War and the absent husband

Women of Trachis - Sophocles, C.K. Williams, Gregory W. Dickerson

This is the only Herculean play of Sophocles that we have, and when I use the term Herculean, it is not in the big and massive context that we generally use the term, but rather the story focuses around the Greek hero Heracles. This play could also have the subtitle of 'The Death of Heracles' and in many ways it is a tragedy true to form. However, it also adds to the mystery of how the story of Heracles played out. The problem with Heracles is that we have so many conflicting versions (not counting the sword and sandal epics) that it is quite difficult to work out the accepted story, even if there was one.

My understanding is that Heracles was forced to undergo twelve tasks so as to cleanse himself, and he performed the tasks for a king named Eurytcus. However, the problem is that it is unclear where Eurytcus was king, for in Heracles Gone Mad, he is king of Argos, however in this play he is king of Euboea (two completely different parts of Greece). Furthermore, in this play he goes after Eurytcus immediately after completing the tasks, whereas in the other play he goes home first, and it is unclear as to whether he manages to exact vengeance on him.

This is clearly a war play, but then again many of the Greek plays were war plays. If you look back at my commentary of Heracles Gone Mad, you will note that the twelve tasks are analogous of the tasks of the warrior. Whereas in the former play we deal with the problem of adapting to civilian life after living the life of a warrior, in this play we are dealing with the problem of the broken relationship that evolves out of the warrior simply not being home. Remember, in Ancient Greek society pretty much every male was expected to be a warrior, and most of the male's formative years would be spent abroad fighting (there was no such thing as a professional soldier in those days).

The play begins while Heracles is away, though we learn that he has completed his tasks and is now exacting revenge on Eurytcus. However, the problem is that his wife has very little information as to what is going on and has to rely on messengers. The tragedy of the play arises when a false messenger arrives and gives her a false rumour about how Heracles has stayed away because he has found a new love. Now, this is not necessarily an uncommon thing, especially in Greek literature. Remember, during his ten year voyage home Odysseus had shacked up with at least two women, which was not seen as a problem since his heart was always focused on returning to Penelope (or at least getting home to Ithaca). However, in this play the element of unfaithfulness suddenly arises.

We see this in the modern day all too much. I remember watching a film, the name of which escapes me at the moment, about soldiers in the Gulf War (and no doubt it also happened in the Iraq war as well) learning that while they were away their wives not only had been having affairs, but had then been breaking up with their husbands, simply because their husbands have not been around. Unlike the civilian life, where this happens because of the husband's desire to climb the corporate ladder to provide for his family, these men had little choice in the matter. They had joined the army, and when the army ships them off overseas, they have little choice but to acquiesce.

I am not really inclined to write this up as an anti-war play though, simply because war was a part of the culture at the time. In fact, war has always been apart of our culture. As it has been suggested in other literature, humanities normal state is to be at war with each other. These days we have the peace movement and rallies against wars, however even within our civil society, we are still at war. Gangs fight against other gangs for control over territory, criminals fight criminals to gain control of lucrative markets, and people in the workplace war against each other for the lucrative promotion. In fact, we are encouraged to take up a football team, and then to war against supporters of other football teams to keep us from turning against the ruling elite. However much of a distraction this is, we seem to feel the need to be at odds with our fellow humans, even if we disagree on minor issues, because for some reason it gives us a sense of satisfaction, especially when we come out on top, despite us not actually gaining any real benefit from it.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/438974929