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At the crossroads: gendered desire, political occasion, and Dryden and Lee's Oedipus.

Let me begin with three common observations about the 1678 Oedipus of Dryden and Lee. First, more than their predecessor versions by Sophocles, Seneca, and Corneille, the Restoration playwrights emphasize the erotic nature of the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta. (1) Second, Creon is transformed from the relatively ambitionless playboy prince of Sophocles' original to the physically and morally twisted precipitator of the crisis, analogous to "the figure of Shaftesbury seen through royalist eyes and representations" (Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 462). (2) Third, as the previous suggests, Dryden and Lee's play, while offering no strict allegory, has relevance to contemporary events--the Popish Plot and the gathering Exclusion Crisis--not least in that, with its added subplot, their version focuses more than others on issues of legitimacy and succession. (3) My focus here is the link between the first observation--the exaggerated eroticism of the play--and the others, a link that exists since a patriarchal, monarchical society transmits its power and property through the body of a woman. That eroticism has usually been attributed to Lee's tendencies toward the sensationalistic, by contrast to Dryden's judicial and metaphysical emphases. (4) Insofar as that may be true, and I will severely qualify its applicability, I would argue that in the collaboration, especially in the depiction of Jocasta, if these are Lee's means, they nevertheless serve--in a complex way--Dryden's ends.


We should begin by placing the composition of Dryden and Lee's Oedipus in its historical context. Max Novak has written that in 1678 "the political theater of the Popish Plot [had] ... distracted ... theatergoers from the beauties of the legitimate stage" ("Commentary to Troilus and Cressida" 497). The Popish Plot, of course, was a series of alleged Catholic-backed plots that involved the planned assassination of Charles II by Jesuits, the installation of James on the throne, and a Catholic invasion. The Earl of Shaftesbury led the Whigs in exploiting the supposed danger by pressing for the exclusion of James from the succession and the legitimization of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles's bastard--and Protestant--son. The larger issue, of course, was a Parliamentary struggle to reverse the flow of power, to restructure both constitutional laws and historic notions of kingship, which was accomplished, finally, with the Glorious Revolution.

But Novak's term the "legitimate stage" posits a drama untainted by politics--arguably untrue of all theater, as indeed of all art. A most explicitly political work is Dryden's own Absalom and Achitophel, published in 1681during Shaftesbury's trial, the climax of the "Plot." Dryden first published it anonymously--a transparent attempt at distancing himself from his argument, but an attempt all the same. The relation of Oedipus to contemporary events is more oblique. In choosing to adapt so well known a play, Dryden and Lee could do implicitly what Dryden later did explicitly in the later political crisis, the Glorious Revolution, when he claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that his plays were not political commentaries but "plain stor[ies]" (Cleomenes 79). Dramatically, the collaborators would wait until 1683, with The Duke of Guise and its "Vindication," to make contemporary relevance more plain. Yet Oedipus does have at least broad relevance to the Popish Plot in that guilt is unexpectedly uncovered and innocence falsely accused. (It may be telling, too, that Dryden's next play, Troilus and Cressida [1679], is subtitled The Truth Found Too Late.)

Since Dryden, according to his own declaration, composed the whole design of Oedipus as well as writing Acts I and III ("Vindication" 344), it is worthwhile to review his personal involvement in contemporary events. In 1681, he claimed that he had "seen through" the Plot from the start (Winn 317). Be that as it may, as early as 1677, Dryden would have been aware and personally concerned with its developing implications. He would have followed the marriage of William of Orange to Mary, with its potential repercussions to adherents of James II, and in the dedication of All for Love he attacks Shaftesbury and Buckingham, asserts that "subverters of Governments" are no friends to the arts and equates Shaftesbury with Satan--a strategy he would return to in Absalom and Achitophel (Winn 304-05). In 1673, enemies had damned one of Dryden's plays as a "Catholic intrigue"; and in 1676 Catholic mass was said illegally only steps from Dryden's home (315). An actor who might have expected to participate in Oedipus, Matthew Medbourne, a Roman Catholic, was committed to Newgate on Titus Oates's testimony and died there in March (Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 444). Dryden's brother-in-law Charles, second Earl of Berkshire, who had written compromising letters to a "conspirator," fled to France in 1678 and died there in 1679 (Winn 315). Also in 1679, Dryden himself was beaten senseless with cudgels by three thugs, in all probability for a "lampoon" touching upon some members of the Opposition--which he had not even authored (325-29).

And certain specific passages in Oedipus's apparatus do indicate Dryden's orientation to the issues raised by the plot. In the prologue, for example, he urges that audiences not "pell mell to damning fall, / Like true born Brittains who ne'er think at all" and, more pointedly, warns against headlong, potentially disastrous commitment to action, like William of Orange's assault on Mons (23-26)--relevant since England was close to being drawn into a war with France and Holland, with Shaftesbury arguing strenuously for a war Charles opposed. The prologue closes with a similar caution against the "private spirit" of "Fanaticks" (30-31), that "numerous Host of dreaming Saints"(529) Dryden describes in Absalom and Achitophel (5) as joining with the Whigs in pressing for the exclusion of James. Similarly, the epilogue tells audiences, "We know not what you can desire or hope, / To please you more, but burning of a Pope" (33-34). Odai Johnson describes the Pope-Burning Pageants between 1673 and 1682 as "Whig theater [...] that sought by performative strategies to politicize the crowd as a stable subject of the Whig Party [...] a propagandized extension of the Whig party" (14). Dryden's strategy too is to camouflage politics in aesthetics, but that is a gauzy tactic when aesthetic matters are political matters and, in the 1670s, 80s, and 90s, dovetail with religious and metaphysical matters--a point to which I will return later.


Let us turn now to examine two of the broader analogues between politics and play: the representation of the Theban citizenry and of Creon. In Sophocles and in Seneca, the Theban chorus are almost unshakably loyal to their king. In Sophocles, at the peak of Oedipus's paranoiac rage against Creon, the Chorus only tells him "Sir, I have said before and I say again--be sure that I would have been proved a madman, bankrupt in sane council, if I should put you away [....]" (6) Even after the truth of parricide and incest is revealed, the chorus's response is more empathic than condemnatory: "To speak directly, I drew my breath / from you at the first, and so now I lull / my mouth to sleep with your name" (1221-23). In Dryden and Lee's play, the citizenry is portrayed quite differently. They are a "people prone, as in all general ills / To sudden change" (1.1.75-76), like the "headstrong [...] race" of the Jews (English) in Absalom and Achitophel (45). When Tiresias chides them for "Rebellion" and reminds them of their oath of loyalty to Oedipus, one citizen grumbles, "This is true; but it's a hard World Neighbors, if a mans Oath must be his master" (1.1.285-86). As Oedipus has become king of Thebes "By publick voice elected" (283), so in Absalom and Achitophel the citizenry whose "Humour more than Loyalty exprest, / Now, wondered why, so long, they had obey'd / An Idoll Monarch which their hands had made" (62-64). Their characterization, with the characterization of the English in the prologue and epilogue, reminds us that the propagandized posturing surrounding the Popish Plot was "responsible for the creation of a popular political entity outside the court--the crowd--not as a subject produced by the monarch (the rabble), but as participants of the Whig party [...] a construct of the Whigs designed to publicly demonstrate against the king the City of London's popular support of Exclusion" (Johnson 14).

The head of the drive toward Exclusion is Shaftesbury in history, Creon in the play, and Achitophel in the poem. As Shaftesbury's ostensible opposition was to the succession of Charles's brother James, so Creon initially and necessarily opposes not the king himself, but Oedipus's likely successor, his "step-daughter," Eurydice, who resists marriage to Creon, which would make him the next king of Thebes. Novak considers the representation in Creon of "the figure of Shaftesbury seen though royalist eyes and representations" Dryden and Lee's "crucial" alteration of their sources ("Commentary to Oedipus" 462). In Act I, Creon describes his deformity thus:
   Am I to blame if Nature threw my body
   In so perverse a could? Yet when she cast
   Her envious hand upon my supple joints,
   Unable to resist, and rumpled 'em
   On heaps in their dark lodging, to revenge
   Her bungled work she stamped my mind more fair:
   As for Chaos, huddled and deformed,
   The God strake fire, and lighted up the Lamps
   That beautify the sky, so he informed
   This ill-shaped body with a daring soul:
   And making less than man, he made me more. (1.1.145-55)

This passage certainly forecasts Dryden's description in Absalom and Achitophel of Shaftesbury's "huddled Notions," his "Pigmy Body" reproduced in his son, "born a shapeless lump, like Anarchy" (157-72). Creon, of course, aims to rule himself, and Dryden makes the same accusation against Achitophel, "Resolved to Ruin or to Rule the State" (173).

The most interesting parallel between Creon and Achitophel extends the emphasis upon those characters' twisted bodies. Creon admits "My body opens inward to my soul, /And lets in day to make my Vices seen / By all discerning eyes, but the blind vulgar" (1.1.179-81), so Creon's ambition is not really a compensation for his deformity, but an extension of it. Likewise, in his relentless plotting, Achitophel "Punishe[d] a Body which he [can] not please" (167). Creon's frustration manifests itself in misogynist statements like this:
   These Women are such cunning Purveyors!
   Mark where their Appetites have once been pleased,
   The same resemblance in a younger Lover
   Lyes brooding in their Fancies the same Pleasures,
   And urges their remembrance to desire. (1.1.66-70)

Or this: "That thoughtless Sex is caught by outward form / And empty noise, and loves it self in man" (1.1.93-94). Achitophel is likewise misogynistic, arguing that Charles "By Force [...] wishes to be gained, like women's Lechery" (471-72). Where Creon plans to take Eurydice by blackmail or force, and afterwards to discard her, Achitophel urges Absalom to "commit a pleasing rape upon the Crown" (474). Charles's petitioners are "Unsatiate as the barren Womb or Grave" (987). In the villains of both Oedipus and Absalom and Achitophel, sexuality is either debased, sterile, or brutal. Problematized representations of sexuality, however, are certainly not limited to the villains--not in this play--which leads us to consider Dryden and Lee's depiction of Oedipus himself and, especially, Jocasta. Specifically, I want to emphasize two points: first, Dryden's contributions in Acts I and III and the whole "design" accentuate the psycho-sexual complexities especially apparent in this version of the Oedipus story as much as, if not more than Lee's; second, these complexities, too, are particularly relevant to the political context of the collaboration.


There is a tremendous emphasis on carnality, even animality, from the outset of play. Act I.i, written by Dryden, insists on the drive--often brutal--toward sex and procreation. Alcander recommends that Oedipus (absent) "bring the Wives and Children / of conquer'd Argians to renew his Thebes" (50-51). Creon says Jocasta remarried in haste since she "Fear'd to lye single" (59), and he attempts to seduce Eurydice "For when the Gods destroy so fast, 'tis time/ We should renew the Race" even "in the midst of horrour" (113-14). Eurydice retorts by describing Creon's monstrous birth, at which "The Midwife stood aghast [....] And knew not, if to burn thee in the flames / Were not the holier work" (138-144), calling him only fit to mate with monsters like himself. Further, Act I introduces two occasions for incest, not one: the consummated incest of Oedipus and Jocasta, mother-son incest; and the potential, though ultimately unperformed, incest between Creon and Eurydice, uncle-niece incest. Likewise, there are two triangles: Oedipus/Lajus/Jocasta and Creon/Adrastus/Eurydice. The obvious difference is that Creon's rival is not his kin, whereas Oedipus's is. Oedipal incest, of course, involves the replacement of father with son; or, to put it another way, the son, in seeking to displace and replace his sire, to some degree becomes his sire, becomes husband/father. Thus, the Oedipal version of parricide and incest conflates identification and difference; they meet at the crossroads, if you will. Dryden represents this meeting, the doubled nature of the incestuous desire, in two early and crucial rhetorical moments: the plague and its consequent meteorological manifestations is described in a figure that would seem to conflate Oedipus with Lajus, and Oedipus's earlier career with his ultimate fate: "Blind Winter meets the Summer / In his Midway, and seeing not his livery, / Has driven him headlong back" (1.1.10-12). Let me unpack these lines. Every one of the spectators, and each of us readers, though not the characters at this moment, would recognize in the passage the image of Oedipus driving Lajus back at the crossroads, not having recognized his "Livery"--that is, his status as king and father (positions analogous in the contemporary, though embattled, political theory of Dryden's time). It is not going too far to see in Oedipus's and Lajus's jostling for primacy to pass through the "narrow way" (1.1.472), the "verge"(3.1.526) (perhaps recalled in the famous line Lee gives Oedipus at his moment of discovery: "Gods meet Gods, and justle in the dark! [4.1.626]), the contest for primacy in the passage to Jocasta's womb. As Jeffrey Rusten has detailed, "the juncture of three roads (double into single) figures the female genital region [...]"; the Greek word that designates "crossroads" is etymologically closely related to the word for "crack," defined as "the vulva" in Rufus of Ephesus On Medical Terminology, and Rusten traces such associations in, for instance, Aristophanes's Wasps. Thus, Rusten concludes, "the crossroads may double as a designation for sexual territory, territory that is simultaneously the threshold of emergence into life and of accession to political power. That a woman's body may become the terrain of sexual and generational rivalry is especially overt in the case of Jocasta [...]" (108-11). This initial impression of how the lines mean, however, is complicated, in that the Oedipal figure is "Blind," a forecast, also easily recognizable, of Oedipus's literal blindness to come. Essentially, the figure overlays the image of Oedipus in the play's past (at the crossroads) with the image of Oedipus in the play's future (blinded). And this rhetorical palimpsest goes further in that Oedipus, the youthful son, would here be "Blind Winter" (my emphasis), while the older Lajus would be "Summer." A later image similarly conflates Oedipus with Lajus, particularly in the attribution of blindness, not to the young but to the old. Oedipus sees an omen:
   A young Stork,
   That bore his aged Parent on his back;
   Till weary with the weight, he shook him off,
   And peck'd out both his eyes. (3.1.384-87)

The effect of such complex figures (Dryden's, I would remind us) is to hint at the problematic identification/difference paradox at the heart of the Oedipal crisis.

The second rhetorical moment I think crucial will position Jocasta at the Oedipus/Lajus juncture, and this moment involves Creon's theorizing with his supporters about feminine desire:
      CREON: Come, y'are my friends:

   The Queen my Sister, after Lajus's death,
   Fear'd to lye single; and supply'd his place
   With a young Successor.

      DIOCLES: He much resembles
   Her former Husband too.

      ALCANDER: I always thought so.

      DIOCLES: When twenty Winters more have grizzl'd his black

   He will be very Lajus.

      CREON: So he will:

   Mean time she stands provided of a Lajus,
   More young and vigorous too, by twenty Springs.
   These Women are such cunning Purveyors!
   Mark where their Appetites have once been pleas'd,
   The same resemblance in a younger Lover
   Lyes brooding in their Fancies the same Pleasures,
   And urges their remembrance to desire.

      DIOCLES: Had merit, not her dotage, been consider'd,
   Then Creon had been King; but Oedipus,
   A stranger!

      CREON: That word stranger, I confess
   Sounds harshly in my Ears. (1.1.57-74)

More straightforwardly than the previous passage, these lines stress the identification of Lajus and Oedipus and particularly in Jocasta's perception, wherein "remembrance" is confused with "desire." (7) But they also hint at the association of female sexual desire with narcissism, another version of the confusion of other with self, which Creon makes clearer in his reading of Eurydice's desire for Adrastus: "That thoughtless Sex is caught by outward form / And empty noise, and loves itself in man" (93-94). In Act III, when Eurydice is condemned (since the murderer is supposed to be "the first of Lajus' blood" [2.2.172] and Oedipus's paternity is not yet known), Creon's description of what death will bring further emphasizes what he sees as female narcissism. Eurydice's spirit will enter
      in the silent Vault,
   Where lyes your own pale shrowd, to hover o're it,
   Striving to enter your forbidden Corps;
   And often, often, vainly breathe your Ghost
   Into your lifeless lips:
   you must leave
   This beauteous body; all this youth and freshness
   Must be no more the object of desire,
   But a cold lump of Clay .... (3.1.46-59)

What is notable here is that while the "object of desire" in these lines is Eurydice's body and those who desire it in the play are Creon and Adrastus, this image makes the one desiring as well as the desired Eurydice herself. She is agent and object; female eroticism, here even after death, is auto-eroticism.

My point in all of this is to suggest that the insistent identification/difference trope in relation to Oedipus and Lajus--their permeability, or interchangeability--ultimately impacts on Jocasta, as does the issue of narcissism, the latter as Jocasta, not Eurydice, is the primary object of the play's examination of female desire, and thus even utterances not about her per se accrue to her characterization. More than other versions, Dryden and Lee's play obsessively returns to the question, as a colleague of mine phrased it, "What does Jocasta know, when did she know it, and what has she been telling herself all these years?" (8)

For in Dryden and Lee's version, Jocasta's culpability is certainly more at issue than in Sophocles, Seneca, or Corneille, and more likely to be condemned than Oedipus's own. In his preface, Dryden, claiming that he follows Sophocles's example, takes Corneille's version to task particularly for "miserably fail[ing] in the Character of his Hero":

if he desir'd that Oedipus should be pitied, he shou'd have made him a better man. He forgot that Sophocles had taken care to shew him in his first entrance, a just, a merciful, a successful, a Religious Prince, and in short, Father of his Country: instead of these, he has drawn him suspicious, designing, more anxious of keeping the Theban Crown, than solicitous for the safety of his People: Hector'd by Theseus, contem'd by Dirce, and scarce maintaining a second part in his own Tragedie. (115-16)

Dryden's self-proclaimed faithfulness to Sophocles's conception of Oedipus's character is not dogged, however. Whereas Sophocles's Oedipus is groundlessly hostile toward Creon, Dryden's Creon is groundlessly hostile toward his Oedipus. In so reversing the flow, Dryden diverts at least part of the culpability of his hero toward his villain and his cronies, who busy themselves in attempts to destroy all of the major admirable characters in both plots, which, Novak feels, makes Oedipus's tardiness in solving the mystery of his birth more plausible ("Commentary to Oedipus" 459-60). Dryden further mitigates the guilt that might accrue to his hero for the sins he does commit in all versions (murder and incest) by including the ghost of Lajus. Dryden provides Lajus with a warning before the birth of Oedipus. Lajus says the gods
      Forbad his being,
   Before he yet was born. I broke their laws,
   And cloath'd with flesh his pre-existing soul.
   Some kinder pow're, too weak for destiny
   Took pity, and indu'd his new-formed Mass
   With Temperance, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude,
   For Fate, that sent him hood-winkt to the world,
   Perform'd its work by his mistaking hands. (359-366)

In providing this detail, Dryden allots some of the guilt to Lajus by his own admission and reinscribes Oedipus's virtuous nature and his victimhood. In fact, Dryden later wondered if he had made Oedipus "too good a man" (in the Parallel between Painting and Poetry, qtd. in Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 470-71 n.115:17-19).

The guilt, then, is partly extenuated in relation to Oedipus, but, I would argue, exacerbated in relation to Jocasta. At her first entrance, Jocasta's wish that Heaven "bring the effects of these [Oedipus's] pious prayers / On you, and me, and all" (1.1.502-503) is ill-timed as Oedipus has been cursing the murderer of Lajus, and his "Unkind" (514) rebuke to her evokes this, the first of many explicit references to their incest (not to be found in sources):
      JOCASTA: My former Lord

   Thought me his blessing: be thou like my Lajus.
   The more I look, the more I .nd of Lajus:
   His speech, his garb, his action; nay his frown;
   (For I have seen it;) but ne'er bent on me.

      OEDIPUS: Are we so like?

      JOCASTA: In all things but his love.

      OEDIPUS: I love thee more:

   So well I love, words cannot speak how well.
   No pious Son e're loved his Mother more
   Than I my dear Jocasta.

      JOCASTA: I love you too

   The self-same way: and when you chid, methought
   A Mother's love start up in your defense
   And bade me not be angry: be not you:
   For I love Lajus still as wives shou'd love:
   But you more tenderly; as part of me:
   And when I have you in my arms, methinks
   I lull my child to sleep. (1.1.513-36)

Such lines may be thought to work paradoxically. They keep the horror and revulsion toward their incest that the characters will have to admit in the forefront of our reckoning of their guilt; yet they suggest that Oedipus's and Jocasta's actions are, in fact, unwitting and thus--insofar as that matters to us--innocent. For why should the remarks on physical likeness and the incestuous rhetorical figures be so glibly and publicly given voice by the couple and their enemies if the implications of these were consciously recognized? But insofar as this is how these lines work, they work less efficiently in term of Jocasta, since immediately after this exchange Jocasta sues that Oedipus allow the marriage of Creon and Eurydice. Oedipus, at least, sees the uncle/niece union as incestuous and forbids even mention of it ("I know not why, it shakes me / When I but think on Incest" [558-59]), to which Jocasta reluctantly agrees. Jocasta's understanding of the prohibition against incest is, at least in the case of Creon and Eurydice, more elastic than that of her husband. Moreover, since, I have argued, the moral and psychological valence of Eurydice also impacts upon Jocasta as the play's major representative of female desire (and "like mother, like daughter"), it is relevant that Eurydice does not seem to consider a union with Creon incestuous, only unwelcome--she never raises the issue of kinship in her rejections of him. We might also note that in the passage above, despite the problematic terms, Oedipus characterizes his love for Jocasta as "pious," she characterizes hers as "tender" and speaks of his being "in [her] arms." More of the implications of forbidden desire accrue to Jocasta than to her husband.

We might pause for a moment to consider that Eurydice was promised to Creon by Jocasta early, when her daughter was "at Nurse" (1.1.168) and that after Lajus's death Jocasta "Fear'd to lye single." The latter suggests a voracious female sexual appetite combined with timidity at being alone, but also latent in these details is the matter of the succession to the throne of Thebes. Creon and his followers seem to assume that if Jocasta had remained unmarried, Creon would have ascended to the throne after Lajus's death. As Diocles remarks, "Had merit, not her dotage, been consider'd, / Then Creon had been King" (1.1.72). The implication is that Jocasta, unmarried, would not have been permitted to rule alone; her power would have been effaced. Under these circumstances, one motive for the hasty marriage to Oedipus, then, may have been the preservation of Jocasta's position as queen. It is instructive to remember that up to Dryden and Lee's day, with the exceptions of Elizabeth I and "Bloody" Mary I, all British monarchs had been male. The cultural moment for a female monarch would not arrive until Mary II (and the operative monarch, her husband, William III) and following her, Ann, in 1685 and 1702, respectively. If in the details of the Restoration Oedipus we choose to ascribe such a motive to Jocasta--the preservation of female monarchical power--the response to such a motive during Dryden and Lee's day would likely have been negative.

From politically based suspicion to visceral horror is but a short step in this play, and Lee takes it immediately in opening Act II with prodigies: "blood on the moon" and gigantic figures of Oedipus and Jocasta against the sky. While the other spectators comment on the astronomical manifestations as astronomical (shooting stars, comets, lightning and so on), Oedipus sees a monstrous birth, one in which he will assist:
   Ha! My Jocasta; look! The Silver Moon!
   A setling Crimson stains her beauteous Face!
   She's all o're Blood! And look, behold again,
   What mean the mistick Heav'ns, she journeyes on?
   A bast Eclipse darkens the labouring Planet.
   Sound there, sound all our Instruments of War;
   Clarions and Trumpets, Silver, Brass, and Iron,
   And beat a thousand Drums to help her Labour. (2.1.37-44)

The monstrous birth recalls, of course, Oedipus's own and the "birth" to come of his recognizing his true identity. He offers his life as a sacrifice to the angry gods, but when Jocasta enters and the prodigies vanish, he retreats into erotic (and, he insists, innocent) imaginings:
   Yes, I will dye, O Thebes, to save thee!
   Draw from my heart my blood, with more content
   Than e're I wore the Crown. Yet, O Jocasta!
   By all the indearments of miraculous love,
   By all our languishings, our fears in pleasure,
   Which oft have made us wonder; here I swear
   On thy fair hand, upon thy breast I swear,
   I cannot call to mind, from budding Childhood
   To blooming youth, a Crime by me committed,
   For which the awful Gods should doom my death. (75-85)

What is interesting about this is that in the midst of denying criminality, Oedipus mentions misgivings about sexual pleasure and attributes these to Jocasta as well as himself. Jocasta takes the opportunity to sooth Oedipus's fears and proclaim his and her own innocence; her "perhaps" is notable: "Were you, which is impossible, the man, / Perhaps my Ponyard first should drink your blood; / But you are innocent, as your Jocasta [...]" (88-90). Oedipus, however, elaborates on his habitual aversion to (as well as attraction to) sexual intercourse with Jocasta after sending her reluctantly to bed:
   Nay, she is beauteous too; yet, mighty Love!
   I never offer'd to obey thy Laws,
   But an unusual chillness came upon me;
   An unknown hand still check'd my forward joy,
   Dashed me with blushes, tho' no light was near:
   That ev'n the Act became a violation. (290-95)

In the next scene, Oedipus is seen sleepwalking, dreaming that the Jocasta he approaches in bed is his supposed mother, Merope, and that he has killed his supposed father, Polybus, two acts whose criminality he clearly ranks:
   Yet what most shocks the niceness of my temper,
   Even far beyond the killing of my Father,
   And my own death, is, that this horrid sleep
   Dashed my sick fancy with an act of Incest:
   I dreamt, Jocasta, that thou were my Mother [....] (384-88)

Jocasta's response is interesting. Essentially, she accuses Oedipus of loathing her ill-timed, distracting, and "vile" sexual appetite (392-404); and her effect is to determine Oedipus to "act [his] joys" (429).

In the next Act, Dryden elaborates a hint in Sophocles to damning affect. As in Sophocles, Jocasta attempts to counter mounting evidence by discounting prophecies, but the brevity, the peremptoriness of her responses to Oedipus's anguished questions is striking. To the rumor that Oedipus was not Polypus's son, she says only "'T'was somewhat odd"; to the Delphic prophecy of parricide and incest, "Vain, vain oracles"; to Oedipus's determination to avoid these, only "Too nice a fear" (3.1.560-569). (Notably, Jocasta's later discounting of oracles has something of a feminist cast, when she says "If we must pray [...] / Let Virgin hands adorn the Sacrifice; / And not a gray-beard forging Priest come near ... [4.198.201, my emphasis].) It does not help that Jocasta has just emphasized to Oedipus his suspicious physical resemblance to Lajus:
      JOCASTA: bate but his years,
   You are his picture

      OEDIPUS aside: Pray Heaven he drew me not!-Am I his picture?

      JOCASTA: So I have often told you.

      OEDIPUS: True, you have [....] (3.1.537-540)

We may add to this Jocasta's extreme reluctance to produce Forbes, the shepherd who was supposed to murder the infant Oedipus. Jocasta recognizes the truth about the murder and marriage even before Forbes is, finally, produced (4.1.377-82) and, having recognized it, seeks to dissuade Oedipus from questioning him--presumably she would continue in the incestuous relationship if her son remained ignorant of its true nature. Or is recognition not so much of the truth as it is a recognition of the imminence of exposure of a fact she has suspected or even known all long? The play maintains ambiguity, but the weight of evidence in Dryden and Lee's version allows, perhaps even impels spectators and readers to suspect the latter. In fact, looked at this way, the motto for Oedipus's and Jocasta's relationship may be found in his line to her, "O, thou wilt kill me with thy Love's excess!" (4.1.73).

"Thy Love's excess"--the lines return us from what Jocasta knew to what Jocasta is: a woman. I have already argued in relation to Eurydice that other characters' psychological/moral valence accrues to Jocasta as she is the play's primary study of female desire; now I would like to reverse the flow and suggest that Jocasta's psychological/moral valence accrues to other characters--to begin with, to Oedipus's supposed mother, Merope. When the news arrives that Polypus has died of natural causes, Oedipus's consideration of his supposed mother's widowhood undergoes an extreme shift:
      AEGEAN: Your Royal Mother Merope, as if
   She had no Soul since you forsook the Land,
   Waves all the neighboring Princes that adore her.

      OEDIPUS: Waves all the Princes! Poor heart! For what? O speak.

      AEGEAN: She, tho' in full-blown flower of glorious beauty,
   Grows cold, even in the Summer of her Age:
   And, for your sake, has sworn to dye unmerry.

      OEDIPUS: How! For my sake, dye, and not marry! O
   My fit returns.

      AEGEAN: This Diamond, with a thousand kisses blest,
   With thousand sighs and wishes for your safety,
   She charged me give you, with the general homage
   Of our Corinthian Lords.

      OEDIPUS: There's Magic in it, take it from my sight;
   There's not a beam it darts, but carried Hell,
   Hot flashing lust, and Necromantick Incest:
   Take it from these sick eyes, Oh hide it from me. (4.1.263-279)

As we recognize, and as Oedipus is informed, Merope is not his mother and thus not guilty of "Necromantick Incest," but the emphasis on her languishing, on her desirability, on her "thousand kisses" all make the charge of "hot lust" at least momentarily plausible and add to the play's depiction of the insatiability and transgressiveness of female sexuality. We also hear that Merope has "had no Soul," which leads us to consider the play's handling of the laws of Heaven versus the appetites of Earth, or, in another formulation, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian, the latter term of both formulations being identified as female. In Tiresias's oracular terms, Heaven "sees" while Earth births: "Then hear me Heaven, / For blushing thou hast seen it: hear me Earth, / Whose hollow womb cou'd not contain this murder [...]" (3.1.421-22). Accordingly, the ceremony in the grove that brings Oedipus's guilt to light is earthbound, performed in a trench, rather than at an altar; the sacrifice involves a "barren Heyfer," who, when opened in Seneca "proves [...] to contain a fetus even though it is unmated [...] allegorically representing the incestuous issue of Oedipus and Jocasta" (Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 483 n. 274); the grove is dedicated to the furies, violent female deities transformed and demoted by the Olympian Apollo in The Euripides. Oedipus, one might say, seeks to ally himself with law and with heaven against these feminized forces, to deny them in himself. In Act I, considering the plague and the murder of Lajus, he rails at the Corinthian crowd:
      y'are devoted
   To Mother Earth, and to th' infernal Pow'rs:
   Hell has a right in you. I thank you Gods,
   That I'm no Theban born. (1.1.452-55)

Novak explains that this is

[p]artly because Thebes was the birthplace and a cult center of Dionysus, a god of the earth and underworld. Oedipus supposes himself of Corinth, whose principle cult was that of Olympian Aphrodite. The opposition between underworld and Olympian deities recurs in Oedipus' curse, I, i, 496 and in II, i, 266-70. ("Commentary to Oedipus" 477 n. 452-55)

Novak further, in commenting on Jocasta's murder of all her children ("swift and wild, / As a robb'd Tygress bounding o're the Woods [5.1.402-03]), points out that Dryden and Lee may have in mind Seneca's Oedipus, "where Jocasta's final entrance is marked by likening her to another Theban matron, Agave, who killed her son in a frenzy ..., and did so on the wooded slopes of Mount Cithaeron, where she and her fellow Bacchants roamed with and like animals [...]" (494 n.402-07).

After the discovery, Oedipus vacillates between cursing Jocasta as "thou far worse than worst / Of damning Charmers" (5.1.174-74) and yearning toward her:
      JOCASTA: you are still my Husband.

      OEDIPUS: Swear I am,
   And I'll believe thee; steal into thy Arms,
   Renew endearments, think 'em no pollutions [....] (5.1.220-222)

For her part, Jocasta alternates between deferring to Lajus's prohibitive ghost (226-32) and attempting to "fright" the Gods (265) and reclaim her husband (whom she alternately imagines as Oedipus and Lajus). Oedipus wishes for sight to see her "mouth the Heav'ns, and mate the Gods ..." (280). Novak glosses "mouth" as "declaim against" and "mate" "in the sense of rival or vie with, especially presumed superiors" (493 n. 280). I would add that the phrase keeps intact Jocasta's defiance of Apollonian law and her voracious sexuality. And, if Dryden and Lee had contemplated writing a sequel, the suicides of Oedipus and Jocasta and the murders of the rest of the royal family would have made impossible an Antigone, in which the Apollonian laws are upheld by a woman.


Novak and others have pointed out Dryden's making Oedipus "too good a man" may have stemmed from his acceptance of certain principles of Thomas Rymer:

We are to presume the greatest vertues, where we find the highest of rewards; and though it is not necessary that all Heroes should be Kings, yet undoubtedly all crown'd heads by Poetical right are Heroes. This Character is a flower, a prerogative, so certain, so inseparably annex'd to the Crown, as by no Poet, no Parliament of Poets, ever to be invaded. (qtd. in Novak, "Commentary to Oedipus" 485-86 n. 363-65)

Hence, the problem Oedipus would pose for a Restoration playwright: Oedipus both kills a king and is a king; he commits parricide and incest but must be a "Heroe." And it is a truism by now that political theory during the Restoration (and modern literary criticism--particularly New Historicism) exploits the analogies of state and family, of father and king. At the time Dryden and Lee were writing, moreover, contemporary political theory as well as the brute facts of government and power were in crisis. In relation to Absalom and Achitophel, Susan Greenfield explains,

[Political theorists] assume that discourses about the body and state overlap, and they recognize that any representation of conception is thus a political act. This sense of integration was obviously influenced by their own system of government, figured in the body of a ruler who passed his power through genetic descent. At the same time, though, recent historical events--most importantly the execution of Charles I--had proved that the royal succession could be broken. The classic seventeenth-century patriarchalism that linked monarchal and paternal creative power would not endure. (270-71)

Richard A. McCabe has discussed the relevance of incest to such embattled political theorizing in his Incest, Drama and Nature's Law: 1550-1700: "Perversions in the sexual politics of the family provide ready analogies for corruptions in the power politics of the state or the ideological politics of church and academy" (25). J. Douglas Canfield is more specific:

The majority of Restoration political tragedies polemically defend Stuart monarchial theory of hereditary succession, especially at the time of the most severe political crisis of the era, 1678-88, from the Popish Plot through the Exclusion Crisis to the Glorious Revolution. A handful of plays offer a counter ideology--or at least expose the fatal Oedipal crisis lurking at the heart of monarchial ideology. (41) (9)

Given the dilemma inherent in the Oedipus story they had inherited and given Dryden's (at least) staunch royalist convictions, Dryden and Lee could do neither one of these, exactly. The uneasy nature of what they did do has been largely explained by commentators insisting on the strict division of labor, forte, and intention between Dryden and Lee. McCabe, for instance, says that "Dryden is intent upon the tragedy of fate [...] Lee upon a tragedy of desire" (276):

Lee was interested in the psychological Oedipus, Dryden in the political, in the virtuous "Father of his Country" overcome by circumstance, and his part of the play duly reflects the moral and political confusion of the age through the strategy of oblique allusion at which he excelled [....] In this play, if anywhere, Dryden evokes something of Sir Robert Filmer's atavistic respect for the king as patriarch [....] (275)

So, according to McCabe, Lee's additions "[undermine] Dryden's insistence upon [Oedipus's] purity of motive in wedding Jocasta" (275). But, as my analysis of the play has shown, Dryden's parts too question "purity of motive"; Dryden too is interested in the "tragedy of desire" and the "psychological Oedipus." There is more coherence in the two playwrights' efforts than divisionary analyses suggest. Moreover, both playwrights are interested in "purity of motive," "desire," and the "psychological" in relation to Jocasta as much as, perhaps even more than, in relation to Oedipus. The role of Jocasta, and by extension the depiction of woman, does much of the cultural work that would be required of royalist playwrights. Greenfield has argued in relation to Absalom and Achitophel that the poem's "emphasis on [David's] promiscuity has been effaced by increasing references to a feminine sexual desire and productivity so dangerous that the king appears reliable by contrast" (267). Jocasta's characterization in Oedipus functions similarly: in deflecting much of the attention, perhaps condemnatory attention to issues of desire and agency as depicted in the female, the playwrights do not excuse Oedipus, who is, when all is said and done, inexcusable; but they do manage to mitigate it as much as possible under the circumstances. As Greenfield concludes in relation to Absalom and Achitophel,

In many respects Dryden at first seems remarkably sensitive to the mothers, reflecting what James Winn has described as his "more than occasion insight into the hard lot of ... women." But this insight is, as Winn notes of other works, also balanced by Dryden's tendency to lapse into misogynistic conventions. Ultimately [...] by the end only the standard negative implications about female sexuality persist. (272)

As much as I would like to soften this judgment in relation to Dryden and Lee in regard to Oedipus, it seems to me disturbingly true.

(1) Novak states in his "Commentary to Oedipus" that the playwrights'
   insistence upon the continuing sexuality of [the protagonists']
   relationship--they are, it should be remembered, more recently
   married, both seem younger than they are in other
   versions--constitutes the principle addition of Dryden and
   Lee to the story they inherited. These mutual endearments
   might distantly derive from Seneca's interpretation of the
   myth-maximum Thebis scelus- / maternus amor est--but
   Seneca permits no caressing by the unfortunate couple and,
   like Sophocles and Corneille, is far from allowing
   the recidivism we find in Dryden and Lee when, even after
   the full discovery, blind Oedipus and Jocasta melt
   toward each other. (464)

Brown remarks on the play's reputation for "lurid emotionalism" (12); Canfield also notes that its "surprisingly" open expression of erotic desire sets it apart from earlier versions (152-53). Charles Segal states that Dryden and Lee "virtually anticipate Freud in the suggestion of a subconscious attraction between Oedipus and Jocasta ..." (216).

All citations to act, scenes, and lines from Dryden and Lee's Oedipus come from Novak's edition in The Works of John Dryden, Vol. 13, and all citations from the preface or other prose are to page number. Citations of "Commentary" to the Works are page number, and when relevant, to note number.

(2) The Creon/Shaftesbury link is also noted in George McFadden's Dryden, the Public Writer: 1660-85 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 209.

(3) McFadden's is the most specifically developed analysis of political relevance (203211). See also Novak's "Commentary to Oedipus" 461-64. Canfield designates Oedipus a "political tragedy" (41, 55-56).

(4) Hume writes that "Lee's participation is probably responsible for some of the play's excesses, but also for its high emotional temperature. By himself, Dryden tends to be slightly frigid, his designedly emotional scenes too obviously calculated" (325). Brown notes that "Dryden's standard of cool precision is often used to denigrate Lee's more passionate poetry" (12) and ultimately argues that the difference in the playwrights' methods result from Dryden's having "planned the play as a means of extending his investigation into the varieties of tragedy, arranging a side-by-side comparison of Oedipus' irony and pathos with the wildness of his passion" (18). Novak remarks in the "Commentary to Oedipus" that "Terms like 'passionate' for Lee, 'argumentative' for Dryden come unbidden to the mind" and that the playwrights' contemporaries were struck by the "characteristic frenzy" of Lee's style (449).

(5) All citations of Absalom and Achitophel are to line numbers and are from Swedenberg's edition in The Works of John Dryden, volume 2.

(6) All citations of Sophocles's Oedipus are from Grene's translation in The Complete Greek Tragedies.

(7) In regard to Seneca's works, Fitch and McElduff remark that "As the Oedipal son's desire mimics that of the father, so the desire of the mother [...] toward the son mimics her own earlier desire toward the father, who has become undesirable through age or absence" (34).

(8) The colleague is Professor Patricia Gillis, classics scholar and a feminist long before it was fashionable.

(9) Canfield goes on to say that "Dryden and Lee have perhaps unwittingly implied that the very system of patrilineal monarchy, consciously or unconsciously, invites Oedipal rebellion" (56).


Brown, Richard E. "The Dryden-Lee Collaboration: Oedipus and The Duke of Guise." Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 9.1 (1985): 12-25.

Canfield, J. Douglas. Heroes and States: On the Ideology of Restoration Tragedy. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2000.

Dryden, John. Absalom and Achitophel: A Poem. The Works of John Dryden. Ed. H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. Vol. 2. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972. 1-36.

--. Cleomenes, the Spartan Heroe: A Tragedy. The Works of John Dryden. Ed. Vinton A. Dearing. Vol.16. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996. 71-165.

--. "The Vindication of The Duke of Guise: or, The Parallel of the French Holy-League and the English League and Covenant." The Works of John

Dryden. Ed. Vinton A. Dearing and Alan Roper. Vol 14. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. 307-57.

Dryden, John and Nathaniel Lee. Oedipus: A Tragedy. The Works of John

Dryden. Ed. Maximilian E. Novak. Vol. 13. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. 114-215.

Fitch, John G. and Siobhan McElduff. "The Construction of the Self in Senecan Drama." Mnemosyne 55.1 (February 2002): 18-40.

Greenfield, Susan C. "Aborting the 'Mother Plot': Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel." ELH 62.2 (1995): 267-294.

Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Johnson, Odai. Rehearsing the Revolution: Radical Performance, Radical Politics in the English Restoration. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2000.

McCabe, Richard A. Incest, Drama, and Natures Law, 1550-1700. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1993.

Novak, Maximilian E. "Commentary to Oedipus." The Works of John Dryden. Vol 13. Berkeley: University of California P, 1984. 441-96.

--. "Commentary to Troilus and Cressida." The Works of John Dryden. Vol 13. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. 497-565.

Rusten, Jeffrey. "Oedipus and Triviality." Classical Philology 91 (1996): 97-112.

Segal, Charles. "Oedipus through the Ages." International Journal of the Classic Tradition 7.2. (Fall 2000): 215-226.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. David Grene. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Vol. 2. Ed. David Grene and Richard Latimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1959. 9-76.

Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

CANDY B. K. SCHILLE is an Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Georgia Southern University. She teaches Restoration and Eighteenth Century literature, drama, and courses in the Women's and Gender Studies Program, of which she was founding director for seven years.
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Author:Schille, Candy B.K.
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Date:Jun 22, 2004
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