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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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OVERALL ANALYSES

LIST OF CHARACTERS

Major Characters

Oedipus

In the early scenes of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is seen as a man set apart from average mortals. He is spoken of as the "first among humans" in their disastrous encounters with life's tragedies or with the gods. In Oedipus At Colonus, Oedipus first appears as an ordinary beggar, a wandering, blind man exiled from his homeland and bereft of family, except for Antigone, his loyal and beloved daughter. As the drama unfolds, Oedipus' character acquires deeper mystical overtone, and he seems to be summoned by the gods to an afterlife of spiritual peace.

The character of Oedipus in Oedipus At Colonus differs vastly from the younger Oedipus of the earlier play, Oedipus the King. As a king he had appeared proud, hot-tempered, and overbearing. In Oedipus At Colonus, he is more humble and less domineering, yet he still retains some of his notorious ill-temper, as is obvious in his heaping of curses on his two sons and on Creon. In the long years of his exile after his fall from power and grace in Thebes, Oedipus has known rejection and alienation as a social outcast. If he is somewhat subdued, it is because years of wandering have taken their toll on him, and he has come to understand what it means to suffer.

When asked to vacate the hallowed spot, he meekly submits to the dictates of the chorus. The Oedipus at Thebes would never have agreed to do so without a strong protest. Oedipus has now learned the virtues of patience and humility. He tries to ingratiate himself, and his daughter, into the favor of the chorus and not antagonize these citizens of Colonus.


Oedipus is aware that he must rehabilitate himself into the community at Colonus and win their love, trust, and compassion, which he soon does with the arrival of the noble-hearted Theseus. Yet, Oedipus' troubles are far from over. First, he must propitiate the gods for desecration of their 'sanctum sanctorum' by proper cleansing rites, which Ismene offers to perform for him. This ritual of purgation and atonement is a kind of 'Kenosis' or self-emptying. His former self must be cleansed through these libations in order for him to be reinstated in the good graces of the gods, whom he hopes to merge with in death.

Throughout the play, Oedipus continually protests his innocence and ignorance in the matter of his former misdeeds in Thebes. He repeatedly claims he was the victim of the gods and never willfully wronged his parents. In this negation of his guilt, Sophocles may perhaps be pouring scorn on Oedipus for his attempts at self- justification, yet it may also signify that he has come to understand that his crimes were more the handiwork of Fate, external rather than internal forces.

While his newfound acceptance in the rustic community at Colonus brings him nearer to his goal of a mystical liberation from life, there are tentacles from both his Theban past and the present that try to grasp him in its menacing hold. It is only with the support of Theseus and his people and Oedipus' own willful determination to stay on in Colonus that he can surmount these troublesome threats. He no longer desires to be a part of the vicious power struggles and vulgar self-interests of public life in Thebes. He only desires to die and benefit the land that has adopted him in the last days of his life.

In a moving scene of farewell, Oedipus parts from his beloved daughters, his trusted friend Theseus, and the compassionate citizens of Colonus, promising to grant them his benediction. Despite the severe battering he has faced from the storms of life, Oedipus stands alone and unmoved as a rock weathering the monstrous waves of a distant Northern sea. He goes to his death with marvelously stoic courage.

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