The wine-dark ivy



How many have read Oedipus Rex and not read Oedipus at Colonus?


In his first lines in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus reveals the following fact:

Suffering and time,
Vast time, have been instructors in contentment,
Which kingliness teaches too.


This play is about will and fate; about struggle and acceptance; about character and nobility. Oedipus and Theseus -- both exiled, both governed by fate -- how are they different, how are they the same?

Oedipus will die with contentment -- this tragedy is about the end of action, about transitions and acceptance -- he has been pursued by fate for all his life -- the fate which forced his hand at every turn. Oedipus will die in the grove sacred to the Eumenides -- the gentle-hearted -- Oedipus will die in the grove sacred to the Furies -- the relentless:


Ladies whose eyes
Are terrible: Spirits: upon your sacred ground
I have first bent my knees in this new land;
Therefore be mindful of me and of Apollo,

For when he gave me oracles of evil,

He also spoke of this:

A resting place,
After long years, in the last country, where
I should find home among the sacred Furies:

That there I might round out my bitter life,

Conferring benefit on those who received me,

A curse on those who have driven me away.

Oedipus was given portents and signs to tell him of this day. The Fates guided him, 'with feathery influence' to this final place, and here he is -- in Athens. He has come to pass on a blessing to one who will receive it, one who gives the wanderer, the cursed shelter -- Theseus.

I come to give you something, and the gift
Is my own beaten self: no feast for the eyes;
Yet in me is a more lasting grace than beauty.

[...]

I shall disclose to you, O son of Aegeus,
What is appointed for you and for your city:
A thing that age will never wear away.
Presently now, without a soul to guide me,
I'll lead you to the place where I must die;

But you must never tell it to any man,

Not even the neighborhood in which it lies.

If you obey, this will count more for you

Than many shields and many neighbors' spears.

These things are mysteries, not to be explained;

But you will understand when you come there

Alone. Alone, because I cannot disclose it
To any of your men or to my children,
Much as I love and cherish them. But you

Keep it secret always, and when you come
To the end of life, then you must hand it on


[...]

For every nation that lives peaceably,

There will be many others to grow hard

And push their arrogance to extremes: the gods

Attend to these things slowly. But the attend

To those who put off God and turn to madness!

You have no mind for that, child of Aegeus;

Indeed, you know already all that I teach.

This image: the nation that pushes its arrogance to the extreme is equated with those people who ignore the will of God and instead turn to ‘the madness’ of a similar arrogance. This is what Oedipus has learned from his life -- from the curse of his own fate. He is a man who has been entirely manipulated by fate and the playing out of prophecy. However, the prophecies that governed the events of his life were sequential. He was not governed by one all-encompassing prophecy spoken at birth that he gradually fulfilled; his prophecies followed one another, each growing in horror and resulting in greater misery.

Perhaps the prophecies of Oedipus' life were not static -- perhaps there was elasticity in the dynamic nature of the prophecies -- perhaps Oedipus was never locked into one irrevocable path. Perhaps the events of Oedipus’ past -- the ones which originated at the hand of a mortal, the decision of Jocasta and Laius to kill their son in the hopes of circumventing the first prophecy, the decision of the Shepherd to spare the life of Oedipus, Oedipus’ relentless questions, and eventually his self-mutilation -- perhaps these events are examples of mortals putting off God in the ‘madness’ of arrogance.

If this is true, then it seems that somewhere along the way, the gods blessed Oedipus and gave him a secret to bestow upon the nation who gave him shelter. Does Oedipus’ grace originate in his final willingness to accept his fate, to surrender to the prophecies of the gods? He is now in the position of bestowing a great and potent secret upon Theseus, a secret which will allow Theseus and his heirs to protect the city of Athens. But why to Theseus?

Why is this mystical secret is being given to a nation that is governed by law, a nation that is ruled by a king who knows all that Oedipus can teach, a king that says, ‘I must not speak in ignorance.’ Theseus is already in possession of all qualities Oedipus has had to learn from tragedy, and Athens under the rule of Theseus seems to have no need of a mystical secret. Even the protection against Thebes seems inconsequential as we learn within the play that Polyneices is leading seven companies of men to a battle against Thebes that will surely result in some devastation. If the secret is not useful to Athens, then is it merely a way for Oedipus to finally fulfill the role of oracle, and in that fulfillment, to disappear at his death like one who has been blessed by the gods? What does it mean that Oedipus has a secret to give, and why does he give his secret to Theseus and Athens?