Oedipus at Colonus

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Oedipus Character Analysis

The protagonist of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is feeble and impoverished, wandering in exile, and known throughout Greece as the man who killed his father and married his mother (events covered in more detail in Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex). Oedipus gouged out his own eyes when he discovered the truth about his actions, and now his faithful daughter Antigone leads him in his wanderings. As a younger man, Oedipus struggled against the terrible fate that had been prophesied for him. Now, as his life nears its end, he struggles no longer and is ready to fulfill the final chapter of this prophecy and find his last resting place. Although he is a pitiful figure, Oedipus is still an eloquent and convincing speaker.

Oedipus Quotes in Oedipus at Colonus

The Oedipus at Colonus quotes below are all either spoken by Oedipus or refer to Oedipus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fate and Prophecy Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Oedipus at Colonus published in 1984.
Lines 1-576 Quotes
Off and gone from the land—before you fix
some greater penalty on our city.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 250-251
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus speaks these lines to Oedipus shortly after his arrival at Colonus, near Athens, and after he has just revealed his identity.

The tale of Oedipus's past – what takes place in Oedipus Rex – is a tragic one, and well-known by people from places far beyond Thebes. Thebes was the city Oedipus once ruled, but from which he was exiled after it was revealed that he had unknowingly killed his father, married his mother, and in doing so brought the wrath of the gods against Thebes. Aware of Oedipus's history, the Chorus wants to make sure that Athens is not affected by the fate which plagues Oedipus. This scene reveals a key belief about fate and guilt – that it travels with a person and can even 'infect' their surroundings and the people around them, like a virus. There's a sense that Oedipus's fate can be exchanged with others, with the inhabitants of Colonus or Athens. Oedipus has already disturbed Colonus by directly addressing the area's goddesses, the Furies – and the Chorus wants to resist acquiring any more negative effects that might stem from Oedipus's fate and guilt.

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Look through all humanity: you'll never find
a man on earth, if a god leads him on,
who can escape his fate.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 266-268
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Chorus tells Oedipus to leave Colonus, he tries to explain how he's innocent, to a certain extent, of his past crimes, and why the inhabitants of Colonus shouldn't fear him.

The quote is one of Oedipus's pleas to the Chorus to empathize with his situation. Here, we get a subtle glimpse at how Oedipus is beginning to accept the passive nature of his role in the unfolding of his tragic fate.  By appealing to the inescapable nature of fate – by describing fate as something that is fulfilled unavoidably and beyond the control of the person it involves – Oedipus reveals how he has begun to view himself as not entirely responsible for his past crimes (parricide and incest), but as simply being the tool of the gods. By appealing to "all humanity," he absolves himself of any special circumstances that would make him more in control of his fate/actions than others - and thus alleviates some of his guilt, and makes his excessive punishment seem unjust.

Never honor the gods in one breath
and take the gods for fools the next
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 298-299
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines in response the Chorus's demand that he leave Colonus at once.

Here, Oedipus displays a degree of wisdom – wisdom gained from his tragic downfall. To honor the gods at one moment and dishonor them the next is to not fully accept the unfolding of one's fate. To fully accept fate requires a person to affirm the gods and the divine structure of fate's unraveling. Abstaining from fate involves flipping back and forth between affirming and denying the gods. By affirming his fate, Oedipus sacrifices his identity and free will (which is propped up by denying the uncontrollable nature of fate), at the same time that he affirms his self-worth – fate uncontrollably played a role in his past actions, and so he cannot accept full responsibility for his crimes.

Lines 577-1192 Quotes
Never, I tell you, I will never shrink
from a stranger, lost as you are now,
or fail to lend a hand to save a life.
I am only a man, well I know,
and I have no more power over tomorrow,
Oedipus, than you.
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 636-641
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus speaks these lines when he first enters the play and greets Oedipus.

Theseus is showing a lot of empathy for Oedipus's situation here, putting himself on equal footing with the infamous exile. He claims to "have no more power over tomorrow"--over the future unfolding of fate--than Oedipus. Further, he suggests that this powerlessness is a condition of his being "only a man." In this way, he does not merely sympathize with Oedipus out of pity, but rather empathizes with him out of a sense of being equally susceptible to tragedy and the whims of the gods--as if such susceptibility is a condition of all humanity.  In the same speech as these lines, Theseus explains that he has also experienced exile and isolation in foreign lands.

In this scene, Theseus reveals the selflessness of his character, despite being a person of great importance and authority, as well as his hesitance towards judging strangers--qualities which, for him, seem to constitute the backbone of justice. He is not corrupt and motivated by personal gain, like--as we later discover--Creon and Polynices.

Now, by our fathers' gods, listen to me,
hide your own disgrace, consent—
return to Thebes, the house of your fathers!
Related Characters: Creon (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 859-861
Explanation and Analysis:

Creon, having arrived at Colonus, speaks these lines to Oedipus, demanding him to return to Thebes.

By appealing to "our fathers' gods," Creon invokes the highest of authorities. This allows him to frame Oedipus's refusal to come home as a disgrace against the gods, as a deviation from divine law. This subsequently paints Oedipus's prospective return to Thebes as a duty of fate--it makes Thebes into a home where Oedipus belongs, and to which he must therefore return in order to appease the gods and conform to his fate. In this way, Creon uses the concept of fate in order to provoke guilt in Oedipus--as if the feeling of guilt could be achieved by making Oedipus think he is wrong for not returning to where he is fated to be. This is a persuasive tactic that might strike at the core of Oedipus's sense of judgment and guilt (he is perhaps history's most famous example of a victim of inevitable fate) and convince him to return to Thebes.

That's precisely how your offers strike me now:
your words like honey—your actions, drawn swords.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Creon
Page Number: 890-891
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines to Creon after he tries to convince Oedipus to return to Thebes. Oedipus senses cunning in Creon's invitation to return to Thebes; Creon says that he has no bad intentions, but has taken pity on Oedipus, and just wants--along with the rest of Thebes--him to return home. But Oedipus knows that there is an ulterior motive to Creon's invitation.

Here, the distinction between words and actions, truth and conceit--a distinction explored by the play in relation to the theme of justice--surfaces again. Creon's words are honey-like in the promises they make and the sense of sympathy they exude, but they cover up the reality of Creon's motivations--as well as the fact that Oedipus would not be allowed to be buried inside Thebes, but only on the outskirts. In this way, Creon is unjust--he does not deal with Oedipus fairly, but lies and makes false promises in order to achieve spiritual-political advantages (the benefits of possessing Oedipus's corpse) that he never discloses in his words.

Given time, you'll see this well, I know:
you do yourself no good, not now, not years ago,
indulging your rage despite the pleas of loved ones—
blind rage has always been your ruin.
Related Characters: Creon (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 973-976
Explanation and Analysis:

Creon speaks these lines to Oedipus during their ongoing dialogue about Oedipus returning to Thebes. Creon claims that "blind rage" has always been the downfall of Oedipus, a claim that covers up the fact that Oedipus played no conscious or intentional role in his downfall, and tries to pass Oedipus's tragedy off as a necessary result of his personality. Creon's claim does not acknowledge the passive and unintentional aspect of Oedipus's involvement in his ruin--the fact that Oedipus unwittingly killed his father out of self-defense, and was unaware that his wife was his mother. (Of course, hubris and this "blind rage" was certainly an aspect of Oedipus's fate, but certainly not the sole reason for such a horrific outcome.)

"Blind rage" also plays on Oedipus' literal blindness--not only the fact that he has no eyes, but also that he led the very investigation that, unknowingly, would be responsible for his ruin.

And if,
once I'd come to the world of pain, as come I did,
I fell to blows with my father, cut him down in blood—
blind to what I was doing, blind to whom I killed—
how could you condemn that involuntary act
with any sense of justice?
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Creon
Page Number: 1112-1117
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines to Creon, who has implied that Oedipus willfully killed his father.

Here, we see Oedipus assert confidence in defending his past actions--we see that Oedipus' view about his responsibility for his crimes has evolved since Oedipus Rex. He acknowledges the full extent of his innocence in the parricide (the killing of one's father)--that the murder was justified with regard to self-defense, as well as the fact that its turning out to be parricidal was something out of his control.

Further, the ironic word-play on Oedipus's blindness continues in these lines. Blindness, here, connotes an innocent sense of ignorance and involuntariness--'ignorance' not in the sense of a willful evasion of the truth, but rather a total lack of being able to know the truth, to know beforehand that it was his father whom Oedipus killed. This understanding of ignorance propels Oedipus's confident questioning of Creon's condemnation. For Oedipus, Creon's sense of justice is twisted--all that matters for him is the bare fact that Oedipus committed parricide; Creon refuses to acknowledge the true complexity of the circumstances. He is incapable of empathizing with Oedipus as intensely as Theseus is.

So now I cry to those Great Goddesses,
I beg them, I storm them with my prayers—
Come to the rescue, fight for me, my champions!
So you can learn your lesson, Creon, learn
what breed of men stands guard around this city.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Creon
Related Symbols: The Grove of the Furies
Page Number: 1155-1159
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines shortly after Creon has seized Antigone (Ismene has already been seized). Here, Oedipus appeals to those "Great Goddesses"--likely referring to the Furies he directly addressed upon arriving at the Grove of the Furies in Colonus--and asks them to support him in opposing Creon.

Oedipus equates the "lesson" he wants Creon to learn with comprehending "what breed of men stands guard around this city." This "breed," represented by someone such as Theseus, stands for and upholds a sense of justice that, for Oedipus, is much more virtuous than Creon's (and that Sophocles clearly intends to praise and valorize, as he himself is a citizen of Colonus and Athens). If Creon could come to understand this sense of justice, then his entire project--his corrupt way of trying to manipulate Oedipus into returning to Thebes--would lose its value, since his entire mission is based on self-interest and the gaining of power. Unlike Theseus, Creon gives no regard for whether Oedipus is treated justly or not.

Lines 1193-1645 Quotes
May the gods reward you just as I desire,
you and your great country. Here among you,
you alone of all mankind—
I have discovered reverence, humanity
and lips that never lie.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Theseus
Page Number: 1275-1279
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines to Theseus, after Ismene and Antigone have been rescued.

When everyone but his daughters have deserted or cheated him, Oedipus finds he can trust Theseus. Theseus's empathy and levelheadedness in dealing with the plight of Oedipus show a restraint and concern for justice that is uncharacteristic of Creon and Polynices. Oedipus finally encounters someone with a selflessness that stems from a higher principle--justice--as opposed to the self-interested and power-hungry men of Thebes. Oedipus and Theseus are therefore beginning to form a very close bond--and Oedipus wants the boon of his death to reward his new friend.

It isn't good for men with a decent cause
to beg too long, or a man to receive help,
then fail to treat a fellow victim kindly.
Related Characters: Antigone (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1366-1368
Explanation and Analysis:

Antigone speaks these lines to Oedipus after he (initially) refuses to speak with Polynices.

Antigone believes that Oedipus should give Polynices a chance; considering that Oedipus just received help (having his daughters returned) from Theseus, Antigone feels that Oedipus should heed Polynices' request. In this way, Antigone likens Polynices to a potential victim whom Oedipus might help by speaking with him. Even though Polynices has wronged his father, Antigone seems to think that ignoring him would be an act of injustice by Oedipus; permitting Polynices to speak and have a chance to atone for his wrongdoing would be an act of justice. Further, Antigone reiterates here the logic of Oedipus's former claim to "never honor the gods in one breath / and take the gods for fools the next." To fully honor the justice of Theseus's actions, she feels, would be to honor Polynices' request to speak--this would affirm justice by paying Theseus's help forward.

You—die!
Die and be damned!
I spit on you! Out!—
your father cuts you off! Corruption—scum of the earth!—
out!—and pack these curses I call down upon your head:
never to win you mother-country with your spear,
never return to Argos ringed with hills—
Die!
Die by your own blood brother's hand—die!—
killing the very man who drove you out!
So I curse your life out!
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Polynices
Page Number: 1567-1574
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines in reply to Polynices' request that Oedipus favor his army in the war against Eteocles (Oedipus's second son and Polynices' brother), who has ousted Polynices from Thebes and taken the throne.

Polynices has failed to be loyal to his father; in the past, he abandoned Oedipus by exiling him, yet now Polynices is in dire need of his father's help. Polynices has only sought his father out for his own political gains, since having Oedipus's favor is prophesied to guarantee military victory. This political motivation repulses Oedipus, who refuses to grant Polynices' wish. Oedipus's hatred of Polynices does not budge, and he doesn't sympathize with his son's plea for a second. 

Here, we witness a radical severing of the familial bond. The father-son relationship has entirely eroded, as Oedipus curses his son and condemns him to death, instead of forgiving him. Oedipus inflicts a severe form of "tough love" on Polynices, invoking a primeval justice that will teach Polynices to never again commit such a wrong as exiling one's own father (perhaps in an ironic comparison to Oedipus's murder of his own father). But Polynices will never be able to apply this lesson--he is to die in battle with his brother, and his attempt to reclaim Thebes will fail.

Oedipus therefore enacts his newly-evolved sense of justice--that words should match one's actions. The sympathy Polynices requests of Oedipus does not match the brashness with which he formerly exiled Oedipus.

Lines 1646-2001 Quotes
Dearest friend,
you and your country and your loyal followers,
may you be blessed with greatness,
and in your great day remember me, the dead,
the root of all your greatness, everlasting, ever-new.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Theseus
Page Number: 1761-1765
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus speaks these lines to Theseus shortly before he dies. Theseus has very quickly become Oedipus's best of friends. He has deeply empathized with Oedipus's situation and defended him and his daughters against Creon. Now, as a final goodbye, Oedipus bestows his blessing upon Theseus and Athens. Dying, he will confer a magical power of protection upon Athens, so he asks Theseus to remember his death as the source of Athens' prosperity. That Oedipus equates himself with death: "me, the dead," shows how he is identifying with the very act of his death--it is at once the alleviation of his suffering, yet the very source of his power. He was to be remembered as his death, for, in dying, his divine power, his fateful blessing, is released (a blessing that Sophocles patriotically emphasizes as making Athens full of "greatness.")

Fate and the power of the gods have led Oedipus to this secret deathbed on their own, as he did not require assistance from his daughters or Theseus in arriving at it. This shows that the gods are on Oedipus's side now--he has suffered enough for his fate, and now is allowed to die in peace. 

God of eternal sleep, I call to you,
let Oedipus rest forever.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1788-1789
Explanation and Analysis:

Wishing Oedipus an eternally undisturbed death, the Chorus speaks these lines shortly before Oedipus' death.

Oedipus has lived an incredibly tragic, unfortunate and unlucky life--death will at once bring an end to all of that as well as unleash Oedipus' divine power: the boon to be bestowed on Athens. As long as Oedipus remains at rest, this boon will serve Athens. The Chorus's wish, then, is at once a wish for Oedipus' suffering to subside, as well as a desire to tap into Oedipus' divine boon. Oedipus almost becomes his death; for Athenians, the memory of Oedipus will be a memory of his death--for, at the point of his death, Oedipus gains his greatest identity. At death, Oedipus at once atones for his crimes and acquires his greatest power.

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Oedipus Character Timeline in Oedipus at Colonus

The timeline below shows where the character Oedipus appears in Oedipus at Colonus. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-576
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It is several years after Oedipus was banished from Thebes, the city he once ruled. The play begins in the grove... (full context)
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Oedipus tells Antigone that acceptance is the lesson taught by his suffering. He then asks Antigone... (full context)
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...move from their resting place, because it is holy ground, the grove of the Furies. Oedipus responds that this is a sign and that in fact he must not move from... (full context)
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...who has dared to set foot on the sacred ground of the terrible Furies. When Oedipus speaks to them, they tell him he must step out of the grove of the... (full context)
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Antigone appeals to the citizens' pity and humanity. Oedipus says they should not drive him out just because of his name. He admits that... (full context)
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A rider approaches—it is Ismene, Oedipus's other daughter. Oedipus, Antigone, and Ismene have a heartfelt reunion, and then Ismene delivers her... (full context)
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Ismene then tells Oedipus the latest prophecies from the oracle: the men of Thebes, who cast Oedipus out, will... (full context)
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Oedipus is furious, and promises never to return to Thebes. He vents his rage against his... (full context)
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The leader of the chorus is moved by Oedipus's request. He tells Oedipus the ritual that must be performed to appease the Furies, whose... (full context)
Lines 577-1192
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The chorus surrounds Oedipus and presses him to hear the true story of his suffering. Oedipus doesn't want to... (full context)
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Theseus, king of Athens, arrives. He knows Oedipus's story and asks kindly why Oedipus has come. Oedipus thanks Theseus for not asking him... (full context)
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Oedipus warns Theseus that he will have to defend Oedipus against the Thebans, who will try... (full context)
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Theseus welcomes Oedipus to live in Athens or to remain at Colonus. Theseus then guarantees that he will... (full context)
The chorus gathers around Oedipus and chants in praise of his new home, the city of Athens, and of Colonus... (full context)
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...is approaching. Creon enters and says he has come not with force but to persuade Oedipus to come home. He says he has grieved for Oedipus as much as any other... (full context)
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Oedipus responds with an impassioned angry speech. According to Oedipus, Creon would not exile him when... (full context)
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Creon responds that Oedipus is a disgrace to old age. He orders his guards to take Oedipus's two daughters... (full context)
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...an armed escort. He demands to know why he has been summoned with such urgency. Oedipus explains what happened. Theseus immediately sends soldiers to rouse his troops and chase after the... (full context)
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...that he didn't expect the people of Athens to protect a father-killing, incestuous exile like Oedipus because it would be wrong to do so. For that reason, he decided to take... (full context)
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Oedipus lets loose another forceful speech against Creon and in defense of himself—his own terrible deeds... (full context)
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Theseus orders Creon to take him to where Oedipus's daughters are being held. Creon submits, but remains defiant—things will be different, he says, when... (full context)
Lines 1193-1645
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...returns with his attendants, escorting Antigone and Ismene. Overjoyed and relieved to see his daughters, Oedipus thanks Theseus profusely and asks what happened. Theseus responds that he has kept his promise... (full context)
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Theseus then reports that a man claiming to be related to Oedipus but now living in Argos has come to ask for help Poseidon's altar. He adds... (full context)
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Oedipus doesn't want to see his son, but Antigone and Theseus argue that there's no harm... (full context)
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The chorus surrounds Oedipus and chants about the miseries of life and the certainty of death. The chorus says... (full context)
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...alive" for not coming to the aid of his exiled father and asks for mercy. Oedipus does not respond. Polynices turns to Antigone and Ismene for help. Antigone tells him to... (full context)
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...and to support his cause. He adds that the oracles have claimed that whatever side Oedipus supports will win. (full context)
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Polynices says that he is a beggar and an exile, like Oedipus, while Eteocles is a tyrant. Polynices finishes by promising that with Oedipus's support, he will... (full context)
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Oedipus unleashes a flood of insults and curses at Polynices. Oedipus says that he is glad... (full context)
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Before he goes, Polynices asks his sisters to give him a proper burial if Oedipus's curses come true. Antigone begs Polynices to call off the attack on Thebes. Polynices refuses—he... (full context)
Lines 1646-2001
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Thunder crashes, terrifying the chorus. Oedipus, sensing his imminent death, asks for someone to bring Theseus. The thunder sounds again and... (full context)
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The chorus calls for Theseus to come quickly. When the king arrives, Oedipus says that he wants to fulfill the pledge he made to Theseus. Theseus asks what... (full context)
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Oedipus rises to his feet on his own power and motions for his children to follow... (full context)
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...the gods of the dead, to the Furies, to the gatekeeper of Hades, to make Oedipus's passage to the underworld an easy one, and to let him rest at last. (full context)
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A messenger enters with the news that Oedipus is dead. He gives an account of what happened. The whole party followed Oedipus down... (full context)
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Oedipus asked Theseus to swear to watch over his daughters. Theseus pledged to do so. Oedipus... (full context)
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...chanting a funereal dirge. Answering questions from the chorus, Antigone confirms the miraculous nature of Oedipus's death. Overcome by grief, Antigone says that now, without their father, she does not know... (full context)
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...enters and tells the daughters to dry their tears, since to grieve too much after Oedipus received such a blessing might anger the gods. Antigone begs to see her father's tomb,... (full context)