Gender and love in Sophocles’ Trachinae

Of the characters in this interesting play, by far my favourite is Deianira. I find her to be an incredibly sympathetic character: she is innocent without seeming ridiculous, good-natured without appearing martyrish, and anxious only due to entirely reasonable concerns. But I think much of my interest in her comes from her final actions.

Realising what her ‘love-charm’ will most likely do, she is upset:

If I’m not somehow wrong, I’ll prove my husband’s death – none but I, heaven help me!  (c. 712-15)

But her distress is quickly replaced by an impressive, even improbable calm. She is accepting of her role, and of the consequences. Although her recognition begins with her seeking to confide her anxieties in the chorus, as she has repeatedly done before:

Women, I’m so afraid! (c.661)

Her decision to commit suicide needs no external confirmation. In fact, for the first time she resists the chorus’ opinion and reasserts herself.

I am resolved, if Heracles falls, then Deianira’s death must follow, too. (c. 719-20)

C: Allowance can be made – and so for you. 
D: Only an innocent would argue that.  (c.728-9)

This newfound determination and inflexible resolve carry Deianira through to her end. When confronted with the news of Heracles’ injury, she does not lament, or cry out her anguish as she has so often done earlier in the play. Instead she exits wordlessly:

Chorus: Going without a word? You surely know you silence argues your accuser’s case. (c. 313-4)

Even her manner of suicide emphasises this resolve. Deianira does not kill herself by bloodless hanging, as is typical for a woman and no doubt expected for such a timid one.

Nurse: She killed herself – with a two-edged sword! (c. 881)

We found she had stabbed her side with a two-edged sword, right through to her heart. (c. 928-9).

Suicide by sword – and a double-edged warrior’s sword, no less – is the suicide of a brave warrior rather than a meek woman. In her final actions Deianira leaves behind her feminine timidness and fear and adopts a very masculine (for an ancient Athenian audience) self-mastery and adherence to justice.

In Heracles’ final moments, by contrast, he has forgotten proper self-restraint. He cries and laments and bemoans his circumstances:

Cut off my head, I say! Stifle this cruel pain! Finish my life! God, God! (c. 1014-16)

And, more tellingly, directly asserts his lost masculinity:

I faced my hardships without so much as a whimper, but now, instead, I’m found a feeble woman. (c.1074-5)

But it seems to me that this apparent reversal of gender roles has its precedent much earlier in the play. If self-mastery and restraint are key aspects of ideal Athenian masculinity, allowing oneself to be ruled by lust and rage is to allow oneself to be unmanly. Heracles is known for his temper, but in Trachinae it is his susceptibility to love that stands out the most.

Your husband’s prowess may be supreme in everything else, but his love for her has proved his utter defeat. (c. 488-89)

Deianira, when considering this, declares the lust-afflicted innocent:

Love is a sickness. If I get angry with my own husband for having caught it, I’m utterly mad. (442-3)

But as Heracles allows his lust to lead him by the nose (or groin?) into battle after battle, he surrenders his will and self-restraint without a fight. Moreover, he does so even when lust leads him to sack a city full of innocents and deeply injure his marriage.

Deianira professes to be ruled by love. She claims to have surrendered to it and to acknowledge its great power:

You can’t engage in a boxing match with love. Who’d be such a fool? Love governs even the gods at his own sweet will. He certainly governs me. (c. 441-4).

But this is not a simple surrender. In contrast to Heracles, Deianira refuses to let anger over injured pride overcome her sense of reason:

I can’t be angry. This malady strikes him far too often for that…. resentment isn’t a course for a sensible woman. (c.c.542-3, 553)

Instead she takes charge of herself. Attempting the love-charm very much is engaging ‘in a boxing match with love’. In attempting to alter her circumstances, Deianira is defying and challenging love’s power. Deianira herself may be susceptible to love, but she stops short of submitting meekly to its rule. This is not the approach of a timid woman. Instead, however timidly she presents it,

Unless you think I’m being foolish. If so, I’ll leave it alone. (c. 586-7)

This is the same strength of character, the same sense of quiet resolve, that is so striking in her final actions. This, it seems to me, is a strong precedent for the ‘masculine’ characteristics that appear to be so suddenly introduced later in the play.

All quotes from “Women of Trachis” in Sophocles: Electra and Other Plays. Translated and edited by David Raeburn. Penguin Books, 2008.

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