Friday, June 10, 2022

The Women of Trachis by Sophocles - the death of Herakles - And I thought that then I would be happy.

Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis is usually dated to the early 420s, so in the same period as the string of Aristophanes and Euripides plays we have been reading.  I put it at this point in the schedule because I thought we might want a break from those two high-energy, high-concept playwrights.  A good idea!  Compared to frenetic Aristophanes and hysterical – or “turbulent,” to use William Arrowsmith’s term – Euripides, The Women of Trachis is so calm, so logical, even though the events of the play are horrible enough.

The extremely busy Greek vase, owned by the Met, shows the apotheosis of Herakles, the moment when he is transformed by death from human to god.  He is already in the chariot, above his funeral pyre.  Curiously, Sophocles ignores the apotheosis.  He is writing about the death of a human, not the birth of a god.  As the son of Herakles says, at the end of the play:

No one can foresee what is to come.

What is here now is pitiful for us

and shameful for the Gods;

but of all men it is hardest for him

who is the victim of this disaster.  (119, tr. Michael Jameson)

I suppose I am dwelling on this, rather than, for example, the jealousy of Deianira, because the aspect of the play that most impresses me is the depiction of the suffering of the hero, practically the only element that qualifies as “action” on the stage, and even it is static, as his flesh and life are slowly burned away by the poison of an old enemy.  Entering late in the play, we only see the hero in the act of dying.  I wonder if there is a risk of his long death scene becoming ridiculous.

Come then, O my tough soul,

before this sickness is stirred again,

set a steel bit in my mouth

hold back the shriek, and make an end

of this unwanted, welcome task.  (118)

I find his pain believable enough.  And of course his death is also, by definition, the final labor of Hercules.  He was promised rest after finishing them, and he will get it:

And I thought that then I would be happy.

But it only meant that I would die then.  (114)

Was it odd to return, after those action-packed Aristophanes plays, to one where everything happens offstage, and many of the characters are messengers describing some earlier action?  I had to make a mental adjustment.

In four weeks, we will look at the Herakles of Euripides, a quite different creature.  Thank goodness the action is offstage in that one.  We will see Herakles again in Sophocles, too, in Philoctetes, but as a god.

Next week we are back to Aristophanes, The Wasps (422 BCE), a satire of courts and juries and that demagogic bastard Cleon, how we hate him.


  1. What a way with words you have! "that demagogic bastard Cleon, how we hate him." Yes.

  2. I'm just joining into the Aristophanic spirit. I suppose at the time there was another side to the story.

  3. I can see why you call this "calm" and "logical". It has some similarities with our last Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, in the way mysteries are gradually solved. Plus Heracles betrothing his new consort to his son has echoes of the sexual dynamics of the earlier play.

    I don't know anything about how these plays were titled - did the playwrights themselves choose the titles, or later anthologists? - but the title of this is interesting. Why is it not just called Deianira? I can only assume the other Trachinian woman is Iole (assuming it's not Heracles, who sobbing in his agony says that he is "discovered a woman"). Iole is a fascinating void in this play, the empty center - what are her thoughts? There are some obvious parallels between her and Deianira, both of whom were won by Heracles through armed conflict.

    The tragedies often end with a somewhat empty platitude, but the last lines of this one are quite striking: Hyllus' "You have seen a terrible death and agonies, many and strange, and there is nothing here which is not Zeus." I don't really know what to make it, but I like it. Of course Hyllus is talking about his grandfather, which makes it weirder.

  4. What stuck me most about this play is the idea that whenever humans brush up against the gods, they are damaged or destroyed. Heracles, being half-god, is sort of a walking, talking battlefield between the mortal and the divine worlds, everything always split, half-and-half. One could if one wished write his life as a series of encounters with centaurs, the personification of chaos.
    But it's not just Heracles, of course, as Deianira's opening monologue riffs on this same idea, that her life has been made nearly unlivable because of contact with the gods. The whole Heracles story is like a Rube Goldberg device that runs on irony. Of course in the end, Heracles' humanity is burned away in the funeral pyre and his divinity lives on, a metaphor for the ongoing mortal/divine conflict that Deianira invokes at the start. It's a sober, depressing play. Which is to say it's pretty good.

  5. I believe the titles are in the manuscript sources, and many must be the original titles since Aristotle knows them. There could be plenty of patchwork, though. But in any given case, why the chorus instead of the heroine, good question.

    There is a wonderful Icelandic saga, Grettir's Saga, about a monster-killing hero who outlives the age of monsters and transforms, tragically, from hero to villain without changing at all. A fascinating work.