What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives.
Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.
Better to live at random, best we can. And as for this marriage
with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams,
has shared his mother’s bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing
at all— Live, Oedipus, as if there’s no tomorrow! (Oedipus
the King, 1068–1078)
The audience, familiar with the Oedipus
story, almost does not want to listen to these self-assured lines,
spoken by Jocasta, wherein she treats incest with a startling lightness
that will come back to haunt her. What makes these lines tragic
is that Jocasta has no reason to know that what she says is foolish,
ironic, or, simply, wrong. The audience’s sense of the work of “fate”
in this play has almost entirely to do with the fact that the Oedipus
story was an ancient myth even in fifth-century b.c. Athens.
The audience’s position is thus most like that of Tiresias—full
of the knowledge that continues to bring it, and others, pain.
At the same time, it is important to note that at least
part of the irony of the passage does depend on the play, and the
audience, faulting Jocasta for her blindness. Her claim that “chance
rules our lives” and that Oedipus should live “as if there’s no
tomorrow” seems to fly in the face of the beliefs of more or less
everyone in the play, including Jocasta herself. Oedipus would not
have sent Creon to the oracle if he believed events were determined
randomly. Nor would he have fled Corinth after hearing the prophecy
of the oracle that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother;
nor would Jocasta have bound her baby’s ankles and abandoned him
in the mountains. Again and again this play, and the other Theban
plays, returns to the fact that prophecies do come true and that
the words of the gods must be obeyed. What we see in Jocasta is
a willingness to believe oracles only as it suits her: the oracle
prophesied that her son would kill Laius and so she abandoned her
son in the mountains; when Laius was not, as she thinks, killed
by his son, she claims to find the words of the oracle worthless.
Now she sees Oedipus heading for some potentially horrible revelation
and seeks to curb his fear by claiming that everything a person
does is random.