32 pages 1 hour read


Women of Trachis

Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Women of Trachis is a classical Greek tragedy composed by Sophocles (circa 496-406 BCE). The play’s precise dating is unknown, but it is believed to have been produced sometime during the 440s, among Sophocles’ earliest surviving plays, and to have been performed at the City Festival of Dionysus, held in March in Athens. The play itself subverts traditional heroic themes, notably the homecoming hero, the unknowability of the gods, and the importance of pity.

Sophocles is believed to have produced and won first prize with his first tragic trilogy in 468 BCE. Approximately 120 plays are attributed to him, only seven of which have survived into modernity.

This study guide refers to the Hackett Publishing Company edition found in Four Tragedies: Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra, and Philoctetes, translated by Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff.

Plot Summary

When the play begins, Heracles’ wife Deianeira is in Trachis, waiting for him to return from completing his labors. She laments that, after battling the river god, Achelous, to win her hand, Heracles has spent much of their marriage away from her. She worries about the meaning of the oracle’s prophecy he left with her, that he will live happily after securing his prize.

Their son Hyllus arrives to report that Heracles is waging war against Euboea, and Deianeira sends him to his father. The Chorus’ entry song recognizes Deianeira’s grief while also noting its futility, since joy and pain are yoked together. When Zeus sends one, it inevitably also brings the other. Nevertheless, with the oracle’s fulfillment at hand, Deianeira is afraid of being left behind.

A messenger arrives to report that Heracles has succeeded in battle and will return after completing the sacrifices and offerings due to his father, Zeus. At Deianeira’s request, the Chorus sings a celebratory song while Lichias, a herald, brings in a group of captive women. One of them, Iole, clearly a woman of rank, provokes Deianeira’s pity. Lichias claims that Heracles went to war against Euboea because of a personal grievance against its king, Eurytus, but the messenger later reveals to Deianeira that Heracles fell in love with Iole, Eurytus’ daughter and sacked the city to capture her. After Lichias admits the truth, Deianeira asserts that she does not blame Heracles or Iole. Love is the cause, and the gods cannot be fought. She asks Lichias to wait while she prepares a gift for Heracles.

After the Chorus sings of Heracles’ defeat of Achelous to win the prize of marriage to Deianeira, she enters carrying a box in which she has placed a robe for Heracles that she has woven herself and rubbed with the blood of Nessus, a centaur. Years earlier, Heracles shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow after he sexually assaulted Deianeira, and as he lay dying, the centaur told her that he would give her his blood as a gift since it had the power of restoring love. Deianeira passes the box to Lichias to deliver, and the Chorus sings of Heracles’ success, praying for his safe return.

When Deianeira reenters the scene, she fears that she has made a terrible mistake. Nessus’ blood has caused a piece of wool to disintegrate after being exposed to the sun. Deianeira fears she has killed her husband. Hyllus arrives, verifying her fear. The robe is slowly killing Heracles. Believing his mother intended this outcome, Hyllus berates and denounces her. Deianeira silently exits, without explaining her true intentions.

The Chorus sings of how the oracle’s prophecy has been fulfilled in an unexpected way: Heracles’ labors are ending because the dead know no labors. The Nurse enters to reveal that Deianeira has killed herself with a sword, and Hyllus learned the truth of her intentions too late. He has lost both parents on the same day. As the Chorus sings about the two deaths, a procession carrying Heracles enters.

In agony, Heracles rails against Deianeira, though Hyllus correct his father’s false assumption that she murdered him intentionally. Heracles instructs his son to take him to Mt. Oeta, build a funeral pyre, and burn him alive to release him from his suffering, then to marry Iole. Hyllus worries that he will be guilty of patricide, but he ultimately relents and obeys his father. He concludes by telling the Chorus that they have seen new forms of suffering.