The Women of Trachis, recounting the last crisis in the life of Herakles, is the only surviving tragedy of Sophocles that ends in death for both of the chief characters. The tragedy also presents the devotion and love of ideal womanhood in Deianira and the heroic endurance and strength of ideal manhood in Herakles. The Women of Trachis has as its tragic protagonist not one person but a family of three. For this reason critics sometimes claim that the play lacks unity, since half is devoted to Deianira and half to Herakles, with neither appearing onstage at the same time. To consider this drama properly, however, one must regard the tragedies of Deianira, Herakles, and Hyllus as one large event instigated by the gods, carried out by human will, and transcended in the end by strength of character.
Although the play lacks the smoothness and facility of Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), it is significant, and it treats the major problem of Sophocles’ dramatic career, that of human freedom. The problem is this: When events are determined by the will of the gods, as revealed in oracles and prophecies, and by the passionate compulsions of the human animal, freedom lies in learning the truth and accepting it—not passively but with all the force of one’s being. For one to be free one must knowingly seek to accomplish one’s destiny in harmony with divine law. In Sophocles that destiny is always hard and terrible, which makes the acceptance of it truly ennobling. This problem and its solution are at the heart of The Women of Trachis, which was probably written when the dramatist was in his sixties, an age when he looked at life fully and accurately. The play is a mature statement of Sophocles’ deepest convictions.
The action moves from ignorance to truth, and from misconceptions to a revelation of the total pattern imposed by divine will. Each of the three tragic characters acts from a lack of understanding and then must confront the awful truth. The audience sees this first in Deianira. Her greatest apprehension in the beginning is that her husband, Herakles, will not live much longer. Then she learns that he is both alive and returning home in triumph. She sympathizes with the most miserable of the captive women, Iole, only to learn that Herakles took Iole as his concubine. Deianira does not find fault with either Iole or Herakles, but determines to win her husband’s love by black magic. The potion is made from the poisoned gore of Nessus, the centaur that Herakles killed. After sending the deadly robe to Herakles, she realizes how dangerous it is. When her son Hyllus reviles and curses her for murdering Herakles by slow agony, she knows that she herself accomplished her worst fear. Her...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)