Oedipus is a man of swift action and great insight. At the opening of
Oedipus the King, we see that these qualities make him an excellent ruler
who anticipates his subjects’ needs. When the citizens of Thebes beg him to
do something about the plague, for example, Oedipus is one step ahead of
them-he has already sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi for advice. But
later, we see that Oedipus’s habit of acting swiftly has a dangerous side.
When he tells the story of killing the band of travelers who attempted to
shove him off the three-way crossroads, Oedipus shows that he has the
capacity to behave rashly.
At the beginning of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is hugely confident, and
with good reason. He has saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx and
become king virtually overnight. He proclaims his name proudly as though it
were itself a healing charm: “Here I am myself- / you all know me, the
world knows my fame: / I am Oedipus” (7-9). By the end of this tragedy,
however, Oedipus’s name will have become a curse, so much so that, in
Oedipus at Colonus, the Leader of the Chorus is terrified even to hear it
and cries: “You, you’re that man?” (238).
Oedipus’s swiftness and confidence continue to the very end of Oedipus
the King. We see him interrogate Creon, call for Tiresias, threaten to
banish Tiresias and Creon, call for the servant who escaped the attack on
Laius, call for the shepherd who brought him to Corinth, rush into the
palace to stab out his own eyes, and then demand to be exiled. He is
constantly in motion, seemingly trying to keep pace with his fate, even as
it goes well beyond his reach. In Oedipus at Colonus, however, Oedipus
seems to have begun to accept that much of his life is out of his control.
He spends most of his time sitting rather than acting. Most poignant are
lines 825-960, where Oedipus gropes blindly and helplessly as Creon takes
his children from him. In order to get them back, Oedipus must rely wholly
Once he has given his trust to Theseus, Oedipus seems ready to find peace.
At Colonus, he has at last forged a bond with someone, found a kind of home
after many years of exile. The single most significant action in Oedipus at
Colonus is Oedipus’s deliberate move offstage to die. The final scene of
the play has the haste and drive of the beginning of Oedipus the King, but
this haste, for Oedipus at least, is toward peace rather than horror.
Creon spends more time onstage in these three plays than any other
character except the Chorus. His presence is so constant and his words so
crucial to many parts of the plays that he cannot be dismissed as simply
the bureaucratic fool he sometimes seems to be. Rather, he represents the
very real power of human law and of the human need for an orderly, stable
society. When we first see Creon in Oedipus the King, Creon is shown to be
separate from the citizens of Thebes. He tells Oedipus that he has brought
news from the oracle and suggests that Oedipus hear it inside. Creon has
the secretive, businesslike air of a politician, which stands in sharp
contrast to Oedipus, who tells him to speak out in front of everybody.
While Oedipus insists on hearing Creon’s news in public and builds his
power as a political leader by espousing rhetoric of openness, Creon is a
master of manipulation. While Oedipus is intent on saying what he means and
on hearing the truth-even when Jocasta begs and pleads with him not to-
Creon is happy to dissemble and equivocate.
At lines 651-690, Creon argues that he has no desire to usurp Oedipus
as king because he, Jocasta, and Oedipus rule the kingdom with equal power-
Oedipus is merely the king in name. This argument may seem convincing,
partly because at this moment in the play we are disposed to be sympathetic
toward Creon, since Oedipus has just ordered Creon’s banishment. In
response to Oedipus’s hotheaded foolishness, Creon sounds like the voice of
reason. Only in the final scene of Oedipus the King, when Creon’s short
lines demonstrate his eagerness to exile Oedipus and separate him from his
children, do we see that the title of king is what Creon desires above all.
Creon is at his most dissembling in Oedipus at Colonus, where he once
again needs something from Oedipus. His honey-tongued speeches to Oedipus
and Theseus are made all the more ugly by his cowardly attempt to kidnap
Antigone and Ismene. In Antigone, we at last see Creon comfortable in the
place of power. Eteocles and Polynices, like their father, are dead, and
Creon holds the same unquestioned supremacy that Oedipus once held. Of
course, once Creon achieves the stability and power that he sought and
Oedipus possessed, he begins to echo Oedipus’s mistakes. Creon denounces
Tiresias, for example (1144-1180), obviously echoing Oedipus’s denunciation
in Oedipus the King (366-507). And, of course, Creon’s penitent wailings in
the final lines of Antigone echo those of Oedipus at the end of Oedipus the
King. What can perhaps most be said most in favor of Creon is that in his
final lines he also begins to sound like Antigone, waiting for whatever new
disaster fate will bring him. He cries out that he is “nothing,” “no one,”
but it is his suffering that makes him seem human in the end.