(Originally read and wrote this post October 3rd 2008)
Philip Whaley Harsh considers the Trachiniae “to be an inferior play” in comparison to Sophocles’s other works. I completely agree. The riveting first half of the play deals with Deianeira’s loneliness and desire for her husband, Heracles, to return home from his labors. Meanwhile, he sends a group of slave women from his most recent war efforts, one of whom he lusts after and hopes to bed. Deianeira hopes to keep her husband loyal to her by offering him a cloak drenched in the blood of an enemy Heracles vanquished long ago. Deianeira falsely believes it is enchanted and will keep him interested in her, but it turns out that the vanquished enemy’s claim is a trick and the leftover blood actually works more like acid, melting what it touches when in contact with sunlight. Deianeira kills herself after thinking that she has murdered her husband when their son, Hyllus, condemns her.
The second half of the play features the dying rant of Heracles about prophecies over his death . It is the second half of the play that leads to its disjointed structure.
One might read the play as being about the destructive power of love, but if the introduction that came with my translation and Harsh’s book are any indication many scholars find this reading problematic because of the second half’s sudden shift of focus on Heracles and the theme, which is prominent in the first half, disappears from the second half.
Harsh thinks the theme of the play is better stated as “the irony of the inglorious death of Heracles, the great warrior and benefactor of Greece.” Big old mean Heracles who slaughtered countless monsters and accomplished impossible tasks was defeated so easily by a woman, his own wife. He was also destroyed by an enemy he already defeated! The patriarchal Greek audience of Sophocles’s time would’ve been far more interested in how even the greatest of men can be destroyed by the mistaken assumptions of his wife. The subtext implies beautiful women destroy men by infecting them with the “sickness” of lust. After all, it’s his lust for a slave girl that leads to his wife’s jealousy in the first place. The play comes off as horribly sexist; although it does reveal many interesting tidbits about the relationships between men and women during ancient times. On the other hand, Deianeira is a compelling character nonetheless and its her plight that is the main draw of the play for modern readers.
Harsh, Philip Whaley. A Handbook of Classical Drama. Stanford: Stanford UP