Oedipus at Colonus

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Fate and Prophecy Theme Icon
Guilt Theme Icon
Old Age, Wisdom, and Death Theme Icon
Redemption and Atonement Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oedipus at Colonus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt Theme Icon

Oedipus lives with the guilt and remorse for having violated two of the most severe taboos of civilized society—incest and the killing of one's parents. His overwhelming guilt at his actions caused him to blind himself and to beg to be banished from Thebes.

Yet Oedipus's sense of guilt for his famous crimes is more complicated in Oedipus at Colonus than it is in Oedipus Rex. He's a man who has suffered much for what he's done. He still feels guilt and revulsion, and he's still too ashamed to speak freely of his past when asked by the citizens of Colonus. However, with time has come some perspective. He realizes that he never intended to commit the acts he is infamous for committing. He killed his father in self-defense, he tells the citizens of Colonus, and without knowing what was happening. "Look through all humanity," he tells his listeners, "you'll never find a man on earth, if a god leads him on, who can escape his fate." Oedipus's guilt has diminished. At the same time, others who once shunned him and who now need his favor seek him out to express their own guilt at having cast him away before.

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Guilt Quotes in Oedipus at Colonus

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus at Colonus related to the theme of Guilt.
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.

Lines 577-1192 Quotes
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.

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.

Lines 1193-1645 Quotes
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.