The Place of Death:
‘Oedipus at Colonus’
AS IS well known, Sophocles’ Theban Plays were composed neither as a trilogy nor in narrative sequence: Antigone was written first, probably around 442–441 B.C.; Oedipus Tyrannos some twenty years later; and Oedipus at Colonus shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406. Yet despite the divergence of biographical chronology from mythical-narrative coherence, the relations between the three plays are more significant than the epithet Theban might suggest. Although there is no unity of time and place in the composition of the three plays, the place-name of the city, Thebes, stands for a commonality of concerns that is more than just thematic. At the same time, there is a finality to the last-written play that belies or, rather, complicates its intermediary position in the chronological progression of the story of the decline and fall of the house of the Labdacus, founders of Thebes.
Oedipus has come to Colonus—Sophocles’ birthplace—to die. And yet, before dying, he will present his death as a “gift” (l. 577) to his hosts. How does death come to be a gift? Here, at least, by being staged in a very singular manner, namely, as a secret. Only Theseus, ruler of Athens (which includes Colonus, its “brazen threshold,” l. 57), who has welcomed and protected Oedipus, is to “know” the secret, but in a way that will enable it to survive and protect its guardian, Athens, from the perils of time and the destruction of war. By keeping the secret—keeping it secret—and by transmitting it to his “chosen heir,” Theseus will enable Athens to thrive.
Oedipus comes to Colonus, then, not just to die there but to bestow upon the city the gift of his death. In order for this death to be a gift, however—which is to say, to have the power of being transmitted through its effects—it must be kept secret. Not the fact that it has taken place, but rather the particular place it takes. This place must remain unseen, invisible, unknown to all save one: Theseus alone, as