In the play Oedipus the King, Queen Jocasta illustrates the devastating effects of perpetuating ones sin rather than confronting it. Motivated to hide her own shame, Jocasta sets into motion and perpetuates a series of events that she intended to prevent, but ultimately accepts at Oedipus expense. Throughout the play she attempts to hide the truth by deceit and feigned disbelief.
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Long before the play ever begins Jocasta sets into motion the events that lead up to the tragic ending of Oedipus the King. She was so ashamed to be the mother of a child with such a dismal future that she had him cast out onto a mountain. By this action and her lack of action as a parent she decided Oedipus destiny. This is the first example of Jocastas s shame and deceit.
my son he wasn t three days old and the boy s father fastened his ankles, had a henchman fling him away on a barren, trackless mountain.
Jocasta most certainly cast-out her son because of the shame he brought on her. Later in lines 1289-1291 we see the herdsman testify that Jocasta was the one who gave him the child with the charge to kill it. Now she is ashamed of what she did and to free herself from that guilt she consciously lies to herself and those around her about what happened.
When Oedipus comes to Thebes before the beginning of the play, Jocasta s shame is compounded. Jocasta knew the prophecy that foretold the death of her husband by her son s hand, and her probable incestuous marriage. She believed the prophecy and had her son cast-out because of it. After her husband had died, a young stranger from a foreign land was to take her for his wife. Jocasta quickly identified this stranger, Oedipus, as her son from long ago. Her understanding of the prophecy, Oedipus ankles, the sending away of the only witness to the murder of her husband, and her calmness after hearing Tiresias accusations indicate that she knew Oedipus true identity before their nuptial. Why did Jocasta marry Oedipus knowing he was her son? If Jocasta did not marry Oedipus she would have to give some reason. Had she cited the prophecy and said that he was her son she would heap shame on her head. She would have to publicly shame her son and herself by acknowledging that her son killed his father, her husband tried to kill her son and the prophecy was being fulfilled even after she tried to prevent it. Marrying and coupling with her son, with no one ever knowing the truth, was the only way Jocasta could escape public and private humiliation.
Jocasta knowingly chose to fulfill the prophecy, while Oedipus was unaware, in order to hide her shame and guilt. She made herself believe that if the prophecy was fulfilled and no one was the wiser she and her son could live the rest of their lives as a happy couple free of public shame or guilt. Even so, Jocasta could not free herself from the shame she knew she bore. She lived a life of lies and publicly dismissed the prophecy, which she knew to be true, in order to convince herself and those around her that all was well. Jocasta used the word thieves while others use the word travelers to describe the killer(s) of King Laius. She repeatedly tried to convince Oedipus that there was no credibility in what the oracles prophesied.
A prophet? Well then, free yourself of every charge! Listen to me and learn some piece of mind: no skill in the world, nothing can penetrate the future. Here is proof, quick and to the point.
She goes on to tell of the birth and casting-out of her son and of the death of Laius, in an attempt to prove the prophets have no credibility (knowing all along that they are correct in every detail). Despite her effort to convince Oedipus of the unimportance of the prophecy Oedipus could not be convinced. Jocasta begins to become desperate. Her entire world, a world of lies, would crumble if the truth were discovered.
Jocasta s actions might appear to be the calming role of a wife in this situation, but her motives are more self-centered. She knows the prophecy has been fulfilled and if Oedipus discovers it her shame and guilt will be laid bare for all to see. This fact becomes more obvious when the messenger from Corinth arrives. Oedipus begins to see how a horrible trap is squeezing around his neck. Jocasta knows she set the trap long ago, a trap for Oedipus as well as herself. She knows Oedipus is close to springing this trap and begs him to stop probing the issue.
Stop in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search! My suffering is enough.
Jocasta has suffered privately for years and years, but nothing is more terrifying to her than the public discovering her shame.
Oedipus, bent on discovering the truth about his birth, dashes all of Jocasta s hopes of abandoning the search.
Hurry, fetch me the herdsman, now! Leave her to glory in her royal birth.
Jocasta s shame of course is his royal birth. The truth is close at hand. All of her lies and shame are about to be revealed and she is powerless to stop it. All she can do now is curse him with the name she gave him at birth when she tried to have him killed:
man of agony that is the only name I have for you, that no other ever, ever, ever!
At this moment she can t bear any more. The agony of her own sins, her own shame is bearing down with all its weight on her heart.
There is no escape for Jocasta from the trap she has set by her own actions and deceit. The only escape from her shame is suicide. Still true to form, in the last minutes of her life she is unable to acknowledge that she brought this all down on her own head. She blamed Laius. She wept for what had happened to her. Never once did she express regret or ask forgiveness for what she did to the lives of those close to her. In the end consumed by her own self pity and shame for what had been done to her she hung herself on the bed where she laid willingly with the son she was so shamed by.
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By her own actions Jocasta is a victim in Oedipus the King; but more, she is a catalyst for the victimization of others. Driven by her own prideful nature, her actions wove a net in which she and Oedipus were caught. The character Jocasta illustrates how one individual s crimes can affect those they love the most. Jocasta wanted Oedipus to be happy, but was unable to make it so because of her own shame. This is the universal truth of Oedipus the King: When we, like Jocasta, burden ourselves with private guilt or shame we are unable to freely and wholly loves those around us. Unfortunately, we may actually cause great pain in their lives, just as Jocasta did.
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