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
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Justice Theme Icon

After years of reflection, Oedipus realizes he was not treated fairly by the people of Thebes, by his own sons, and by Creon in particular. They took advantage of his misery and banished him forever—in his moment of greatest agony he let them, even asked them to banish him. Now, stung and angered by Creon's insults, Oedipus turns to the question of justice: "Come, tell me: if, by an oracle of the gods, some doom were hanging over my father's head that he should die at the hands of his own son, how, with any justice, could you blame me?" Oedipus killed a man in self-defense, not knowing that man was his father. So how, he asks, could Creon condemn such an unwitting act with any real sense of justice.

Oedipus finds the justice he was denied by his own family and city of Thebes in Theseus and Athens. At last, Oedipus has found a ruler and a people who will not torment him for things he didn't mean to do. Theseus himself makes this plain to Creon when Creon tries to kidnap Oedipus: "You have come to a city that practices justice, that sanctions nothing without law." Unlike the Thebans, who seem caught in an endless cycle of vengeance, Athens is held up as an ideal city, founded on the rule of law.

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Justice Quotes in Oedipus at Colonus

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus at Colonus related to the theme of Justice.
Lines 1-576 Quotes
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.

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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.




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.

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
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.

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.