Oedipus at Colonus

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Oedipus at Colonus Quotes

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.

Oh Athens, praised above any land on earth,
now turn your glowing praises into action!
Related Characters: Antigone (speaker)
Page Number: 818-819
Explanation and Analysis:

Antigone says this in response to the Chorus's high praise of Athens as a place to live. Immediately after, Oedipus questions her about why she made this remark, but Creon enters the scene before she can answer. It's somewhat ambiguous whether Antigone genuinely believes that Athens will fit the Chorus's description (which would fit with Sophocles' consistent praise of his home city), or whether she's mocking their praise and finds it boastful--one can imagine that the trials of wandering from place to place have left her jaded. Either way, Antigone's plea brings out a distinction between thought/words and action, description and actual reality. This distinction is developed throughout the play in relation to the theme of justice: Oedipus finds Polynices unjust, because he covers up his real, political motivations with good-sounding talk about concerns for his father's well-being. Oedipus finds Theseus just, however, because he is a man of his word--he promises to protect Oedipus and reflects his words in his actions.

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.

You have come to a city that practices justice,
that sanctions nothing without law, but you,
you flout our authorities, make your inroads,
seize your prizes, commandeer at will!
Tell me, did you imagine Athens stripped of men,
peopled by slaves? Myself worth nothing?
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Creon
Page Number: 1040-1045
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus speaks these lines after he has encountered Creon, who has stated his purpose for being in Colonus: to take Oedipus back to Thebes.

Theseus is shocked by Creon's brashness and sense of self-righteous authority, and here we see the justice of Theseus clash with Creon's injustice. Creon assumes he has the right to mete out his own laws and pursue Theban interests in a foreign land; he assumes that Athens is a space where his own political interests can go unchecked. In this, he implicitly devalues, from the moment he arrives at Colonus, the entire government and rule of Athens. This infuriates Theseus, who is taken aback by Creon's unruly commandeering.

Though Creon previously accused Oedipus of having "blind rage," Theseus points out, in this scene, that Creon is the one possessed by blind rage. Without any regard for Athenian governance--blind to Athenian rule and order--he enacts his own anger within a territory in which he is a total stranger.

Theseus reveals Creon's sense of justice as bogus and flimsy--a 'justice' constantly improvised in order to fulfill his own agendas, to right his previous wrongs without taking ownership of them. Having wronged Oedipus, and needing the benefits of Oedipus's corpse, Creon tries to fix the situation by making Oedipus feel he is in the wrong--by making Oedipus feel guilty for not returning to Thebes. Creon's only sense of remorse is the fact that Oedipus is now refusing to conform to his plan, a plan supported by his cunningly engineered form of 'justice.'

My isolation
leaves me weak, however just my cause.
But opposing you, old as I am,
I'll stop at nothing, match you blow for blow.
A mans' anger can never age and fade away,
not until he dies. The dead alone feel no pain.
Related Characters: Creon (speaker), Theseus
Page Number: 1089-1094
Explanation and Analysis:

Creon speaks these lines upon encountering Theseus, who opposes Creon's plan to take Oedipus back to Thebes.

Creon's extreme confidence in his ability and in the justness of his cause is befitting of his bold, rash, and reckless character--he will not step back and see the injustice in his mistreatment of Oedipus.

Creon also comments on death in a way that parallels the Chorus's later evaluation of death as the end of suffering and pain. Creon claims that anger--a reaction to pain--can never fade, implying a view similar to the Chorus's thinking about pain: it just keeps accumulating throughout life and cannot be stopped.

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
Like a seer I sense the glory in these struggles—
Rush me, wing me into the whirlwind, O dear god,
like a dove at the thunderheads of heaven I'd look down
I'd scan these struggles, I would see their glory.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Theseus
Page Number: 1226-1229
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus speaks these lines after Creon escorts Theseus to the site where Antigone and Ismene are being held.

Here, the Chorus describes its desire to observe the microscopic level of human struggles--between Oedipus, Theseus, and Creon--from a divinely aerial perspective, from a macroscopic view that might allow them to witness the very unfolding of human fate. In witnessing the structure to the divine unfolding of those struggles, the Chorus "would see their glory." There's a sense that there's something glorious about the very nature of human affairs--the way they are structured and how they proceed. Though the Chorus envisions the Athenians winning the struggle, this glory also seems to be something not entirely attributable to one side of the struggle, but to the struggle as a whole--as if the struggle was itself the product of a divine configuration of fate.

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.

And how the fight was won—
why fill the air with empty boasting?
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker)
Page Number: 1303-1304
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus speaks these lines in response to Oedipus, who, after having Antigone and Ismene returned to him, asks Theseus how went the battle to rescue them from Creon's men. 

Theseus's response demonstrates his commitment to the actions required for the promotion and maintenance of justice, and his disregard for any superficial banter that only describes justice, but doesn't act to implement it (and furthers Sophocles' portrayal of him as an idealized, almost unrealistically-just ruler). The fight has been won--and that's all the needs to be said in order to to communicate this particular instance of justice. The outcome of any pursuit for justice is the most important information; any description of the process of attaining justice risks being "empty boasting," a social triviality that has nothing to do with any actual efforts to preserve justice.

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.

Show me a man who longs to live a day beyond his time
who turns his back on a decent length of life,
I'll show the world a man who clings to folly.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 1378-1380
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus speaks these lines shortly before Polynices arrives and speaks with Oedipus.

In this pessimistic speech, the Chorus denounces any person who would desire to live longer than the average life span (or the life span he or she's fated to have), thinking such a person to be foolish. To desire to live longer than a "decent length of life," for the Chorus, must mean that one is out of touch with the reality of life's never-ceasing pain. To not feel the constant pelting and accumulation of pain, to not recognize how age constantly strips humans of what little unspoiled joy remains--this person "clings to folly," and lacks the sensibility to recognize life for what it truly is.

Not to be born is best
when all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light
the next best thing, by far, is to go back
back where he came from, quickly as he can.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 1388-1391
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus speaks this lines shortly before Polynices arrives and speaks with Oedipus.

Evolving the pessimism of the previous quote, these lines reinforce the Chorus's total distaste for life--their sense that life is a joyless succession of pain that is better avoided altogether. The best thing, they say, is to simply not be born at all; however, if one does have the misfortune of being born, then the next best thing is to realize how painful life truly is and return to the void of lifelessness--to die--as quickly as possible. This theme is repeated elsewhere in Greek literature, and is generally considered the "wisdom of Silenus" (Silenus was a companion to the god Dionysus): "It is best not to be born at all; and next to that, it is better to die than to live." Thus to "see the light" in life is not to recognize the good in it, but to realize how the world ultimately lacks the kind of goodness humans desire in order to bear their lives.

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 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.

Goodbye, dear ones.
You'll never look on me again, alive.
Related Characters: Polynices (speaker), Antigone, Ismene
Page Number: 1631-1632
Explanation and Analysis:

Polynices speaks these lines to Antigone and Ismene after he is condemned by Oedipus.

Polynices accepts Oedipus's curse--that he will die in battle at the hands of his brother. He has no doubt that the curse will come true. Here, we see the real power of prophecy--Polynices has total faith in Oedipus's words, and entirely changes how he thinks about the future. From now on, he will not go into battle with any hope of winning. Polynices has begun to directly live towards his death, and his death alone--there is nothing for him to do or hope for, except to regret the way he has treated his father in the past. 

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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