Historically, the incest theme in literature has varied less in its depiction than in its moral subtexts. Incestuous marriages were commonplace in writings describing the lives of the gods of ancient peoples. Isis and Osiris, gods of the Egyptians, were brother and sister before they were husband and wife—a situation duplicated by the Grecian gods’ incestuous couplings. Further, the literary actions of the gods set a standard for human actions; the Oedipus myth is based on the desire for incestuous union. In the Old Testament, various of God’s chosen become involved in incestuous unions; Lot with his daughters and Abraham with his half sister, among others.
Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus (c. 429 b.c.e.) has been central in incest literature. Oedipus kills his father and marries Jocasta, his mother—each act having been predicted by an oracle and performed without knowledge or suspicion of kinship. In the literature of the medieval period and during the Renaissance, the incest theme is occasionally present, but it was not until John Ford’s drama ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629?) was performed that it was treated by a serious writer in the English language.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the theme of incest was uncommon, although the Marquis de Sade did mention it briefly among many other vices. It was primarily the nineteenth century that drew upon incest themes in...
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