The Women of Trachis
THE WOMEN OF TRACHIS
The Women of Trachis begins with Deianira, the wife of Heracles, musing to the Nurse about her woeful life: “It was long ago that someone first said: / You cannot know a man’s life before the man / has died, then only can you call it good or bad” (73). (Yeah, that someone was Sophocles, at the end of Oedipus.) Deianira recounts being courted by the protean river Acheloüs before Heracles did combat for her; now, she’s an outcast in Trachis with their children and Heracles is an absentee father for the most part. The Nurse recommends sending son Hyllus to find his father. (She’s been reading Homer’s Odyssey?) The kid has heard that dad has been in the service this past year of a Lydian woman and that now he is in Euboea campaigning against the city of Eurytus (75). Hyllus will go off and find out what he can.
The Chorus chides Deianira about her pessimism, but she responds that Heracles left a will in case he did not return after a year and three months, which would indicate that he had died (78). A messenger immediately announces that Heracles is alive. His envoy, Lichas, and captive women including Iole enter — the women Heracles selected for himself and the gods when he sacked Eurytus. Lichas reports that most of the time he had been a bought slave to Omphale, a queen of Lydia. His war was vengeance for the long humiliation. Deianira detects noble upbringing in Iole’s demeanor, but Lichas nervously claims he doesn’t know anything about her. When the crowd enters the house, the messenger calls Deianira aside and accuses Lichas of lying. The truth, he says, is that the war was fought for Iole; when Heracles could not persuade Iole’s father “to give to him the child for his secret bed, / he fabricated a petty complaint, an excuse / to campaign against the girl’s country” (85). Deianira grills Lichas and seems despairing but reasonable, resigned to an extent but not overly spiteful. Lichas fesses up and says the cover-up was his, not Heracles’, and that he was trying to spare her feelings (90).
The Chorus recounts the battle of Heracles with the river Acheloüs. Deianira laments her lot:
For here I have taken on a girl …
a ship’s master takes on cargo, goods that outrage my heart.
So now the two of us lie under the one sheet
waiting for his embrace. This is the gift my brave
and faithful Heracles sends home to his dear wife
to compensate for his long absence! …
For I see her youth is coming to full bloom
while mine is fading. The eyes of men love to pluck
the blossoms; from the faded flowers they turn away. (92)
She then tells of an old episode in which the centaur Nessus touched her “lustfully” during a river crossing (93). Her cry prompted Heracles to shoot Nessus with an arrow. The dying centaur told her that a robe dipped in his blood would work as a love charm. Deianira gives this long-stored robe to Lichas to take to Heracles. Afterwards, she tells the Chorus that a piece of wool she used to anoint the robe disintegrated when it hit the sun, so she’s a bit worried now (97). Besides, she thinks, why would the centaur have given her a gift unless it was a ruse to destroy his killer. “Yes, yes. Now I see that one should never / plunge eagerly into anything obscure” (96).
Hyllus returns and says that Heracles is dying, poisoned and being eaten away by the robe. He has bashed Lichas’ brains out (99-100). Hyllas curses his mother Deianira (101). Deianira kills herself — she “cut her side to the liver” (106) — as the nurse reports, with a sword on her marriage bed. Heracles is brought in on a litter and begs for mercy killing. “Why will no one / come and cut away / my head from my abominable body” (109). He recounts a few of his famous “Labors” (111). Hyllus reveals Deianira’s mistake and the fact of her suicide “by her own hand,” to which Heracles responds, “Ah! She’s dead too soon. She should have died by mine” (113). (A Macbeth source?) Hyllus requests that Heracles not burden him with patricide. Heracles says Hyllus would be a healer, curing his suffering (116). But Hyllus agrees to prepare everything for Heracles’ death, and Heracles makes him promise to marry Iole: “No other man must ever / have her who has lain with me at my side. You, / my son, must engage yourself to her bed” (117). Ew!
Hyllus delivers the resigned and dismayed final words: “You see how little compassion the gods / have shown in all that’s happened…. and there is / nothing here which is not Zeus” (119).
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Sophocles. The Women of Trachis. Trans. Michael Jameson. Sophocles II. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. 63-119.