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English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus the Wreck

Jocasta's Shame

Is Jocasta actually willing to live in incest with her son as long as the information isn't public? Since it was Jocasta, according to the herdsman in the next scene, who actually gave the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the mountainside, does Jocasta kill herself because she can't face Oedipus or because she can't face the public shame of their incest?

[Also, I need some back-story (motivation): Just as I ask why Oedipus would marry any woman older than he is when that prophecy is hanging over him, I have to ask why would Jocasta marry someone half her age, even if he's a hero and a hunk?  She knows the whole prophecy, though she only reports to Oedipus that half that concerned her husband being murdered.--EH]

Mercy-killing: Abby DC (1999) suggested Jocasta's intention was to spare her son by killing him: "I'm not sure that Jocasta was ashamed of giving up her baby because she and Laius honestly believed that they were doing the right thing. They felt that Oedipus was better off dead. That may sound cruel but any parent would want to stop their child's suffering and because the fate of the gods is so strong this was the only way to avoid causing Oedipus any pain in life. I think that she was so upset when Oedipus found out who he really was because she knew that he was a man of honor and she knew how hurt he would be by the truth of his parentage. Jocasta knew that Oedipus would take drastic measures to help the city of Thebes and to find Laius' killer even if it meant hurting himself. Jocasta was afraid of losing not only her second husband but also losing her son AGAIN!"

Jocasta sees the truth before Oedipus: Fran Tredway (JSRCC, 1997) stipulates Jocasta's real reason to try to get Oedipus to halt his investigation and her real reason for suicide: "Jocasta is aware that the truth may lead her family into ruins and begs Oedipus to 'give up now' [1160]. She says for him to 'Stop- in the name of god,/ if you love your own life, call off this search!/ My suffering is enough.' [1163] But Oedipus had the courage it took to find out even if it destroyed him, the truth about his birth. Jocasta tells Oedipus to 'have no fear. Many a man before you,/ in his dreams, has shared his mother's bed./ Take such things for shadows, nothing at all- /Live Oedipus,/ as if there is no tomorrow!' [1078].

"Jocasta begs Oedipus to stop, for she wants Oedipus to never find out the truth because it will reveal her part in the prophecy that SHE gave him to be killed so that he could not harm her and her husband. The shepherd tells Oedipus what he has feared and he is devastated: 'O- god-/ all come true, all burst to light! /O light - now let me look my last on you!/ I stand revealed at last -/ cursed in my birth, cursed in my marriage,/ cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!' [1310] These were the feelings too that Jocasta had been burdened with, and her burden was too much to bear, as the soldier reported: 'Flinging herself across the bridal-bed, doors slamming behind her-/ once inside she wailed for Laius, dead so long ago,/ the life that rose up to destroy him, leaving/ its mother to mother living creatures/ with the very son she'd borne./ Oh how she wept, mourning the marriage-bed where she let loose that double brood- monsters-/husband by her husband, children by her child.' Oedipus was enraged by the knowledge he had learned and ran to Jocasta with a sword. And 'there we saw the woman hanging by the neck' [1395]. She could not bear the agony of looking at her son, her husband, Oedipus, in the eyes. He was so grief-stricken that he took the brooches, 'the long gold pins/ holding her robes- and lifting them high, looking straight up into the points, he digs them down the sockets of his eyes' [1405]. She could not look at him nor the townspeople with the dreadful life she was apart of, just as he could not look at her and their life together."

Public Shame, Private Incest: Theresa Clarke (Northern Virginia Community College, 1998) filed this analysis of Jocasta as a less calculating, more reactive person than others have seen: "I don't believe that Jocasta was willing to live in an incestuous relationship with her son, which is why she committed suicide.

"When Jocasta runs to the apartment clutching her hair and cries 'Laius,' she has realized that Oedipus is her son and Tiresias has told the truth.

"She married her son who grew up to kill his father, marry his mother and conceive children through an incestuous relationship. The stanza at Line 25, 'a husband by her husband, children by her child' represents the depth of grief and horror she is experiencing.

"I don't believe that Jocasta has analyzed what this revelation will mean to the people of Thebes and what shame it will bring upon her and Oedipus.

"I also don't think she is concerned how Oedipus feels now that he has learned she abandoned him as a child.

"Jocasta is horrified when she learns the truth. She cannot face her children or Oedipus and commits a selfish act."

Secretive Jocasta: Fargo (1998) pinpoints Jocasta's decision point: "Jocasta is willing to live in incest as long as the facts remain private. She doesn't take her own life until Oedipus realizes the truth. She kills herself for fear of what he would think of her. Mike Weaver (1998) agreed: "Jocasta was trying to get Oedipus to stop looking into the death of Laius because she knew the truth. She would have lived the rest of her life married to her son and not told a sole. She killed herself because she did not want to face everyone because of the deranged person she was."

Jo Knew: Sharon (Northern Virginia CC, 1998) assumes Jocasta had known Oedipus was her son for a long time: "I believe that Jocasta was scared for Oedipus to find out that she was the one who gave him away. It's a terrible thought that your own mother would give you away. She was already married to him and she kept the incest a secret for so long that I don't think that was the main issue."

Self-Delusion: Julie Alexander (NVCC, 1999) believed Jocasta unwittingly committed incest with her son:  "I think that Jocasta killed herself because of her own shame and public humiliation. I would imagine that she talked herself into believing that the child that she abandoned had died and that Oedipus was not her son. How else could she have" married Oedipus and bore him children?

If Jocasta Knew All Along, Why Didn't She Say Something?  Kevin Ollivier (1999) suggested that Jocasta stayed silent to spare her son: "One thought that occured to me after thinking about it was that Jocasta had to at least suspect what was going on since day 1. After all, she knew the prophecy, she knew her husband had died, and she now had a new husband - with swollen feet no less. She knew her child had his feet bound as a child, therefore the child's feet would become swollen, and it does all fit with the prophecy.

So if she did know, why did she do it? If she didn't, she would shame her son both privately and publicly if she did not allow him to marry her and cited the prophecy. She would then be accusing him of killing the king, and his own father. Not to mention that she may have hated Laius for trying to kill Oedipus. So in a sense her own personal shame would be superceded by the fact that her son was ok and living life as a king."

Weighing the Possibilities: Brendan Sheppard (1999; Northern Va. CC) considered whether Jocasta could have known:  "It is an intriguing idea: Could Jocasta have known all along? The longer you look at it, the harder it seems for her to have not known. But then it seems equally likely that she did not know. Her words show her not to be a stupid woman, rather she seems to believe in free will rather than destiny. She knows that her husband was destined to be murdered by his son, and he is murdered by an unknown person or persons, suspected to be foreign robbers. She could have taken this either as a doubt put to rest-relieved that her husband had been killed, and not by his son; or she could have become more troubled by it, the actual killer(s) not having been captured. Jocasta then remarries. If she had feared the curse, wouldn't she have vowed not to remarry? Or was she assured in the knowledge that the infant son she had saved could not have grown up to be the prince of Corinth, son of Polybus. When Oedipus is convinced that her brother Creon is the killer, and that Creon used the seer to pin the blame on him, she is forced to "soothe" him. She tells Oedipus that seers can't be trusted and relays the curse of the oracle to him. Did she truly believe that the curse had proved false and leave out her role in sparing the baby and the incest-part of the curse only to not be distasteful in the eyes of her husband; or is she just trying to lead him away from the truth that she knows, not realizing how much she has let slip? I don't know. "

Agreed: Janine (2000) of Thomas Nelson CC amplified Brendan's suspicion that Jocasta must have known: "I agree with Brendan, it is hard to fathom that Jocasta did not know who Oedipus was, although she was aware of the prophecy. But I think also that she believed that fate had leaped over her sons head, and that she had found a man to who she could love with no shame. When she does realize that Oedipus is her son, she immediately begins call him names because she wants him to just leave the issue alone. She would rather let him live in the dark, and let it eat her up on the inside than to tell him of the tragedy herself and see if they could both live with it. I also think that she was a coward killing herself the way she did. She had known of this prophecy all of this time, and still chose to marry a man and have children with him not knowing his true background, and perhaps the fate that he had been given so long ago. If she were really smart, she would have not married a total stranger in her eyes, knowing why she had sent away her son so long ago."

Hypocritical Jo: Art (1998) said Jocasta didn't follow her own advice--and was a terrible liar: "I believe that Jocasta held so much shame that she killed herself. She had been lying for too long about too many things. One lie that she lived in that comes to me in a strong way is the lie regarding the prophecy. She told Oedipus not to trust the prophecies, but yet she trusted or feared the prophecy to such a degree that it caused her to give away her own son!! How can she live in such a lie as big as that? She talks against the very thing that drove her to be rid of her son. I feel that Jocasta is a terrible liar and it was the shame from her life of dishonesty that drove her to kill herself."

Calculating, Power-Hungry Jocasta: Artemis (1998) saw the queen, her brother, and her husband/son locked in a struggle for power: "Jocasta's issue is not one of shame but of power. She knows before the play starts that Oedipus is her son; the undertones of her words illustrate this, as well as the words themselves. Check out lines 975 to 985. Jocasta, Creon, and Oedipus are in a three way power struggle...Jocasta, by marrying her son, remains queen, which is a position of power, as opposed to the dead king's wife, which is a position of little power. Using this argument, the reason Jocasta commits suicide is not because she is ashamed; in contrast to Creon's passion throughout the play, Jocasta is coldly calculating...because of who she is, shame is not an option. Instead, her suicide is a result of the inevitable loss of power brought on by Oedipus's discovery. Also, he would've killed her anyhow, and she had to know this. It isn't about shame at's about personal power."

Jocasta Would Have Split with Oedipus If the Incest Hadn't Been Made Public: John Roberts (1999; Northern Va. CC) believed Jocasta would not have continued in incest: "I think its a stretch to assume that Jocasta would continue in the incestuous relationship with Oedipus. I would hope that if she could have prevented Oedipus from continuing to pursue the truth then she would have had an opportunity to "quietly" end the relationship without public humiliation and shame. When she realized that Oedipus was not going to stop until he knew the truth, then she said "may you never find out who you are" and rushed back into the palace where she killed herself? Also, if my memory serves me correctly, was it not Laius who commanded that the baby (Oedipus) be killed? And wasn't it Jocasta who met secretly with the servant and told him to just bind the baby's feet and leave him alive? Actually Oedipus may have been angry with Jocasta for letting him live so this stuff could happen."

Jocasta Didn't Know; See Her React in Disgust:   Lindsay Meidenbauer (1999; Attica High School) said Jocasta felt repulsed that she had committed incest, implying that she only sees it just before her husband-son does:  "I think Jocasta was repulsed when she found out the truth. She couldn't even stand to look or even touch Oedipus. She was so ashamed, embarrassed, and sick with herself, that she had to take her own life."  Sarah Meyer (1999; Attica H.S.) added the public motive but agrees Jocasta didn't know before: "Jocasta is not actually willing to live in the shame of incest with her son, Oedipus. She did not have any idea who he was until it was too late. Jocasta thought her son died the day she gave it to the shepherd. That was totally the wrong thing to do but that is another story. She killed herself because she cannot live knowing what she did with Oedipus and because she can't face the public. She is embarrassed not to have realized the wrong she did sooner."

Roberta Herndon, October 15, 2004 (posted by permission of the student) 

Jocasta’s (Iokaste) Public vs. Private Shame

Q: Is Jocasta actually willing to live in incest with her son as long as the information isn’t public?  Since it was Jocasta, according to the herdsman in the next scene, who actually gave the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the mountainside, does Jocasta kill herself because she can’t face Oedipus or because she can’t face the public shame of their incest?

Reply:  I believe that Jocasta was willing to live in an incestuous relationship with her son as long as the general public didn’t find out.  It is debatable as to why she would marry someone half her age when she is aware of the prophecy.  I suppose that it is possible that, at one time, she believed her son to be dead; possibly at the time of their marriage.  It is clear, though, that she became aware of the terrible situation prior to the events of the play.  I do believe, however, that Oedipus had no idea that he was laying down with his biological mother.  After learning about his “father’s” death, Jocasta tries to reassure him that the prophecy is nonsense because Polybus died of natural causes and not at the hands of Oedipus.  In scene 3, line 63, Oedipus replies, “And yet—must I not fear my mother’s bed?”  This statement proves that he believes he has escaped the prophecy by fleeing Corinthe.  He probably believed that marrying the murdered king’s wife was the right and proper thing to do, given the situation. 

Jocasta, on the other hand, had no such logical excuse.  As stated earlier, the possibility certainly exists that, at the time of their marriage, she was oblivious to the true identity of Oedipus.  It shouldn’t have taken her long, however, to see the scarring and swelling on his ankles.  She obviously chose to say nothing and continue the incestuous relationship with him.  The reason for this, however amoral and repugnant, could simply be that living with Oedipus in this way was her only option in being with her son again.  While that may partially be so, I also believe that she wanted to continue holding her rank as queen.  Along with the power of being queen, comes a certain level of pride and selfishness, which brings me to my next point.  I believe her suicide was a direct result of her inability to face the people Thebes once her monumental indiscretions are realized.  In scene 3, lines 66-69, she says, ”Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother/How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers!/No reasonable man is troubled by these things.”  I believe that, not only is she trying to console herself, but also trying to make Oedipus believe that he is being unreasonable for his persistence towards the truth.  When her efforts to halt his inquiries are failing, she says in line 139, “For God’s love, let us have no more questioning!”  She does not want him to find out the truth about his past because she knows that it would then be made public.  Beseeching him one last time, she says in line 144, “Listen to me, I beg you: do not do this thing!”  Oedipus, disregarding her pleas, says in line 145, “I will not listen; the truth must be known.”  Jocasta, coming to the grave comprehension that she is left with no further options says, in line 148, “You are fatally wrong!  May you never learn who you are!”  The reference to him being “fatally wrong”, foreshadows her suicide. 

He comes to see her pride and belief in her own self-importance in line 150 by saying, “Let us leave this woman to brag of her royal name.”  She states that miserable is the only word that she has for him.  She knows that he will not only be miserable when he finds out who he really is, but also when he learns of her death.  Oedipus further mentions Jocasta’s proud nature in lines 158-159, “The Queen, like a woman, is perhaps ashamed/To think of my low origin.”  Who would know one’s personality better than their spouse?

In the end, I believe that Jocasta was willing to live in incest with Oedipus so long as the truth remained a secret kept from him and the people of Thebes.  Her attempts to subdue his wish for the whole story, no matter how ugly, were simply brushed aside.  She could no longer bear her own private pain, much less the pain and judgment of an entire city, should her misguided relationship go public.  She put herself before those most important in her life.  It is said that suicide is a selfish act and what more could one expect from such a self-serving woman?


The Price of Knowing the Truth

by Ashley Thacker (posted by permission of the student)

I think that Jocasta killed herself for a number of reasons. I don’t think that she could face Oedipus, nor the public about what was going on in her family. I am sure that deep down inside that she is ashamed of having to face what was really going on. I think that she was probably also disappointed in knowing that the prophecies are starting to come true, and that her own son, who she thought was dead, now is her husband, the father of her children, and the murderer of his own father. I think that she wanted to end her life before the news went public, and all of the people who looked up to her now disapprove of her. She started to feel guilty about what was going on, and she was also probably starting to feel stupid about marrying a man who was half her age in the first place.

            After she starts hearing the stories that are being said, she starts to get curious about it, and is asking questions like “first of all what has happened”. She wants to know what they are talking about. When she hears the part of the story where Laios was killed by his own son, she started to not believe it because their son was given away and left for dead when he was less than three days old. She thought that it couldn’t be possible for his son to kill him because he was supposed to be dead.

            I don’t think that she knew that Oedipus was her son at first, but after stories were being said, people were talking, and things were starting to fall into place for her. She knew that once he figured out what was going on, that he wouldn’t believe it, he would act in a weird manner, and she wouldn’t be able to live with him. After all, I’m sure she didn’t think that she could live with herself knowing what she knew, so she didn’t. She thought that she would be better off dead, and she took her own life. In the end it was just too much for her to handle. At least she knew the truth about how her husband died before she took her life.

Q. from the teacher:  What I have wondered for a long time is whether Jocasta would continue her relationship with her husband-son as long as his true identity was not revealed openly to her or the people.

Ashley's answer:  I don't think that she would be able to live with herself. I don't think that she would have been able to keep it to herself, and I think that she still would have gone crazy and killed herself. It would have been too hard to keep it a secret.

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