TO The Women of Trachis AND Philoctetes

Translation and Introduction Copyright 1966 by Robert M. Torrance; all rights reserved.

The Women of Trachis and the Philoctetes are probably still, despite Ezra Pound’s translation of the one and Edmund Wilson’s essay on the other, among the plays of Sophocles least familiar to the modern reader. Yet though their fame is, and always has been, overshadowed by the Oedipus tragedies and the Antigone, these are in no sense minor works: they are fully achieved masterpieces, as richly subtle and rewarding, both on the printed page and in the theater, as the more celebrated Theban plays. The two are strikingly different, yet both – partly, no doubt, because they are still sufficiently little known to allow us a sense of excitement on first discovering them – possess an urgency which seems distinctively modern. 

As for the Women of Trachis, no play has ever expressed more starkly the sheer terror of man’s existence in a universe mockingly beyond his comprehension or control. For this reason, perhaps, the play was largely ignored through the nineteenth century, and for this reason it speaks so plainly to us, the heirs of Hiroshima, in this era of the Absurd. It is a play in which a woman, the soul of gentleness and love, learns that her husband, paragon of manhood and valor, is returning home to her after long and anguished months of absence but returning with a mistress whom he has destroyed a city to gain. She does everything that lies in her power, this suffering woman, to find out the truth and to do what is right: but her effort to regain her husband’s love reduces him to the impotence of hideous agony and leads her to take her own life, reviled as a monster by her son. All this while the gods, somewhere beyond them, watch, unconcerned and in silence. If there is a “tragic flaw” in such a drama it is not in any one human character, but somewhere deep in the structure of life itself. From that one overpowering realization springs the existential terror with which this play, like the kindred King Oedipus, is so intensely charged. 

About its date we know nothing: conjecture has made it the first of Sophocles’ plays (mainly on the woefully mistaken assumption that certain “deficiencies” in its dramatic technique betray an apprentice’s hand) or very nearly his last. A more probable chronology, however, would place it after the early Ajax and Antigone but before King Oedipus. The acceptance of such a date may indeed provide a clue for understanding the play’s peculiarly dark colors. Both the Ajax and Antigone, as I have argued elsewhere, derive some considerable portion of their dynamic power from a tense strain between an older theology and ethic and a new focus on the individual human being. Sophocles’ Ajax is a man whose heroic way of life brings him inevitably into conflict with the gods who punish mortal pride. Only by being cautious and flexible – thus by being false to what is noblest in him – might he possibly avoid ruin in the world of flux he lives in. His very greatness is his sin: his only vindication is in the eternal changelessness of death. The paradox of the Antigone is no less severe. Creon’s fall is perfectly in accord with the old law: his willfully stubborn refusal to listen to good advice leads him to break the divine sanction against refusing any man burial, and brings a clearly causal sequence of disasters upon him. Yet the center of interest in the play is not Creon but one of the victims of his tragic error, Antigone, who courageously faces death by her defiance of his edict and her defense of the gods’ unwritten laws. This shift of interest produces an unresolved stress of profound importance, for the theodicy which so neatly accounts for Creon’s fall has small meaning for Antigone’s: she is an innocent casualty of another man’s sin, whose own high code of conduct has, like Ajax’s, made death her one alternative to a shameful life. Both Ajax and Antigone, then, call in question, for the individual who suffers, the relevance of the ancient belief that hybris – human arrogance – eventually calls down the retribution of divine wrath, or ate’. In Sophocles’ latest plays – the Electra and, especially, the Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus – there is no attempt to explain human suffering by the formula of hybris and ate: rather, individual suffering is accepted in all its irrationality, and it is through endurance, and the understanding which attends it, that the hero is able to discover that permanence of being within him which transcends his own individuality and unites him with the gods. Here the tensions of the early plays have been resolved in a new and larger vision of man and God. 

But the Women of Trachis (and here again its pertinence to our own times is clear) seems caught in the middle. The old order has been shattered, but no new order has come to replace it: indeed, the only order which the play manifests at all is one which mocks all endeavors to understand it. The sole indication that any divine plan underlies the chaos which engulfs every character in the play is the pervasive presence of the oracle which declared that, at the time when the action occurs, Heracles would bring his toils to an end. Yet only when disaster is upon them are the characters able to comprehend that oracle’s sardonic meaning: Heracles was to end his labors indeed, but only in death. Such a prophecy is, in Deianeira’s words on another occasion, “beyond the power of speech or understanding.” It serves, not to enlighten, but to suggest the extent of encircling darkness. Whatever inscrutable order the cryptic oracle evinces is, in human terms, meaningless. When the women of Trachis attempt, near the beginning, to reassure Deianeira that her sorrows must soon pass – 

                        for when has any man 
known Zeus to be so careless of his children? – 

they express their faith that there is a god who watches over human concerns. But as the play’s action seesaws from wild exultation to anguished despair no voice speaks, as Athena’s had in the Ajax or Teiresias’ in the Antigone, to make the gods’ will known. The effort to learn, to find the truth and act on it, is dissipated amid the reverberations of cosmic silence. Thus that theology of divine guidance which had been so strained in the earlier plays seems here to have given way entirely, leaving only a vacuum where it had been. The gods may well exist, but what does their existence serve when, in the bitter words of Hyllus at the end of the play, 

they bring forth children, they call themselves parents, 
and yet they can look on this anguish and pain. 

No accusation against the universe, even in our own time, has been more damning than this play’s final line. 

Alone of the seven tragedies of Sophocles which have survived, the Women of Trachis is not named after its hero: it has none. Deianeira, for all her sincerity and goodness, cannot, like Antigone, bravely act in accord with divine law when divine law is nowhere to be found. She must grope through the shadows which surround and ultimately engulf her. Unimaginative critics, convinced that no one in Sophoclean drama can come to ruin without a “tragic flaw,” have sought to find fault with Deianeira despite the supremely gentle forgiveness of character which contrasts her so sharply with the Clytemnestras, Electras, and Medeas of Greek tragedy. But the fault is hard to find, for she acts in love even when most deeply wronged. When we first hear her speak, in her long and beautiful opening monologue, we are struck immediately by the terrors she has already borne and by her undefined fears of further terrors to come. There is the apparition of the torrential river-god Achelous who sought her, as a young virgin, for his bed, and the memory of his violent combat with Heracles, which she watched 

                        petrified with terror, lest
my beauty might bring sorrow down upon me. 

Even more dreadful is the memory, which she narrates later, of her attempted rape by the bestial centaur Nessus. And on top of these dark remembrances from the past is her chronic, unending fear for her husband, who has been with her so seldom, and absent now so long. The slow passage of fifteen solitary months, “till time was meaningless and days lost number,” has intensified her apprehensiveness to the point where she fears and doubts everything. Even so, her fears do not so obsess her as to preclude consideration of others and kindness toward them. When the chorus of young maidens enter she exclaims, 

                        Oh, may you never learn
the heartfelt anguish you are innocent of! 

Her own great joy on hearing that Heracles is returning is tempered by compassion for the captive women he has sent before him, “orphaned and homeless in a foreign land”; and she feels from the first an instinctive sympathy for lole, who “alone knows how to feel her hardships.” Even when she learns the crushing news that only because of lust for this girl, whom he has carried off by force, had Heracles made his long absence from her longer, she refrains from any recrimination against her husband or his unwilling mistress, bearing her injury with a more than womanly patience: 

I cannot find it in me to be angry, 
often as this disease has come upon him; 
but then, to live together with her, sharing 
my marriage-bed – what woman could endure it? 

In such circumstances, who are we to blame her, as her faultfinders would, for lack of foresight or prudence when she sends the fatal robe to Heracles? Her blindness is not a personal failing, for she does all she can to be sure her course is right: instead, it reflects the total impotence of human knowledge to penetrate the ironic concealment of truth. When catastrophe sweeps her up we can find no comfort in thinking it deserved. Deianeira has only loved and tried to be loved in return. As she herself says of Iole, “her beauty has destroyed her life.” 

The play is built upon violent, even brutal contrasts none more violent than the cleavage between Deianeira and Heracles. He is everything she is not: the self-asserting masculine egotist par excellence; and he dominates the final part of the play as she had its beginning. Moreover, he embodies the one force which, more than any other, wreaks devastation in this tragedy: the power of unrestrained male sexual passion. From the time of Deianeira’s first recollections of her impetuous suitor Achelous – 

who took three forms to ask me of my father: 
a rambling bull once – then a writhing snake 
of gleaming colors – then again a man 
with ox-like face: and from his beard’s dark shadows 
stream upon stream of water tumbled down – 

the images of darkness and light, of violent beast and rushing waters, run through the play. The chorus enter with a solemn hymn to the blazing sun, and picture Heracles whirled about by a wind-swept sea. But only after the revelation of Heracles’ destructive lust for lole do these images come to the fore. After the chorus sing “the power of Aphrodite’s triumph” in terms of battle between Achelous and Heracles, Deianeira tells them of the “love-charm” she had taken from the black clotted blood of Nessus, the shaggy beast whom Heracles had shot as he strove to violate her in the midst of the swirling Evenus river. The patently sexual nature of these symbols will need no elaboration in our time. The images reach a climax of terror when Deianeira, after sending the robe in “a hollow, sunless casket,” with instructions not to expose it to the light, sees the tuft of wool which she had used to spread the blood crumble away to dust as a sunbeam strikes it. Thus it is the caustic blood of the ravisher Nessus which, with savage irony, years later eats away the flesh of Heracles as he proudly slaughters bulls over a blazing sacrificial fire to commemorate his sack of Iole’s city. When we see him at last, borne in upon a stretcher, Deianeira has already taken her life. There is no place for censure: the man’s own agony is all too nearly commensurate with the terrible suffering his unbridled appetite has brought down on others. Still., his total absorption in his own pain, his sense of degradation at being brought low by a mere woman, his refusal to heed his son Hyllus’s desperate protestations of his mother’s innocence, and his brutal desire to tear the guiltless Deianeira limb from limb, are nearly insufferable. Nor is he satisfied to have domineered in life: he must impose his will even in death, and commands his horrified son to take Iole as his bride, only because 

no other man but you must ever marry
this woman who has lain with me in love. 

Hyllus yields in despair to his father’s imperiously repeated assertions of paternal authority; and his bitter arraignment of the gods who ignore the children they have begotten – and of Zeus in particular, whose son (we are again and again reminded) Heracles is – has a double force from his tongue. The ties of family, like all else, are strained to the breaking point in this play. 

Such is the Women of Trachis: a somber tragedy in which the egotism and lust of one man, Greece’s mightiest warrior, through an ironically linked sequence of events, bring untold suffering on himself and on all around him, while the gods watch in unconcern. That quality of active heroism in the face of adversity which, in one way or another, hallmarks Sophocles’ other dramas has no place here, for the order which might validate it is itself in doubt. Only the unsurpassed intensity of its poetry gives the play a meaning transcending the hopeless despair in which its characters live and die. If beauty, in a world so thoroughly tragic, can destroy life, yet death itself cannot annihilate beauty. 


For us, who have known our own crises and not yet found our way, the Women of Trachis will hold a special place precisely because it attempts no final answers to the fearful questions it raises. The Philoctetes is a very different sort of play. Sophocles was older than most men five to be when he wrote the last two of his seven tragedies to come down to us, the Philoctetes and the Oedipus at Colonus; he was nearing his death at ninety, just as his city, Athens, was approaching final defeat in the war she had waged so long and hard against Sparta. Yet there are no signs of age, no apprehensions of defeat in these dramas – none of the rancor, or the yearning to flee to another world, which runs through Euripides’ plays in these turbulent years. Rather, there is the sureness and lucidity which reflect a hard-won but firmly-held vision of heroic manhood in which adversity, and even degradation, are the means, not to defeat, but to the highest human triumph. The heroes of these plays appear in rags, one lame, the other blind; they know the agony of long physical suffering, the despair of loneliness, and the pity – or contempt – of their more fortunate fellow beings. Yet in the midst of these indignities, through endurance, and through communion with those, like Neoptolemus and Theseus, who reach out to them with respect and understanding, they are able to penetrate to that within themselves which is most permanent and most valid, and which elevates them from despondency to the vision of the gods. 

The setting of the Philoctetes is stark: a rocky cave on a desert island. In this place, ten years before the play’s action begins, the leaders of the Greek crusade against Troy had abandoned one of their number when the screams caused by an incurable wound in his foot became distasteful to them. Yet the man so lightly dispensed with as an impediment to their purpose was not to prove dispensable. Only after nearly ten years of bloodshed at Troy, and the deaths of many men – Achilles among them – did those of the Greek commanders who survived learn from the captive prophet Helenus that all their labors would come to nothing unless they persuaded the long forgotten Philoctetes to return from the island where they had deserted him -and to bring with him his priceless possession, the unerring bow of Heracles. Therefore Odysseus, the cleverest among them, determines, as we see in the opening scene, to use Achilles’ son, the young Neoptolemus – himself a newcomer to Troy – as his agent to deceive Philoctetes into surrendering the weapon by which alone Troy must fall. It is not the man that Odysseus values, but what the man “has to offer.” 

It is on the sufferings of Philoctetes that our attention rivets throughout the play: yet the play’s action, its plot, is structured around the crucial decision which Neoptolemus slowly perceives he must make. When we see him first, Neoptolemus is little more than a pawn in Odysseus’ hands. His own experience has been limited, and he is ready, despite some instinctive misgivings, to yield to the older man’s reminder of his obligation to serve the Greater Cause, and also to the subtle temptation of personal glory. It is these two intertwined forces, duty and expedience, as Neoptolemus himself later says, which initially motivate the young man in his markedly successful endeavor to beguile the bow from its rightful owner. But the actual face-to-face encounter with Philoctetes is more than Neoptolemus had bargained for. His own inherent openness and generosity, which at first he had willingly suppressed, make themselves more and more insistently felt as his sympathy increases for a man so far his inferior by circumstance, yet by birth and by nature his equal. Thus a double action is taking place on the stage during the whole of the first part I of the play. Even as Neoptolemus, executing Odysseus’ counsels with a masterly skill, is consciously manipulating Philoctetes into the trust which will disarm him, so is Philoctetes, unknowingly, by the inescapable actuality of his presence there, simultaneously forcing upon Neoptolemus a radical revaluation of the very act he is in the process of bringing to fulfillment. At the climactic moment of the young man’s endeavors, Philoctetes, weakened by an agonizing outburst of his dreadful disease, hands Neoptolemus the bow and sinks into a heavy sleep. The chorus of sailors turn to their leader, expectantly awaiting his order to depart. But Neoptolemus, at this crucial juncture, speaks instead the pronouncement (whose meter, that of the Delphic oracle in the original, stamps it as a divinely sanctioned revelation) that their objective must be not the bow alone, but also the man whom they have deceived to gain it: 

The crown is his, and he it was the god meant for our prize; 
it is a shameful thing to boast of futile deeds and lies. 

Though not yet quite ready to renounce the strong claims of duty and expedience, Neoptolemus does now end his deception and tell Philoctetes the truth: he tries, however hopelessly, to persuade the man he has wronged to come willingly to Troy. And when the final need for decision comes, it will be not the triumphant Odysseus but the powerless Philoctetes that he chooses, even at the cost of his own ambitions for glory at Troy.

For Odysseus however compelling his arguments, had in fact lured Neoptolemus away from his natural inclinations. The Odysseus of this play is one who scruples at nothing to gain his end. “None should recoil,” he tells Neoptolemus, “when what he does brings profit.” His means for gaining that end is guide: for him, “the tongue, not deeds, is ruler in all things,” and he speaks with a crooked tongue. His goal, to be sure, is not the advancement of his ‘personal interest’, but the service of his country. Yet it is Neoptolemus’ discovery that not even this high goal can justify the cynical discarding of the extraordinary human being who seems to stand in its way. The prophecy of Helenus, as Odysseus’ own spy reports it, had stated that, if Troy was to fall, Philoctetes himself must be persuaded to return from Lemnos. Yet Odysseus so misunderstands the divine will that he thinks exclusively of the bow, and, after attaining it, tells Philoctetes, “We have no need of you/now that we have your bow.” Neoptolemus had listened to this man because of his own strong wish to serve his rulers and to win honor in battle; yet from the first something in him had rebelled. Then, confronted with the overwhelming fact of Philoctetes’ suffering, his own intrinsic nobility worked on his conscience in such a way as to bring him to an understanding of the oracle’s true meaning at the very moment of apparent success. From this point on he is tormented by the disparity between what he has done and what he feels to be right: 

Everything is offensive when a man
departs from his own nature and does wrong. 

When at last he defies Odysseus and returns the bow he is acting, for the first time, as Achilles’ son. Through Philoctetes, Neoptolemus discovers himself. 

There is change in Philoctetes too during the course of the play, though change of a different order. His impact on us, and on Neoptolemus, as he tells of the life he has led during “ten long years of hunger and of pain,” is that of a man who has passed through a test few men could survive, and has learned to endure almost unimaginable pain and deprivation. Diseased and in rags, he nonetheless reveals in every word and action his towering stature as a man. Yet such a devastating experience has inevitably taken its toll, and Philoctetes, as we first see him, is vindictive toward his enemies, bitter toward the gods, and desirous of nothing so much as escape from his island. He yearns, above all, for flight, and for the “sleep and repose” which flight will bring. Not until he learns from Neoptolemus that he has been deceived does he call upon the harbors, promontories, and mountain beasts who have witnessed his sufferings. Not until Odysseus holds out the bait of glory at Troy does he state his determination “to keep this rocky land beneath my feet,” and declare a new faith, transcending his own wrongs, in the ultimate justice of those gods whom he had earlier maligned. He too must make a hard decision and abide by it: he chooses to face starvation on Lemnos rather than yield to the blandishments, or the threats, of his foe. Though reduced, as he tells the chorus in his despair, to “nothing, nothing at all,” he has found the inner strength to resist the enticements of profit and refuse to be made another man’s tool. 

Both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes thus come to know and act upon what is best and truest in themselves. But even so – even after the return of the bow – there remains a great gap between them. Although both men have shown themselves willing to sacrifice what they hold most dear – Neoptolemus his ambitions at Troy and Philoctetes his life – yet the very nature of their diverse experiences seems to prevent the union of purpose which they have been moving toward. Neoptolemus, having proved his good faith, pleads now with the full conviction he had lacked before that Philoctetes listen to reason and return to Troy, where the two men, together, will be able to end the war which has seemed unending. But neither reason nor the appeal of proved friendship is sufficient to move Philoctetes: he cannot, after ten years of dwelling on them, so soon forget the sins committed against him by those who command the Greek armies. An impasse has been reached, and Neoptolemus despairingly yields: he gives his arm to Philoctetes and helps him toward the ships which will take them, not to battle at Troy, but to retirement at their homes. When, at this moment, Heracles appears, he must be seen not merely as a deus ex machina introduced to impose a convenient ending on the play, but rather as an epiphany: a revelation which calls Philoctetes to the fulfillment of his own rediscovered self. He can enjoin what reason alone could not: he can summon Philoctetes back to the life of heroic accomplishment which had seemed his destiny before a chance calamity crippled him. He is thus a manifestation of divine sanction for the deepest inner promptings of Philoctetes’ own nature. just as he himself, born a mortal, has achieved immortal glory through his labors, so 

now it is ordained for you as well 
to build from suffering a noble life. 

The two men whom a like integrity of mind and purpose has brought together stand united at the last by the god who embraces them both: “Like lions,” Heracles says, “you roam together, and together guard/each other’s lives.” The pursuit of the war against Troy on which they now embark will arise, not from submission to the dictates of expedience, but from a full comprehension of the high destiny which it is theirs to share. If the Women of Trachis is the drama of metaphysical uncertainty and terror, the Philoctetes is the drama, no less relevant for our time, of the rediscovery of essential human worth through the final knowledge of self which can only come with the self’s transcendence. 


The plays in this volume are meant for performance. Indeed, the first of the two to be translated, the Philoctetes, was made specifically for the production given in April 1961 by the Adams House Drama Society at Harvard. A second production, directed, like the first, by Anthony Keller with a musical score by Raphael Crystal and design by David Follansbee, was presented under the auspices of the Group of Ancient Drama at the East River Park Amphitheatre, New York, in August 1964. 

As for the translation itself, my first assumption has been that blank verse is the English meter most fully appropriate for the stage. Also, for the sake of concision, that the number of lines in the English ought not to exceed the number in the Greek. In the choral sections I have attempted to suggest the rhythmic movement of the original without striving for a precise syllabic correspondence between strophe and antistrophe. (Only in the choruses and in one or two other places is the line-numbering of this translation irregular – as indeed it is in most printed Greek texts.) These conditions impose severe restrictions, but it is the nature of metered verse to do so. Within them, I have attempted to make the language lively, direct, and immediately accessible, but also to preserve some tattered remnant, at least, of the formal dignity of Sophocles’ speech. Where a difficulty arose for which there was no fully idiomatic English equivalent – as in Philoctetes’ repeated “Wretch that I am!” – I chose, in general, to meet it head-on rather than avoid it by excision or circumlocution. In a few places, however, where a reference in the original seemed obscure, I have either rephrased or omitted it. The Greek text contains, of course, no stage directions; those I have added are minimal, in order to leave the director maximum freedom of interpretation. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts Robert Torrance


Very little of what has been written on these plays has any great critical value, or interest for the general reader. Almost the only helpful critique of the Women of Trachis (or Trachiniae) is Cedric Whitman’s chapter in Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (Cambridge, Mass., 1951). The Philoctetes has received more attention. Edmund Wilson’s title essay in The Wound and the Bow (Boston, 1941) is a classic, though more concerned with the implications of the myth than with the play itself. On the play, see Whitman and, in particular, Bernard Knox’s HeroicTemper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley, 1964). H.D.F. Kitto’s chapter in Form and Meaning in Drama (New York, 1960) is wayward but lively. . Among recent general books on Sophocles, besides Knox’s and Whitman’s, J. C. Optelten’s Sophocles and Greek Pessimism (Amsterdam, 1952) is of interest, at least in its early chapters. A. J. A. Waldock’s Sophocles the Dramatist (Cambridge, 1951) tries, unconvincingly, to show that Sophocles could write plays, but not think. Kitto’s Greek Tragedy (New York, 1954) is sometimes illuminating, often not; hisSophocles: Dramatist and Philosopher (London, 1958) is short and sensible. My own essay, “Sophocles: Some Bearings,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. LXIX (1965), attempts to trace a development in Sophocles’ vision from the earlier to the later plays. Other books include C. M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford, 1944); F. J. H. Letters, The Life and Work of Sophocles (London and New York, 1953); S. M. Adams, Sophocles the Playwright (Toronto, 1957); and G. M. Kirkwood, A Study of Sophoclean Drama (Ithaca, 1958).

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