Tragic Pity, Tragic Fear, and Jocasta

In literature, there exists an ample amount of filial wife and mother figures, women who will do everything to help and protect their husbands and children. However, perhaps one of the best known character is Jocasta, the wife and mother of Oedipus from the play Oedipus the King. In the play she acts as Oedipus’ wife who soothes and calms him, as well as provides crucial information regarding his origins. When she learns that she is actually Oedipus’ mother, she commits suicide. Despite her tragic end, however, we do not feel tragic pity and tragic fear for her because she does not possess a self of her own, her devotion towards her husbands does not reflect human qualities, and she is partially responsible for her outcome.

Tragic pity and tragic fear are both invoked by the fall of a great person. Tragic pity refers to the kind of pity that shows us what we are and what is precious in all of us (Sachs, 2005). Therefore, it goes beyond simple moralizations and sentimentality. Tragic fear, on the other hand, refers to the fear that the same thing will happen to us (Sachs, 2005). In order for us to feel tragic pity or tragic fear for a character, we must believe that the character does not deserve that fate (Konstan, 2001). Ultimately, we pity Oedipus because being the “everyman”, he suffers due to his hamartia – his quest to solve the riddle of his life – and we fear that like him, tragedy will befall us as we search for our truth.

While we may perhaps pity Jocasta for all her sufferings in the colloquial sense, we cannot pity her in the classical sense. We cannot do so because her life does not convey to us universal truths regarding the human condition. In other words, she does not invoke greatness. Her life always revolves around the happiness of her husbands, and she did not even step out the palace until Oedipus and her brother Creon started arguing. When Oedipus reveals to her the prophecies of “a mouthing seer” (40), she responded:

Oh then, altogether leave behind

these cares and be persuaded and consoled.

Well, there was a murder, yes,

but done by brigands in another land, they say,

Where three highways meet,

and secondly, the son, not three days old,

Is left by Laius (through other hands of course)

upon a trackless hillside,

his ankles riveted together.

So there! Apollo fails to make the son

his father’s murderer, and the father

(Laius sick with dread) murdered by his son.

The first sentence of Jocasta’s speech shows her devotion towards Oedipus. She is similarly devoted to Laius when she was married to him, as the second part of the speech shows her lack of hesitation in killing her newborn son just to appease the prophecy and save her husband. Although she later refers to the son as a “poor babe, who never killed a thing,” (46) here she describes the graphic details of the baby’s death almost with relief. It becomes obvious that she still cares deeply for her ex-husband, for she commits suicide while “sobbing Laius’s name (so long dead).” (70) Yet none of that emotion is shown when she mentions him here. This shows that her mind is concerned utterly with the well-being of her husband, or that at least she hides her emotions for her husband. Indeed, she makes no mention of her own happiness throughout the play. She even declares to Oedipus, “all my care is you, and all my pleasures yours.” (46) Even when she realizes the truth behind Oedipus’ origins, her focus is still on him, as she begs him to “[f]orget it all. It is not worth knowing.” (58). She is nothing more than a motherly figure for him. We cannot feel tragic pity for her because she does not have a self of her own, and there is no way we can relate to her.

It is for the same reason that while her end is sad, it does not evoke tragic fear in us. Firstly, she is led to her tragedy by her overwhelming concern over Oedipus, and not any other noble causes. Even though technically her husband Oedipus “reign[s] equally with her over all the realm,” (32) therefore giving her equal power and responsibility, what made her enter the stage is not the plague of Thebes, but Oedipus. Indeed, when Thebes was suffering under the plague, she “call at all the shrines” of Apollo “with these garlands and incense,” (48) on the behalf of Oedipus, not Thebes. She provides information regarding Laius because Oedipus demanded it. In terms of the shepherd that later proved to be pivotal to the unravelling of the truth, Oedipus was the one who tells her to “have him here.” (46). In essence, her sufferings were brought on by her need to help and protect Oedipus. Secondly, her devotion towards Oedipus does not universally resonate with us. When she finds out that her husband is in reality her son, she commits suicide. Yet she does not do so out of shame or guilt. She first attempts to stop him in his tracks, pleading to him “not to proceed.” (59). It is only when she realizes that there is no way to salvage her shattered paradigm does she quietly say to him, “there’s nothing else that I can call you know,” (60) before committing suicide. Without Oedipus as her husband, she just does not have the strength or will to carry on. Although motherly and spousal devotion is definitely a part of us, Jocasta’s devotion appears inhuman and illogical. Finally, she partially deserves her fate – she committed infanticide for the sake of Laius. It can almost be argued that her devotion towards Oedipus and her inability to live without him is her tragic flaw. In the end, we do not fear her fate, because we do not believe that we will suffer from the same consequences as her.

Jocasta’s role within the play is limited. She is merely a motherly archetype and a shadow of her husband Oedipus. Her life simply does not demonstrate enough intrinsic human qualities for us to have either tragic pity or tragic fear for her. While Oedipus, driven by his determination to save his city and his desire for knowledge, falls in a human way, Jocasta centers her life on Oedipus and could not see a way to live without him. Therefore, despite the tragic end of her life, she does not inspire tragic pity or tragic fear in us.

Work Cited

Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Poetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. Web.

Konstan, David. Pity Transformed. London: Duckworth, 2001. 181. Print.

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8 comments

    1. Thanks! Yeah. I got it back today.

      BTW, nice trolling… although you do realize that I can see your IP address, right? 😛

  1. Hey Weichen (Are you still awake?)
    – nice block quotation (You actually found one that works!!! I can’t…)

    – I don’t believe it’s correct to say “she did not invoke greatness” rather “she wasn’t great/something like that”

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