The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to 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 Herakles’ return: Lykhas told a different story in the public marketplace of Trachis before...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to 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...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Herakles’ house

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 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.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Ancient Athens and the Golden Age
The ancient civilizations that existed in what is approximately present-day Greece...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Golden Age Dramatic Conventions
Sophocles wrote in a theatrical environment that had a specific and nuanced set of...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 430 b.c.e.: Athens is a powerful and democratic city-state with a flourishing cultural and intellectual...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Ancient Athens was a prosperous environment for many intellectual activities in addition to drama, including the writing of history and...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (c. 425 b.c.e.), also translated as Oedipus the King, follows the doomed Oedipus as he unknowingly...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Jebb, Richard, “The Genius of Sophocles,” in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 2,...

(The entire section is 310 words.)


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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 entire section is 251 words.)