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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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LINES 1211 - 49: THE THIRD STASIMON

Summary

This choric song comprises a single strophe and anti-strophe followed by an epode. The chorus claims it is a foolish hope in man to desire a prolonged life span, for old age is hardly an enviable time of life.

The chorus sings and dances during this stasimon which celebrates the Themes of Time, Wisdom, and Death. The delights of childhood and the joys of youth soon give way to the agonies and pangs of age. Those who want to live a longer term have to wait endlessly for the great Deliveries to come and reveal to them the stark figure of Death and the doom of Hades. There are no happy bridal songs or music of the lyre or dancing when Death comes along in its forbidding finality.

The anti-strophe (lines 1225-38) develops the theme of life's bitter struggles and turmoil. The chorus feels that "never to be born is much the best". However, the next best thing is to return to whence we have come. When youth and its light follies have passed, only trouble and tragedy await; envy, strife, murders, battles, and the afflictions of old age consume everyone who lives past middle age. Death finally releases a person from loneliness, fear, infirmity, and friendless-ness.

In the Epode (lines 1139-48), the chorus expresses deep sympathy for Oedipus' pathetic fate. They know his case fully well, for they themselves are old. They compare Oedipus' sad condition to that of some cape in the icy Northern Sea which is lashed ceaselessly by the fierce waves of a winter storm. The turbulence and strife of life have furiously beaten him down, starting from the dawn of his life through the noon of Oedipus' tragic experiences as king and even into the gloom and isolation of the sunset days that now close his life.


Notes

The chorus in Stasimon III uses a dance pattern to wind into a circle on-stage in the Strophe and then unwind itself in the anti- strophe. As they face the spectators in the concluding epode, they make a spectacular dramatic impact with the subtle changes of their dance movements. Their dancing and singing reiterate the Themes of the impact of Time upon the life of humans and how the passage of Time brings knowledge through the sorrows and sufferings that it inflicts upon human kind. This choric song also stresses how the long-awaited release of Death is inevitable, though some foolish humans wish to linger on pointlessly through life.

The whole mood of this Stasimon is one of somber pessimism, especially as seen in the anti-strophe and epode. Here, Sophocles expresses an orthodox and often repeated motif in Greek poetry from Homer downwards -- that life is predominantly filled with tragedy, pain, and suffering. Homer's Iliad endorses the view that human life is as fragile as leaves that fall from trees in autumn. The Greeks generally held a tragic and pessimistic attitude to life and thought of human history not as progress but rather as a tale of decay and degeneration.

Sophocles continues to reproduce this somber depiction of life that is often seen in earlier Greek writers such as the epic poet Homer, the farmer poet Hasiod, and Theognis, the 6th century B.C. elegiac poet from Megara. They all share a parallel view of life, its vicissitudes, and evil. In fact, the opening lines of the anti-strophe of this stasimon are a remarkable echo of Theognis' "Elegies to Kyrnos" where lines parallel those found in Sophocles' play: "Not to be born at all is the best of all things for mortals ...... or, once born, to journey straight to the gates of Hades". Perhaps, Sophocles is also alluding to his own last lines at the close of Oedipus Tthe King where the chorus state that as a mortal, no man can be called happy until he crosses the frontier of life "vexed by no grievous ill."

The epode of this stasimon has a very impressive epic simile in which Oedipus' turbulent life is compared to a rock in the icy Northern Sea. The stormy waves may break over it, but the rock remains steadfast. This simile, with its subtle nuances of meaning, also recalls the story of how Oedipus destroyed the monstrous sphinx when he entered Thebes by solving the riddle it posed to him. "What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the noon day and on three legs in the evening?" His answer that it was a man now takes on deeper meaning as it accurately reflects Oedipus' own condition--crippled by his parents as an infant; standing upright, though club-footed, when a man and king; and now, reduced to a blind beggar using a staff as a third leg. Yet in all three phases of his life, as child, adult and old man, Oedipus has been dogged with more than one man's share of tragedy.

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