The chorus surrounds Oedipus and presses him to hear the true story of his suffering. Oedipus doesn't want to talk about it, but the chorus has only heard rumors about Oedipus and wants to hear his story from his own lips. Oedipus reluctantly and painfully tells them that his daughters are also his sisters, that he married his mother and killed his father. But he defends his actions: he killed in self-defense, without knowing who his father was, and he likewise did not know his wife was also his mother.
In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is his own harshest critic—he gouged out his eyes to punish himself for his crimes. Now, time has passed and Oedipus has accepted that his misdeeds resulted from fate, not from actions he committed knowingly. Since he did not know he was committing these crimes, he no longer feels guilty.
Theseus, king of Athens, arrives. He knows Oedipus's story and asks kindly why Oedipus has come. Oedipus thanks Theseus for not asking him to tell his story once again, and then says he comes bearing a gift. If Theseus agrees to let him be buried at Colonus, Oedipus will fulfill a prophecy and protect Athens. Theseus agrees.
Theseus is an ideal leader, a wise, brave, and just protector of the weak. Notice the contrast: he agrees to let Oedipus be buried in Colonus, a part of Athens, while the Thebans would only bury Oedipus outside the city.
Oedipus warns Theseus that he will have to defend Oedipus against the Thebans, who will try to capture him. Theseus wonders why Oedipus does not want to return to his home of Thebes if they apparently want him to return so badly. In response, Oedipus describes his harsh exile and explains how quickly bonds of love can fail and nations can turn from friends to enemies. Oedipus finishes by saying that only the gods can be trusted, and they have promised to protect the city that hosts his grave.
Oedipus knows all too well that things can change very quickly. One day he was the powerful king of Thebes, the next he was a blind homeless outcast. The Thebans want to exploit him, not accept him as one of their own. Oedipus's advice to trust the gods, rather than other men or nations, is the wisdom he gained from his suffering.
Theseus welcomes Oedipus to live in Athens or to remain at Colonus. Theseus then guarantees that he will protect Oedipus and that no one will be allowed take Oedipus away against his will. Theseus exits.
By welcoming Oedipus, Theseus upholds Athens's reputation as a just protector of the weak. Oedipus is no longer in exile, no longer a man without a home.
The chorus gathers around Oedipus and chants in praise of his new home, the city of Athens, and of Colonus in particular. The chant specifies some of the appealing aspects of Athens, such as its horses and natural beauty, and mentions the favor that the gods (especially Poseidon) have bestowed upon it.
Sophocles was Athenian, and Oedipus at Colonus was performed in Athens. The Athenian audience would have enjoyed this lyrical bit of patriotism.
Just then, Antigone gives an alarm that Creon 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 man and asks him to return to Thebes.
Creon is lying. As Ismene has already told Oedipus, the Thebans want to use Oedipus to protect their city. They did not grieve for him, will not fully welcome him back, or honor him in death.
Oedipus responds with an impassioned angry speech. According to Oedipus, Creon would not exile him when he first wanted exile, and then when Oedipus changed his mind and decided he wanted to live out his days at home, Creon banished him from Thebes. Now, when Oedipus is finally settled and welcome in Athens, Creon comes to take him away again—but not into Thebes, but just to its border, and not out of love, but to keep Thebes safe from Athens. He tells Creon to leave.
Oedipus's rage surfaces again. Yet as with his rage at the Thebans earlier, his anger is justified. He accepts that fate and the gods might be unfair, but he does not have to accept the injustice imposed on him by other people.
Creon responds that Oedipus is a disgrace to old age. He orders his guards to take Oedipus's two daughters away, toward Thebes. As the guards seize Antigone and Ismene, the chorus condemns this action but is unable to stop them. When Creon tries to leave, however, the chorus blocks his way. His angers grows and he threatens now to take Oedipus away by force, as well. He grabs Oedipus. The chorus calls for help.
Creon implies that Oedipus is just as unreasonable now as he was as king, before his misfortunes. In Creon's view, experience and suffering haven't given Oedipus wisdom in his old age. Yet it appears to be Creon who now fails to make the distinction between accepting the will of the gods and the will of other people.
Theseus arrives with 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 kidnappers.
Theseus acts quickly and decisively, and upholds his oath to protect Oedipus. Theseus has truly welcomed Oedipus as a fellow Athenian.
Theseus refuses to let Creon leave until the girls are returned safely. He says that Creon has shamed Thebes with his violent actions. He adds that Thebes has laws, like Athens, and wouldn't condone Creon's kidnapping of the girls. Finally, Theseus says that he would never presume to go to Thebes and take someone without permission of the Theban king.
Theseus draws a distinction between acting justly, according to laws, and using to force to take what you want. He not only denounces Creon's actions as illegal, but connects that illegality to shame and guilt.
Creon doesn't back down. He says 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 Oedipus by force. Creon admits that he is in a weak position, but says he will oppose Theseus as long as he can, because, although he is old, his anger "can never age and fade away."
Creon thinks Oedipus can never atone for his sins. But by taking this position, Creon denies the will of the gods. Only they can decide who has or has not atoned.
Oedipus lets loose another forceful speech against Creon and in defense of himself—his own terrible deeds were done unknowingly, without intent to harm. He praises Athens and calls on the Furies to fight for his cause.
No longer guilty for violating natural law, Oedipus now feels so certain that he is the wronged party that he calls on the Furies to avenge him.
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 he's back in Thebes and can raise troops. Theseus promises to return the children safely to Oedipus, for which Oedipus blesses him. Theseus, his guard, and Creon exit.
Creon doesn't back down, even when he's surrounded and on foreign soil. And he still insists on the power of force over law. This stubbornness is his undoing in Sophocles's play Antigone.