BMCR 2023.03.17

Gendered politics in Sophocles’ Trachiniae

, Gendered politics in Sophocles' Trachiniae. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2022. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781350260313.



The last 40 years have witnessed an explosion of interest in women in Greek tragedy, and in the genre’s treatment of issues of gender more widely. Yet in this booming field, not all plays are created equal, or so it would seem. Some tragedies, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Sophocles’ Antigone, or Euripides’ Medea, have exercised a much stronger appeal than others, leaving the potential of other dramas to inform our understanding of tragic representations of gender unrealised. Fortunately, some recent studies have started correcting this state of affairs, and it is as an addition to their number that Seferiadi’s book should be treated. The book’s stated aim is “to attempt to provide a renegotiation of the question ‘Where is the feminine located in the play?’ and a redefinition of the dynamics of the female locus” (p. vii). This is a promise that the book does not quite deliver; yet, judged as an exploration of the play’s gendered politics more broadly, it offers some interesting perspectives from which to consider the drama and its central heroine.

The book comprises a preface, introduction, and five chapters, as well as endnotes, bibliography, and two indexes. The Preface sets out the book’s aim, while the Introduction itself develops the book’s overarching approach to the issues of female agency and subjectivity. Seferiadi seems to be adopting Barbara Goff’s model (itself informed by other theorists’ elaborations on ideology and subjectivity),[1] according to which patriarchal structures require a degree of female agency for the fulfilment of allocated roles, therefore sustaining the possibility of female subjectivity. Rather than advocate for Deianeira’s straightforward emergence in the position of tragic subject, however, Seferiadi admits to limitations and instead proposes that the Sophoclean heroine, like Judith Butler’s Antigone,[2] articulates a critique of the patriarchal system by violating gender and kinship norms. Each of the chapters that follow approaches a different aspect of this process.

Chapter One focuses on the liminal, apolitical figures that frame the Sophoclean Deianeira: on the one side stand Deianeira’s mythological incarnations as an Amazon-like figure, and a family history featuring violations of kinship relations; on the other side we encounter three monstrous figures spanning the play’s past and present—Acheloos, Nessus, and Heracles himself. Seferiadi argues that by casting only male figures as monsters, the play invests in a gender reversal whereby the disruptive qualities associated with monstrosity are attributed to the male, and the traditionally masculine role of defending the polis is assigned to Deianeira.

Within the play’s plot itself, the destabilisation of kinship and gender is dramatized in the narratives of real and symbolic marriages. Chapter Two details how the marital narratives of the Trachiniae are derailed by the insinuation of sexual violence, thereby also posing an existential threat to the polis, which guarantees and depends upon the institution of marriage. The last part of the chapter departs from the theme of sexual aggression to focus on interpreting the deaths of Deianeira and Heracles in terms of gender inversion.

Chapter Three turns to gift exchange as an avenue to explore Deianeira’s subjectivity. Seferiadi argues that Deianeira’s failure to exercise agency in her reciprocal relations with Heracles is part of a general crisis of reciprocity in the play. Taking place within a network of corrupt, profit-driven exchanges, the latest of which is the introduction of Iole into the married couple’s oikos, Deianeira’s gift of the robe cannot but have a destructive outcome.

Despite her failure to ascend to the status of a tragic (male) subject, Deianeira does manage to articulate a critique of the patriarchal order. This conclusion is prepared by examining, in Chapter Four, the issue of Deianeira’s guilt. In Seferiadi’s reading, Deianeira understands the importance of secure knowledge and evidence, but does not realise how this applies to her own situation due to feelings of fear and despair. The morality of her act is debated by Heracles on the one hand, who is the representative of the law of the talio, and Hyllus and the Chorus on the other, who champion a polis-oriented approach to punishment. Deianeira’s silent exit constitutes a refusal to submit to either type of judgement; by refusing to engage in (phallogocentric) language, Deianeira raises the possibility of resistance to patriarchal structures.

Whether and how the play upholds Deianeira’s critique of phallogocentrism is ostensibly the question animating the last chapter; in reality, the first section constitutes a lengthy excursus on closure at the end of tragic plays. The second part returns to the question of Deianeira’s successful resistance via an exploration of Hyllus’ maturation. His defence of his mother, his aversion to the task imposed on him by Heracles, and his reluctant agreement to marry Iole show that Deianeira’s critique is not followed by an unproblematic reassertion of the patriarchal order.

This study makes a genuine effort to provide a sustained exploration of the play’s gendered politics, but the result remains somewhat unsatisfactory. The greatest obstacle in achieving its goal is the book’s lack of clarity as to the type of argument to be made. This is already evident in the opening paragraph. Shortly after the programmatic statement on the book’s intent to “redefine the dynamics of the female locus” (p. vii), the reader encounters a different sort of argument: “The play invests in a complete reversal of the fundamental principles of sociality and kinship by presenting an unstable ground of blurred and dislocated gender symbols” (p. vii). This tension between a proclaimed focus on female subjectivity and the practice of elaborating on the inversion and blurring of gender categories pervades the book. A specifically female critique of the play’s patriarchal structures only appears in the last two pages of Chapter Four, where Deianeira’s silence is read as “language-in-the-feminine” and thus as “a device of contesting authorised linguistic forms and refuting the normative discourse of phallogocentrism” (p. 114). Elsewhere in the book, the author gestures towards the destabilisation of gender categories: the play “places the female and the oikos within the political and within citizenship” (p. 9); the Amazons “embody an essential ambiguity of gender, blurring masculinity and femininity” (p. 13); and Deianeira claims with her suicide “a transgendered posthumous kleos” (p. 65). These points, and other similar ones, are pertinent to the question of the play’s treatment of gender, but it is hard to see how they coalesce into a coherent argument. Even within each line of enquiry, contradictions are not rare: In Chapter One, for instance, the function of Deianeira’s Amazonian background is variously described as “a tension between masculinity and femininity” (pp. 15–16), “providing a model for the absolute inversion of the … norm” (p. 16), and “describing the extreme end of femininity” (p. 16). These are three different effects, and it is only the first that seems to correspond to the author’s analysis.

Throughout the book I struggled with an assertion to which Seferiadi returns, namely that Trachiniae “den[ies] the separation of oikos and polis” (p. 9) and that Deianeira is “a proficient member of the political body” (p. 93). There is little evidence, in the text or in the secondary literature, that the play positions the oikos as coextensive with the polis, or that issues pertaining to the polis are raised with particular urgency. For her part, Deianeira hardly speaks of the polis, and her concern is all for her oikos. Seferiadi’s justification for these claims relies on the generic argument that the wellbeing of the polis relies on the wellbeing of the oikos (pp. 8, 21, 43, 93); if that is true, then it must also apply to any tragedy that dramatizes the fortunes of a family, and therefore does not support a case for the Trachiniae as special in that regard. Deianeira’s only claim to a closer affinity with the polis is that she is not as obviously aligned with uncivilised forces as the monsters of the play, but that is not enough to present the crisis in her oikos as a political issue.

The book combines close readings of the original text with broader analyses within a framework informed by feminist theories. Unfortunately, for the most part, the theory is unevenly incorporated. The abbreviated discussion on female subjectivity in the Introduction is rarely mentioned thereafter. In the analysis of Deianeira’s silent exit, the influence of second-wave feminist theories is immediately noticeable in the references to “language-in-the-feminine”, yet nowhere does the author discuss these theories or their relevance. On the other hand, Judith Butler’s contribution, which is explicitly acknowledged, is ill-adapted to the needs of the present analysis. Seferiadi’s point, as I understand it, is that Deianeira’s silence is a refusal of polis-sanctioned punishment. As such, it may well be a form of female resistance, but I find it hard to agree that “it speaks and at the same time undoes the languages of the political” (p. 114).

Time and again I stumbled over the author’s tendency to not provide adequate explanations of her working concepts. This is particularly obvious in Chapter Two, where the nuanced approaches to sexual violence in antiquity cited by the author are subsequently discarded in favour of a nebulous understanding of rape that can be stretched to fit any of the play’s marital narratives. Although I found the interpretation of Nessus’ attack from beyond the grave as a symbolic rape of Heracles novel and interesting, I was not convinced that Deianeira’s presentation in the scene of the battle for her hand “carries clear connotations of rape” (p. 56). A more salient example is the characterisation of Deianeira’s courage and of the kleos she acquires with her suicide as “transgendered” (p. 65). The author betrays no awareness of or engagement with this term’s complex history and set of associations and offers no justification of the suitability of its use in this context.

Further issues beset the book, which, though not impairing its analysis, nevertheless detract from its potential. The study would have benefited from better signposting and a tighter structure throughout; it is sometimes hard to follow Seferiadi’s line of thought or see the relevance of some of the points discussed. Indeed, some sections, like the discussion of the ambivalence of ancient Greeks towards the written word (pp. 79–80), could be excised altogether. Some errors of expression can occasionally be jarring; for instance, “disclaimer” is consistently used (pp. 11, 43), where something like “opponent” is meant.

Although the study is not devoid of defects, that should not prevent appreciation of its merits. The book is at its strongest when Seferiadi engages in close readings of the original text; the discussion there is usually lucid and well-developed and shows familiarity with the relevant literature. Interesting observations are interwoven into the analysis, and although Seferiadi does not follow up on these, they offer food for thought. One of these moments comes in the discussion of Heracles’ monstrous qualities. When she remarks on the long and rich mythological tradition of this hero, she seems to hint at a corresponding monstrosity on the narrative level but does not develop the thought further (p. 36). Similarly, in advocating for the play’s cast of monstrous figures as dangerous to the polis, the observation that Heracles literally destroys Iole’s city (p. 40) makes the author’s point much more effectively than the mere association of monsters with uncivilised forces.

On the whole, the book demonstrates the need for a reconsideration of the gendered politics of Sophocles’ play, even if it is not entirely successful in addressing that need. An interested reader, however, will benefit from the accessible summary of the recent scholarship on the play, and will find that many aspects of the book’s discussion can provide the impetus for novel explorations of the topic.



[1] Barbara Goff, Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), p. 11.

[2] Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).