Jocasta: Mother and Wife


     Jocasta portrays the role of both mother and wife in the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.  The relationships conveyed in the play are very controversial, as Oedipus is both a son and husband to Jocasta.  There are many different interpretations of Jocasta, her relationship to her son, and the characters’ knowledge of the situation.  Many believe that Jocasta was aware of the fact that Oedipus was her son, while it is still common thought that she was oblivious.  One also questions Jocasta’s faith as a Greek woman.  Jocasta represents many different ideas to different people.
    Before the play begins, Jocasta and her husband, Laios, were given a prophecy that their son will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.  In an attempt to defy fate and avoid this catastrophe, the couple gives their son to a shepherd who binds the baby by the ankles and leaves him to die on an isolated mountain.  Unknown to Jocasta and Laios, the baby is rescued by a second shepherd and given to Polybos and Merope of Corinth.   There, the baby, named Oedipus, grows into a man and learns of the prophecy that was once told to his biological parents, although he still knew nothing of them.  Thinking that the prophecy implies the murder of Polybos and marriage with Merope, Oedipus flees from Corinth and travels to Thebes, killing a man along the way.  When he arrives in Thebes, he married the widowed Queen, Jocasta.
    When the play opens, the people of Thebes are distraught over the murder of their former King, Laios.  Oedipus declares that he will find the man guilty of committing this crime and will bring him to justice.  Through the enlightenment of prophets and witnesses, it is discovered that Oedipus is, in fact, the murderer he has been searching for, and the son of Jocasta and Laios. Jocasta and OedipusUpon learning this news, Jocasta hangs herself the bedroom that she has shared with both her husband and her son.  Oedipus takes two brooches from Jocasta’s dress and uses them to pierce his eyes and blind himself.
    One interpretation advanced by critics and readers is that Jocasta has been aware of the fact that Oedipus is her son from the beginning.  There are many points during the play where Oedipus talks of his past.  He tells Jocasta of the prophecy that his parents received when he was a baby, which, needless to say is the same prophecy she and Laios received when Oedipus was born.  Though completely obvious to the audience or the reader, Jocasta seems to be entirely oblivious to the unmistakable similarities between the two situations.   This could be a disguise for the truth that she is fully aware of, and that she wants to pretend does not exist.
One of her lines could possibly imply Jocasta’s acceptance of incestuous mother-son marriages.  When Oedipus admits that he has always been afraid of the truth in the prophecy of marrying his mother, Jocasta brushes the fear aside, saying, “Why should the thought of marrying your mother make you so afraid?  Many men have slept with their mothers in their dreams” (p. 66, lines 1236-1237 ).  This is also true in contemporary society, as sexual dreams suggest a feeling of love and intimacy that is not necessarily sexual.  Sexual dreams certainly do not represent always represent one’s subconscious desires.  She also concludes by saying, “See your dreams for what they are-- nothing, nothing at all” (p. 67, lines 1238-1239 ).  These lines are intended to be consoling, more than likely simply Jocasta’s way of trying to allay Oedipus’ fears instead of stating her acceptance of incest.
    Jocasta also discourages his search for the truth about his past, especially in lines 1331-1351 of Oedipus the King.  This is Jocasta’s final scene of the play, in which the messenger (the second shepherd) comes to Thebes to tell Oedipus of how he was found as a baby.  This is the climax of the play, when the truth begins to be revealed.  At first Jocasta implores Oedipus to forget about what the messenger has said, trying to persuade him that “It’s not worth talking about” (p. 71, line 1332).  As he keeps pressing the matter, Jocasta becomes more adamant, saying “No Oedipus!  No more questions.  For god’s sake, for the sake of your own life!”  (p. 71, lines 1335-1338).
    In the story by Christine Morgan, Jocasta is portrayed in the first person, talking to her son, Oedipus.  The narration is supposed to take place right after Jocasta died, when she is looking back on her life.  She reveals that she has known all along that Oedipus is her son, and that she has not been ashamed of it.  She claims that her first husband, Laios, never loved her, and treated her as a possession instead of a lover.  The only thing able to give her happiness is her baby.  Laios is jealous and sickened by the pleasure Jocasta derives from the baby, so he drives a spike through Oedipus’ feet and leaves him to die.  Jocasta says that she knows from the moment she sees him as a man that Oedipus is her son.  It makes her finally happy again to feel loved and needed, both maternally and sexually.  This writing, of course, is only one person’s interpretation.  Though it is disturbing, it brings to life the logic behind the theory that Jocasta is aware of the truth throughout the story.
    However, a more widely accepted interpretation is that Jocasta realizes the truth as it is uncovered during the play.  She has had no ulterior motive in marrying her son.  It is probable that she may have been putting the pieces together throughout the play, but does not want to jump to any conclusions until she is sure of the circumstances.   During her final scene, she doesn’t want Oedipus to know the truth because she loves him and doesn’t want him to suffer.  Once she learns the truth she knows that she will kill herself, but she doesn’t want Oedipus to learn for she knows of the great anguish it would cause him.   In her final lines, Jocasta cries,  “Oh, Oedipus, Oedipus, I pray to god you never see who you are!” (p. 71, lines 1350-1351) and finally, “God help you, Oedipus- you were born to suffer, born to misery and grief” (p. 71, lines 1354-1356).  This shows her love and pity for Oedipus, and her maternal (and perhaps wifely) instinct to protect him from pain. Jocasta with Oedipus
    One also questions Jocasta’s faith in the gods in the play, which appears to be constantly changing.  She and Laios obviously must have had an abundance of faith to be willing to murder their son because of the word of a prophet.   However, during her first scene, Jocasta explains to Oedipus that “no mortal can practise the art of prophecy, no man can see the future” (p. 55, line 934).  She then supports her statement by telling Oedipus that the prophecy she was given about her son growing to kill his father and marry his mother never came to happen.   Later in the play, though, Jocasta gives an offering of incense and a branch to the gods, asking them to protect Oedipus and her.  This proves that she does in fact possess faith in the gods.  It seems that perhaps her faith in the gods is unchanging, though her beliefs in prophecies vacillates. The fact that her faith can fluctuate so drastically reveals much about Jocasta as a person.  She may not have any notion or firm belief as to what is right and wrong, and even if she does, she might choose not to follow those mores.
    Jocasta can also be seen in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, though her name has been changed to Epicaste:

I also saw fair Epicaste mother of king OEdipodes whose awful lot it was to marry her own son without suspecting it. He married her after having killed his father, but the gods proclaimed the whole story to the world; whereon he remained king of Thebes, in great grief for the spite the gods had borne him; but Epicaste went to the house of the mighty jailor Hades, having hanged herself for grief, and the avenging spirits haunted him as for an outraged mother- to his ruing bitterly thereafter (Homer 271-280).

    During this brief reference to Epicaste (Jocasta), there is no reference made to Oedipus’ self-induced blindness.  Instead, he continues to reign as King of Thebes.  It is made clear, however, that Epicaste is completely unaware that she has married her son, and that she kills herself out of grief for what has transpired.  Some might say that this alternate ending might imply blame and punishment being put predominantly, or even solely, on the female figure.  Though both are unaware of their true relationship, Epicaste takes the blame for what had happened.  She takes her own life, which is not considered to be inappropriate for the situation, while Oedipus is able to remain king.
    This interpretation could even allude to the story of Adam and Eve.  Though both eat off of the forbidden fruit, Eve is given the blame for the fall from the Garden of Eden, and is punished far more severely than Adam by being given excruciating pain during childbirth.  Epicaste is similar to Eve, as she her punishment is much more unyielding than Oedipus’, though both were at fault.
    Jocasta is also portrayed in Euripides’ Phoenician Women.  In this interpretation, however, she lives long after the truth comes out and Oedipus blinds himself.  When she does kill herself, however, it is with a sword and over the bodies of her two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices.  This shows her maternal love for her sons again, though these two she does not marry.
    Many people have heard of the Oedipal Complex, which is the name given to the common feeling by males (especially young males) of being in love with their mothers.  The reverse condition, not as well known, is called the Jocasta Complex.  This describes mothers who possess feelings of being “in love” with their sons.  Cases of this are common.  Many people have heard the cliché of a mother who hates her daughter-in-law and wishes her son never to marry.  The mother wants her son solely for herself, and feels that since she gave birth to the son, she is entitled to achieve this desire.  Though named after Sophocles’ Jocasta, she did not experience this complex.  Though she is in love with Oedipus, she does not know at the time of their marriage that he is her son.
    Jocasta is probably one of the most well known yet misunderstood figures in literature.  Though everyone has an interpretation about the extent of her knowledge and feelings, her story is still, and will always be, interpretable.  It is most likely that Jocasta is just as innocent as Oedipus, and she does not consciously know that he is her son.  However, it is difficult to conceive of a mother unable to recognize her own son.   The readers must decide for themselves whether Jocasta’s actions are the result of a passionate love she shared with Oedipus, or if they are due to an unconscious (or conscious) maternal love for him.

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