After years of wandering in exile from Thebes, Oedipus arrives in a grove outside Athens. Blind and frail, he walks with the help of his daughter Antigone. Neither she nor Oedipus knows the place where they have come to rest, but they have heard they are on the outskirts of Athens, and the grove in which they sit bears the marks of holy ground. A citizen of Colonus approaches and insists that the ground is forbidden to mortals and that Oedipus and Antigone must leave. Oedipus inquires which gods preside over the grove and learns that the reigning gods are the Eumenides, or the goddesses of fate. In response to this news, Oedipus claims that he must not move, and he sends the citizen to fetch Theseus, the king of Athens and its environs. Oedipus then tells Antigone that, earlier in his life, when Apollo’s oracle prophesied his doom, the god declared that Oedipus would die on this ground.
The Chorus enters, cursing the strangers who would dare set foot on the holy ground of Colonus. The Chorus convinces Antigone and Oedipus to move to an outcropping of rock at the side of the grove, and then interrogates Oedipus about his origins. When Oedipus reluctantly identifies himself, the Chorus cries out in horror, begging Oedipus to leave Colonus at once. Oedipus argues that he was not responsible for his horrible acts, and says that the city may benefit greatly if it does not drive him away. Oedipus expresses his arguments with such force that the Chorus fills with awe and agrees to await Theseus’s pronouncement on the matter.
The next person to enter the grove is not Theseus but Ismene, Oedipus’s second daughter. Oedipus and the two girls embrace. Oedipus thanks Ismene for having journeyed to gather news from the oracles, while her sister has stayed with him as his guide. Ismene bears terrible news: back in their home of Thebes, Eteocles, the younger son of Oedipus, has overthrown Polynices, his elder son. Polynices now amasses troops in Argos for an attack upon his brother and Creon, who is ruling along with Eteocles.
The oracle has predicted that Oedipus’s burial place will bring good fortune to the city in which it is located. Both sons, as well as Creon, know of this prophecy, and Creon is currently en route to Colonus to try to take Oedipus into custody and thus claim the right to bury him in his kingdom. Oedipus swears he will never give his support to either of his sons, for they did nothing to prevent his exile years ago. The Chorus tells Oedipus that he must appease the spirits whom he offended when he trespassed on the sacred ground, and Ismene says that she will go and perform the requisite libation and prayer.
Oedipus at Colonus is set many years after Oedipus the King, and the long-wandering Oedipus has changed his perspective on his exile. First, he has decided that he was not responsible for his fate, though at the end of the previous play Oedipus proudly claimed responsibility for his actions, blinding himself and begging for exile. Oedipus has also decided that his sons should have prevented his exile, though in Oedipus the King his sons never even appeared onstage. We do not yet know what to make of Oedipus’s revised sentiments—he may simply be a broken man making excuses, or perhaps his many years of wandering have imbued him with a new kind of wisdom.
Although Oedipus seems to have traded his former pride and disdain for kindness, the scene that opens the play creates a puzzling contradiction. The characters are trespassing on holy ground that is described lovingly by Antigone. The trespass must be rectified with libation and with prayers, and it is. At the same time, it seems odd that a play dedicated to piety begins with trespass on holy ground. What seems clear is that this Oedipus is far more devout than he once was—when a prayer or libation is called for, he agrees to it at once. Yet, although Oedipus has his daughters perform the necessary rites, he does not really apologize for his trespass. Rather, he regards himself as someone who holds knowledge of the gods beyond that of the naïve citizens. This odd tension between piety and pride will not cease but increase as the play progresses.
What Oedipus has gained in wisdom, he has lost in enthusiasm—he is now a much less dynamic and heroic character. Perhaps the older Oedipus’s lack of dramatic interest is due to the fact that all of the characters are of secondary importance in this play, which is primarily concerned with rituals and religious themes that are difficult for the modern reader to understand.