LITR 5831 World / Multicultural Literature: Tragedy & Africa

Lecture Notes

Oedipus at Colonus


The Gospel at Colonus


Five Blind Boys, African American culture as tragic beauty


Nightingale song p. 4, p. 26


Five Blind Boys / Oedipus x Chorus pp. 8-9


Ismene p. 13 see you through my tears


Discussion questions: 

1. How does it change the Tragedy to have it sung? Or preached [narrator / chorus]

2. What effect of mixing gospel style with classical content? How well do they mix & match?



Discussion questions:

Oedipus at Colonus: The Furies are back! (These spirits of revenge pursued Orestes in the Oresteia. Here, the grove where Oedipus & Antigone rest is sacred to Furies, who would naturally be scandalized by Oedipus's crimes.)

1. Compare the chorus's and audience's potential catharsis of "pity and fear" for Oedipus to our reactions to the same character in Oedipus the King. Since modern audiences typically have a hard time caring about Oedipus as King, what changes our attitudes to him in this play?



2. Oedipus acts helpless, but how helpless is he really, and how much is he controlling the action? How convincing are his speeches justifying his past sins? Evidence of tragic flaw?



2a. Continuing #2, what about Oedipus's character is revealed by his cursing of Polyneices? Why is the scene so powerful and meaningful? Compare to Bible's parable of the Prodigal Son? (Potential contrast of Abrahamic and Classical Greek-Roman ethics)



2b. Since Antigone is Oedipus's true child, compare her character in Oedipus at Colonus to her character in Antigone.



3. How does Oedipus's death resemble the conclusion of a romance as transcendence? (narrative genres)



3a. Compare conclusion to conclusion of the Oresteia trilogy in The Eumenides?



4. Discuss spectacle in Oedipus at Colonus's finale or elsewhere in play? What advantages to showing or not showing rescues, divine actions, etc.?



5. Not to press comparisons to diminishing returns, but how might Oedipus's resolution appear Christ-like or compatible with the Christ story? (This potential analogy is partly encouraged by the translator's use of biblical language.)





Notes for Oedipus at Colonus

6 I am taught by suffering to endure,                         [tragic theme: suffering > wisdom]

14 ANTIGONE: Long-suffering father Oedipus, the towers
That fence the city still are faint and far;                            [the city = Athens]
But where we stand is surely holy ground;

64 OEDIPUS: You say people live in these parts?

STRANGER: Surely; they bear the name of yonder god.       [yonder god=Athena>Athenians]

104 Hear, gentle daughters of primeval Night,                            [daughters = Furies]
Hear, namesake of great Pallas; Athens, first     [namesake= Athena, patron goddess of Athens]
Of cities, pity this dishonored ghost,                                 [shade = ghost, memory]
The shadow of him who once was Oedipus.

110 contrast Oed's previous nature

OEDIPUS: I will be mute, and you shall guide my steps                                                      110
Into the covert from the public road,                                   [covert = thicket, hiding place]
Till I have learned their drift. A prudent man
Will ever shape his course by what he learns.                  [learning theme of tragedy]

158 OEDIPUS: Daughter, what counsel should we now pursue?

ANTIGONE: We must obey and do as here they do.

OEDIPUS: Your hand then!                                                 160

170 CHORUS: In a strange land, strange thou art;         [cf. Exodus 2:22]          170
To her will, incline thy heart;                      [her will = the laws of the land]
Honor whatsoever the State
Honors, all she frowns on hate.                [she = the State]

186 ANTIGONE: Thy steps to my steps, lean thine aged frame on mine.

192 OEDIPUS: Strangers, I have no country. O forbear—        [forbear = hold back, lay off]

CHORUS: What is it, old man, that you would conceal?

OEDIPUS: Forbear, nor urge me further to reveal—

204 OEDIPUS: Know you of Laius's—

CHORUS: What? Who!

OEDIPUS: Seed of Labdacus—   [Laius, Oedipus’s father, was son of King Labdacus of Thebes]

CHORUS: Oh Zeus!

OEDIPUS: The hapless Oedipus.


224 ANTIGONE: . . .                               [ruth = mercy]
Knowing the deeds he wrought, not innocent,
But with no ill intent;
Yet heed a maiden's moan

245 Athens is held of States the most devout,
Athens alone gives hospitality
And shelters the troubled stranger, so men say.
Have I found so?

258 am I then
A villain born because in self-defense,
Stricken, I struck the striker back again?

276 A holy and god-fearing man is here
Whose coming purports comfort for your folk.      [purports comfort = signifies blessings]
And when your chief arrives, whoever he be,                [chief = king, later id. as Theseus]
Then shall ye have my story and know all.                                              280


302 ANTIGONE: I see a woman          
Riding upon a colt

323 OEDIPUS: O children—sisters!

327 OEDIPUS: What brought thee, daughter?

ISMENE: Father, care for thee.                             

330 news . . . brothers

354 bring thy father all the oracles
Concerning Oedipus

369 now some god and an infatuate soul            [infatuate soul = crazed spirit]
Have stirred betwixt them a mad rivalry              [betwixt them = between Eteocles & Polyneices] 370
To grasp at sovereignty and kingly power.

387 What has been uttered, child?

ISMENE: Thy country (so it runs) shall yearn in time    [Thy country = Thebes]
To have thee for their weal alive or dead.*                       [weal = well-being, protection]

393 ISMENE: The gods, who once abased, uplift thee now.   [romance of transcendence?]

406 OEDIPUS: Mean they to shroud my bones in Theban dust? [shroud . . . dust? = bury my body in Theban soil?]

ISMENE: Nay, father, guilt of kinsman's blood forbids.  [Oedipus can’t be buried in Thebes because he killed his father]

412 [Instructor's note: In following passages here omitted, Ismene tells Oedipus of a recent prophecy that previews the blessings Oedipus's burial will bring to Athens; that Theban invaders of Athens will some day be routed in a battle near the grave of Oedipus.]

421 may the gods never quench their fatal feud,
And mine be the judgment of the fight,                      [arbitrament = right to decide]
For which they now are arming, spear to spear;
That neither he who holds the scepter now             [he = Eteocles]
May keep this throne, nor he who fled the realm     [he = Polyneices]
Return again.


523 CHORUS: Grant my request, I granted all to thee.

OEDIPUS: (Antistrophe 1) [Chorus moves right to left]
Know then I suffered ills most vile, but none
(So help me Heaven!) from acts in malice done.

539 OEDIPUS: Sprang from the wife and mother's travail-pain. [travail-pain= childbirth, labor]

540 then thy offspring are at once—                              540

OEDIPUS: Too true.
Their father's very sisters too.

546 CHORUS: Thou hast endured—

OEDIPUS: Intolerable woe.

CHORUS: And sinned—

OEDIPUS: I sinned not.

563 OEDIPUS: I slew him who otherwise would have me slain; 


566 CHORUS: Behold our sovereign, Theseus, Aegeus's son,

597 THESEUS: What profit dost thou proffer to have brought?    [What’s in it for me to inherit responsibility for your body in death?]

OEDIPUS: Hereafter you shall learn, not yet, methinks.

653 he can claim the hospitality
To which by mutual contract we stand pledged:
. . .
But grant him the full rights of citizen;

674 What is it thou fearest?

OEDIPUS: My foes will come—


753 of all Thebans I have most bewailed,
Being his kinsman, his most grievous woes. [Creon claims to have been on Oedipus's side all along]

774 Creon's hypocrisy puts us on Oedipus's side

835 OEDIPUS: What power do you have to execute this threat?

CREON: One of thy daughters is already seized,
The other I will carry off soon.   

846 CREON (to his guards) : It’s time to carry off the girl by force,
If she refuses of her free will to go.

857 OEDIPUS: Help, Athens!

872 ANTIGONE: Ah, woe is me, they drag me hence, O friends.      [hence = away]

903 to thee and all thy cursed race
May the great Sun, whose eye is everywhere,
Grant length of days and old age like to mine.
   [curse predicts Creon’s fate in Antigone]


947 now the laws to which himself appealed,                            [himself = Creon]
These and none others shall apply.  

954 a State that champions right and asks        [a State that champions right = Athens]
For every action warranty of law,

[*Instructor's note: Theseus chides Creon by saying that if Theseus were visiting Creon's Theban territories, he would never take military action without consulting with the leaders of Thebes. Beginning at line 982 below, Creon tries to turn the argument by saying he couldn't imagine that Theseus would object to actions taken against a moral outcast like Oedipus.]

986 Nor would they harbor, so I stood assured,
A godless parricide, a reprobate           
[parricide = parent-murderer; reprobate = troublemaker—i.e., Oedipus]
Convicted of incestuous marriage ties.

1104 OEDIPUS: O shameless big-mouth, do you think this abuse
Defames my grey hairs—rather than your own?
Murder and incest, deeds of horror, all
You blurt forth against me, all I have borne,
No willing sinner; so it pleased the gods,

1116 And if
When born to misery, as born I was,
I met my sire, not knowing whom I met or what I did,

and slew him, how can you                          
With justice blame my all-unconscious hand?                 1120

And for my mother, wretch, be ashamed,
As she was your sister,

1131 Knowingly you vilify her and me;
But I unknowingly wed, and unwilling speak.

1136 if thou canst:
If one should presently attempt to kill you,
Would you, O man of justice, first inquire
If the assassin was by chance thy father,
Or turn on him?

1152 If any land knows how to pay the gods
Their proper rites, it is Athens above all.

1192 I would like to see that fight;                   [sorry, no spectacle, please]

1246 For lo, an escort with the maids draws near.      [escort = body of armed men]


Enter Antigone and Ismene with Theseus

1250 ANTIGONE: O father, father,                                                 1250
Would that some god might grant thee eyes to see
This best of men who brings us back again.               [This best of men = Theseus as hero of romance narrative]

OEDIPUS: My child! and are ye back indeed!

ANTIGONE: Yes, saved By Theseus and his gallant followers.     [reminiscent of romance narrative]

OEDIPUS: Come to your father's arms, O let me feel
A child's embrace I never hoped for more.

ANTIGONE: Thou askest what is doubly sweet to give.       [sentimentality?]

1268 Now tell me of your adventures, but in brief;
Brief speech suffices for young maids like you.

1286 You were their sole deliverer, none else.
The gods deal with you after my desire,
With you and with this land!

[i.e., consequences of justice, positive consequences to good actions

1303 I would like to have
Thy counsel

1335 fail not in due reverence to the god.

1339 For our sake also let our brother come.

1350 Look thou to the past, forget the present, think                      1350
On all the woe thy sire and mother brought thee;

1357 nor he that takes                   [importunate = nagging]
A favor lack the grace to make return.   [As wrong begets wrong, so kindness may beget grace; Antigone pleads to example of Theseus's favor toward Oedipus, which Oedipus should pass on to Polynices]

1360 Let it be, then; have your way                            1360

1380 Not to be born at all                                                 1380
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.

For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain forever pain;



[Instructor's note: The following scene of Oedipus's repudiation of Polynices might be compared / contrasted to Christ's Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15: 11-32]

1417 All this too late I learn, wretch that I am,
I own it, and am proved most vile

In my neglect of you: I scorn myself.

1425 Why silent? Father, speak. Don’t turn away,
Have you no word?

1444 I have been banished from my native land
Because by right of primogeniture
[primogeniture = first-born son inherits all]
I claimed possession of thy sovereign throne
From which Eteocles, my younger brother,
Ousted me,

1450 the prime cause     [popular = populist; mob-pleasing]   1450
Of this I deem the curse that rests on thee.  [Polynices resists responsibility, flips cause to family curse]

1457 levy with their aid that sevenfold host
Of spearmen against Thebes,

1472 victory, if oracles speak true,
Will fall to those who have you for their ally.

1505 they are men
Not women in true service to their father;
But you are bastards, no sons of mine.
Therefore the justice of Heaven watches thee

1512 That city you can never storm, but first
You and your brother shall fall

1516 That you might learn to honor those who bear thee

1522 This curse I leave thee as my last bequest:—
Never to win by arms thy native land,

No, nor return to Argos in the Vale,

But by a kinsman's hand to die and slay
Him who expelled thee.

1541 I dare not whisper this curse to my allies
Or turn them back, but mute must meet my doom.
My sisters, . .  grant me burial and due funeral rites*.  

1552 ANTIGONE: Turn back thy host to Argos with all speed,
And ruin not thyself and Thebes as well. 

Polynices: That cannot be.  How could I lead again
An army that had seen their leader quail?

ANTIGONE: But, brother, why should you be wish to fight again?
What profit comes from thy country's ruin?

Polynices: To live in exile is shameful, and shalI                   [shame/honor]
an elder brother bear a younger brother's insults?

1562 Polynices: Aye, so he wishes:—but I cannot yield.  [compare Agamemnon's dilemma either to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia or lose the Trojan War]

1588 Ills on ills! no pause or rest!
Come they from our sightless guest?
Or may we now see fulfilled                           1590
What fate long time hath willed?

1598 Hark! How the thunder rumbles! Zeus defend us!     [thunder = sublime + spectacle]


[SCENE 10]

1611 OEDIPUS: Daughters, for me the predestined end
Has come; no turning from it any more.

1627 OEDIPUS: For all his benefits I would perform
The promise made when I received them first.


[SCENE 11]

[Enter Theseus]

1644 OEDIPUS: Our fate hangs in the balance. I would do all
I promised thee and thine before I die.

1655 Bequeath a treasure age cannot corrupt.                       [transcendence > romance?]
I myself without a guiding hand
Will take thee soon to the place where I must end.
This secret never reveal to mortal man,

1662 But those dread mysteries speech may not profane     [sublime as what cannot be defined or expressed?]

1676 But to the spot—the god within me impels—
Let us set forth; no longer hesitate.
Follow me, daughters, this way. Strange that I
Whom you have led so long should lead you now.
Oh, touch me not

1684 O light, no light to me, but mine a while,
Now the last time I feel thee palpable,
For I am drawing near the final gloom
Of Hades.  Blessing

1700 Wrongfully in life oppressed,                                1700
Be he now by Justice blessed.


[SCENE 12]

[Enter Messenger]

1712 Oedipus is gone, but the event
Was not so brief, nor can the tale be brief.

1716 he has passed away from life to death.

1742 "My children, you will lose your father today,
For all of me has perished, and no more
Have ye to bear your long, long ministry;
A heavy load, I know, and yet one word
Wipes out all score of tribulations—love.

1752 A moment there was silence; suddenly
A voice summoned him;

1762 promise me
Thou never wilt forsake them

1772 Theseus stay,
Our ruler, to behold what next shall happen."

1775 After brief space we looked again, and lo
The man was gone, nowhere to be seen;
Only the king we saw with upraised hand
Shading his eyes as from some awful sight, 

1786 It was a messenger from heaven, or else
Some gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base;             
[cleaving = opening]
For without wailing or disease or pain
He passed away


[SCENE 13]

[Enter Antigone and Ismene]

1846 ISMENE: Alas, my sister, what new fate
Befalls us orphans desolate?

1870 ISMENE: Tombless he died, none near.                      1870

ANTIGONE: Lead me there; slay me there.  [willingness to die anticipates tragedy of Antigone] 

1882 ANTIGONE: How again to get us home
I know not.

CHORUS: Why must you roam?

ANTIGONE: Troubles overwhelm us—      

1894 THESEUS: Dry your tears; when grace is shed
On the quick and on the dead
By dark Powers beneficent,
Too much grief they would resent.

1912 let us go
Back to Thebes, if yet we may    ["Back to Thebes"; i.e., to resume story told in Seven Against Thebes & Antigone]

1923 CHORUS: Wail no more, let sorrow rest,
All is ordered for the best.