Oedipus at Colonus is the story of the last day in the life of Oedipus. After many year of wandering, Oedipus arrives in a grove outside Athens and understands that this is the place he would die. Theseus, king of Athens and its surroundings, promises to give Oedipus the right to be buried in Colonus and to protect his secret burial place. More than that, Theseus brings back Oedipus' daughters who were abducted by Creon. Oedipus apologizes for not thanking Theseus right away, instead of talking to his daughters. Theseus understands that Oedipus needs the time to talk with his saved daughters, and refrains from bragging about his struggle with Creon, but he asks Oedipus to do "a trivial thing" and meet someone who looks desperate to meet him.
What is his country? What is he praying for?
All I know is this: he asks, they tell me,
A brief interview with you and nothing more.
Upon what subject?
If he is in prayer it cannot be a trifle
They say he only asks to speak to you
And then to depart safely by the same road
Who could it be who would come here to pray?
Think: have you any relative in Argos
Who might desire this favor of you?
Say no more
What has alarmed you?
But what is the matter? Tell me.
When I heard Argos I knew the petitioner.
And who is he whom I must hold at fault.
A son of mine, my lord, and a hated one.
Nothing could be more painful than to listen to him.
But why? Is it not possible to listen
Without doing anything you need not do?
Why should it distress you so to hear him?
The first eight lines of this passage can be interpreted in two different ways. In these lines, Oedipus keeps asking questions about the stranger: his origin, his subject, and what he is praying for. Knowing that Oedipus is after many years of wandering and suffering, and in the last day of his life, we might think that Oedipus is not interested in meeting and helping a stranger. He is tired and sad, and wants to spend his last hours by saying goodbye to his loved daughters who helped him during his years of misery. He also wants to present again to the Chorus his point of view that he was not really responsible for his crimes, because he undertook them unknowingly. Oedipus is not anymore a man of swift actions and a problem solving figure for other people. He is concentrated around his leaving of this world, and taking care of his own needs: his burial, his separation from his daughters and his legacy. If we agree with this interpretation, we might read these lines in a kind of indifferent tone. Oedipus doesn't insist on not seeing the stranger, because he feels some obligations toward Theseus who helped him so much. Yet, he is really not interested in meeting the visitor.
Another way to read these lines is by emphasizing emotion of anger. The repeating questions of Oedipus about the stranger might indicate that Oedipus feels annoyed by his request. When he finally finds a place to rest after so many years of exile, Creon comes and tries to destroy it. Oedipus is angry at Creon, and at his sons who didn't save him from himself and his fate, by letting him go on exile. Therefore we can read the first eight lines of this passage in an angry way, exactly like the following lines. Oedipus is an old, bitter man, who feels betrayed by his sons and his people, and therefore his emotions of willing to help others are replaced by anger, and he is not willing to help some stranger anymore, even if Theseus is asking him to.
Theseus is the other character who speaks in this dialogue. We may think of two different motives to Theseus' behavior, but in either case the voice of Theseus will be the same. Theseus might be seen as a noble man who feels pity for Oedipus and is willing to save his daughters and treat Oedipus with respect. On the other hand we can think of Theseus as a pragmatic figure, who wants to secure his city. In any case, he is trying to help Oedipus by asking questions that might release Oedipus' stress. The tone of the questions is soft, calm, and makes sense, no matter what kind of interpretation we might give to Theseus' behavior.
The play Oedipus at Colonus is about the last day in the life of Oedipus. Therefore it can reflect his last thoughts and wishes. The lines that we chose to present in the class reflect Oedipus' wish to be left alone with his daughters for a last goodbye instead of dealing with strangers. They lead to a harsh confrontation between Oedipus and his hated son Polyneices. This confrontation shows what is important at the end of the day: Oedipus expected his sons to be loyal to him, and not ignore him on his exile, more than to be loyal to the city of Thebes, that demanded his exile in order to save its people. This perception of life continues in the next play Antigone when Oedipus' daughter Antigone prefers her family and gods' duties over her city duties.
Oedipus, on his last day, is a sad and tired man who wants to deal with his own matters. At the same time he can be read as a bitter old man who is angry at the people who betrayed him. He is not trying to be a father figure that forgives the human weaknesses of his son and others. He thinks that these weaknesses will continue to destroy lives, but he feels that he can't change it or help in any way. He is trying to comfort himself with the love of his daughters and the noble deeds of Theseus, and with that he is going to die.