The Chorus gathers around Oedipus, relentlessly denouncing his crimes and insisting that he recount his tragic life story. Oedipus reluctantly tells of killing his father and marrying his mother, both crimes that he insists he undertook unknowingly. Theseus now enters, saying that he knows Oedipus’s story and pities his fate. Oedipus thanks Theseus for not making him repeat his story yet again, and tells him that his body will prove a great boon to the city. Oedipus requests that Theseus provide him with proper burial in Colonus, and Theseus agrees. Oedipus then warns him that Thebes will attack Athens for the right to his body, and Theseus asks why Oedipus doesn’t return home to die, if Thebes so desires his presence. In reply, Oedipus launches into a lament on the cruelty of his exile, the fragility of the bonds of friendship and love, and the untrustworthiness of all but the eternal gods, who promise protection to the city that buries him. Theseus swears that he will protect Oedipus from the Thebans and never betray him. Theseus exits, and the Chorus comes forth to praise Colonus.
Antigone sees Creon and his guards approaching. Creon notices the family’s fear and insists that he comes only to bring Oedipus home and give him rest. He tells Oedipus that his pitiful wanderings bring shame upon Thebes, but Oedipus disbelieves this statement, arguing that Creon willingly sent him away. He tells that he knows why he is being courted—for the sake of the blessing the gods have promised to the possessors of his body. Oedipus tells Creon that he has no desire to return to Thebes but only to enter into the peace of death. He tries to send Creon away, but Creon refuses to relent, and orders his guards to seize Antigone and Ismene. Although the Chorus condemns Creon, it is powerless to stop him.
Creon then threatens to seize Oedipus and carry him back to Thebes. Just as he lays his hands on Oedipus, however, Theseus enters and asks the cause of the commotion. Oedipus explains what has happened, and Theseus sends his soldiers to retrieve Antigone and Ismene. He curses Creon, saying that he has shamed Thebes with his bullying behavior, but Creon justifies his actions as recourse for the hideous crimes of Oedipus. Hearing this, Oedipus again argues that he is not responsible for his fate; the gods thrust it on him. Theseus orders his men to keep watch over Creon as he goes to find Oedipus’s daughters. Creon promises that although he may find himself overpowered now, he will have his revenge once he has amassed his troops back in Thebes. All but Oedipus and the Chorus leave the stage. As he exits, Theseus promises that Oedipus will get his daughters back.
Compared to the other two Theban plays, relatively little tension or unresolved conflict exists on the surface of Oedipus at Colonus. The plot is straightforward: Theseus is the hero and Creon is the villain; Creon takes Oedipus’s daughters, and Theseus gets them back again. With the gods finally on his side, Oedipus receives what he asks for.
We begin to perceive tension within Creon’s character. He is no longer a simple rational foil for Oedipus, the villain to Oedipus’s hero. Instead, he stands somewhere between the stern authority of Theseus and the limitless emotion of Oedipus, and he now emerges as a force that is both willful and subversive. When Creon is alone with Oedipus and his daughters, he has the upper hand and consequently behaves in a forceful and domineering manner, ordering Antigone and Ismene taken away and threatening to kidnap Oedipus as well. Once Theseus arrives on the scene, however, Creon realizes that he must behave more subtly. Thus, instead of commanding Theseus as he did Oedipus, in lines 1070–1094 Creon attempts to persuade Theseus that Oedipus is a blight upon Athens.
Again, the characters’ actions can be viewed skeptically. Theseus’s protection of Oedipus from Creon, for example, may be an act of nobility, but Theseus’s motivation is probably more pragmatic—protecting Oedipus means security for his city. Oedipus, too, may not be as helpless as he tells himself he is. It seems that the blind man’s refusal to return to his home is more an act of pride then one of piety, and that his insults are the cruel taunts of an embittered man. Both his refusal and his insults lead to the abduction of his daughters by Creon. Both Creon and Oedipus seem to have motives that are more complicated than they appear on the surface.