Last week I read Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, a drama retelling the Oedipos myth, which is of much wider breadth than Sophocles’ Oedipos Tyrannos (it begins with the business of the Sphinx), though I couldn’t help wondering what the point of Cocteau’s effort was. His essential concept, of the Infernal Machine, is that of the fateful machinations of the plot as it works itself out to Oedipos’ destruction – and this is frankly much better done in Sophocles’ version.
Woman of Trachis in this sense I find very similar to Oedipos Tyrannos: it contains that the same ideal tragic plot, where a character acts sincerely and innocently without understanding the terrible consequences their actions are going to bring about. Not merely once but twice does Sophocles play the trick: with Deianeira’s giving of the fatal cloak; and with Hyllus’ blaming his mother for her evil actions when she is innocent.
I find myself wondering a few things. Is there dramatic irony in Women of Trachis (and is there in Oedipos Tyrannos)? I’m not so sure. – Women of Trachis is perhaps more useful in this respect, because at a guess you, like I, don’t already know the story – and it is this foreknowledge, not the playwright’s art, in Oedipos Tyrannos, which creates any dramatic irony (or so I suppose, without actually re-reading). Instead we learn of Deianeira’s error at the same time Deianeira does – at the same time our chorus, the Women of Trachis, does – and so the dramatist leads us into those feelings of empathy and sympathy which we might say are the basis of the tragic art.
And what of the gods? I find myself frustrated that my favourite E.R. Dodds essay on the subject has disappeared seemingly for good behind paywalls, because I’d have liked to have reminded myself what his argument was here (I just remember I didn’t feel I quite agree with it); but like Oedipos Tyrannos, Women of Trachis has the relation of men and gods very much in mind, particularly in the last scene between Heracles and Hyllus, which otherwise seems like something of an appendage to the main play. I don’t find any of it though so different to what I already expect of Sophocles, and of the ancient world in general: that the gods certainly work in mysterious ways, but that isn’t to suggest like later Christian thought, that they have our good in mind when they do so.
So Hyllus ends the play, addressing the chorus:
Women of Trachis, you have leave to go.
You have seen strange things,
The awful hand of death, new shapes of woe,
And all that you have seen is God.