Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus at Colonus was the
last play Sophocles wrote, and was not performed until BC 401, four
years after his death. The Athens that Sophocles had known through its
period of greatness - Salamis, Delian League, the Athenian Empire - was
no more: the Second Peloponnesian War had ended with the defeat of
Athens and an imposed dictatorship. When the play opens, Oedipus is
also a shadow of his former self: the great king of Thebes who blinded
himself on discovering his true identity has been wandering for twenty
years, an outcast begging for food, now led by his daughter Antigone.
He comes to Colonus as a defeated man, anxious to abide by local
customs and receive food and shelter. An outcast he remains throughout
the play, but one that gradually grows in stature as he recognizes the
old prophecies are coming true. Oedipus is a fierce and angry
character, and grows more so as he comes to see the part the gods have
prepared him to play.
The play concerns
suffering, therefore, but not redemption. Oedipus's tomb will safeguard
Athens, but the gods are always inscrutable, and misfortune can strike
the most upright of characters. His independent daughter Antigone has
given her word to Polyneices, and at Thebes will be sentenced to death
for defying Creon. Polyneices is locked into his struggle with
Eteocles, and neither can give way. Even the smooth-talking Creon has
his commission to fulfil, and acts as the capable administrator, though
treacherous and high-handed in going about the State's business.
The play is not realistic in
our sense of the word. Attic tragedy employed only a small number of
actors, and these wore masks. The dialogue is interwoven with passages
of poetry, music, singing and probably dance. We can imagine how
impressive the spectacle must have been, but have few details. The play
is in verse, in places of a very high order, with several of the choral
pieces among the most famous of Greek poetry. I have tried in this
translation to return attention to the verse, using rhyme to shape the
formal but plain nature of Sophocles's text. For the same reason, the
translation preserves the line numbering and verse structure of the
A free e-book
in pdf format includes a glossary and notes on the translation. The
text may be used free of performance royalties if the translator is
PART ONE (Excerpt)
Oedipus, a blind beggar, enters stage
right, led by Antigone.
What land or city now, Antigone?
Come tell your old blind father what you see.
Who'll take in wandering Oedipus and give
the little that he begs for so he live?
Or less than that will do: the years have brought
acceptance of his sufferings, as they ought.
Long roads and hardship are his friends on earth
who had nobility in royal birth.
Perhaps now, child, you see some resting-place,
10. some grove or common ground where we may face
the probing questions there are sure to be.
We come as strangers here, and scrupulously
must show obedience to local powers.
My careworn father, Oedipus, the towers
that guard the city seem but distant still,
a long way off from us, but here we will
sit down and rest in what is holy ground
with vine and olive, laurel and the sound
of the sweet nightingale singing. Now on
20. this rough rock rest for such a long way gone.
Guide, but do not leave me on my own.
As always, father, as the years have shown.
So tell me, if you know, the place we're at.
Athens I recognize: no more than that.
So passers-by have said, in any case.
Shall I go on and ask about this place?
Yes, do, and ask if there be people here.