Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, it would seem, is an exercise in closure. In the opening scene, Oedipus, worn down by years of wandering blind and hungry, arrives at the borders of Athens. Here is where his legendary sufferings—his murder of his father, his incestuous marriage to his mother, his betrayal by his sons, his exile from Thebes—are fated to end. Following his miraculous death, his body will become a sacred gift to the city that receives him, protecting it against future attack. In the closing moments of the play, everything unfolds according to plan. Oedipus disappears offstage and mysteriously descends into the earth. The king of Athens, Theseus, alone marks the spot of his disappearance, knowledge he will pass down to his sons as part of his responsibility to the city. By the end of the tragedy, then, Oedipus has made his way home to the gods in a land capable of honouring his awesome, singular fate.
The concept of ‘coming home’ is integral, as this précis suggests, to the play's logic of closure. Yet, crucially, it governs only one of the two planes on which the drama unfolds, that of the gods. Oedipus' life has been in the hands of the gods since before he was born. That they reclaim him at the end of his life gives his exit the feel of a return. By contrast, the path to Athens, for all its meandering, is not circular but linear. Athens is definitively not Thebes, as the tragedy demonstrates over and over (nor is it Corinth, Oedipus' other point of origin). Thebes is, rather, the home that Oedipus rejects, most spectacularly through his resistance to Creon's demand that he return to the city of his birth. What is more, he repudiates any relationship to the Theban throne. When Polyneices arrives to ask his father to support his bid to reclaim the kingship from his brother Eteocles, Oedipus does not simply refuse to intervene but drives his son away with curses. His refusal is a refusal not just of Thebes but of the Labdacid line altogether (he goes so far as to call Polyneices ἀπάτωϱ, ‘fatherless’, 1383; see also 1369: ὑμεῖς δ' ἀπ' ἄλλον ϰοὐϰ ἐμοῦ πεϕύϰατον, ‘you are from another and not born from me’); his pact with Theseus creates an alternate genealogy of fathers and sons. Seen in this light, Oedipus' arrival at Colonus and, ultimately, his dramatic exit become the final stages of a process not of coming home but of leaving Thebes behind and with it ‘the radical tragic terrain where there can be no escape from the tragic in the resolution of conflict or in the institutional provision of a civic future beyond the world of the play’.