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I now move to the two plays by Sophocles that I’ve never read. They make an interesting pair, as they are both pretty gruesome. In fact, my by-no-means-deep study of them reveals them to be particularly heavy on the agony, the gore and general human suffering. In Philoctetes, the suffering is a real source of humanity that I feel leads to a really satisfying redemption at the end. The suffering is the center of the play, the focus of the characters’ discussions – it is, in itself the conflict that needs to be resolved.

But with these two plays, it almost seems like a novelty: the characters engage in the matters important to them, and people suffer, have suffered or will suffered, and then the play comes to a stop.

I know this is simplifying what are, in the end, well crafted plays worth staying on bookshelfs or, yes, even performed on stage. But the immense pain that the characters endure simply stands out as a defining characteristic.

Let me get into The Women of Trachis. First, this play really could use a namec change. Hollywood producers, let’s say, would never have done to name a play about the relatively insignificant chorus when you could have named it The Death of Heracles, which is an immensely attractive title and is, in fact, what the play is about.

Telling masters of Western drama how to do their work aside, it’s a fairly good read. The back-and-forth is lively, the character of Deianira is intriguing, as is the lying herald, Lichas, who carefully neglects to inform Deianira that one of the prisoners he led into the palace was her husband’s mistress. Another man tells her and, in her desperation, Deianira attempts to regain her husband’s affection by lacing a shirt with a substance she was told by one of Heracles’ enemies is a man-shackling love potion but is, surprise surprise, an absurdly painful poison. Lichas gives Heracles the shirt, and, shortly thereafter, Heracles’ skin essentially feels like it’s on fire as he dies in a maddeningly slow pace. He asks his son Hyllus to immolate him. Hyllus is, at first, reluctant, but Heracles tells him to man up and the funeral pyre gets underway.

The story is, well, engaging. You want to see what happens next, and this is not always the case with Greek Drama. Part of this might be my unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the story, even if I did know that Heracles was supposedly killed by a poisoned shirt. And, I must say, Deianira’s accidental murder of her husband was pretty ironic in the way you are introduced to the concept of irony by reading Sophocles. Destroying that thing that you are so desperately trying to claim for yourself. A good lesson on what it means to own someone’s affection – though perhaps viewing a Greek play with a modern idea of relationship in mind is a little bit inappropriate.

In the end, though, as interesting as all the events in the play are, I’m left not entirely convinced that I’m taking away a whole lot. On the other hand, I can’t really say that there’s nothing there. Again, my readings are not incredibly deep, and, of course, there is the language factor. Even in translation, Sophocles seems like the best poet among the tragedians, striking the best balance of passion and restraint. The suffering of his characters is portrayed with profound sympathy; you can’t but feel for them, and I think this is a strength found in each of his plays.

And while Trachis is no Philoctetes, this magnifying glass placed over the raw intensity of human feeling is just as present. This, combined with the sheer entertainment of the plot, gives the play an appeal beyond afficionados of the genre. I can’t say that everyone must read it, or even that everyone would enjoy it, but I think anyone who likes to pour over stories about the human condition will find this one worthwhile.


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