Oedipus at Colonus: Background Info

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Background Info

Author Bio

Full Name: Sophocles

Date of Birth: 496 B.C.E.

Place of Birth: Colonus, a village outside of Athens, Greece

Date of Death: 405–406 B.C.E.

Brief Life Story: Considered one of the three greatest playwrights of classical Greek theater, Sophocles was a friend of Pericles and Herodotus, and a respected citizen who held political and military offices in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens. He won fame by defeating the playwright Aeschylus for a prize in tragic drama at Athens in 468 B.C.E. Only seven of his complete plays have survived to reach the modern era, but he wrote more than 100 and won first prize in 24 contests. Best known are his three Theban plays, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles's other complete surviving works are Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes, and Trachinian Women. He is credited with changing Greek drama by adding a third actor, reducing the role of the chorus, and paying greater attention to character development.

Key Facts

Full Title: Oedipus at Colonus

Genre: Tragic drama

Setting: The sacred grove of the Furies at Colonus, outside of Athens

Climax: The death of Oedipus

Protagonist: Oedipus

Antagonist: Creon

Historical and Literary Context

When Written: 405–406 B.C.

Where Written: Athens, Greece

When Performed: 401 B.C.

Literary Period: Classical

Related Literary Works: Of Sophocles's surviving dramatic works, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus treat different episodes of the same legend, using many of the same characters. Sophocles's writing career overlapped with that of Aeschylus and Euripedes, the other great tragic playwrights of fifth-century Athens. Among Aeschylus's best-known tragedies are Seven Against Thebes, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Euripedes's most influential works include Medea, Electra, and The Bacchae.

Related Historical Events: Sophocles completed Oedipus at Colonus and passed away in 405–406 B.C.E., just before the utter defeat of Athens by Sparta at the end of the Pelopponesian War. The defeat led to the replacement of Athenian democracy by a harsh, Spartan-controlled dictatorship known as the Thirty Tyrants. When Oedipus at Colonus was first performed, four years later, at the festival of Dionysus in 401 B.C.E., the Athenian audience may have watched the play's celebration of the glory of Athens through misty eyes. Theseus, in the play, is the mythical founder and reformer of the Athenian state, and Oedipus, through his death, offers the city protection. The audience would have been painfully aware that Athens's golden period had just ended.

Extra Credit

Sophocles's Home Town: Sophocles was born at Colonus, and lived his life in Athens during the city-state's golden years. In Oedipus at Colonus, his final play, he has adapted the Oedipus legend to intersect with Athens' origins and provide a mythical foundation for Athens' glory. Sadly, Athens fell from power just a few years after Sophocles's death.