity towards outsiders. Here, Sophocles clearly strikes a note of patriotism that would appeal to his Athenian audiences. It also sounds a note of warning to the chorus (and also the audience) that Athens is not presently living up to her own high standards of freedom and democracy. During Sophocles' time, at various points in the long Athens-Sparta conflict (431- 404 B.C.), Athens often failed to uphold her professed ideals of justice and fair play. This war raged on to its bitter end even as Sophocles was writing this play in 406 B.C. It is apt then that Oedipus points out the qualities that Athens has historically upheld, especially its democratic and just institutions.

Unlike typical Athenians, known for their tolerance and humanism, the chorus so far has behaved in a fickle-minded manner. Having promised to protect him after guiding him out of the grove, they then order Oedipus to leave Colonus after discovering who he is. Their behavior is unbecoming of enlightened Athenians. Oedipus, therefore, is justified in rebutting them for their callous attitude toward him. The chorus' action here may be motivated partly from their fear of drawing the wrath of the gods on themselves for Oedipus' trespass into the sacred grove, but it may also signal a change of attitude in Athenians which Sophocles may have become aware of during the years of strife. The chorus' behavior then can either be interpreted as being deeply religious and devout, or as superstitious and irrational, concerned only with their self- interest and security.


In this speech, Oedipus also recalls the period when he enjoyed absolute power in Thebes. He justifies his past misdeeds against his parents by blaming the course of his misfortunes on the heavy hand of fate or the gods. Indirectly, he disclaims responsibility for the tragic events of his rule by arguing that he was not the aggressor but, more correctly, the victim of forces beyond his control. He attempts to absolve himself of the evil that people (like the chorus, here) often attribute to him.

Oedipus' self-justification may evoke contradictory responses both among Sophoclean audiences and contemporary ones. If Oedipus is a victim, then he should be exonerated of all blame, and fate becomes the supreme force controlling human affairs. Modern readers of Sophocles will not find it easy to believe in such a fatalistic view of life, and although the ancient Greeks had a strong belief in the powers of fate and the gods, they also believed in taking responsibility for one's actions.

Sophocles makes clever use of irony here to subtly reveal where he himself stands in this debate over the relative importance of divine Fate and human free will. Even as Oedipus and the chorus mutely accept the powers of the gods over human affairs, Oedipus' stay and fate in Colonus will be decided ultimately by humans, the chorus and King Theseus. Therefore, this scene acts as an instance of dramatic irony when what is inherent in the situation is contrasted to what the dialogue purports to reveal.

The helpless old man here is not the earlier Oedipus, drunk with the absolute power he once wielded at Thebes. Still, even though Oedipus appears to lack the strength of action, he does gain some power through the knowledge of this last prophesy which restores his confidence as well as his reputation by bringing good will to the people of Athens. Formerly, he enjoyed the gift of sight but lacked true insight. Now he is blind but certainly more perceptive and gracious. Sophocles emphasizes that a man like Oedipus must suffer in order to be wise. After a life of suffering, Oedipus seems to have gained a keener sense of superior spirituality or ethereal holiness. It is as if the sanctity of the grove has now attached itself to Oedipus.

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