Oedipus at Colonus 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 — 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.

Themes of Oedipus at Colonus

The play concerns suffering, 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 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.

References

I have found works by Jebb, Storr and Fagles to be the most helpful, but material consulted includes:

1. Knox, B.M.W. The Heroic Temper. (University of California Press, 1992).
2. Hornblower, S. and Spawforth, A. (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd Edition. (Oxford University Press, 2003), 1424.
3. Jebb, R.C. and Shuckburg, E.S. (ed.) The Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles: with a commentary, abridged from the large edition. (Cambridge University Press, 1955). Indispensable for the details.
4. Jebb, R.C. The Tragedies of Sophocles Translated into English Prose. (Cambridge University Press, 1928). A prose-poetry version, faithful but dated in diction.
5. Murray, G. Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus. (George Allen and Unwin, 1948). A once-popular version, now rather dated: rhymed throughout.
6. Storr. F. Sophocles with an English Translation. (Harvard University Press, 1956). A pleasing version now rather dated: dialogue in blank verse, choral sections rhymed.
7. Grene, D. and Lattimore, R. Sophocles I: Oedipus the King: Oedipus at Colonus (translated by Robert Fitzgerald): Antigone. (University of Chicago Press, 1970). A well-regarded version in contemporary language: dialogue in free blank verse, choral sections sometimes rhymed.
8. Roche, P. The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Complete Texts of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. (Plume, 1996). A vigorous and informal version in ‘free-wheeling iambic measure’: a little overwritten in places.
9. Fagles, R. Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. (Penguin, 1984). A contemporary version with helpful notes and glossary: loose blank verse for dialogue, free verse for choral sections.