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The Heracles of the Trachiniae may be considered in
two distinct aspects,—relatively to that conception of the hero which he represents, and relatively to the place which he holds in the action of the play.

In the first of these two aspects, the most significant point is the absence of any allusion to the hero's apotheosis. He is the son of Zeus; but the ‘rest from labour’ which Zeus promised him is, in this play, death, and death alone. Here, then, we have the Homeric conception of Heracles. And this is in perfect harmony with the general tone of the Trachiniae. The spirit in which the legend of Heracles is treated in this play is essentially the epic spirit.

But if the very soul of the old Dorian tradition—the idea of immortality crowning mortal toil—is wanting, at least some archaic and distinctive traits of the Dorian hero have been preserved. One of these has perhaps not been noticed; it illustrates the poet's tact. In the legends of south Thessaly, Heracles had come to be much associated with Apollo. Yet in the Trachiniae there is but one mention of Apollo,—where the Chorus briefly invokes him (v. 209). Throughout the play, Zeus is the god of Heracles, the ruler of his destiny, the sole recipient of his offerings. Nor is Delphi ever named; Heracles receives oracles either directly from Zeus, or from the interpreters of Zeus at Dodona. This is thoroughly true to the spirit of the myth; and it is probable that the Dorian conception of Heracles was, in fact, older than the Dorian cult of Apollo1. The archaic conception of the hero's mission is also preserved in its leading features; he is the purger of land and sea, the common benefactor of Hellenes, who goes uncomplainingly whithersoever his fate leads him. Conscious of his origin, he fears no foe, and is stronger than everything except his own passions. He has a Dorian scorn for lengthy or subtle speech (1121). It is bitter to him that sheer pain should force him to cry aloud: and he charges Hyllus that no lament shall be made by those who stand around his pyre. All this is in the strain of the old legend. One small touch recalls, for a moment, the Heracles of the satyr-plays (v. 268, “ἡνίκ᾽ ἦν ᾠνωμένος”). On the other hand, the Omphalè incident, one of their favourite topics, is touched with delicate skill: Sophocles alludes only to the tasks done for her by the hero, as a punishment imposed by Zeus; there is no hint of sensuous debasement; and it is seen that the thrall was stung by his disgrace, even though that feeling was not the mainspring of his war upon Oechalia.

The Heracles of the Trachiniae is thus not merely a hero of tragedy, who might equally well have been called, let us say, Ajax. He has a stamp of his own; he can be recognised as the hero of the Dorians.

When, however, he is considered under the second of the two aspects indicated above,—that is, relatively to his place in the action of the play,—there is more room for criticism. During the first two-thirds of the piece, our interest is centred in Deianeira. The sympathy which she wins is complete; she passes from the scene, broken-hearted, innocent, silent; and presently we hear the news of her death. Meanwhile, we have been rather prepossessed against Heracles; he is a great hero; but his conduct to this brave, devoted, gentle wife has been what, in another than the son of Zeus, might be called brutal; and let no one too hastily assume that such a feeling is peculiar to the modern mind; it would probably have been shared, at least in a very large measure, by the poet's Athenian audience.

So, when, in the last third of the play, this hero at length appears, unstrung and shattered by physical torment,—helpless in the meshes of fate,—when we listen to his pathetic laments, and to that magnificent recital of his past achievements which ends with the prayer that he may live to rend his false wife in pieces;—then we feel, indeed, all that is pitiable and terrible in this spectacle: but are there not many readers who, if they carried the analysis of their own feelings any further, would have to avow that the contemplation of his suffering and the thought of his past greatness leave them comparatively cold? Presently he learns that Deianeira was innocent, and that she is dead; but he utters no word in revocation of his judgment upon her,—no word of affection for her memory: he merely averts all his thoughts from her, and concentrates them on the preparation for death. It is not enough to plead that any softening would be out of keeping with the situation or with the man; we do not require him to be tender, but to be human. From a dramatic point of view, the fault is that he misses his chance of removing a great impediment to sympathy.

The Deianeira of the Trachiniae is dramatically effective in the very highest degree,—in a manner almost unique; the Heracles of the Trachiniae, though grandly conceived, falls short of being perfectly effective; and he does so, because he has to follow Deianeira. In a piece of which the catastrophe was to turn on the poisoned robe, and which was to end with the death of Heracles, that hero himself ought to have been the principal object of interest throughout. The artistic unity of the tragedy demanded this. But the Heracles of Dorian legend, even when treated as mortal, is still no typical human being; he is at once above and below the noblest type of man. If, therefore, Heracles was truly to dominate the scene, it was requisite that the pathos of this unique being should not have to compete with the deepest pathos of humanity. For, in such a competition, the purely human interest, if fully developed by a great master, could not but prove the stronger, as being, in its essence, more tragic. And therefore there was only one way to secure a paramount effectiveness for the Heracles of the Trachiniae. It was to place Deianeira more in the background; to make her also a less noble figure; to qualify her graces of character with some less attractive features; and, on the other hand, to bring out, in the amplest and most powerful manner, everything that is sublime and pathetic in the great hero's destiny.

In pointing out what seems to me the one serious defect of the Trachiniae, a remark should be added. It is easy to believe that, on the stage, the Heracles part would be far more effective than it is for readers. ‘As a representation of the extremity of a hero's suffering, this scene stands preeminent among all tragedies. Let Salvini act the hero, and its power would instantly be recognised.’ That was the opinion of an accomplished judge in such matters, the late Mr Fleeming Jenkin2; and I, for one, certainly should not dispute it. The intrinsic merits of the Heracles part are great; and a Salvini, or even an actor who was not quite a Salvini, could, no doubt, make the spectacle most impressive. But, even if he could make it absorbing—so that we should think only of what was passing before our eyes, and not at all of what had gone before in the play, the episode of Deianeira—that might be merely an instance of theatrical effect prevailing over the dramatic conscience. It would not necessarily prove that the tragedy, viewed as a work of art,—and therefore viewed as a whole,—was not really liable to the criticism suggested above. However effective the Heracles scene might be on the stage, I cannot help suspecting that an attentive spectator, in full sympathy with the spirit of the best Greek work, would be apt to feel, at the end, that he had seen two tragedies; one, which closed with the death of Deianeira, and was of consummate excellence; then a second and shorter one, most pathetic, most powerful in its own way, but produced at a moral disadvantage. Yet, if this be indeed so, there is one consolation. A gain to the effect of the Heracles would have been dearly bought by any detriment to the unsurpassable beauty of the Deianeira.

1 Apollo is the chief god of the Dorians in the historical age; and O. Müller (Dor., bk 11.) regards him as having been so before they left their earliest seats in northern Greece. On the other hand Wilamowitz (Eur. Her. 1. p. 265) holds, with greater probability, that the adoption of the old Hellenic Apollo by the Dorians dated only from the time when, moving southward, they became masters of Delphi.

2 Papers Literary, Scientific, etc., by the late Fleeming Jenkin, F.R.S., LL. D., p. 23. (Longmans, 1887.)

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