Sophocles: The Trachiniae, and tragedy under patriarchy
Sophocles’s Women of Trachis presents us with all sorts of problems, which is likely why it’s rarely performed today, even in Ezra Pound’s controversially conversational but still quite good translation. Part of this, I think, is due to the strange structure of the play: two-thirds focusing on the wife Deianira, who then snuffs herself, leaving us to watch her husband Heracles die painfully during the last third. This gives rise to a larger problem: just who is the tragic figure here? Many critics have asked this, and likely audiences do as well, although the confusion might well arise from modern biases and an inability to read ancient ones.
The first problem, probably relatively minor, is the name: the chorus, those “women of Trachis”, speak moving but relatively insignificant odes that describe the action, instead of moving it forward. We could perhaps see the play as dealing with the lot of women, which places the emphasis on Deianira; but then we return to the question of who the tragedy is about. Is it the story of a woman’s intense but misguided love for her husband? Or is it the story of a great warrior who is a lousy husband? And who would the original audience have found to be at fault between the two?
I think we find Heracles at fault. Heracles (Latin: Hercules) originally won Deianira for a wife by fighting the river Achelous for her. The son of Zeus, he is a great warrior, yet he has not settled into domestic bliss. Returning from war, he has brought with him the female slave Iolus, who is too traumatized to speak. The play’s first reversal of fortune comes in the space of twenty lines: Deianira, overjoyed at the return of her husband, discovers that Iolus is really the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. Heracles has decimated Oechalia, killed the king, and taken the daughter, with whom he is now madly in love, as his concubine. Concubinage is normal at this time; what’s destabilizing is his love for the slave, and the betrayal of his wife. In Pound’s conversational translation she says this betrayal is, “What I get for keeping house all this time,” which demonstrates both the appeal and the problems with that version.
The power of Sophocles’s play is the way it shows the rapid shifting of fate. What Sophocles seems to be illustrating is how those shifts, commonplace in times of war, threaten the stability at the heart of domestic bliss. Changes of heart can have devastating effects on marital relationships, as they do here. The tragic limitation that Deianira rages against is one that every feeling person can relate to- namely that we cannot make the other love us if they simply don’t, and we cannot make them continue loving us if they have stopped. Her desire for a love potion #9 is universal.
The instability of war also impacts life at home, a theme in several tragedies. The difficulties great warriors have retuning home create an evocative theme because they illustrate just how different war and peace are as existential states; by comparison to wartime, peace seems like a somnambulistic denial of the struggle for survival. See also: The Hurt Locker.
The problem for modern audiences is that we’re naturally a bit biased against Heracles and towards Deianira. But it’s her error that sets the tragedy in motion. Once upon a time, she was ferried across the Evenus by the centaur Nessus. Halfway across, the centaur tried to finger her and was more than rebuffed- she screamed and Heracles chivalrously shot the beast with a poisoned arrow. As he lay dying, Nessus gave her an urn of his blood, promising it would allow her to rule her husband’s heart: “Never will he look at another woman and love her more than you.”
In an inversion of the Medea story, Deianira sends Heracles a cloak steeped in the blood, hoping to make him love her again. Instead, the cloak, poisoned, causes him to sizzle and burn, the second reversal of fate and true meaning of the centaur’s promise. There’s also a sardonic parallel between the affliction of love and poisoning. Realizing her mistake and how it has doomed her, Deianira kills herself. In the last third of the play, Heracles rages against his treacherous wife: “Miss Oineus, with her pretty little shifty eyes, has done me to beat all the furies.” The last reversal: the loyal son Hyllus convinces him that it was not treachery, but her desire to win his heart, and Heracles finally realizes his wife’s devotion in the last moments of his life.
Sophocles sets the deaths up as gender-inversions: Deianira dies in a “manly” way in gutting herself, Heracles tries to hide his “womanly” lingering and whimpering death, and Hyllus becomes a man in the mercy killing of his father. Our sensibilities might confuse us because we miss what Sophocles sees as a reversal of natural order.
Perhaps the play also confuses us because we see Deianira’s error as a matter of her being deceived, rather than the sort of hubris common in tragedy. It seems to me that the tension of tragedies comes from the character wanting something that fate says they cannot have, and our unavoidable identification with their desire in spite of our own detachment. Of course Medea wants revenge against Jason. Of course Philoctetes wants to die. Of course Antigone wants to bury her brother. How could they not? But they become horrible in their refusal to accept the limitations of human life. The tragic sense is the knowledge that all men want to overcome the limitations imposed by existence- how could we not?- but in striving to be something better than human they often become something worse.
All Deianira wants is for her husband to treat her and her alone with love. But this is something she’s not entitled to, even though we assume it is the right of a spouse. I think our incomprehension comes first because it’s perhaps harder for us to condemn female jealousy than male jealousy. The jealousy of a male has an undertone of violence, while female jealousy is tied to helplessness, particularly in the time in which the play is set. Without her husband, Deianira will be at the mercy of fate. We naturally sympathize with her.
Secondly, we don’t quite recognize the limitations placed on Deianira because we do not accept patriarchy as a given. We see the impossibility of making the other love us; but we don’t recognize Deianira’s hubris in coveting the love and devotion of a husband that she’s simply not entitled to, not in a warrior-based patriarchy. We want to see Sophocles as a sort of proto-feminist because he so aptly depicts the suffering of a woman in a society in which her husband has the right to fall in love with another woman, make the other his concubine, and keep his wife around to tend to the home. Of course Deianira wants to be treated better.
But those who live in genuinely patriarchal societies don’t tend to see them as better– more just or decent- they see them as natural– as rooted in human nature in an inevitable sort of way; it couldn’t be otherwise. Deianira isn’t just raging against the insensitivity of her prick husband; she’s raging against the “natural order of things”, and as such is doomed to fail, whether we agree with that or not.