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Analysis of the play.

This is the moment at which our play begins. The action falls into six principal divisions or chapters, marked off, as usual, by choral lyrics.

I. Prologue: 1-116.
The scene, which remains the same throughout the play, is at Colonus, about a mile and a quarter north-west of Athens. We are in front of a grove sacred to the Furies,—here worshipped under a propitiatory name, as the Eumenides or Kindly Powers. While the snow still lingers on distant hills (v. 1060), the song of many nightingales is already heard from the thick covert of this grove in the Attic plain; we seem to breathe the air of a bright, calm day at the beginning of April1. The blind Oedipus, led by Antigone, enters on the left hand of the spectator. He is in the squalid garb of a beggar-man,— carrying a wallet, wherein to put alms (v. 1262); the wind plays with his unkempt white hair; the wounds by which, in the prime of manhood, he had destroyed his sight, have left ghastly traces on the worn face; but there is a certain nobleness in his look and bearing which tempers the beholder's sense of pity or repulsion. The old man is tired with a long day's journey; they have heard from people whom they met on the way that they are near Athens, but they do not know the name of the spot at which they have halted. Antigone seats her father on a rock which is just within the limits of the sacred grove. As she is about to go in search of information, a man belonging to Colonus appears. Oedipus is beginning to accost him, when the stranger cuts his words short by a peremptory command to come off the sacred ground. "To whom is it sacred?" Oedipus asks. To the Eumenides, is the reply. On hearing that name, Oedipus invokes the grace of those goddesses, and declares that he will never leave the rest which he has found. He begs the stranger to summon Theseus, the king of Athens, 72"that by a small service he may find a great gain."” The stranger, who is struck by the noble mien of the blind old man, says that he will go and consult the people of Colonus; and meanwhile he tells Oedipus to stay where he is.

Left alone with Antigone, Oedipus utters a solemn and very beautiful prayer to the Eumenides, which discloses the motive of his refusal to leave the sacred ground. In his early manhood, when he inquired at Delphi concerning his parentage, Apollo predicted the calamities which awaited him; but also promised him rest, so soon as he should reach 89"a seat of the Awful Goddesses."” There he should close his troubled life; and along with the release, he should have this reward,—power to benefit the folk who sheltered him, and to hurt the folk who had cast him out. And when his end was near, there should be a sign from the sky. Apollo and the Eumenides themselves have led him to this grove: he prays the goddesses to receive him, and to give him peace.

Hardly has his prayer been spoken, when Antigone hears footsteps approaching, and retires with her father into the covert of the grove.

Parodos: 117-253.
The elders of Colonus, who form the Chorus, now enter the orchestra. They have heard that a wanderer has entered the grove, and are in eager search for the perpetrator of so daring an impiety. Oedipus, led by Antigone, suddenly discovers himself. His appearance is greeted with a cry of horror from the Chorus; but horror gradually yields to pity for his blindness, his age, and his misery. They insist, however, on his coming out of the sacred grove. If he is to speak to them, it must be on lawful ground. Before he consents, he exacts a pledge that he shall not be removed from the ground outside of the grove. They promise this. Antigone then guides him to a seat beyond the sacred precinct. The Chorus now ask him who he is. He implores them to spare the question; but their curiosity has been aroused. They extort an answer. No sooner has the name OEDIPUS passed his lips, than his voice is drowned in a shout of execration. They call upon him to leave Attica instantly. He won their promise by a fraud, and it is void. They refuse to hear him. Antigone makes an imploring appeal.

II. First episode: 254-667.
In answer to her appeal, the Chorus say that they pity both father and daughter, but fear the gods still more; the wanderers must go.

Oedipus now speaks with powerful eloquence, tinged at first with bitter scorn. Is this the traditional compassion of Athens for the oppressed? They have lured him from his sanctuary, and now they are driving him out of their country,—for fear of what? Simply of his name. He is free from moral guilt. He brings a blessing for Athens. What it is, he will reveal when their king arrives.—The Chorus agree to await the decision of Theseus. He will come speedily, they are sure, when he hears the name of Oedipus.

At this moment, Antigone descries the approach of her sister Ismene, who has come from Thebes with tidings for her father. Ismene tells him of the fierce strife which has broken out between her brothers,—and how Polyneices has gone to Argos. Then she mentions the new oracle which the Thebans have just received,—that their welfare depends on him, in life and death. Creon will soon come, she adds, in the hope of enticing him back.

Oedipus asks whether his sons knew of this oracle. "Yes," she reluctantly answers. At that answer, the measure of his bitterness is full: he breaks into a prayer that the gods may hear him, and make this new strife fatal to both brothers alike. And then, turning to the Chorus, he assures them that he is destined to be a deliverer of Attica: for his mind is now made up; he has no longer any doubt where his blessing, or his curse, is to descend. The Chorus, in reply, instruct him how a proper atonement may be made to the Eumenides for his trespass on their precinct; and Ismene goes to perform the prescribed rites in a more distant part of the grove.

Here follows a lyric dialogue between the Chorus and

(Kommos: 510-548.)
Oedipus. They question him on his past deeds, and he pathetically asserts his moral innocence.

Theseus now enters, on the spectator's right hand, as coming from Athens. Addressing Oedipus as "son of Laïus," he assures him, with generous courtesy, of protection and sympathy; he has himself known what it is to be an exile. Oedipus explains his desire. He craves to be protected in Attica while he lives, and to be buried there when he is dead. He has certain benefits to bestow in return; but these will not be felt until after his decease. He fears that his sons will seek to remove him to Thebes. If Theseus promises to protect him, it must be at the risk of a struggle. Theseus gives the promise. He publicly adopts Oedipus as a citizen. He then leaves the scene.

Oedipus having now been formally placed under the protection

First stasimon: 668-719.
of Athens, the Chorus appropriately celebrate the land which has become his home. Beginning with Colonus, they pass to themes of honour for Attica at large,—the olive, created by Athena and guarded by Zeus,—the horses and horsemanship of the land, gifts of Poseidon,—and his other gift, the empire of the sea. Of all the choral songs in extant Greek drama, this short ode is perhaps the most widely famous; a distinction partly due, no doubt, to the charm of the subject, and especially to the manifest glow of a personal sentiment in the verses which describe Colonus; but, apart from this, the intrinsic poetical beauty is of the highest and rarest order2.

III. Second episode: 720-1043.
As the choral praises cease, Antigone exclaims that the moment has come for proving that Athens deserves them. Creon enters, with an escort of guards.

His speech, addressed at first to the Chorus, is short, and skilfully conceived. They will not suppose that an old man like himself has been sent to commit an act of violence against a powerful State. No; he comes on behalf of Thebes, to plead with his aged kinsman, whose present wandering life is truly painful for everybody concerned. The honour of the city and of the family is involved. Oedipus should express his gratitude to Athens, and then return to a decent privacy 777"in the house of his fathers."

With a burst of scathing indignation, Oedipus replies. They want him now; but they thrust him out when he was longing to stay. 777"In the house of his fathers!"” No, that is not their design. They intend to plant him somewhere just beyond their border, for their own purposes. 787"That portion is not for thee,"” he tells Creon, 788"but this,—my curse upon your land, ever abiding therein;—and for my sons, this heritage—room enough in my realm, wherein — to die."

Failing to move him, Creon drops the semblance of persuasion. He bluntly announces that he already holds one hostage; —Ismene, who had gone to perform the rites in the grove, has been captured by his guards;—and he will soon have a second. He lays his hand upon Antigone. Another moment, and his attendants drag her from the scene. He is himself on the point of seizing Oedipus, when Theseus enters,—having been startled by the outcry, while engaged in a sacrifice at the neighbouring altar of Poseidon.

On hearing what has happened, Theseus first sends a message to Poseidon's altar, directing the Athenians who were present at the sacrifice to start in pursuit of Creon's guards and the captured maidens.—Then, turning to Creon, he upbraids him with his lawless act, and tells him that he shall not leave Attica until the maidens are restored. Creon, with ready effrontery, replies that, in attempting to remove a polluted wretch from Attic soil, he was only doing what the Areiopagus itself would have wished to do; if his manner was somewhat rough, the violence of Oedipus was a provocation. This speech draws from Oedipus an eloquent vindication of his life, which is more than a mere repetition of the defence which he had already made to the Chorus. Here he brings out with vivid force the helplessness of man against fate, and the hypocrisy of his accuser.—Theseus now calls on Creon to lead the way, and show him where the captured maidens are,—adding a hint, characteristically Greek, that no help from Attic accomplices shall avail him. Creon sulkily submits,—with a muttered menace of what he will do when he reaches home. Exeunt Theseus and his attendants, with Creon, on the spectator's left.

The Chorus imagine themselves at the scene of the coming

Second stasimon: 1044-1095.
fray, and predict the speedy triumph of the rescuers,—invoking the gods of the land to help. A beautiful trait of this ode is the reference to the 1049"torch-lit strand"” of Eleusis, and to the mysteries which the initiated poet held in devout reverence.

At the close of their chant, the Chorus give Oedipus the

IV. Third episode: 1096-1210.
welcome news that they see his daughters approaching, escorted by Theseus and his followers. The first words of Antigone to her blind father express the wish that some wonder-working god could enable him to see their brave deliverer; and then, with much truth to nature, father and daughters are allowed to forget for a while that anyone else is present. When at last Oedipus turns to thank Theseus, his words are eminently noble, and also touching. His impulse is to salute his benefactor by kissing his cheek, but it is quickly checked by the thought that this is not for him; no, nor can he permit it, if Theseus would. The line drawn by fate, the line which parts him and his from human fellowship, is rendered only more sacred by gratitude.

At this point we may note, in passing, a detail of dramatic economy. The story of the rescue would have been material for a brilliant speech, either by Theseus, or, before his entrance, by a messenger. But the poet's sense of fitness would not allow him to adorn an accident of the plot at the cost of curtailing an essential part,—viz., the later scene with Polyneices, which must have been greatly abridged if a narrative had been admitted here. So, when Antigone is questioned by her father as to the circumstances of the rescue, she refers him to Theseus; and Theseus says that it is needless for him to vaunt his own deeds, since Oedipus can hear them at leisure from his daughters.

There is a matter, Theseus adds, on which he should like to consult Oedipus. A stranger, it seems, has placed himself as a suppliant at the altar of Poseidon. This happened while they were all away at the rescue, and no one knows anything about the man. He is not from Thebes, but he declares that he is a kinsman of Oedipus, and prays for a few words with him. It is only guessed whence he comes; can Oedipus have any relations at Argos? Oedipus remembers what Ismene told him; he knows who it is; and he implores Theseus to spare him the torture of hearing that voice. But Antigone's entreaties prevail. Theseus leaves the scene, in order to let the suppliant know that the interview will be granted.

Third stasimon: 1211-1248.
The choral ode which fills the pause glances forward rather than backward, though it is suggested by the presage of some new vexation for Oedipus. It serves to turn our thoughts towards the approaching end.—Not to be born is best of all; the next best thing is to die as soon as possible. And the extreme of folly is the desire to outlive life's joys. Behold yon aged and afflicted stranger,—lashed by the waves of trouble from east and west, from south and north! But there is one deliverer, who come to all at last.

Polyneices now enters,—not attended, like Creon, by guards,

V. Fourth episode: 1249-1555.
but alone. He is shedding tears; he begins by uttering the deepest pity for his father's plight, and the bitterest selfreproach.—Oedipus, with averted head, makes no reply.— Polyneices appeals to his sisters; will they plead for him? Antigone advises him to state in his own words the object of his visit.—Then Polyneices sets forth his petition. His Argive allies are already gathered before Thebes. He has come as a suppliant to Oedipus, for himself, and for his friends too. Oracles say that victory will be with the side for which Oedipus may declare. Eteocles, in his pride at Thebes, is mocking father and brother alike. 1340"If thou assist me, I will soon scatter his power, and will stablish thee in thine own house, and stablish myself, when I have cast him out by force."

Oedipus now breaks silence; but it is in order to let the Chorus know why he does so. His son, he reminds them, has been sent to them by their king.—Then, suddenly turning on Polyneices, he delivers an appalling curse, dooming both his sons to die at Thebes by each other's hands. In concentrated force of tragic passion this passage has few rivals. The great scene is closed by a short dialogue between Polyneices and his elder sister,—one of the delicate links between this play and the poet's earlier Antigone. She implores him to abandon his fatal enterprise. But he is not to be dissuaded; he only asks that, if he falls, she and Ismene will give him burial rites; he disengages himself from their embrace, and goes forth, under the shadow of the curse.

A lyric passage now follows, which affords a moment of

(Kommos: 1447-1499.)
relief to the strained feelings of the spectators, and also serves (like a similar passage before, vv. 510—548) to separate the two principal situations comprised in this chapter of the drama.— The Chorus are commenting on the dread doom which they have just heard pronounced, when they are startled by the sound of thunder. As peal follows peal, and lightnings glare from the darkened sky, the terror-stricken elders of Colonus utter broken prayers to averting gods. But for Oedipus the storm has another meaning; it has filled him with a strange eagerness. He prays Antigone to summon Theseus.

As Theseus had left the scene in order to communicate with the suppliant at Poseidon's altar, no breach of probability is involved in his timely re-appearance. Oedipus announces that, by sure signs, he knows his hour to have come. Unaided by human hand, he will now show the way to the spot where his life must be closed. When he arrives there, to Theseus alone will be revealed the place appointed for his grave. At the approach of death, Theseus shall impart the secret to his heir alone; and, so, from age to age, that sacred knowledge shall descend in the line of the Attic kings. While the secret is religiously guarded, the grave of Oedipus shall protect Attica against invading foemen; Thebes shall be powerless to harm her.— 1540"And now let us set forth, for the divine summons urges me."” As Oedipus utters these words, Theseus and his daughters become aware of a change; the blind eyes are still dark, but the moral conditions of blindness have been annulled; no sense of dependence remains, no trace of hesitation or timidity; like one inspired, the blind man eagerly beckons them on; and so, followed by them, he finally passes from the view of the spectators.

This final exit of Oedipus is magnificently conceived. As the idea of a spiritual illumination is one which pervades the play, so it is fitting that, in the last moment of his presence with us, the inward vision should be manifested in its highest clearness and power. It is needless to point out what a splendid opportunity this scene would give to an actor,—in the modern theatre not less than in the ancient. It shows the genius of a great poet combined with that instinct for dramatic climax which is seldom unerring unless guided by a practical knowledge of the stage.

Fourth stasimon: 1556-1578.
The elders of Colonus are now alone; they have looked their last on Oedipus; and they know that the time of his end has come. The strain of their chant is in harmony with this moment of suspense and stillness. It is a choral litany for the soul which is passing from earth. May the Powers of the unseen world be gracious; may no dread apparition vex the path to the fields below.

A Messenger, one of the attendants of Theseus, relates what

VI. Exodos: 1579-1779.
befell after Oedipus, followed by his daughters and the king, arrived at the spot where he was destined to depart. Theseus was then left alone with him, and to Theseus alone of mortals the manner of his passing is known.

The daughters enter. After the first utterances of grief, one

(Kommos: 1670-1750.)
feeling is seen to be foremost in Antigone's mind,—the longing to see her father's grave. She cannot bear the thought that it should lack a tribute from her hands. Ismene vainly represents that their father's own command makes such a wish unlawful,— impossible. Theseus arrives, and to him Antigone urges her desire. In gentle and solemn words he reminds her of the pledge which he had given to Oedipus. She acquiesces; and now prays that she and Ismene may be sent to Thebes: perhaps they may yet be in time to avert death from their brothers. Theseus consents; and the elders of Colonus say farewell to the Theban maidens in words which speak of submission to the gods: 1777"Cease lamentation, lift it up no more; for verily these things stand fast."

1 The dates of the nightingale's arrival in Attica, for the years indicated, are thus given by Dr Krüper, the best authority on the birds of Greece (Griechische Jahrzeiten for 1875, Heft III., p. 243):—March 29 (1867), April 13 (1873), April 6 (1874). The dates for several other localities in the Hellenic countries (Acarnania— Parnassus—Thessalonica—Olympia—Smyrna), as recorded by the same observer for two years in each case, all range between March 27 and April 15. For this reference I am indebted to Professor Alfred Newton, F.R.S., of Cambridge. The male birds (who alone sing) arrive some days before the females, as is usually the case with migratory birds, and sing as soon as they come. Thus it is interesting to notice that the period of the year at which the nightingale's song would first be heard in Attica coincides closely with the celebration of the Great Dionysia, in the last days of March and the first days of April (C. Hermann Gr. Ant. II. 59. 6). If the play was produced at that festival, the allusions to the nightingale (vv. 18, 671) would have been felt as specially appropriate to the season.

2 Dr Heinrich Schmidt, in his Compositionslehre, has selected this First Stasimon as a typical masterpiece of ancient choral composition, and has shown by a thorough analysis (pp. 428-432) how perfect is the construction, alike from a metrical and from a properly lyric or musical point of view. “Da ist keine einzige Note unnütz,” he concludes; “jeder Vers, jeder Satz, jeder Takt in dem schönsten rhythmischen Connexe.”

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  • Cross-references from this page (11):
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1049
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1060
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1262
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1340
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1540
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1777
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 72
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 777
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 787
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 788
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 89
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (16):
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1211
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1044
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1096
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 117
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1249
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1447
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1556
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1579
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1670
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 18
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 254
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 510
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 668
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 671
    • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 720
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