Jocasta falls just short of three stars for two reasons, which I’ll detail below.
First, a precis: The novel recasts the myth of Oedipus as told from the titular character’s point of view (hopefully, I shouldn’t have to recount the traditional version of the myth?). Though the authors have elected to largely abandon any supernatural elements, there’s the Tiresias (the prophetic mouthpiece of Apollo), who does seem to channel a divine will when she (he) utters her (his) dooms.
The Tiresias prophesizes that fourteen-year-old Jocasta will be queen of Thebes and marry its most famous king. She is chosen for Alphenor, the heir-apparent to Thebes’ rulers Amphion and Niobe. But on the night of the betrothal, Niobe blasphemes, the Tiresias curses the family, and all but one of the royal children die. The next day, Amphion is torn apart by a mob, and Niobe goes mad. Jocasta and her family are at a loss, especially in light of the prophecy, but things soon appear to be looking up when Laius, a son of a former Theban king, returns from exile in Pelops’ city of Pisa (Olympia), claiming the throne and Jocasta. The night of the wedding things do go well. Jocasta falls in lust at the sight of Laius, and Laius reciprocates the feeling. But soon after the couple consummates the marriage the prophetess tells Laius that any son of his will kill him. The king attempts to repudiate Jocasta but he has no cause, and – of course – she’s already pregnant with Oedipus. Nine months later, the newborn is torn from Jocasta’s arms and Laius has it exposed, or believes that the man he sends to do it, has done it. The novel passes over the next twenty years quickly. Laius continues to send tribute to Pelops and, living in fear of conceiving a son, never touches Jocasta again. Though Laius proves a most inept king, Jocasta and her brother Creon rule the city, and make it prosperous despite the tribute.
The story picks up when Laius decides to consult the Delphic oracle. As in the traditional version, he meets an unrecognized Oedipus on the way to Delphi, there’s an altercation, and Oedipus kills him. Subsequently, Creon organizes a competition in Thebes to find a new husband for his sister: Whoever can answer the riddles of Melanthe, the Maenad high priestess, will become the next king of the city. Oedipus shows up to participate, and as with Laius, Jocasta is smitten at first sight. Because Oedipus is the supposed son of Corinth’s king and an alliance with that city would counter the power of Pelops, Creon conspires to ensure that the youth wins the contest.
Again, the next two decades are glossed: Jocasta and Oedipus rule an ever more fortunate Thebes, and they have four beautiful children: Antigone, Ismene, and the twins Eteocles and Polynikes. And then everything goes sour when Jocasta’s relationship with her husband comes out.
Why not three stars (or more)?
One reason is the writing. It’s just “meh” – competent but not particularly beautiful or elegant. And there are anachronisms that jar the reader out of the early Iron Age setting, making her wonder if a Mycenaean Greek would have actually said that.
I could have forgiven such clumsiness, however – as I have with other authors – if Jocasta had been a more compelling character, but she has no arc. The child of the first chapter is not all that different from the fifty-plus-year-old woman of the final chapter. Jocasta comes across as rather clueless and passive, particularly in the hands of her brother, whose personal ambitions, machinations and political acumen are what keep Thebes strong. I can accept that a fourteen-year-old girl, growing up insulated from the hurly-burly of politics, would be at sea when suddenly thrust onto center stage. But if I’m to continue to be interested in her at all, she has to show some maturation over the course of the twenty and forty years that the last two-thirds of the novel encompass. It’s difficult to see that in this version of Jocasta.
I was impressed by how the authors euhemerized the myth. It worked for me, though I’m still puzzled about the role of the Tiresias, the one ambiguously supernatural element. In the end, though, the book reads like a first or (at best) second draft. There’s a potentially interesting character in Jocasta, and you can see the glimmerings of potential in Cleon’s and Oedipus’ but they’re not drawn sufficiently well to make me recommend the book. On the other hand, if you like this genre (as I do), it may be just good enough to warrant a perusal.
 Tiresias is a title for the blinded person who speaks for Apollo. In the beginning, the post is held by an old woman. When she dies, her successor is Jocasta’s father, Menoeceus.
This play is so messed up that a part of me says that it has to be based on true events. It is sort of like one of the arguments that people use regarding the authenticity of the Bible: every character (with the exception of Jesus Christ) is so flawed that one cannot consider that the stories have been made up. In particular we see the heroes of the Israelite nation, that being Abraham, Moses, and David, warts and all. However when us consider the Grecian myths we suddenly discover similar things here.
The story of Oedipus is that his parents received a prophecy that their child would kill his father and marry his mother, Laius, Oedipus' dad, and king of Thebes, pinned the child's legs together and left him to die on Mount Cithaeron. However, unbeknownst to him a shepherd found the boy, took him into his care, and then sent him to the city of Corinth to be raised by the king and queen there. However, years later when Oedipus had come of age, during a feast a man got too drunk and blurted out that Oedipus' parents weren't his true parents. Despite their pleading Oedipus left Corinth and travelled to Delphi to ask the oracle the truth. The Pythian Oracle, as usual, did not give him a straight answer and simply repeated the prophecy to Oedipus. As such, he decided not to return to Corith but to flee so as not to kill whom he believed where his parents.
However on his way out of Delphi he is confronted by a rather arrogant man who demanded that Oedipus move out of the way. Oedipus tells him to bugger off and a fight ensures resulting in Oedipus' victory. He then arrives at Thebes while the city is being tormented by a sphinx who has a riddle that nobody knows the answer, but Oedipus correctly guesses it, kills the sphinx, and when word is brought about Laius' death Oedipus marries Jocastra, and lives happily ever after.
Actually they don't because without realising it the prophecy has been fulfilled. Further a great crime has been committed, and since a father murderer is living in Thebes the entire city is struck with a plague. Oedipus, who has become king, and is the hero of the city, decides to investigate. However his investigations quickly uncover a truth that is hidden from him and upon learning of this truth, namely that he killed Laius, who turns out to be his father, and married his wife, Jocastra, who turns out to be his mother, he is struck with the guilt of what has come about, Jocastra kills herself and Oedipus rips out his eyes and exiles himself from Thebes.
Well, I have just told you the plot of the play without actually saying anything about the themes in the play. Well, there are two reasons why I outlined the plot, one being that it is a very complicated plot, and secondly to demonstrate how messed up everything is. This is not a simple Hollywood plot where everything is resolved in the end and everybody goes away happy. In fact it does not seem that there was really anything that Oedipus could have done to get himself out of the mess that he found himself in. In fact it seems that the more he attempts to get out of it the deeper the hole that he digs for himself, but it is not as if he could avoid doing it. He flees because he doesn't want the prophecy to come true, but there is a lot that he does not know and a lot that he is not being told. His step parents are not telling him the truth, and in hiding the truth, they are also making the prophecy come true. As for Laius, once again, everything that he does only serves to make the prophecy come true. While he attempts to kill his son, this fails because of the compassionate nature of humanity. It is the shepherd's compassion that prevents him from leaving Oedipus alone on Cithaeron.
The essay question that I answered on this play involved the question of fate and freewill. However there really does not seem to be any freewill here. Every decision that Oedipus makes only brings the revelation closer to being revealed. As a good king he simply cannot ignore the plague, and as a good king, he cannot do anything but seek justice and cleanse the city, despite the fact that he is the root cause of the problem. Despite the curse that he calls on the perpetrator, he must suffer the punishment himself, despite the pleas to the contrary. Oedipus is a just king, but despite his actions it is only when the fog is cleared and the truth comes out that he discovers that he is the perpetrator. Hey, he didn't even realise that the guy that he encountered at the crossroads was the king of Thebes, and his father.
Aristotle in his Poetics writes that characters in a drama should have a fatal flaw, but nobody seemed to have told Sophocles that. Granted Ajax may have had a fatal flaw, but Ajax is not Shakespeare, and is dealing with an issue that has nothing to do with his character. Ajax is dealing with PTSD (though not by that name) and Oedipus does not seem to have that fatal flaw. In reality, other than killing Laius at the crossroads (though some could argue that he did so in self-defense), Oedipus has done nothing wrong. In fact, if he had not investigated the cause of the plague then he would have been negligent. No, it is not Oedipus that has done anything wrong, but rather his ancestors. Laius is cursed and I believe that going up the ancestral chain further we come to a situation where an ancestor fed human flesh to another human, mostly as payback (I can't remember off hand who it was, it could have been Thyestes, but it could have been somebody else - one of Agamemnon's line is also guilty of a similar offense). In a sense then it is not the actions of Oedipus that brings about his suffering and downfall, but that of his father, and of his father's father. Poor Oedipus is only caught in the middle.
One might wonder what was so appealing about a story that everybody knows. Well, it is the same with us. When we look through the video store at all the movies available we discover that the plots of each and every one of those movies are pretty much the same. It is not the question of the plot, but how we get to the ending, and how the movie ends. We pretty much know that in around 90% of the movies available the good guys win and the hero gets the girl. We know that so we don't watch the movie for that, but rather how they get there, and how the good guys win. This was the same for the Greeks, and it is fortunate that we have versions of the Electra from the three great playwrights. In this we can see how the actual event differs and how each of the playwrights treated the subject. No doubt with Oedipus, both Aeschylus and Euripides would have explored different themes, and painted Oedipus in a different light, so that despite knowing the outcome, we arrive there through a different method.
This is a rather unusual play in that while it is connected with the main Theban epic, it does not seem to sit well within the epic cycle. Rather it seems to be an attempt by Sophocles to explore some of the unanswered questions that arose within both the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannos, particularly as whether Oedipus was truly guilty of his actions (he was not as they were done in ignorance) as well as how Creon basically became a jerk. I say that because in Oedipus Tyrannos he seems to be a rather decent person, but in the Antigone he is a brutal tyrant. We also have interactions with Polynicies, one of Oedipus' sons and the one who fled Thebes after his brother Etocles took the throne, and then returned with an army in an attempt to retake it.
The play sits between Oedipus Tyrannos and the Antigone, though it was probably the last play that Sophocles wrote. In fact he never saw it performed as he had died, though I suspect that since it was written around the time that Athens finally fell to the Spartans that the annual Dionysia was probably cancelled. However it was performed, and it also became one of the seven plays of Sophocles that have survived down to modern times. A friend of mine considers this to be her favourite Greek play, however I am still a little confused with it because it really does not seem to deal with any particular legend, and I got the impression that my Classical Studies lecturer didn't particularly think much of it either.
The play is set in Colonus, which was a small village outside of Athens (though I did a Google Maps search and found that it is now a suburb of Athens that lies to the Northwest of the Acropolis, just slightly to the west of the main Athens Railway station, though I doubt you will find any ancient ruins there). The village itself is located in Attica which means that it comes under the jurisdiction of Athens, though quite possibly during the Peloponesian War it was located outside of the Long Walls and as such would have been overrun by the Spartans.
When Oedipus arrives he is chided by the inhabitants for despoiling a sacred site, and this sets the tone of the entire play. Oedipus has been tainted with sin in that he had committed patricide (the murder of one's father) and incest, and even mentions that his daughters are also his sisters, and his sons are equally his brothers. It sort of creates a really strange, and somewhat unnatural, relationship with his children/siblings. However one of the ideas that I get out of this play is the that the Greeks considered incest (and to an extent patricide) wrong. Still, I am personally not convinced that Oedipus did anything wrong, though I have discussed this in detail previously under Oedipus Tyrannos, so there is no need for me to go over old ground here. However, there is still the idea of incest, which seems to play a significant role in this play, and that is because both Ismene and Antigone are major characters. However for some reason Creon arrives at Colonus to take them back, and forcefully that that.
I guess this is about Oedipus' coming to terms with his fate, and in a way allowing him to be cleansed. He does begin to go through a cleansing ritual, but unfortunately this is interrupted when Creon arrives and forcefully removes Ismene, who is going out to collect the pure spring water that is required in the ritual. Theseus also makes an appearance in this play as king of Athens. This confuses me a bit since in other plays (by Euripides) he is king of Athens during Heracles' reign in Thebes. However I guess that is not the point, but rather, like in Heracles Furens, Theseus once again plays the role of the psychologist and friend who helps Oedipus come to terms with his past. Unlike Herakles, who suffered from combat trauma and PTSD, Oedipus suffers from guilt and a persecution complex. This, honestly, is not surprising. Simply put, somebody in heaven must seriously hate this guy because as I have repeatedly said: he has done nothing wrong, he was only a victim of destiny.
Polynicies also makes an appearance in this play. He was kicked out of Thebes when his brother Etocles took the throne. Both Creon and Polynicies want Oedipus to return to Thebes, most likely to settle the dispute between the two brothers, and both become incredibly hostile and agitated when he refuses to do so. Creon even goes to the extent of kidnapping his daughters to attempt to bring him back. We see a very nasty Creon in this play, and this extends much further when we get to Antigone. We obviously know what happens: Polynicies raises and army and attacks Thebes, and in the ensuring battle, loses and dies, but not before killing Etocles. What happens afterwards I shall leave for when I finish Antigone (and you can also refer to Seven Against Thebes).
The play ends with Oedipus' death and his ascension to the Blessed Realms. Oedipus' death is actually incredibly dignified, and deserving of a man who fate has simply turned around and slapped him in the face. One thing I noted is that even Creon, for as much of a prick that he is, recognises Oedipus' benevolent rule in Thebes. Unfortunately nothing like that comes about again. I am doubtful that it is Oedipus that is cursed, but rather the city itself (and it has probably something to do with the father of Laertius feeding human flesh to his enemy: another very, very, bad thing in Greek society). One thing I am not willing to do is to link this tragedy to Athens' hatred of Thebes, and vice versa. Okay, Creon and Theseus come to blows, and it is ordained there that Thebes and Athens were to become enemies, but this is what they call rewriting the past. It is very interesting that Oedipus went to the Blessed Realms, since that is a reward set aside for only the greatest of heroes (Achilles being one of them), so I guess for a man who suffered as much as Oedipus did, it is probably the gods (and in particular Zeus) turning around and saying, 'hey, this didn't happen because of anything you did, but rather the actions of your ancestors, so because you suffered so in life you will be rewarded in death'.