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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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The "kommos" is an integral part of a Greek tragedy. It is a lyric dirge or lament sung by the chorus on-stage with one or more actors alternately. Here Oedipus and the chorus participate in the choric lament. This "kommos" is structured as a rite of confession. The chorus gets Oedipus to confess, somewhat hesitantly, to his past misdeeds -- his parricide and incestuous marriage to his own mother. However, he strongly asserts his innocence, for both these actions were unintentional. Oedipus insists that his immoral acts were unpremeditated and stemmed from his ignorance.

It seems here that Sophocles insists on moral law against Oedipus' uncleanness. The chorus believes he must be partially guilty, at least. And so, as they did earlier, they insist he must perform the rituals of purgation and appeasement of the gods. He can only touch the libations or divine offerings of water, honey and olive branches with hands that are cleansed and made holy. Up until this point in the "kommos", the audience has been given quite a bit of information about the miserable circumstances of Oedipus' life. All the earlier parts of the play have taken us steadily backward into Oedipus' past life. Oedipus cannot go forward until he expatiates his past.

Sophocles links this idea with his central theme of time. He provides a contrast between what is, what has been, and what is yet to come. Oedipus, in his ensuing dialogue with Theseus that concludes Episode I, hints at what may lie ahead after his death. He fears that Thebes and Athens may engage in warfare in the near or distant future. Thus, Sophocles shuttles back and forth in time throughout the play as he wishes the audience to see that the past, present, and future are all subtly linked.


Theseus' first speech reveals that he is the ideal statesman. The reader finds in him a leader who upholds the high ideals that all democracies profess to follow -- but so rarely do in practice. While Theseus is the ideal leader of men in the public world, Oedipus, during his rule at Thebes, contrasts poorly with this enlightened Athenian. If Oedipus was a failure in the practical world, he now begins to acquire a kind of spiritual or supernatural strength during his visit to the sacred grove at Colonus.

This scene depicts Theseus in a very favorable light as an idealist and a humanist. Nobility and grace are the key words that define his character. His deep refinement and gracious consideration towards Oedipus, despite his loss of fortune, show how generous and hospitable Theseus really is. He has both patience and humility, for he is willing to learn from Oedipus' bitter experiences. He tells the old man with great sagacity, "I am human, and have as much share/In what tomorrow will afford."

Theseus' treatment of Oedipus becomes the basis of an enduring friendship between them. Despite their obvious differences in age and present status, they share a mutual respect for each other. Hence, Oedipus feels free to speak to Theseus as an equal. He warns Theseus that since the gods never taste old age and death, man alone faces decay at the hands of time. In the process, faith turns to distrust, friends become enemies, and quarrels erupt between neighboring cities.

These words prove Oedipus to be both a visionary and a spiritual presence, blessing Athens and its people as much as they have blessed him. He also reveals that although Thebes and Athens may now be on friendly terms, they may soon fight over some petty issue. His famous speech about friends who may turn to foes one day strikes a note of pessimistic warning about the failure inherent in all human relations. It also elaborates the theme of time as an agent of change in all human affairs. Individuals and nations often change their attitude to one another from love to hate and then back to love. Nothing in this world is predictable, and life often takes odd and unexpected turns, as Oedipus himself well knows.

This speech also comments on the Peloponnesian war that occurred during Sophocles' times and involved Thebes and Athens as adversaries. Oedipus' words here prove doubly prophetic -- first in the play itself and then in Athenian history.

Annotation:

Theseus: He was the king and legendary founder of Athens. He was son of Aegeus (by one account) or of Poseidon, god of the sea. He performed many famous tasks, including the killing of the dreaded monster called the "Minotaur". As a child, he was abandoned by his parents and wandered in exile until he found his father in Athens. After his golden reign, he was driven from Athens in a rebellion and took refuge in Scyros where he died.

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