Student Question

What does Jocasta think of the gods in Oedipus Rex?

Quick answer:

Jocasta is an unreliable narrator. She evokes the gods, but knows they are not on her side.

Expert Answers

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When Jocasta enters the play, she comes to mediate the quarrel between Creon and Oedipus.  She demands that they end their petty quarrel, for the tribulations of the city are far more important. She assures Oedipus that Kreon's intentions are good:

In the name of the gods, respect this oath of his/For my sake, for the sake of these people! (ll.613-614)

However, her anxiety is apparent, especially when she asks what has happened.  When she learns that Teiresias has charged Oedipus with the murder of Laios, she declares that the oracle who predicted that Laius would be killed by his own son was false:

Laios was killed/By marauding strangers where three highways meet;/But his child had not been three days in this world/Before the king had pierced the baby's ankles/And left him to die on a lonely mountainside./Thus, Apollo never caused that child/To kill his father, and it was not Laios's fate/To die at the hands of his son, as he had feared. (ll.674-681)

Jocasta evokes the gods and would have Oedipus think well of them as she portrays Apollo as benevolent.  But, she is uncertain, really, and merely tries to convince Oedipus by invoking Apollo's name.  For, later when Oedipus demands to talk with the shepherd who witnessed the death of Laios, she trembles with fear and again tries to convince herself and her listeners by saying,

But suppose he [the shepherd] alters some detail of it;/He can not ever show that Laios's death/Fulfilled the oracle:  for Apollo said/My child was doomed to kill him; and my child--/Poor baby!--it was my child that died first. (ll.807-811)

In the next scene, Jocasta tells Oedipus that she has

visited the altars of the gods, bearing/These branches as a suppliant, and this incense.

Jocasta entreats Apollo:

To you, then, Apollo,/Lycean lord, since you are the nearest, I turn in prayer....grant us deliverance/From defilement.  Our hearts are heavy with fear/When we see our leader distracted, (ll.873-877)

Jocasta continues, telling Oedipus,

Since Fate rules us and nothing can be foreseen/A man should live only for the present day. (ll. 928-930)

Then, she begs Oedipus, "For God's love, let us have no more questioning/Is your life nothing to you?/My own is pain enough for me to bear....This talk is a waste of time....You are fatally wrong! May you never learn who you are! (ll,1000-1012)

In desperation, Jocasta evokes the names of the gods, but she knows the truth.  As the great playwright, Thorton Wilder, describes her in American Characteristics and Other Essays,

The figure of the Queen is drawn with great precision, shielding her husband from the knowledge she foresees approaching; alternately condemning and upholding the authorities of the oracles as best suits the direction of the argument of the moment, and finally giving up the struggle.

The reader must conclude that Jocasta does not have faith in the gods, that the gods and Fate are surely against them.  For, she despairs completely, and takes her life.

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