Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Character of Jocasta

A Moderate and Reasonable Woman
Jocasta has a brief but essential and crucial role to play in the drama. She appears on the stage just after Oedipus has had a quarrel with Creon and has declared his resolve to punish Creon with death. The very first speech of Jocasta shows her to be a moderate kind of person with a balanced mind.
She scolds both her husband and her brother for quarrelling over private matters when the city is passing through a critical phase of its existence. She calls upon her husband to go into the palace and advises Creon to go home. On learning the cause of the quarrel, she appeals to Oedipus to believe Creon’s assertions of innocence and not to distrust Creon’s oath. She pleads on Creon’s behalf not just because he is her brother but because she knows him to be a dependable man and a man of integrity. She insists on knowing from Oedipus why he has conceived such a terrible hatred against Creon.
Her Scepticism
Jocasta is frankly sceptical of prophecies and, therefore, is, according to the religious ideas of the time, guilty of irreverence towards the gods. She believes neither in the oracles nor in the interpreters of oracles. When Oedipus tells her that her brother has been using the prophet Teiresias as his tool, she unhesitatingly advises her husband not to attach any importance to prophets or soothsayers. She expresses the view that no human being possesses the power of divination (i.e., the power of knowing the unknown and probing into the mysteries of life). In a speech, which is a striking example of dramatic irony “in the play, she tries to prove her point with reference to the very prophecy the exact and complete fulfilment of which forms the theme of this whole play. She tells Oedipus of the prophecy which said that Laius was to die at the hands of his own son; she tells him of how Laius had taken measures to see that his child by her would perish on the mountain-side; she tells him that Laius had not died at the hands of his son. Jocasta’s story is intended to prove that oracles are not necessarily reliable. Her ultimate discovery of the true facts becomes all the more tragic in the light of this speech in which she denies the oracles.
Contribution to the Investigation of the Truth
Jocasta is the means by which Oedipus is enabled to make some progress in his investigation into the murder of Laius. The surviving member of Laius’s party alone can confirm or remove the suspicion which is now troubling Oedipus’s mind, the suspicion, namely, that he might himself be the murderer of Laius. Jocasta undertakes to summon that man, though she repeats that there is no such thing as divination. When the Corinthian messenger comes with his great news, Jocasta feels further confirmed in her view that divine prognostications are meaningless. She mocks the oracles when Oedipus comes to meet the Corinthian.
Her View of the Role of Chance and
Her Belief in Living at Random
Jocasta gives further expression to her philosophy of life when she urges Oedipus not to entertain fears of any kind. What has a man to do with fear? she asks. She is of the view that chance rules human lives and that the future is all unknown. Let human beings live as best as they can, from day to day. She favours living at random. As for Oedipus’s fear that he might marry his mother, men do such things only in their dreams. Such things must be forgotten, if life is to be endured. There is much in this philosophy that appeals to us. The only snag about his philosophy is that only a few moments later it is proved to be utterly false and Jocasta discovers to her horror that the oracles are after all true.
Her Sad End
After the discovery of the truth, Jocasta tries to prevent Oedipus from learning the truth, though he pays no attention to her. A little later we learn that she has hanged herself in her fit of sorrow and grief. She was seen calling upon her dead husband, Laius, remembering the son to whom she had given birth long before, the son who had killed his father, the son who became her husband and begot children by her. The end which Jocasta meets was the only right end for a woman in her position. It is an appropriate end for her, and this end contributes to the effect of catharsis which this play produces in full measure.
Her Scepticism and Impiety
Oedipus does not stand alone. Jocasta’s love and anxiety are always at his side. It is her tragedy that she actively leads Oedipus towards their common disaster, and that she realizes the truth gradually though always in advance of him. Jocasta is sceptical of oracles and is, therefore, impious from the traditional point of view. She certainly distinguishes between the god and the god’s priest when she tells the story of the oracle given to Laius; she speaks of the oracle as having come “not from Phoebus himself, but from his ministers.” But even so she is aware of the impiety implied in her words. When she mentions the story again, it is the god himself whom she blames, and feels no restraint in doing so. Although her advice to disregard all prophecies springs from her love for Oedipus, this is no explanation of her manifest impiety. The oracle is still the same, and it might have been easier to convince Oedipus of its untruth if she had again held the priests responsible and not the god. She is so full of love for her husband that she neglects and even despises the gods. And this is ample proof that, in her emotions as well as her brain, she has no religion. Her life is an unparalleled tragedy indeed; but she is at the same time truly impious. Her public prayer to Apollo is no more than an act of conventional duty, as her own words confirm. When the news of the death of Polybus comes, she does not thank the gods. With even more scorn than before she denounces the prophecies of the gods. She tries to allay Oedipus’s fear by explaining away the oracle with a rationalistic allusion to certain dreams and denies any belief in divine signs. Her impiety reaches its climax when she says that human beings have nothing to fear because their life is determined by the changes of Tyche; no foresight is possible, and to live at random is the best way to live. She proclaims the law of lawlessness and complete disregard of the gods and their warnings.
In a Moral Sense Neither Guilty Nor Innocent
Jocasta’s belief ends where Oedipus’s ends too, in replacing the gods by Tyche, in putting sceptical fatalism in the place of piety. But Jocasta always proceeds to the extreme possibilities when Oedipus is still reluctant and restrained; however, he always tries to comply with her thoughts. Whatever explanation may be accepted for Jocasta’s attitude to the gods, it will not explain what is behind and beyond it. She cannot be truly pious, and her scepticism is necessary because she is bound to perish on account of her incest. She shares Oedipus’s life and tragedy as the one person who loves him most and who is most loved by him. She, too, is in a moral sense neither guilty nor innocent. What she shows and stands for is that they both belong to a world of man-made standards. Piety is not sufficient, if it is not the unconditional acceptance of one’s fate at the hands of the gods.

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