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A Superior Wife and Mother

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In Homer’s epic The Iliad and Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, the characters Andromache and Jocasta are confronted with tragedy and strife. Andromache endures the loss of her beloved husband while Jocasta struggles with the fruition of an ancient prophecy that she will marry her son. By considering these characters’ respective places in society and within their spousal relationships, their outlook, and their behavior, Homer’s Andromache emerges as a more ideal wife and mother than Sophocles’ Jocasta.

Before they enter into their present marriages, both Andromache and Jocasta are women of nobility. The daughter of King Eetion of Cilicia, Andromache is a princess marrying a prince who leads her “from her father’s house with countless wedding gifts to win her heart” (22.554-5). Her marriage with Hector is socially acceptable, as she is previously unmarried and taken directly from her home, so she is respected by her country and by Hector’s family, as seen when they comfort her after his death, “crowding round her now her husband’s sisters and brother’s wives supported her in their midst” (22.556-7). Unlike her Homeric counterpart, Jocasta has been married and has born a child to another man. While it may be inferred that Hector is slightly older or of the same age as his wife, Jocasta is at least twelve years older than her husband-son Oedipus. Because she is the queen of Thebes whose husband is a former prince, Jocasta holds a higher place in society and in marriage than Andromache. Respected as a potential mediator by the chorus of Theban citizens, Jocasta is expected to resolve the dispute between Creon and Oedipus, the leader declaring that “With her help you must put this fighting of yours to rest” (707-8). After Jocasta instructs the two men to go to their homes, Oedipus and Creon complain to her as if she were a judge, Creon informing her of Oedipus’ plan to exile him and Oedipus telling her, “I caught him in the act…plotting, about to stab me in the back” (718-9).

In regards to their spousal relationships, Andromache is the more submissive of the two. Even though she pleads with her husband not to fight in Troy, after Hector explains to her why he must go she is seen “smiling through her tears” (6.578), in understanding of his necessity to win honor. She does not argue with him about it further. Also, after Hector asks her to “go home and tend to…the loom” (6.585-6) she obediently sits “weaving at her loom” (22.516) at the time of Hector’s death. Though their relationship may not be equal in power, it is mutually loving, as Andromache “pressing close beside him” (6.480) weeps freely at the thought of losing her husband. He then “stroked her gently” (6.579) to comfort her after declaring that he would die before allowing her to be enslaved in Argos, proclaiming, “Let the earth come piling over my dead body before I hear your cries” (6.556)! In a poignant moment also demonstrative of their loving relationship, the couple shares a final moment of joy when their son cries “And his loving father laughed and his mother laughed as well” (6.562-3). Andromache’s affection for Hector is also apparent in the grief she expresses over his death as she wishes she were never born, crying, “Would to god he’d never fathered me” (22.565)! To a woman whose entire family was destroyed by Achilles, Hector is everything to her: “my father… my noble mother, a brother too” (22.508-9), and as a result she is extremely devoted to him.

Jocasta and Oedipus’ marriage is also reciprocally loving, as Oedipus asks his wife, “Who means more to me than you” (849)? He also cares so much for her as to feel shame for having defiled her, touching her, “body with these, the hands that killed your husband” (908-9). Jocasta assures him of her respect and love saying, “I’d never displease you” (953), although she clearly has the upper hand in the relationship. As Oedipus’ confidante, Jocasta believes, “even I have a right, I’d like to think, to know what’s torturing you” (845-6) and Oedipus confesses, “I can hold nothing back from you…whom would I turn to but you” (847-9)? He even holds his wife in higher regard than he does the chorus, saying, “I respect you, Jocasta, much more than these men here” (769-70).

The two women differ not only in their status in their marriages and societies, but also in their outlook and behavior. Although they both believe in the existence and intervention of the gods, Jocasta has less confidence in the power of oracles, although she prays to Apollo, “I urge [Oedipus] gently…so I turn to you” (1006-7). Andromache is thought to be praying at, “Athena’s shrine where the noble Trojan women gather” (6.450-1). But, despite her faith in the gods, Andromache believes the past and present foreshadow the future rather than divine foresight. After hearing that the Trojans are being hard-pressed by the Acheans, she, “sped to the wall in panic, like a madwoman” (6.459) out of dread that her husband would have to enter the fight if the Trojans continue to lose. Also, with all of the men in her family slaughtered by Achilles, she fears that Hector will also fall at his sword. On the other hand, Jocasta’s attitude is defined by the oracle. Throughout the play she gives no credence to prophecy and ignores the clues like Oedipus’ incestuous fears, dismissing them as common, “Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed” (1074-5). She also advises him that because their lives are governed by chance it is, “better to live at random, best we can” (1072). Resentful of the oracle for having caused the death of her son for no reason, she belittles divination saying, “Apollo brought neither thing to pass. My baby no more murdered his father than Laius suffered – his wildest fear – death at his own son’s hands” (794-6). Although she ridicules the oracle again by saying, “You prophecies of the gods, where are you now?” (1036), she eventually surrenders to the inevitable when she runs out of the palace shouting, “You’re doomed – may you never fathom who you are!” (1173-4), realizing that the oracle was correct.

When she disparages the oracle’s accuracy, Jocasta tries to be a source of stagnation as she begs Oedipus to cease his quest for identity, “Stop – in the name of god…call off this search” (1163-4)! However, she has no effect on his will as he attributes her fears to social snobbery and ignores her warnings. Similarly, Andromache tries to hinder her husband from realizing his fate but to no avail imploring, “Pity me, please! Take a stand on the rampart here…before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow” (6.511-2) only to be given the final word that despite her protests and his own qualms he must go to war.

Though she tries to stop Hector from achieving the fame he is destined to have as a skilled warrior, Andromache has no flaws as a wife and is frequently described as “loyal” (6.445), “warm, generous” (6.466), and “loving” (6.576). Her adoration for her husband can also be seen in her grief upon hearing of his death, her heart pounding, “leaping up in my throat, the knees beneath me paralyzed” (22.530-1), crying “like a madwoman” (22.541) as her “world went black as night…gasping away her life breath” (548-50). As she grieves, in idyllic Homeric fashion, she mourns the loss of her great warrior by exalting his performance in battle, “it was you…who shielded the gates and the long walls of Troy” (22.595-7). Her love for her husband is also evident when she threatens suicide saying that, “bereft of [Hector], better for me to sink beneath the earth. What other warmth, what comfort’s left for me” (6.488-9)? Ironically, she forgets the one living reminder of her husband she would have, her son Astynax, who is almost always seen carried by not his mother but a servant “following in [his mother’s] steps” (6.471).

In her final speech, Andromache equates the loss of Hector with the loss of her son, saying that he is doomed and outlining the bleak fatherless future that awaits him, “humiliated in every way, his cheeks stained with tears” (22.577-8), begging for food, shunned by society. Only in this dialogue and at the time Hector puts his son in her arms and she, “pressed the child to her scented breast” (6.577-8) does she show affection for her son. Either at the command of Hector or at the loss of her husband does she recognize her son, which demonstrates both her obedience and her will to put her husband first over her son. This makes her an ideal wife, but as a mother, she is as doting as she can be while supporting her husband to the fullest.

In contrast, Jocasta is more of a mother to Oedipus than she is a wife, by the standards set by Andromache. She calms him, answers and asks questions, and even orders him in public saying, “For the love of god…tell me too…Why this rage? You’re so unbending” (767-9). She also advises him to forget about the prophecies and to, “Live…as if there’s no tomorrow” (1077-8)! As a mother, Jocasta is forced to choose between the lives of her children and her husband’s, and each time she opts for the latter. Because she is not as compliant as her Homeric counterpart, she is not as ideal a wife nor is she as loving a mother. Faced with the choice between her son and husband, at the time Laius plans to kill her son, she fails to object strongly enough to save his life. She seems to show sorrow over the loss of her son, pausing before saying, “my son – he wasn’t three days old and the boy’s father had fastened his ankles [and] had a henchman fling him away on a barren, trackless mountain” (790-1). Again she chooses to save herself and her husband from living with the humiliation of their incestuous acts by hanging herself while leaving her two young daughters motherless. After Jocasta’s death, they cry when visiting their father as Oedipus asks, “O god! Do I really hear you sobbing” (1613)? He also outlines their bleak future lamenting, “Your doom is clear: You’ll wither away to nothing, single, without a child” (1643-4) and without a mother to guide them.

Although Andromache and Jocasta live in the separate cultures of Homeric Troy and Sophoclean Greece, they face similarly shameful fates, and in the way they cope with the tragedies dealt to them, they allow insight into the vision of the ideal wife and mother. By serving as a mother to Oedipus as well as fulfilling her wifely duties, Jocasta would be the ultimate female companion. However, because she is domineering and not as loving as she should be, Andromache is the more ideal wife. Extremely devoted, supportive, and obedient, she always puts her husband’s needs before her own and even before her son’s. As a mother, she is as doting as she can be to her son while supporting her husband to the utmost extent, while Jocasta allows her baby to be killed less than three days after his birth, virtually ripped from the womb, and leaves her two daughters to a life of motherless pain and emptiness. Therefore, Andromache proves to be a more ideal wife and mother than Jocasta.

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