Oedipus at Colonus

Pdf fan
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Old Age, Wisdom, and Death Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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.
Old Age, Wisdom, and Death Theme Icon

Oedipus at Colonus is Sophocles' last play, written when he was 90 years old. As such, it should come as no surprise that one of the play's major themes is old age and the end of life. Through Oedipus, who himself is about to die, and to a lesser extent through Creon, the play examines the question of whether or not old age brings wisdom. When Oedipus tells Antigone early in the play that he has learned to accept his suffering the answer appears to be a resounding "Yes." And in his conduct regarding the gods, Oedipus unfailingly accepts the gods' dictates, a profound change from his youthful attempts to thwart the prophecies of the Delphic oracle. Yet in his dealings with other people, Oedipus is still prone to outbursts of holy rage. The subject of one such outburst, Creon responds that "not even the years can bring you to your senses. Must you disgrace old age?" Yet Creon himself seems no wiser, responding to a challenge from Theseus by saying: "But opposing you, old as I am, I'll stop at nothing, match you blow for blow. A man's anger can never age and fade away, not until he dies. The dead alone feel no pain."

Creon's comment seems to point to the play's larger point about old age: that it is awful, full of pain, envy, and loneliness that is only relieved by death. Perhaps, ultimately, that is the wisdom that Oedipus has learned. He does not fight death, as he used to fight the prophecies of the gods. He accepts his coming death, and so his last moments of life, as described by the messenger, are of love, calm, and acceptance. Although his life was one of misery and infamy, in his final hours Oedipus becomes a model of how to die.

Get the entire Oedipus at Colonus LitChart as a printable PDF.
Oedipus at colonus.pdf.medium

Old Age, Wisdom, and Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Old Age, Wisdom, and Death appears in each section of Oedipus at Colonus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Section length:

Old Age, Wisdom, and Death Quotes in Oedipus at Colonus

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus at Colonus related to the theme of Old Age, Wisdom, and Death.
Lines 577-1192 Quotes
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.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Oedipus at Colonus quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
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.

Lines 1193-1645 Quotes
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.

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.