The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Women of Trachis opens with a lament by Daianeira, wife of the greatest of Greek mythic heroes, Herakles. She is lamenting her woman’s helplessness during his year’s absence in pursuit of heroic labors or exploits; she is a loving and loyal wife who misses her husband and is in some anxiety about his safety—indeed, his fate, which she knows affects her own. No sooner has she sent off her and Herakles’ grown son Hyllus on a search than a local messenger arrives with a report that Lykhas, Herakles’ herald, has landed in Trachis with news that Herakles has won a military victory over King Eurytus on the nearby island of Euboea, and, after celebrating rites thanking the gods for his triumph, he will shortly return home. With Lykhas have arrived captive women from Eurytus’ kingdom, among whom is a particularly lovely and forlorn young girl named Iole, who remains silent in her slave’s sorrow and immediately wins the genuinely pitying regard of Daianeira, who knows too what it is to be forlorn and can remember her own helpless girlish youth, when Herakles won her by overcoming the monstrous river spirit Akheloos.
Immediately, however, there appear two complications. First, Herakles has sent an ambiguous and puzzling prophecy saying that when he returns it will be to a condition without further heroic trials (one wonders if this is a life of well-earned rest, or death). Second, the local messenger has challenged Lykhas’ account of...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Women of Trachis is an Athenian tragedy, alternating scenes of three individual characters interacting onstage with choral odes responding to the scenes and fearfully anticipating the coming events those scenes may be causing to occur. There seem to be two candidates for tragic protagonist, Daianeira and Herakles; it is remarkable that the two principals are never onstage together. These two powerful and flawed lovers are fated not to be reunited. Daianeira is the major figure for eight hundred of the play’s 1,275 lines, the dying Herakles for the last three hundred lines. Both come to a recognition of their real situation and both accept, and even take action to achieve, their fated deaths. Yet the play ends with the orphans, Hyllus and Iole, who must live out their lives in the shadow of the suffering of their parents. These two young ones also undergo new understanding. Sophocles, and Pound, focus the audience’s attention through these two upon the Chorus of young women growing up, reaching a mature understanding of what it is to be human—to accept the reality of human erotic experience and make the most of it. Throughout the action the audience comes to see, through the five interspersed choral odes, these young women of Trachis coming to that kind of understanding of sexual fate.
Pound’s version is not an adaptation but a line-by-line translation. Yet he uses a most distinctive English—a melange of British and American slang...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Herakles’ house (HEHR-uh-kleez). Home of Herakles, for which Sophocles uses a set with dramatic effectiveness: When Deianeira learns that the robe she gave to Heracles as a love charm actually causes irrevocable pain and burning, she rushes into the house without saying a word. A few moments later her nurse emerges to report and lament Deianeira’s suicide.
*Trachis (tray-KEHS). City on a high plain northwest of Thermopylae in the central Greek region of Locris. More remote and less bustling than the earlier homes of Herakles (Thebes and Mycenae), Trachis is where Herakles had hoped to retire in relative solitude.
*River Evenos. River in central Greece; it is not shown on stage, but in the prologue Deianeira reenacts an incident that occurred at the river years earlier, when Herakles took her home as his bride and came to the river. There, the centaur Nessus offered to ferry Deianeira across then return for Herakles. Instead, Nessus tried to molest Deianeira in midstream, and Herakles shot him from the shore with his bow. Between the description of this incident and that of Herakles’ battle with a river god, images of rivers dominate this tragedy, pervading the mental, if not the physical setting.
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Ancient Athens and the Golden Age
The ancient civilizations that existed in what is approximately present-day Greece flourished during Sophocles’s lifetime to become the most culturally and economically advanced societies in the world. In the sixth century b.c.e., power and influence were concentrated in the urban centers of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Athens, whose powerful landowning aristocrats controlled the surrounding areas. As these cities grew wealthier, however, a mercantile class became increasingly influential and eventually contributed to the founding of the world’s first major democracy (though only male citizens could vote), erected around 500 b.c.e. in Athens. At this time, Athens and the other Greek cities were united in war with Persia, and after the conflict abated Athens emerged unchallenged as the dominant power of the region.
Athenian dominance ushered in a period of cultural and economic prosperity marked by extraordinary advances in philosophy, literature, history, and the arts. Pericles, the leading politician of Athens, used taxes levied on Athenian allies to build the Parthenon, the famous temple to the goddess Athena, and other architectural marvels. It was this period, in the fifth century b.c.e., that became known as the golden age of drama. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedic dramatist Aristophanes all lived and worked at this time, contributing to the...
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Golden Age Dramatic Conventions
Sophocles wrote in a theatrical environment that had a specific and nuanced set of conventions which have inspired centuries of influence, admiration, and critical theory. Because commentary about ancient Greek drama survives only in often unreliable fragments, however, many of the rules which scholars associate with Sophoclean drama are based on supposition.
One formal convention common to all tragedians of the golden age is the use of poetic verse with strictly metered syllables. Sophocles achieves a sense of musical and rhythmical beauty with his poetry. Also, Aristotle and other sources have indicated that golden age dramatists such as Sophocles observed what are known as the unities. Using Sophocles’s Oedipus the King as a model of perfection, Aristotle pointed out that tragedy should have unity of action and follow one main drama without complex subplots, and unity of time, which means that the events of the play should occur within approximately the same time that it takes to watch it. Later scholars added the third unity of place, which stressed that a dramatic plot should occur within a single physical space. Women of Trachis does follow these rules, a practice which arguably contributes to its aesthetic beauty and its ability to touch and affect its audience.
The Chorus, consisting of young women from Trachis, is a prominent example of a...
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Compare and Contrast
- 430 b.c.e.: Athens is a powerful and democratic city-state with a flourishing cultural and intellectual environment.
Today: Athens is the capital of the Hellenic Republic, commonly known as Greece, a democratic, developed nation and a member of the European Union.
- 430 b.c.e.: Greek city-states are primarily occupied with fighting amongst themselves, but tensions remain between Athens and Persia. Persia holds the island of Cyprus despite various Greek attempts to invade.
Today: The island of Cyprus is a sore point in Greek and Turkish relations. Although the island is technically a European Union member state, this status is effectively limited to its Greek residents and excludes its Turkish population.
- 430 b.c.e.: International multi-sport games are held every four years in Olympia, Greece. They are important for building diplomatic ties and for honoring the gods.
Today: The Olympic Games are a worldwide tradition. In 2004, they are held in Athens, Greece, for the first time since the modern Olympic Games began in 1896.
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Topics for Further Study
Ancient Athens was a prosperous environment for many intellectual activities in addition to drama, including the writing of history and philosophy. Choose an intellectual or cultural figure of the period, such as the philosopher Socrates or the politician Pericles, and prepare a class report about him. In your presentation, assess your subject’s contributions to the era, place in Athenian culture and politics, and potential influence upon or relation to Sophocles and the tragic theater.
With a group of classmates, perform a section of Women of Trachis that you feel expresses an important theme or a vital emotion in the drama. Make careful choices about issues such as whether the characters Deianira or Heracles should be painted as more or less sympathetic, and how to portray them as such with costuming, posturing, blocking (location and movement on the stage), and acting. Consider also whether to pronounce the lines rhythmically, render them closer to natural speech, or attempt some form of musical or dance accompaniment. Afterwards, discuss the performance with your classmates, answering their questions and explaining your choices and techniques.
Critics have long debated the question of who is the tragic hero in Sophocles’s play. Write an essay in which you argue that a particular character should be considered the tragic hero, justifying your contention by explaining what qualities and events make a character fit this role. Use...
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What Do I Read Next?
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (c. 425 b.c.e.), also translated as Oedipus the King, follows the doomed Oedipus as he unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, then realizes his fate and tears out his own eyes and banishes himself.
Aristotle’s brilliant work of aesthetic philosophy, The Poetics, was probably written between 335 and 322 b.c.e.. Setting out to account for the poetic arts, it uses Sophoclean tragedy as a model, arguing that tragedy is the highest form of poetic representation. The rules and conventions by which Aristotle defined tragedy have remained extremely influential since they were rediscovered during the Renaissance.
Lysistrata (411 b.c.e.) is Aristophanes’s witty play that voices opposition to the Peloponnesian War. In an insightful attack on male politicians who neglect the advice of wiser women, its female characters refuse to have sex with their husbands in order to force them to end the war.
Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941) is a deeply affecting work of American realism which uses many of the classical conventions of Sophoclean tragedy. Its intimate portrait of the severe troubles of a family from New London, Connecticut, in 1912 demonstrates the devastating failures in communication and support inside the home.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Jebb, Richard, “The Genius of Sophocles,” in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 2, Gale Research, 1988, originally published in Essays and Addresses, Cambridge University Press, 1907, pp. 1–40.
Schlegel, August Wilhelm von, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, translated by John Black, Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1815.
Seale, David, “The Women of Trachis: The Verge of Knowledge,” in Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles, University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 182.
Sophocles, Women of Trachis, translated by Brendan Galvin, in Sophocles, 1, edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998, pp. 71–126.
Whitman, Cedric H., “Late Learning: The Trachiniae,” in Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, Harvard University Press, 1951, p. 104.
Blundell, Sue, Women in Ancient Greece, Harvard University Press, 1995. This work provides an account of the female experience in male-dominated ancient Greek society. Carefully analyzing literary and historical sources, including golden age drama that seems to concentrate mainly on men, Blundell reconstructs the daily life, legal status, and social position of women of the era.
Bowman, Laurel, “Prophecy and Authority in The Trachiniai,” in American Journal of...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. Includes a chapter on each of the seven plays by Sophocles. Discusses the themes and the motives and conflicts of the characters in The Women of Trachis. Explains the plot and gives several lines in the original Greek; includes many lines in English translation.
Kirkwood, Gordon MacDonald. A Study of Sophoclean Drama. Vol. 31 in Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958. Analysis of Sophocles’ structures and methods of dramatic composition. Considers The Women of Trachis in context with the other plays of Sophocles for characterization, irony, illustrative forms, use of diction, and oracles.
Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Synopsis of The Women of Trachis. Consideration of other works which may have influenced Sophocles. Discusses the structure and the mythological gods and oracles. Includes information on the seven plays by Sophocles, a chronology of Sophocles, a bibliography, and an index.
Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Distinguishes Sophocles from other playwrights of his time and demonstrates his influence on later ones. An excellent starting point. Considers the...
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