The Character of Jocasta in Seneca's Oedipus

Thomas D. Kohn

University of Richmond

            Regardless of T.S. Eliot's ("Seneca in Elizabethan Translation," 1924) judgement that Seneca's "characters all seem to speak with the same voice, and at the top of it," the characters of Seneca's Oedipus are, in fact, developed and distinct. This paper examines Jocasta, who appears in three episodes (more than any other character besides Oedipus himself), and shows that, although she may not behave like her Sophoclean counterpart, she displays an inner consistency and contributes to the play as more than simply a plot device.

            A brief look at the idea of "character" in a theatrical sense in antiquity reveals that Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus , and Cicero all thought psychological character study was an important activity for an orator. The "persistent theory" (Warren Anderson, Kent, Ohio: 1970) that Theophrastus composed the Characters for the playwright Menander, indicates that the creation of believable and consistent characters was a concern for the dramatist. Aristotle acknowledges that characters are a major concern in tragedy. Horace, Quintilian, Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom all praise playwrights, both comic and tragic, who create characters which behave consistently and appropriately for the situation, and criticize those who do not. Thus, it is not anachronistic to discuss "character" in ancient drama.

            Current scholarship finds fault with Seneca's handling of Jocasta. Rutenberg, in his "Freely Translated and Adapted" version of the Oedipus (Wauconda, IL: 1988), enlarges her role by importing her lines from Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. Zwierlein's OCT (1986) achieves a similar effect by following Weil (Paris: 1897) in reassigning a number of lines from the Old Corinthian to Jocasta. Both actions violate Seneca's carefully crafted character.

Jocasta first appears after Oedipus' opening monologue, in which he speaks despairingly and contemplates flight. She enters without any announcement in the middle of line 81, indicating impatience and urgency. She is a typical comic wife, who castigates her husband and urges him towards proper behavior. At the same time, she is an ideal Roman matron, supporting her husband and helping him achieve his political goals. After speaking 5 1/2 lines, she falls silent for the rest of the episode. Some manuscripts have her speak again, but this runs counter to Seneca's depiction of a proper Roman wife who watches, proudly and silently, having helped her husband regain his courage and determination. At the end of the episode, she exits, again without announcement.

            Jocasta speaks again at the beginning of the fourth episode, while Oedipus investigates the death of Laius. Although not exactly reluctant, she is not very enthusiastic about helping her husband. All 4 1/2 lines of her dialogue in this episode are straightforward answers to Oedipus' questions. Her final response begins midline, indicating hesitancy. Afterwards, Jocasta, having fulfilled her dramatic function as well as her duty as a supportive wife, again exits without announcement.

            At this point, Zwierlein again follows Weil by having the queen remain on-stage and reassigning to Jocasta some lines unanimously given to the Old Corinthian by the manuscripts. This needlessly violates the Rule of Three Actors. Jocasta's presence on-stage accomplishes nothing. The lines are consistent with the Old Corinthian's characterization as one who has counseled kings. And Jocasta's abrupt exit is consistent with her previous behavior.

            In the sixth episode, the Chorus, uncharacteristically speaking within an episode, announces Jocasta's entrance. She again shows great emotion by beginning mid-line. Having realized that she is both Oedipus' wife and mother, she is at a loss as to how to address him, finally settling on "son" (gnatus). She refuses to let him take all the blame for their incest; like Oedipus, she imposes her own penalty, stabbing herself fatally through the womb. The Chorus then announces her "exit," from life, if not from the stage.

            Jocasta appears in three episodes. In the first two, her entrances and exits are unmarked, mirroring the way in which Oedipus did not notice that she was his mother when he first came to Thebes. In the third, the Chorus announces her arrival and departure, emphasizing Jocasta's changed status: she has been recognized as Oedipus' mother. In the first two episodes, she is a proper Roman wife, simply helping her husband to preserve his kingdom. In the third, she is no longer Oedipus' spouse, but a woman whose emotional nature, demonstrated in the first episode by her mid-line entrance, has gotten the better of her.

            Jocasta is vital to the story, being the mother Oedipus unwittingly marries. She appears in more episodes than any character but Oedipus. Yet each time, she enters, speaks briefly, and then leaves. And her third appearance is different from the first two, mirroring her changed status from wife of Oedipus to his mother. Contrary to the opinions of Eliot and other more modern scholars, the playwright, while keeping Jocasta's role to a minimum for thematic purposes, has created a developed and consistent character.

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