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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay on The Trachiniae was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 188-91.

The Trachiniae (Women of Trachis) has not as a rule found much favor with the critics. It has been censured as feeble and deficient in passion; and Schlegel has even gone so far as to express a hope that, for the sake of Sophocles, it might be proved to be spurious. But to the ordinary reader, if not the most impressive, it is perhaps the most delightful, of all the plays of Sophocles, on account of its tenderness and gentle pathos. Its evil reputation seems to have been largely due to a mistaken comparison with Euripides. The critics appear to have supposed that the aim of Sophocles was to emulate the Hippolytus and the Medea, and to exhibit, in Deianeira, a picture of a woman maddened by love and jealousy. Such is the Deianeira of Ovid and Seneca. She thirsts for the blood of her rival Iole, raves against her husband, and is distracted by the conflict of her passions. But to compare the heroine of Sophocles with a woman of this type is to misinterpret his intention. His desire was to portray, in Deianeira's character, the gentleness and patient devotion of womanhood; and though her submissiveness may perhaps seem in some cases to have been carried to excess, no one can deny the charm and truthfulness of the representation.

As to the date of the Trachiniae the most diverse views have been expressed. Those who regard it as a bad play ascribe its defects to the inexperience of youth, or to the decaying powers of old age. But opinions based on these grounds are of slight significance. Nor can any importance be attached to the supposed imitations of Euripides, as an indication of date. The opening speech of Deianeira, as was long since pointed out, is not a mere reproduction of the Euripidean prologue; it is spoken in conversation with the nurse, instead of being addressed to the spectators, and the desultory narrative which it contains is natural and appropriate under the circumstances. In the same way the coincidences of expression with the Hercules Furens and Supplices of Euripides are of little use as evidence, since it is uncertain whether Sophocles was borrowing from Euripides, or whether the reverse was the case. In favour of an early date are the facts already mentioned -- the sparing use of the third actor, and the infrequency of divisions in the iambic verse. Moreover, the unusual prevalence of narrative speeches, and the disregard of the unity of time, are more in the style of the primitive drama. On the other hand the soft and tender grace with which the characters are drawn recalls the tone of the latest tragedies -- the Philoctetes and the Oedipus Coloneus. On the whole, therefore, the question of date must be regarded as somewhat uncertain.

The plot of the Trachiniae is clear and simple, like all the plots of Sophocles, and deals with a single subject, the jealous fears of Deianeira and their consequences. But it lacks that artistic unity and symmetry which come from the concentration of interest upon one central personage. The play falls naturally into two portions, Deianeira dominating the first, and Hercules the second; and the transition from the one to the other is not without awkwardness. After our feelings of compassion have been wrought to the highest pitch by the tragic fate and silent exit of Deianeira, the entrance of Hercules, and the subsequent picture of his sufferings, inevitably strike one as an anti-climax. Hence the Trachiniae cannot be classed, in point of structure, among the finest works of Sophocles. But the final scenes are executed with such power and skill as to prevent, as far as possible, any diminution of interest. There is no repetition of similar effects; Hercules is in direct contrast to Deianeira. Sympathy and tenderness have no place in his character. When he is brought on the stage, writhing with torture, his first desire is to get his wife within his grasp, and to crush her to death; and the cautious replies of his son, and the faintest suggestion of disobedience to his will, goad him to madness. Such a spectacle of physical and mental agony excites, it is true, more horror than compassion. But on a sudden everything is changed. When he hears of the fatal wiles of Nessus, the truth flashes across his mind, he recognizes the hand of fate, and perceives that the oracles are in the act of fulfilment. His former violence and fury are succeeded by calm and stoical resolution. He gives his final directions to Hyllus, and is then carried away to his death, bidding his soul "with curb as of steel" repress all lamentation, and meet its fate joyfully. This transition from uncontrollable fury to strong and dignified endurance is all the more pathetic on account of its suddenness, and gives a tragic grandeur to the conclusion of the play.

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