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Sophocles' Trachiniae: Some Observations
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American Journal of Philology 118.1 (1997) 21-34

In several ways Trachiniae seems almost a textbook of Sophoclean tragedy, so many elements of plot, theme, and even formal structure does it have in common with one or another (sometimes with several other) of the playwright's works. The deceptive quality of oracles and prophecies, the equally illusory nature of human happiness, the alternation between the familiar, even the domestic (insofar as Greek tragedy can ever be "domestic") and "the wild country"--the lonely, unknown, and sometimes feral areas of experience "out there"--, even the curious, "diptych" structure of the play, involving the disappearance of a major tragic figure from the action: all these features, so prominent in Trachiniae, are to be found in various other Sophoclean tragedies. Yet in all cases Sophocles uses what appear to be common features in different combinations and contexts to produce strikingly different tragic effects. It should not surprise us, then, that Trachiniae, despite all these typically "Sophoclean" elements, should turn out to be, if not the most baffling, at least among the most mysterious of his extant works.

The key to the full appreciation and understanding of this tragedy lies, I think, in recognizing precisely how the poet interweaves these different elements of plot and theme to achieve, ultimately, a single tragic effect. Ironically, it is the constant alternation of human fortunes, apparent good fortune arising from ill and vice versa, which supplies the cohesive, "sequential" element to the plot. Two essential thematic elements lie behind this alternation. One is the repeated misunderstanding of oracles and other prophetic utterances; the other is the repeated interaction between the protected, domestic sphere and the mysterious, natural (and sometimes magical) world, which threatens its existence. In the deployment of both these elements, the characterization of Deianira, the central figure though not the ultimate focus of this tragedy, is essential. It is through the gentle Deianira that Heracles is twice brought in contact with the savage "outside world" which leads ultimately to his undoing. Thus (as is usual in Sophocles) are the play's prophecies fulfilled in unexpected and tragic ways. Thus, too, do the gods fulfill the destinies which they have planned through the unwitting cooperation of their pawns.

Deianira sounds, as it were, the keynote of the play with her opening words in the Prologue:

There is an ancient saying that one may not know
the fate of any man, whether it be good or bad,
until that man has died. But I, for my part, know,
before I come to Hades' house, that my lot is both
grievous and unfortunate. (1-5)

Deianira's fear of life has begun (as she tells us in her Prologue account) in her maidenhood, with the courtship of the river-god Achelous. Here the three forms in which her monstrous suitor appears -- first as a bull, then as a snake with shimmering coils, finally as a man with brow of ox and beard dripping with river's springs -- provide our introduction to the horrors of the untamed world. Heracles, a properly heroic suitor, appears to rescue her. It is significant, however, that the gentle heroine cannot bring herself to watch the struggle between the hero and Achelous, as she sits wrapped in terror lest her beauty should prove to be her bane (24-25). Thus, though threatened, Deianira remains untouched by -- and ignorant of -- the dangerous world outside.

Deianira's joy (18) at her rescue by Heracles is short-lived. As Heracles' wife, and mother of his children, she is in constant fear for her absent husband ("each night dispelling last night's terror with terror of its own," 30-31) and these very fears are themselves fresh encounters, at one remove, with the savage world of Heracles' labours. Her wandering husband, too ("like a tiller of a distant field, who sees it only when he sows and when he reaps," 32-33), must himself seem like a visitor from a distant clime.

The opening choral ode confirms the contrast between the world of the wandering Heracles and that of the waiting Deianira. Only the sun can tell where Heracles is roaming ("Tell us," the Chorus asks the...


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