What is the role of women in Sophocles's Oedipus the King?
This is a tricky question because the women in the play are mostly offstage, with the exception of Jocasta, Oedipus's mother/wife. The other women specifically mentioned in the text include Merope, Oedipus's foster mother, Ismene and Antigone, his daughters, and, as another educator cannily noted, the Sphinx (who, although not human, is female). Finally, the ordinary women of Thebes should also be considered.
The women of Thebes form a large part of the crowd of supplicants at the palace at the opening of the play. The Chorus of Elders speaks on their behalf, telling Oedipus of the suffering of the Thebans in the plague and how "by no birth of offspring do women surmount the pangs in which they shriek." Their babies are dying, along with their husbands, brothers, sisters, and friends:
With such deaths, past numbering, the city perishes. Unpitied, her children lie on the ground, spreading pestilence, with no one to mourn them. Meanwhile young wives and grey-haired mothers raise a wail at the steps of the altars, some here, some there, and groan in supplication for their terrible woes.
These women bring the problem to Oedipus's doorstep, begging him (through the Chorus) to do something to stop the plague and heal the city.
The Sphinx was the "hard songstress" who sat before the gates of Thebes and devoured any passerby who could not answer her riddles. Her presence prevented most travel in or out of the city, and when Oedipus slew her, he was hailed as a hero and crowned the king of Thebes. It must be remembered, however, that Oedipus was only crowned as the king because the previous king, Laius, had died in a roadside skirmish . . . with Oedipus. His unavenged death is the cause of the current plague in Thebes, and when Oedipus asks why no one ever tried to find Laius's killer, Creon snaps,
The riddling Sphinx had forced us to let things that were obscure go, and to investigate the pressing trouble.
The Sphinx is the reason Oedipus was made king, which enabled him to marry his mother, Jocasta, who had been Laius's wife. The Sphinx is also the reason that no one realized that Oedipus was Laius's killer—a monster at the city gates is arguably more "pressing trouble" than an unfortunate encounter with a random stranger. The Sphinx's existence both obscured Oedipus's crime and propelled him into Jocasta's arms. He fulfilled his fate by marrying his mother and remained oblivious to the fact that he had done so.
Merope is Oedipus's foster mother who raised Oedipus from infancy as her own son. However, the Oracle reveals that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother; Oedipus is horrified, and still believing that Merope and Polybus are his true parents, he flees to Thebes to avoid his fate. Alas, he walks right into it.
Merope had the opportunity to set things straight when Oedipus asked her who his real parents were. She opted to hide the truth and like the Sphinx thereby ensured that Oedipus would fulfill his fate.
Jocasta is Oedipus's beloved wife. She was previously married to Laius. She is also Oedipus's mother. When Oedipus was born, an oracle of Apollo came to Laius and said that he was destined to be slain by his son. Laius consequently "pinned [the baby's] ankles together and had him thrown, by others' hands, on a remote mountain," thinking thus to avoid his fate. The man tasked with killing Oedipus instead gave the baby to a servant of Merope's, and the servant took the baby to Merope to raise. Jocasta has no knowledge of this, however, and she is blissfully ignorant of the fact that her child survived to kill his father and marry her. When Oedipus starts to untangle the awful truth, Jocasta at first cannot believe it, but as he gets closer to uncovering his identity, she suddenly realizes who he must be. She begs him to stop now, before he learns the truth:
For the gods' sake, if you have any care for your own life, do not continue this search! My anguish is enough.
Oedipus is also afraid to know the truth, but he cannot stop until he has learned it all. Jocasta, in horror and despair, cries out:
Alas, alas, miserable man—that word alone can I say to you—and no other word ever again.
She rushes into the palace where she hangs herself, unable to live with what she has unwittingly done. She, like Merope, tries to obscure the truth from Oedipus, but unlike Merope, Jocasta has not known this truth all along; she only realizes at the last instant what the facts must be. She is a victim of Oedipus's fate, rather than an enabler of it.
Ismene and Antigone are Oedipus's sisters/daughters, the children of Oedipus and his mother/wife, Jocasta. They say nothing in the play but are living symbols of Oedipus's doom and the curse that he has brought upon his family by fulfilling his fate. In murdering his father, he tainted his children's honor, but in marrying his (and their) mother, he tainted his children's being. They are destined to be shunned by all people henceforth. Oedipus grieves for them now that he realises their true nature and says:
For you also do I weep, though I cannot see you, when I think of the bitter life that men will make you live in days to come. To what company of the citizens will you go, to what festival, from which you will not return home in tears, not sharing in the holiday? But when you reach a ripe age for marriage, who shall he be, who shall be the man, my daughters, to risk taking upon himself the reproaches that will certainly be baneful to my offspring and yours? What misery is lacking? . . . The man does not live, no, it cannot be, my children, but you will wither in barren maidenhood.
Ismene and Antigone do not do anything to Oedipus; their role is more like that of the women of Thebes in that they bring the problem to Oedipus's attention. They are the proof of Oedipus's monstrous crimes, and they will be punished simply for existing as his daughters. He cannot even see them now—he tore his eyes out—but the magnitude of his fate is inescapable.
This is an interesting question because the only female character in the play who has a speaking role is Oedipus' mother/wife, Jocasta (Iocasta). Jocasta tries to mediate the dispute between Oedipus and Creon. Initially, she tries to comfort Oedipus when he worries about the prophecies that he will kill his father and marry his mother, but once she realizes that he is on the verge of discovering the truth, he tries to persuade him not to investigate the matter further.
Other women mentioned in the play include Merope, whom Oedipus believed was his mother. Because of the prophecy about sleeping with his mother, Oedipus left the house of Polybus and Merope in hopes of avoiding the prophecy.
Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene appear at the end of the play, but do not speak. Oedipus is heartbroken when they are taken away from him at the end of the play.
Another female presence in the play that we should not overlook is the Sphinx, whose riddle Oedipus solves. In some ways, the Sphinx embodies the power that women have over men. Women drive and inspire men to take risks, to do daring deeds, and to inquire into difficult matters. Oedipus rose to his greatest heights when he solved the Sphinx's riddle.
So, in Oedipus the King, the roles of women are manifold: mediator, comforter, cautioner, objects of heartfelt affection, and inspiration.
In ancient Athenian society, the role of women was very limited. They existed primarily in the domestic sphere, and their lives were quite separate from those of men. They were normally married immediately upon reaching puberty, often as young as 12 or 13. That means that Jocasta in this play might have still been in her thirties when Oedipus married her.
Jocasta is seen in two roles in the play: she is a wife and a mother. Her function as a wife is obviously to bear children, but as the wife of a king, she also represents continuity of the hereditary monarchy and thus confers a certain authority or legitimacy upon her husband. It should be noted, though, that she does not herself chose her husband but is simply married to a man selected for her by powerful men. As a mother, her main responsibility is producing heirs. Her lines are mainly concerned with the maintenance of the family. She is concerned that Oedipus will cause suffering with his pursuit of a solution to the plague.
In the play, she is portrayed as passive. Although she ends up committing incest, she is discussed more as a carrier of ritual pollution than an active agent. Her suicide is a solution for her to the problem of her situation; we do not get a sense that there is any other possible form of expiation available to her.