DATE: unknown – placed as early as 450 or as late as 410; probably late 430s
CHARACTERS: Deianeira, Nurse, Hyllos, Messenger, Lichas, Old Man, Herakles; Iole (silent)
CHORUS: women of the city of Trachis
SETTING: the city of Trachis (in central Greece)
Because of her beauty, Deianeira, the wife of Herakles, had been sought by many suitors. One of these, the centaur Nessos, was killed by Herakles, who then claimed her as his bride. Years later she and her children are exiles in Trachis because of an act of violence by Herakles. Alone now for over a year, she wonders what has become of Herakles and sends her son Hyllos to find out. News arrives that he has conquered the city of King Eurytas in Euboia, and captives arrive from that sack, including Iole the king’s daughter. Deianeira learns from Lichas that Herakles has sacked that city, not because he had been insulted, but because he wanted the king’s daughter. In jealous despair, she sends Herakles a robe anointed with blood from the centaur’s wound, which turns out not be the love charm she thought but an incurable poison. Hyllos brings news of what the robe has done to Herakles, and Deianeira kills herself with a sword. Herakles is brought on stage in great pain, cursing his wife and asking Hyllos to marry Iole and then to light the funeral pyre that will put him out of his agony.
Perhaps the most Euripidean of the surviving plays of Sophocles, full of the monstrous and with a cruel god (Eros – Love) beneath the action. Beauty and love are seen as irrational forces affecting the lives of men. At the end Hyllos blames the gods for what has happened to Herakles (“There is nothing here that is not Zeus”), and even the prospect of Herakles’ apotheosis is left uncertain. There is no guarantee in the drama that the pyre on Mount Oita is Herakles’ gateway to godhood. It is more than a little ironic that what destroys Herakles is no monster or armed opponent, but the weak woman he despises – all the more striking since the same actor played both Herakles and Deianeira. This may be Herakles’ first appearance in tragedy – he was a frequent character in comedy and satyr-play; if so, it is the presentation of a bestial and unattractive hero, in perfect company with the monsters he conquers. This play responds well to structuralist criticism, balanced as the setting is between the civilized world and that of the wild and the monstrous, and its characters between order and disorder. Trachis is “a city on the edge of forever,” poised between civilized Greece and the wilderness. Gender themes loom large in this play. Deianeira is the polar opposite of Klytaimestra, but achieves the same effect, the destruction of her husband, and her own death-weapon is a sword, not a woman’s usual means of suicide.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005