The Infernal Machine

by Jean Cocteau

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Characters Discussed

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Oedipus (EH-deh-puhs), the son of Jocasta and Laius, sovereigns of Thebes. A ruthless, smug, conceited, headstrong, and ambitious young man, he was found on the mountain when still an infant, taken to Polybus and Merope, sovereigns of Corinth, and adopted by them. To escape the dire prediction of the oracle of Delphi, he leaves home and sets out to kill the Sphynx so that he can marry Queen Jocasta and become king of Thebes. Although he was given the answer to the riddle by the Sphynx, he believes himself to be a hero in defeating her and revels in his illusory triumph. After seventeen years of false happiness, the infernal machine crushes its victim by unfolding the dreadful truth. The old man whom he had killed on his way to the Sphynx was his real father, and the woman whom he married was his real mother. Frantic with despair, he blinds himself with Jocasta’s pin. The Oedipus of this play is very different from Sophocles’ character. He is devoid of any heroic qualities. He is deliberately blind, ignores all the signs that should warn him of his imminent downfall, and lies to himself and to others. Far from being a hero, he is a derisory puppet manipulated by fate.


Jocasta (joh-KAS-tuh), the queen of Thebes, Laius’ widow and Oedipus’ mother. An eccentric, vain, sensual, capricious, and lonely woman with a strong foreign accent, she shows an irresistible physical attraction to young men. Thus predisposed to incest, she is unable to hear the desperate warnings of her husband’s ghost or to interpret the many signs that warn of her impending fate. When she finally learns the truth, she hangs herself with her scarf. Only then does the down-to-earth, ordinary woman regain heroic grandeur. Like Oedipus, she is a ludicrous instrument of fate.

The Sphynx

The Sphynx, the goddess of vengeance, an ambiguous creature, half human and half god, who slaughters the young men of Thebes after asking them a riddle, killing those who cannot solve it. Although she is endowed with supernatural powers, she also demonstrates human weaknesses. She first appears as a young girl, weary of killing for the god Anubis. She dreams of sacrificing herself in helping a mortal she could love to triumph over destiny. She tries to make herself attractive to Oedipus and reveals the secret of the riddle to him, thereby allowing him to slay her. She becomes furious after his speedy and triumphant departure. As it turns out, her sacrifice is but another trap set by a higher force, intent on ensnaring her as well as her victim.


Anubis (eh-NEW-bihs), the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead. At the Sphynx’s side, he constantly reminds her of her role in the infernal machine set up by fate.


Tiresias (ti-REE-see-uhs), the high priest, an aged and blind seer watching over the queen, who calls him Zizi. He tries in vain to admonish Jocasta and Oedipus against their imminent marriage. Gazing into his blind eyes, Oedipus starts to see the unfolding of his destiny, but at the crucial moment, he becomes momentarily blind himself. Tiresias’ ailing eyes contain the horrendous truth, but Oedipus has not quite deciphered it. Tiresias embodies the last obstacle to Oedipus and Jocasta’s wedding.

The ghost of King Laius

The ghost of King Laius (LAY -uhs), a pitiful, tormented ghost who scares no one and who does not seem to be able to appear and disappear at will or to convey his message to the living. He desperately tries, but in...

(This entire section contains 728 words.)

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vain, to prevent the union of the mother and the son. He contributes to the supernatural and tense atmosphere of the play.

The old shepherd

The old shepherd, who was ordered by Jocasta to abandon Oedipus in the wilderness so that he could avoid the oracle. Filled with pity for the infant, however, he took Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, sovereigns of Corinth, who adopted him. Summoned now by Oedipus, he tells his story, giving proof that the old man whom Oedipus killed was his father and that Jocasta is his mother.

The Voice

The Voice, which serves as a prologue. It tells in advance the whole story of the myth, urging the audience to watch out for the slow uncoiling of the infernal machine designed by the gods to annihilate a mortal man.




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