The Chorus anticipates that a glorious battle between Colonus and Thebes will be fought in which Colonus, strong and blessed, will triumph. Theseus returns, leading Antigone and Ismene, whom Oedipus embraces. He thanks Theseus for rescuing his daughters, but Theseus demurs from describing his valiant struggle to save the girls, stating that he prefers to prove himself through actions rather than words. Yet he does report that a man has recently arrived from Argos. Theseus saw the stranger praying on the altar of Poseidon, and rumor has it that the stranger wishes to speak with Oedipus.
Oedipus pleads with Theseus to drive the stranger out of Athens, realizing that it is his son Polynices, but Theseus and Antigone convince Oedipus to hear what his son has to say. They insist that one should listen to reason rather than bear old grudges. Although Oedipus disagrees in principle, he consents to listen to Polynices if Theseus promises to protect Oedipus from possible abduction. Theseus gives Oedipus his word and exits. The Chorus gathers around Oedipus and sings that to never be born is best, but that if one must be born, a short life is preferable to a long one, for life is unbearable and only death brings peace. Polynices then enters the scene.
Polynices cries out in pity at the family’s fate and swears that he regrets allowing Oedipus to be sent away from Thebes. He tells of how his brother, Eteocles, bribed the men of Thebes to turn against him, and how he now plans to regain his throne by force, sending seven armies against the seven doors of Thebes. Oedipus refuses to answer his son, but the Chorus pleads for him to speak. He responds that he wishes he had never set eyes upon Polynices, and that it is quite fitting that Polynices now suffers the same exile and sorrow to which he condemned his father. Eteocles and Polynices will each die by the other’s hand, he says, for that is the curse Oedipus put on them when they exiled him from Thebes.
Polynices, realizing that he’ll never win his father’s support, turns to his sisters, whom he asks only for a proper burial if he is killed in battle. Antigone asks her brother to call off the war, but Polynices argues that his sense of honor prevents him from such a gesture. Antigone embraces Polynices, saying that he is condemning himself to death, but he declares that his life rests in the hands of the gods. He prays for the safety of his sisters, then departs for Thebes.
The Chorus gives what can be likened to a “summary” of the central theme of Oedipus at Colonus: “Not to be born is best / when all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light / the next best thing, by far, is to go back / where he came from” (1388–1391). Of course, to treat this statement as a Sophoclean “motto” would be overly simplistic: to do so would be to ignore the poetry of the passage—the way it ranges from the joys of ceremony to the horrors of war to the invincible strength of nature. Furthermore, within the context of a play about Oedipus, this passage is colored with irony, because, all too literally, Oedipus went “back” precisely “where he came from”—Jocasta’s womb.
The clash between father and son is all we see of Polynices in the trilogy, though his name will be brandished repeatedly in the play. Our fleeting glimpse of him here suggests a man driven by honor and duty but lacking Theseus’s good judgment and pragmatism—a man who, it seems, greatly resembles Oedipus before his fall. His crusade is motivated by pride and self-interest, although he is not without regard for the gods. He embraces his fate with absolute forthrightness.
Oedipus’s response to his son’s plight is a startling invective that reaches its height when he shouts, “You—die! Die and be damned! I spit on you! Out!” (1567). Oedipus’s entire speech is so powerful and bitter that we cannot help but sympathize with the curser rather than the cursed. Broken from his years of wandering, Oedipus now abhors all worldly violence and at the same time wishes only for death. Yet, it is unclear whether or not we should approve of Oedipus’s absolute condemnation of his son—it seems that the play’s moral lines are too crudely drawn. In the second encounter between Oedipus and Polynices, father and son will stand absolutely opposed to each other, and we are in a position to empathize with both.