Jocasta’s role and character development

Jocasta first enters the play at the height of the quarrel between Oedipus and Kreon. She immediately slips on the role of peacekeeper, attempting to appease the two. The manner in which Jocasta addresses Kreon and Oedipus, and they in turn her, is resemblant of the relationship between a mother and her children – she at first admonishes them for “petty personal bickering” and tells them that they “should be ashamed”. Kreon attempts to explain their situation and leads off with “Jocasta, …” and Oedipus follows with “I caught him plotting against me, Jocasta”, acting as two quarrelling children might. This is the first instance in the play where Jocasta’s role as Oedipus’s lover merges with that of a mother, alluding to Oedipus’s past and simultaneously foreshadowing the truth that he is about to discover.

Jocasta’s predicament resembles Oedipus’s in the irony in her fate – the root of all of her (and Oedipus’s) suffering can arguably be discovered in the action that Laois and her took upon hearing the oracle’s prophecy. The audience finds out about their abandonment of Oedipus when she mentions it like a trivial detail, in a very ironic explanation as to why she does not believe in the prophecies of Oracles. Jocasta blames Laois for Oedipus’s fate as a young child (“when Laois had his feet pierced…”) and, although she seems to feel some guilt or at least sadness about the event – “my poor child”, Jocasta tells the story unapologetically. This event in Jocasta’s past mirrors the role that Oedipus’s unconscious murder of Laois plays in his life – both characters underestimate the importance of their transgressions.

Jocasta is the first character in Oedipus the King to truly understand the circumstances of Oedipus’s past and how he unconsciously fulfilled the prophecies told of him, but even before her ‘big revelation’ sometime between pages 68 and 70, the audience sees how she puts together the pieces of the puzzle, however unbeknownst to her. This ties into the emotional development that Jocasta undergoes throughout the play. Early on she declares, upon being prompted to leave: “not before I know what has happened here”.  On page 57 she tells Oedipus that Laois was “built something like you”, and we see her enter a stage of fear and denial shortly thereafter as she says “you frighten me” and “I’m afraid to ask” – although she does not know the complete truth yet, Jocasta is beginning to fear Oedipus’s impending revelation and the implications that it holds for her.

The queen is ecstatic when she learns of Polybos’s death because (she believes) that it proves the prophecies to be false. “The sky has cleared” Jocasta says, ironically, because it is the discovery of Polybos’s death that leads into the truth about Oedipus’s early years that the queen is attempting to forget. Jocasta stays quiet throughout the dialogue with a messenger where it comes to light that Oedipus was not really Polybos’s son and that he was found with his feet tied together, which is also where the audience can place the moment of her revelation. At this point, Oedipus becomes more frantic as he senses that he is close to the truth, but Jocasta on the other hand completely changes her attitude. “What man? Forget about him”, she implores, attempting to stop Oedipus from discovering the truth that has just dawned on her. Her motivations for this are made clear when she declares “Isn’t my anguish enough” – she wishes to spare Oedipus of the pain that the truth carries for him. Upon failing to do so, Jocasta becomes deeply sorrowful. Her lack of anger towards Oedipus for his patricide makes it clear that she holds herself and not him responsible for the tragic events in his life. This feeling of guilt culminates in Jocasta’s suicide, for she has no-one left to blame but herself.


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