Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles


Sophocles: Background to the Play


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 ó Salamis, the Delian League and Athenian Empire ó 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, and is 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. He will die in the grove of the Eumenides. His death will bring rewards to the land that takes him in. The sons that disinherited him will both die in their struggle for the throne of Thebes. 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.

Themes of the Play


The play concerns suffering, therefore, but not redemption. Oedipusís tomb will safeguard Athens, but the gods will continue to bring misfortune to the family line. 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 Stateís business. Theseus represents Athensí bravery and love of justice, but was a man, as all Athens knew, capable of deceit in his innumerable liaisons.

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 original.

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 acknowledged.

Excerpt: Opening


Oedipus, a blind beggar, enters stage right, led by Antigone.

OEDIPUS

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.

ANTIGONE

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.

OEDIPUS

Guide, but do not leave me on my own.

ANTIGONE

As always, father, as the years have shown.

OEDIPUS

So tell me, if you know, the place we're at.

ANTIGONE

Athens I recognize: no more than that.

OEDIPUS

So passers-by have said, in any case.

ANTIGONE

Shall I go on and ask about this place?

OEDIPUS

Yes, do, and ask if there be people here.

The ebook contains a glossary and references:

GLOSSARY

40. Goddesses: Eumenides or Furies: the spirits of punishment without mercy.
54. Poseidon: God of earthquakes, the sea and horses.
56. Prometheus: in Greek myth the champion of mankind against the Gods: the bringer of fire from heaven.
58. Brazen Threshold: the hill at Colonus, perhaps protecting the approach to the Athenian citadel.
60. Colonus: birthplace of Sophocles, one mile north-west of the principal gate of Athens.
69. Aegeus: father of Theseus and King of Athens.
86. Phoebus: radiant Apollo.
97. Zeus: the supreme god in Greek myth and religion.
103. Apollo: son of Zeus and patron of the arts.
219. LaÔus: father of Oedipus.
221. Labdicus: family line of Oedipus.
338. Egyptian ways: borrowed from the history of Herodotus.
356. Cadmeians: people of Thebes, named after Cadmus, the city founder.
540. prize: in solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus became King of Thebes and husband to Jocasta.
601. parricide: the unknown man Oedipus killed on the road to Thebes was his father.
679. Dionysus: son of Zeus by Semele: god of wine and ecstasy.
682. goddesses of old: Demeter and Persephone, presiding deities of the Eleusinian mysteries.
684. Cephisus: river of Attica not running dry in summer (as most rivers do).
690. Aphrodite: Goddess of love: her chariot is often depicted with golden reins drawn by birds.
694. Pelopís isle: the Peloponnese.
705. Morian Zeus: Zeus as protector of olive trees in Attica.
708. Cronus: youngest of the Titans. Married his sister Rhea to produce the Olympian Gods.
719. Nereids: sea nymphs.
949. Mount Ares: hill in Athens and site of first law-court.
962. incest: Oedipus unknowingly married his mother Jocasta at Thebes.
980. sister: Jocasta, Oedipusís mother and wife, was the sister of Creon.
1052. Eumolpidae: family with duties at the Eleusinian mysteries.
1060. Oea: peak on route to battle, possibly Mount Aegaleos.
1090. Athena Pallas: name of Athena from playmate or the giant Pallas she overcame.
1222. Hades: brother of Zeus and Poseidon, ruler of the underworld.
1295. Eteocles: son of Oedipus and brother to Polyneices.
1302. Argos: city in the north-east Peloponnese.
1305. Apian: of Argos.
1391. Tartarus: deepest region of the underworld.
1533. Dragonís brood: in myth the people of Thebes, the principal city of Boetia, sprang from dragonís teeth sown by Cadmus, the city founder.
1538. Hermes: messenger of the Gods.
1559. AÔdoneus: Homeric form of Hades.
1564. Stygian: of Hades.
1568. hound: three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades.
1593. PirithoŁs: friend of Theseus who attempted to kidnap Persephone from the underworld.
1593-95: basin, Thorician boss, pear-tree and marble tomb: unknown to history but apparently features of the Colonus hill.
1600. Demeter: Goddess of grain crops.