How do honor-shame, collectivism, extended family, and pollution influence the actions of characters and the plot in The Phoenician Women? How do these cultural codes interact?

Quick answer:

In the first lines of the play, honor and shame play a role. Jocasta’s summary of Oedipus’s predicament demonstrates shame in what he’s done and honor in his self-harm. But Eteocles and Polyneices remain fully ashamed of their dad. Their shame propels their deaths, the death of their mom, and the banishment of Oedipus and Antigone.

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In Euripides’s tragedy, Phoenician Woman, honor and shame play a role in the characters’ actions right away. Consider the first lines spoken by Jocasta. When she informs the audience that Oedipus “inflicted a dreadful slaughter upon his eyes” after realizing he had married his mom, he is motivated by honor and shame. The shame of what he’s done causes him to blind himself. The act of harming himself is, arguably, honorable since he’s taking responsibility for his actions and doling out his own punishment.

Oedipus’s sons, however, continue to be fully ashamed of their dad. They hide him because they don’t want to be reminded of his shameful conduct.

In response to his sons’ shame, Oedipus, according to Jocasta, “makes the most unholy curses against his sons, praying that they may divide this house with a sharp sword.” This curse suggests honor. It indicates that Oedipus is not totally without pride and doesn’t appreciate being treated like a complete embarrassment by his own children.

Oedipus’s curse creates a temporary collectivism between the two sons. To try and beat the curse, they agree to take turns ruling the kingdom. This sharing agreement, of course, falls apart. Jocasta, their mom, tries to resolve the matter honorably. At around line 460, she reminds her sons,

[W]hen a man that is angry with his friend confronts him face to face, he ought only to keep in view the object of his coming, forgetting all previous quarrels.

Yet Jocasta’s sons don’t take her advice. They continue to battle one another. Their lack of collectivism leads to both of their deaths and the death of Jocasta. It’s possible to posit that the shame of losing Eteocles and Polyneices causes Jocasta to kill herself. Her self sacrifice could be seen as honorable.

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