[T]here is no room for grieving here—
it might bring down the anger of the gods.
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Terrible thunder crashes, and the Chorus cries out in horror. Oedipus declares that his time of death has come and sends for Theseus. Awed by the blackening heavens, the Chorus murmurs in confusion. When Theseus appears, Oedipus informs him that the thunder signals his death, and that Theseus must carry out certain rites to assure divine protection of his city. Oedipus will lead Theseus to the place where he will die. No one but the king shall ever know that location—upon his death, each king will pass the information on to his son. In this way, Theseus’s heirs will always rule over a blessed city. Oedipus then strides off with a sudden strength, bringing his daughters and Theseus offstage, to his grave.
The Chorus comes forward to pray for peace and an honorable burial for Oedipus. A messenger then enters to tell the Chorus what has happened. Oedipus led his friend and daughters to the edge of a steep descent, and then sent Antigone and Ismene to perform his final libations. When they returned, they dressed Oedipus in linen, the proper clothing for the dead. The daughters began weeping, and Oedipus swore that his infinite love would repay all the hardship they had suffered for him. Oedipus and his daughters embraced, sobbing, until a voice called out from the skies, ordering Oedipus to proceed in his task. Oedipus made Theseus promise that he would look after his daughters. He then sent the girls away, taking Theseus with him to the place where he was meant to die. When Antigone and Ismene returned, Theseus stood shielding his eyes, and Oedipus had disappeared. Theseus then bent down to kiss the ground and pray to the gods.
Just as the messenger finishes his story, Antigone and Ismene come onstage, chanting a dirge. Antigone wails that they will cry for Oedipus for as long as they live. Not knowing where to turn, Antigone says the girls will have to wander alone forever. Theseus enters, asking the daughters to stop their weeping. They beg to see their father’s tomb, but the king insists that Oedipus has forbidden it. They cease their pleas, but ask for safe passage back to Thebes so that they may prevent a war between their brothers. Theseus grants them this, and the Chorus tells the girls to desist from crying, for all events in life occur according to the will of the gods. Theseus and the Chorus exit toward Athens; Antigone and Ismene head for Thebes.
Like that of Oedipus the King, the central theme of Oedipus at Colonus is self-knowledge, but in the latter play, Oedipus’s self-knowledge may be too great rather than too scant. In Oedipus the King, the distance between Oedipus and the audience was an ironic one—we knew the truth about Oedipus, but he didn’t understand it himself. In Oedipus at Colonus, the Oedipus’s actions are all sanctified by his divine knowledge, and Oedipus has knowledge and understanding of his own plight that the rest of the characters do not have. Throughout the Theban plays, the audience is distanced from real events, especially violent ones. Since many of the play’s events are reported after they occur, in narrative, the distance between the reader and Oedipus in this final play is doubled. Not only do we not see Oedipus die, no one but Theseus does.
Again, it is not an action or object that will guard Colonus, but rather language, transmitted over time. Oedipus states that his death and body are not important to the well-being of Colonus; the secret passed from son to son will be the city’s true guardian. It is puzzling, though, that Sophocles built his play around a secret that is never revealed to the audience. In Oedipus the King, it was the audience’s superior knowledge that gave it delight and sorrow. What do we feel when such knowledge is denied to us? The moment of Oedipus’s secretive death is unceremonious, marked by nothing but a few prosaic lines from the Chorus, which knows as little as we do.
A modern audience is also liable to be unexpectedly unmoved by the final speeches of Antigone and Ismene. We cannot truly share in their extreme sorrow, which feels unmotivated by the events of the play, but neither do we have any reason to disapprove of it. As with the conflict between Oedipus and Polynices, there is no single way for the audience to react to feelings outside of our own categories of feeling and thought; we can only regard them with a certain emotional and moral detachment, utterly unlike what we would feel in a tragedy. Oedipus at Colonus is not a tragedy but rather a text that embraces its own inscrutable secrecy.