"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

10 February 2014

The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles

Lichas: what the gods can’t stand is criminal violence (174).

For my money, The Women of Trachis is Sophocles’ weakest extant play. Not much happens, and the characters aren’t as well drawn as many of his others (e.g., Electra, Oedipus, Antigone). No one in the play is overly likeable, and while Deianeira has moments of nobility, she doesn’t seem consistent or even interesting. I think for a Greek audience her suicide would be a noble gesture of self-sacrifice, but because we—modern western/US viewers/readers—don’t live in a culture that equates suicide with honorable redemption, it doesn’t work quite the same way. The thing that makes her character hard to get a hold of is the refusal to blame anyone for the thing that is clearly a huge problem for her and her marriage. Heracles sends his new mistress/slave Iole home to his wife, and Deianeira is basically like, ‘well, I can’t blame Heracles. After all, if I fell in love with him why shouldn’t he fall in love with someone else?’ And she refuses to blame Iole—which, to be fair to Deianeira is remarkably sporting—because the girl basically got white slaved to Trachis after Heracles destroyed her city and killed her family. In some ways it seems natural to contrast Deianeira against someone like Aeschylus’ Clytaemnestra (although Clytaemnestra became an example par excellence of a terrible wife) because the latter seems to have almost no will while the former has an excess of it. Although maybe a better comparison would be: if Ismene (Antigone’s sister, who initially doesn’t support Antigone and then later wants to be punished to preserve her honor) were made the main character of a play.

For his part, Heracles is basically an ass, who has left his family without contacting them for fifteen months, then sends back a group of captured slaves including a girl he destroyed a city to capture, and basically seems to expect his wife—Deianeira—to be cool with it. In the last third or so of the play, when Heracles finally makes an appearance after being poisoned through the centaur’s trick, Heracles spends his time complaining about how much pain he’s in and reminding the audience how awesome he was in completing his twelve labors. Even though he’s dying a slow painful death he wants to kill his wife because he thinks she intentionally poisoned him, but then when their son Hyllus tells him she killed herself because the centaur tricked her into poisoning him, Heracles is sort of like, “well, I guess that makes sense considering the like four prophecies I’ve got about a dead enemy coming back to kill me, so in the end Deianeira wasn’t really at fault.”

Hyllus doesn’t seem to have any strong convictions except that he won’t light his father on fire (way to choose a difficult issue to take a stand on, there guy). Initially he’s mad at his mother for poisoning his dad, then he finds out she meant to create a love charm and was tricked, so he forgives her and cries over her dead body. Then he’s out with his dying father and lets Heracles give several speeches about how terrible Deianeira is for killing him, before Hyllus finally interrupts and tells Heracles that Deianeira was tricked.

In some ways Iole is the most interesting character because she never speaks so she maintains a kind of mystery. I mean, this girl’s city was destroyed and her family killed because Heracles was madly in lust over her, then he white slaves her to Trachis where his wife lives. And she says nothing throughout the whole play. What does she think? Is she apprehensive? How does she feel about Heracles? She is probably the only mystery in the play that sparks my interest.

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