Oedipus is a man of swift action and great insight. At the opening of Oedipus the King, we see that these qualities make him an excellent ruler who anticipates his subjects’ needs. When the citizens of Thebes beg him to do something about the plague, for example, Oedipus is one step ahead of them—he has already sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi for advice. But later, we see that Oedipus’s habit of acting swiftly has a dangerous side. When he tells the story of killing the band of travelers who attempted to shove him off the three-way crossroads, Oedipus shows that he has the capacity to behave rashly.
At the beginning of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is hugely confident, and with good reason. He has saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx and become king virtually overnight. He proclaims his name proudly as though it were itself a healing charm: “Here I am myself— / you all know me, the world knows my fame: / I am Oedipus” (7–9). By the end of this tragedy, however, Oedipus’s name will have become a curse, so much so that, in Oedipus at Colonus, the Leader of the Chorus is terrified even to hear it and cries: “You, you’re that man?” (238).
Oedipus’s swiftness and confidence continue to the very end of Oedipus the King. We see him interrogate Creon, call for Tiresias, threaten to banish Tiresias and Creon, call for the servant who escaped the attack on Laius, call for the shepherd who brought him to Corinth, rush into the palace to stab out his own eyes, and then demand to be exiled. He is constantly in motion, seemingly trying to keep pace with his fate, even as it goes well beyond his reach. In Oedipus at Colonus, however, Oedipus seems to have begun to accept that much of his life is out of his control. He spends most of his time sitting rather than acting. Most poignant are lines 825–960, where Oedipus gropes blindly and helplessly as Creon takes his children from him. In order to get them back, Oedipus must rely wholly on Theseus.
Once he has given his trust to Theseus, Oedipus seems ready to find peace. At Colonus, he has at last forged a bond with someone, found a kind of home after many years of exile. The single most significant action in Oedipus at Colonus is Oedipus’s deliberate move offstage to die. The final scene of the play has the haste and drive of the beginning of Oedipus the King, but this haste, for Oedipus at least, is toward peace rather than horror.
More characters from The Oedipus Plays
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