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English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus Complex Archive

Pity and Fear

In 1997, Prof. Donna Reiss (Tidewater Community College) gave her class this task--

In classical Greek tragedy, according to Aristblind Oedipusotle's Poetics, the audience undergoes a catharsis, a purgation of pity and fear. This catharsis is part of the resolution of the play, the drama's movement toward stability and social order.  Write a paragraph providing your own reflection on how these lines spoken to Oedipus by Jocasta evoke the emotions of fear and suffering in the audience:

And as for this marriage with your mother-- 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's no tomorrow!

Below are the best answers from those offered at that discussion forum on the Oedipus Complex.

Gordon R. sees Jocasta's blasť attitude as corrupt:  Jocasta is trying to state that she realizes that she is the mother of Oedipus. She is telling Oedipus that she does not mind being married to him and to live life to the fullest no matter what happens. She also refers to the dreams that men have of sleeping with their mothers. Jocasta tells her son not to worry about such thoughts because it is a normal act of human behavior. Jocasta wants her son to be happy no matter what he does, and does not care that he is her son. This invokes a sense of fear in the audience because they know that what they are doing is wrong. It, in a sense, foreshadows the upcoming events in the play and the audience realizes that something terrible is going to happen. No one is quite sure what is going to happen, but the way Jocasta finishes the quote leaves a sense of distress as well as a feeling of pity towards her son/husband.

Jennifer D. is shocked at Jocasta's suggestion that they continue:  Marrying your mother and having her children is strictly taboo!! That's just something that you don't do. For Jocasta to tell her husband/son  not to worry, that  "many a man before you has shared his mother's bed" was wrong. It's kind of like saying," Well, what's been done is done. What can anyone do about it now? So we might as well make the best of it." Jocasta should never have told Oedipus that it was ok, and not to worry. These lines in the play create fear in the audience, because they already know the truth--that Jocasta is his mother.

Joy E. notes the confluence of lies and fate to mitigate blame on Oedipus:  Jocasta's plea for Oedipus not to seek her first husband's killer evoked such pity and and fear because the audience is aware of the killer's name before the play begins; however, the suspense lies in how the characters of the play deal with the cards that they are dealt. Although we know that what Oedipus has done is morally wrong, we also pity him because he had no idea that the life he knew to be real was actually a lie. His misfortunes came from the lies his foster parents told to give him a normal childhood, hiding the fact that he was adopted; therefore, one cannot place full blame onto Oedipus.  Hence, we fear for him as he pushes to find out the truth, because he is trying to save the city he rules from a plague placed on it by the gods--but the truth could cost him everything.

Sean I. stresses the horror in the king's situation: The lines spoken by Jocasta, Oedipus's wife and mother, bring fear and pity to the audience in that we can all relate to the dread that Oedipus must have felt at hearing the truth. Not every man thinks about "sharing his mother's bed," so the thought of this possibility gives us a sense of horror and makes us pity this king who has so overstepped the moral laws of normal society.

Samantha P. suggests a political motive: In the lines spoken by Jocasta, she tries to make sense of what Oedipus has done by saying other men have dreamt to do the things that he has done, like share a bed with his mother. By making sense of things, she is easing the fear of the crowd.

Cathy D. wonders if reality could imitate fiction: Oedipus was appalled when he found out Jocasta was his mother. Jocasta's words created fear and suffering in the audience because they viewed the marriage bed as sacred. Furthermore, they might have wondered if they too were in the same situation.

Andreas K. sees Jocasta's disbelief in prophecy [or seems to in order to spare Oedipus pain]: Those words spoken by Jocasta evoke the emotions of fear and suffering in the audience, because the audience already knows the plot of the play, and the ending. She does not believe in the prophecy, and she says to Oedipus to disregard it, which is something obscured for the audience. She is afraid of what will happen if Oedipus finds out who he really is.

Julia W. sees the couple both as husband and wife and as mother and son: When Jocasta tells Oedipus to live like there is no tomorrow, the audience can fear death in these words. If there was no tomorrow, there would be people in this life for whom that very thought would not be peaceful. The audience feels the suffering of a mother and her son who have unknowingly become husband and wife. It is a shameful thought, but yet Jocasta did love Oedipus as a wife would love a husband.

Teresa M. points to sin and guilt: Jocasta's words cause fear, because she is talking about a deadly sin. A sin so mighty that the Gods blighted the land. I believe this was Jocasta's way of trying to save the son she had sent to his death, also possibly a way of saving her other children. She obviously felt it was a sin she couldn't live with as she killed herself rather than go on living.

Gerald T. acknowledges the difference between thinking and acting: People don't like to consider the evils that go through their minds. They are mortified that someone might know their deepest thoughts. In reality, all people have the same thoughts deep down. It is only natural to do so. Only when you act upon those thoughts does it become immoral. Those who don't have the restraint to ignore those black thoughts are the ones who end up in bad situations. They allow themselves the pleasures that the mind desires, and then they lose all respect in the eyes of society. This is probably the reason Oedipus was so concerned that the prophecy might come true.

R. T. sees wisdom in Freud's theory: I believe that most young men have this dream at some point in their adolescent years. It is the first step in becoming an individual, part of the severing of the umbilical cord process, but this is a dream that we keep to ourselves; it is a secret dream which we keep locked deep in our psyches. We need to believe that no one else can see it. When we see this dream being played out on stage, exposed in front of so many people, we panic because in our subconscious we are the actors, and this play is our dream.


Lisa (1999) pities Oedipus because of his integrity: "I definitely think that Oedipus was a very good leader, father, son, and (if you take the element of incest out) a good husband too. He was a truly admirable human being... with faults of course (his impulsiveness, temper and hubris). But these traits are possibly the results of his situation (i.e., origins in bestial Cithaeron, lack of knowledge about his identity/distinction between generations). I think his integrity overrides these traits and stands out against his nasty fate, and that is what makes me inclined to pity him."


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logotest.gif (2025 bytes) This site was developed by Professor Eric Hibbison of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, under a Courseware Grant from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) in Fall, 1997, and renovated under a VCCS Commonwealth Course grant in 2003 with the addition of the archive for the 1997-2003 forum on Oedipus the King.  If you have comments or suggestions about this site, email them to Prof. Hibbison at jsrlogo.gif (7866 bytes)