Enter JOCASTA, throwing wide the doors
Erupting into her bridal chambers
The sneer upon her pale face –
Even her lips are ashen –
Setting her maid-girls’ hearts
To a frightful race.
JOCASTA Leave me!
Her voice an echo like thunder
The maid-girls clutching their breasts
Cower ‘neath their towering madam
As she aims her sharp-pointed finger
Out the iron doors.
JOCASTA Leave this place
Leave me to my bed-sheets
Leave me to their memories.
Not a one looks back
But pauses to close the door
To make the world silent
In the bedchamber of Jocasta and her Oedipus.
JOCASTA stands alone in silence
Wraps her weary arms ‘round her
And turns to her audience
Cloaked in shadow beyond the glare
Of the soft stage lights.
I am doomed to die
As women –
Even queens –
Someday, my daughter –
One of them, at least –
Will have her say.
Two and a half thousand years from now
Her aunt by marriage
She’ll forgive you
For forgetting her.
Even fair Ophelia wreathed in flowers made of air
Will one day
Stop killing herself.
JOCASTA turns away
And on small steps
Glides towards her bridal bed:
I am alone with my bed-sheets
And all their memories.
So here is mine.
JOCASTA with one hesitant hand
Reaches out to her rumpled bed
To touch the fine linens fit for kings
As though they were
A child’s cheek.
O, sweet babe –
Was I, a child-bride
Wed and made a queen and within the month swollen –
O, this wandering curse –
A thing which wormed into my womb
A promise made by torrid sheets to end me.
JOCASTA unwinds her arm
From her weary torso
Thinned from the years
Which have pecked at her like crows;
Aged by five children, one husband she has born.
Into the bed-sheets she curls those weathered hands
Which have pulled children from between her thighs
Clothed them, fed them – after the first
Whom she threw to the wolves:
I tear these sheets as I’ve been torn –
The curse, they say, a seed of Thebes
My husband’s seed, and mine –
A poison in my blood – it makes my heart sick, my stomach bleed –
O gods who’ve seen it fit
To breed pollution in this being
Can you find it in you
To bleed it from her now?
JOCASTA tears the sheets and with a scream
Tears her garments from her body
To better reach her breasts
So she can tear them, too.
A curse we knew he would be
They took the babe from me –
A little tiny mewling thing, no harm to me he seemed.
But pluck him squalling wet and red
Out of my hands they did –
And allow them
I am impassive
I did not watch when they took my son to die.
I would, I would…I would I’d done it myself.
Only a mother knows
How to properly smother
The life she has bestowed.
JOCASTA drops the torn and tattered rags
Once the dress of a queen
To cross the stage towards the blade
Her husband-son kept upon his desk.
Of an audience so densely full
Not a one moves to stop her.
And so a curse comes home
To where it’s meant to be.
This man, this son of mine – a husband in my bed
Has fathered on me children…curses upon curses
The gods so love their jokes.
See they not fit
To bleed the curse from me?
Then let me bleed me –
Let me drain it from its source – from such wretched pollution I will set me free.
JOCASTA draws the blade from inside of elbow
To inside of wrist
A long thin line where the skin wide splits
And after a moment of hesitation, the blood comes forth
No blacker for the poison.
And the audience holds their breath.
A Write Up: Because I originally wrote this poem as part of a final project for a comparative literature class, I had also written a short essay about how I wrote the poem, why I chose the allusions that I did, etc. which I would like to share here:
Since Oedipus’s tragedy is the sole focus of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Jocasta’s tragedy falls to the wayside, though the implied horrors that she has experienced are directly mirrored in Oedipus’s: when Oedipus was maimed and discarded, she lost a child. When Oedipus murdered his father, she lost a husband. When Oedipus learns that he has married his mother, she learns that she has born the children of her own son, whom she thought long dead. Initially I had wanted to write a monologue for Jocasta in effort to analyze Jocasta’s side of the tragedy which, much like her suicide, takes place almost entirely off-stage.
Though what was initially intended to be a monologue evolved into a poem, I tried to mimic some of the elements of a script in honor of the original medium. Though there are minimal stage directions in Sophocles’ plays, I used stage directions to break up the monologue itself in an effort to bring some element of the physicality of dramatic performance into the poem. Reference to the physical surroundings of the bedroom and the bed sheets are utilized in an effort to highlight the sin Jocasta has unknowingly committed and the taboo she has broken, thus reinforcing the trauma which Jocasta has sustained. Jocasta occupies the space with these props throughout the entirety of the poem, allowing her to act out her tragedy through her interactions with them and the interactions they inspire with herself (the tearing of the bed sheets where she first conceived then slept with Oedipus followed by the tearing of her clothes and her attack of her own body, which now repulses her for having shared it with her son).
In formulating what I wanted to convey with the monologue I considered Anne Carson’s monologue for Eurydike in Antigonick. I liked the idea of using the same Brechtian technique of addressing the audience directly which Carson used. In Jocasta’s monologue I used the technique to imply that the audience is complicit in what they’re witnessing. I did this here to mimic the fact that so many people in Oedipus seem to know before Oedipus or even Jocasta what has happened yet none are willing to directly say what they know, from Tiresias to the shepherd who had initially been charged with disposing of Oedipus as a baby. The audience, too, has known all along, and has remained silent. By not only directly addressing the audience but incorporating them into stage directions as well, I intended to further the sense of the audience’s active role in the production and consumption of the tragedy in the context of the poem.
In Jocasta’s address to the audience, which acts as a sort of prologue to the monologue itself, I have her acknowledge other women we talked about in our class who died off-stage but who, unlike Jocasta, have had an opportunity to speak their tragedy (I wasn’t able to find much in the way of rewriting Oedipus the King to favor Jocasta’s voice). Her own daughter Antigone was given the kind of voice Jocasta was denied in Sophocles’ Antigone while, through rewritings of Antigone and Hamlet both Eurydike and Ophelia were given the opportunity to push back at the restraints of the plays they were originally written into. In so doing I wanted to recognize not only Eurydike’s monologue in Antigonick, I wanted to also acknowledge both the relative silence of women in classic tragedies and the violence done to them. It was through her voice and force of action that Antigone was sentenced to die alone in a cave, while Eurydike saw her family destroyed and lost her son and, helpless to change the course of events, continues to take her own life off stage, whether in relative silence as in Sophocles’ play or with the benefit of having voiced her fruitless efforts in Carson’s Antigonick. Though Ophelia remains the only living figure on stage in Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (having stopped killing herself, after all) the violence that has been done to her is undeniable in the face of her white bandages and wheelchair.
Furthermore I would argue that pushing the deaths of these women off-stage, to a space which the audience has no direct connection or access to, furthers the violence done to them in the works in which they originally appeared. When we see the deaths occurring, as with the death of Polyneikes in Bertolt Brecht’s rewriting of Antigone, the horror of the situation becomes much more immediate and, as a result, both more memorable for its impact and more difficult to dismiss. Of course no one forgets Ophelia’s off-stage suicide or the culmination of events in Antigone’s suicide, but compared to the power of witnessing Gertrude unknowingly drink poisoned wine from a goblet intended for Hamlet, the power of Ophelia’s unseen death is greatly diminished while the tragedy of Antigone is not Antigone’s suicide but the rash of suicides which follow and what those deaths rob Creon of – one of those suicides being Eurydike’s, which is acknowledge by Carson’s translation as entirely forgettable. Certainly it is not Jocasta’s suicide which Sophocles’ audience felt for, but rather Oedipus’s continued existence, blinded by his own hand and exiled by his own curse.
Moving into the monologue itself, I sought to highlight the ways in which Jocasta was just as much a tragic figure as Oedipus, if not more so. If she was as much a victim of the whims of fate as her son I intended to depict this through her recollections of the curse, especially as she accuses the gods of seeing fit to breed the play’s thematic pollution in her own womb. To lose their child is the worst nightmare of every parent I know, yet in this play both parents were complicit in the effort to kill their son. I attempt to reconcile these two realities for a mother like Jocasta by expressing a resistance to giving up her child (“They took the babe from me – / A little tiny mewling thing, no harm to me he seemed”) juxtaposed with her insistence that the plan would have been successful if she hadn’t been inactive but had killed her son herself. Because she did not do so she accuses herself of being “inactive,” a word I chose to set her in contrast to the portrayal of her daughter Antigone.
Returning to the idea of pollution, we find it thematically driving Oedipus the King to its conclusion: self-imposed exile, suicide, and war. Because the pollution is identified by Sophocles as lying predominantly at Oedipus’s feet (being the one who took action to kill his father and marry his mother, however unknowingly he may have done so) I address that pollution as having been bred in Jocasta, just as was Oedipus and her other children by him. I drew a connection between the pollution and the corruption of the familial blood shared between Jocasta, Oedipus, and their children. In such a reading the pollution, then, lies not in the action but in the corrupted blood itself – hence Jocasta pleading for the gods “to bleed it from her now.”
Here is the only major change I made in the process of my rewriting: instead of having Jocasta hang herself (Sophocles’ clearly preferred method of suicide for women) I had her slit her wrists. Though she hopes that the gods will see fit to bleed the pollution from her, she knows no such thing will happen. Here I imagined her with an understanding that the pollution was bred in her, it is inside her and it will be for as long as she lives. Unable to bear the weight of that pollution and the tragedy it has brought her and her family she chooses to take matters into her own hands and bleed it from herself instead of waiting for the gods to relieve her of that pollution with a timely death.
These were the major thoughts and intentions going into the development of this final project. Initially it was only an idea to explore an off-stage event which struck me as more tragic by far than Oedipus’s and thus more interesting, but through the course of the writing and revisions I found myself drawing upon multiple texts to allude to themes shared by many of the texts we explored this term and build upon and strengthen the themes in my monologue for Jocasta.
• Brecht, Bertolt. Antigone. New York: Applause Theater Book Publishers, 1990. Print.
• Sophokles. Antigonick. Trans. Anne Carson. New York: New Directions, 2012. Print.
• Sophocles. Sophocles 1: Three Tragedies. 2nd edition. Trans. David Greene. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.
• Müller, Heiner. “Hamletmachine.” Hamletmachine and other texts for the stage. Trans. Carl Weber. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984. Print.