Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus, the feel-good tragedy of 401 BC


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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4 Responses

  1. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    “Feel-good tragedy” just about describes it. I have to admit, I’ve always found the dissonance between Antigone’s pleas to Polyneikes — forget Fate, forget prophecy, you can CHOOSE not to attack Thebes — and Oedipus’ “I can’t be held responsible for anything I did; I was fated to do it,” a little too jarring. On the other hand, unlike a lot of people, I like the play and don’t think it’s boring at all.

    A few notes of my own:

    First, so everyone out there is clear, this is the “middle” play, but it was written decades after the other two, near the end of Sophokles’ life. (It was produced posthumously, after the end of the war, I believe.) One almost wonders if he had begun to mellow a bit.

    Second, there was a cult of Oedipus (as a healer) at Athens, certainly at the time of production — whether it began during or before the Peloponnesian War is unclear. Some ancient sources indicate that Sophokles was a priest of this cult; their veracity is unclear.

    Third, good point about prophecy and vision. For what it’s worth, several Classicists (among them Leo Strauss’ [!] daughter) also note the connection between poetry and blindness, and therefore poetry and prophecy.

    Fourth, on the precious, short-lived nature of human happiness: that’s a fantastic point and I don’t know how I hadn’t thought of anything similar before reading it, given the difficulty I have in separating this play from the time of it’s composition. In a lot of respects, it’s a paean for a lost Athens — but one also gets the sense that it is still asserting something along the lines of, “Just because everything has changed doesn’t mean that Athens cannot be/is not inherently great.”

    Finally, if I can find it, there’s a recording somewhere out there of a musical adaptation of the play in the style of black gospel music. It’s bizarre — but like most bizarre things, absolutely fascinating.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @J.L. Wall, Oh, that’s right- The Gospel at Colonus!- I’ll add a video of that to the post.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @J.L. Wall, I really like the play too. Maybe it’s reading all of the other tragedies, but I found the tone refreshing. It’s also deeply satisfying to see Oedipus tell Polyneikes and Kreon to buzz off here. I do see the disjunction you mention though.

      As for the paeon to lost Athens, I wonder if he’s not saying, “We can be great again, if we can just be like Theseus”. There’s a point at which the Chorus says as much I think.Report