BMCR 2005.09.79

Sophocles: Women of Trachis. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

, Sophocles : women of Trachis. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2004. 155 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715631888. £10.99 (pb).

Brad Levett’s contribution to the Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series will be of particular use to those who come to Sophocles’ Women of Trachis with limited engagement in the study of serious drama and Greek literature but who may have to discuss the play as part of a university class. Such readers might be undergraduates who are assigned Women of Trachis in a course and choose to write a paper about it, or Greek Civ instructors whose preparation is more in social history than literature. The book serves their needs mainly by approaching Women of Trachis through discussions of recent research, to which Levett imparts a distinct emphasis upon ideology.

In Chapter One Levett provides a clear, six-page summary of the whole play, including the choral odes. Chapter Two presents a smattering of historical information that might be pertinent to interpreting the play, or at least to embellishing one’s discussion with touches suggestive of scholarly reading. The topics in this chapter include the uncertain date of the first production, facts and factoids from ancient biographies of the author, and treatments of Deianeira in mythic accounts earlier than this play. (A reader coming to Women of Trachis for the first time but not preparing for a classroom exercise would benefit more from a summary of Heracles’ mythic life and exploits, but none is provided.) The bulk of this chapter, however, concerns “the chief political, social and ideological factors that gave this text meaning for its original audience” (p. 16). Levett’s rapid survey of social history relevant to Women of Trachis focuses upon the family, the Greek male’s alleged obsession with his reputation in society, and the productions of plays as social events.

In the next four chapters Levett deals in sequence with plot, characters, performance, and themes. Each chapter focuses upon a small selection of “problems” or pseudo-problems which have a durable record in scholarship, can be pegged to citable portions of text, and permit conflicting viewpoints to be summarized and balanced. In many cases Levett concludes that the problems arise from misconceptions. In Chapter Three (“Plot”) Levett categorizes Women of Trachis as a nostos (“return”) plot and calls attention to the buildup of tension while the anticipated reunion of spouses is delayed. The fact that Deianeira dies before Heracles arrives furnishes Levett occasion to criticize certain expectations of dramatic unity as inappropriate.

Chapter Four begins with the problem of whether Greek tragedy presents individuated characters or types. Levett presumes that “we” modern readers expect individuated characters, while Sophocles’ characters are types. He also presumes that we think of a person’s character as an interior cause of action, and explains that in Greek plays, as in Greek society, character is understood as the image a person’s actions make in the eyes of a social group. Deianeira and Heracles each receive several pages of discussion. In reading the analyses I had the impression of a trial, one in which a jury of readers, drawing upon testimony from what is said in the play about the characters/defendants, deliberates whether they merit praise or disapproval according to laws of social value in force among 5th century Athenians. But each analysis ends with a hung jury, as Levett shows that the testimony is contradictory. Thus while Deianeira’s traits of powerlessness, sympathy to others, and inclination to universalize her situation may suggest an ideal of innocent feminine domesticity, Levett also points out that in sending the robe to Heracles she acts in her self-interest, because the presence of Iole in Deianeira’s home threatens her reputation. According to Levett Heracles’ positive trait of civilizer depends upon his savagery, and his human faults mingle with features of the divine. Fundamentally the hero is to be regarded as a question.

Chapter Five (“Performance”) considers the suite of scenes from the announcement of Heracles’ imminent arrival to Deianeira’s decision to send the robe, and suggests how certain touches of staging might have affected their emotional impact. Chapter Six (“Theme”) is the book’s most ambitious, and at 31 pages also its longest. Four themes are discussed: “Sex, family, and gender”, “Late learning”, “Gods and oracles”, and “The apotheosis of Heracles”. In beginning the discussion of gender Levett announces with authority that the figure of Deianeira “is a literary creation of a male poet in a male-dominated society, and so is in part a construction of male ideology.” Through her figure the play exposed a certain contradiction in that ideology, for Deianeira destroys her family even though she subscribes to the family norms of 5th-century Athens. According to Levett, this suggested a deficiency in the institution of marriage, “the internal failure of the system.” On the other hand, the figure of Heracles, whose excessive lustfulness precipitates the tragedy, suggested discomfort with conventional permissiveness toward male desire. Concerning the theme of “late learning”, Levett deems it a commonplace of Greek thought and less important in the play than its conspicuousness in the text would suggest; instead he argues that as the play proceeds “late learning” is supplanted by the more extreme idea that human language and understanding are altogether powerless before “the brute reality of the physical, immediate world”. Levett’s discussion of gods and oracles posits that as designer and regulator of the cosmos Zeus was generally believed to understand everything and guarantee a total balance without regard for individual suffering. But mortals could neither affect nor understand the system, as shown by the unexpected fulfilment of Zeus’ oracles. The text, by leaving the apotheosis of Heracles in doubt, exploited once again the theme of human ignorance.

Levett’s final chapter concerns subsequent adaptations of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis . It focuses upon three: Ovid Heroides 9, Seneca’ Hercules Oetaeus, and Ezra Pound’s English version. The discussion of Ovid interestingly treats Heroides 9 as an implicit commentary on Sophocles. Levett suggests that in Pound’s version the English colloquialisms, while not precise renderings of the Greek, sometimes capture its rhetorical qualities and meanings sensitively.

The book contains a bibliography of English-language research on Women of Trachis that includes most of the important work since 1980. Some research pertaining to the historical background and Sophocles’ other plays is also listed. The endnotes endeavor to distribute attention and credit among all the significant contributions. This impression of evenhandedness rather conceals the sometimes incompatible goals, methods and conclusions of the studies cited. At various points in his text Levett gestures toward historical sociology as the uncontested disciplinary norm in contemporary literary studies (e.g., “scholars have come to a greater appreciation of just how formative are the specific historical conditions for the production and experience of any art form”, p.15). Statements such as this encourage the novice to feel confident that the exercise of discussing a Greek tragedy follows rules that are simultaneously sophisticated (i.e., not like high school lit class) and comfortable (i.e., just like college history class); but they do not accurately represent either the spectrum of secondary literature that Levett cites or the universal practice of literature scholars. They do, however, accurately reflect an agenda of the academic bureaucracies in which scholars participate.

Levett’s discussions of Women of Trachis often follow a sort of critical plot in which issues that allegedly arose in pre-sociological interpretation are reframed and resolved in terms of 5th century Athenian ideology. Specialists in Greek literature are not Levett’s intended audience, but any who happen to drop in may find much to dispute in his approach. I myself felt frustrated with a book that can seem inattentive to the tragedy that is its subject despite its author’s earnest displays of respect for text, historical data, and secondary research. For Levett historical “conditions” are always a form of groupthink in which no choices are made. Thus the historical information he provides scarcely touches upon poets, philosophers, leaders, or crises of any sort, whether political, erotic, military or intellectual. Even the Peloponnesian War is mentioned only to exemplify Greek “culture”. Needless to say, Levett has no clear idea of drama as an enacted story about choicemaking, or of its currency as ethical pedagogy for choicemaking humans. He can give no serious consideration to the role of gods in the spirituality and ethics of a Greek poet or community, because gods do not belong to the human group that is presumed to control everything. Despite its claim to a kind of historical authenticity, Levett’s book seldom glimpses horizons beyond the functionalist pedagogy of contemporary universities.