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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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Notes

Sophocles uses the conventional stage device in Greek tragedy of the Messenger to convey the sad news of Oedipus' death. In his two earlier tragedies on the Theban theme, Sophocles uses a similar device. At the close of Oedipus the King, the Messenger reports the death of Jocasta by suicide and how Oedipus gouged out his own eyes at the sight of his dead wife-mother. In Antigone, the Messenger concludes the play with a graphic account of how Antigone hanged herself in the cave where she is interred and how Haemon, her fiancé, after attempting to kill his father, Creon, also commits suicide.

Oedipus' death is shrouded in mystery and secrecy and has a mystical quality about it. Hence, it is only fitting that the Messenger gives only a partial account of it, leaving out the precise details of Oedipus' final moments, as he is not a direct witness of it. Even Theseus, who remains with Oedipus until the very last moment of death, is unwilling to divulge any information that he may have on the exact manner of Oedipus' death. Theseus even advises Oedipus' daughter not to visit the site of his death, as it is their father's express wish that the spot be left secluded and untainted by human intrusion.


This lends an aura of the mystical to the rather peculiar circumstances of Oedipus' death. The ritual washing that Oedipus undergoes before death, the change to fresh clothes and the libation he offers with water lend a touch of the religious and spiritual to his impending death. Even Theseus' homage to the earth and the sky, where Oedipus slips into death, adds to the aura of the supernatural or divine surrounding the old man's demise.

Of course, this long speech by the Messenger also provides a fine opportunity for Sophocles to display all his skills in composing superb rhetorical lines for the Messenger to recite, with forceful dramatic effect. He uses all the resources of Greek poetry -- its imagery and word color -- to provide an impressive account of Oedipus' death. This speech is full of grandeur, but also dignified, as befits the somber mood of death. One example of Sophocles' fine talent for painting word-pictures will suffice here:

"But he -- what death he died, save Theseus' self There lives not any mortal who can tell.....

For neither only fire-fraught thunderbolt rapt him, From Heaven, nor whirlwind from the sea."

The main theme of this striking death scene is the power of love. First, there is the enduring loyalty and devotion of Oedipus' two daughters who perform their last duty to him -- a ritual of cleansing their father, his body, and clothes just before he dies. This they do with the touching humility that springs from their deep and abiding love for him. Oedipus too shows his profound admiration for the sacrifices and suffering they have endured for his sake out of their love for him. That he reciprocates their love in equal measure is obvious from his gentle words of consolation to them as they finally part. He lingers a while to embrace them one last time when the gods call him away to his death. Love, in the form of abiding friendship, is also seen in Theseus' final service to Oedipus rendered with the Athenians' characteristic grace and nobility.

The final choric "kommos" has the structure of two strophes and anti-strophes rounded off with an epode. This "kommos" serves the purpose of a lament for the dead king of Thebes. The tone is elegiac. It provides an opportunity for the sisters to express their grief at their father's death to the chorus. It also gives the chorus a chance to voice their sorrow at Oedipus' demise as well as offer consolation to his grief-stricken daughters. They advise restraint in grief and compliment the sisters for always performing their duty to their father.

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