The Women of Trachis
A prose paraphrase version by Larry A. Brown
(Occasional numbers indicate line numbers in the original Greek for reference)
Deianeira, wife of Heracles
Hyllus, son of Heracles and Deianeira
Iole (silent role)
Captive women (silent roles)
Chorus, women of Trachis
DEIANEIRA: There is an old saying, that one cannot judge whether a person’s life has been good or bad until he dies. But long before the end, I know that my life is bitter and sorrowful. While I still lived at home, I feared marriage like no other maiden, for my suitor was the river-god Achelous. He would come to ask father for my hand in three different forms – sometimes as a bull, or as a serpent with shimmering coils, or worse, in a human body but with the face of an ox and a fountain of water as a beard. To think that such a creature would be my husband! Continually I prayed that I might die before coming to his marriage bed. But one day, to my joy the mighty Heracles, son of Alcmene and Zeus, came to my rescue. He battled Achelous and won the contest – how, I do not know. I was so frightened I did not watch.
A happy ending – or so I thought. Ever since my marriage to Heracles, I have lived in constant fear for his safety. No sooner than one peril is gone, another more dreadful takes its place. We have had children, but he sees them as a farmer sees a distant field, only when he sows and when he reaps. Such is my life – I welcome him home only to send him off again in service to another master.
Even now with his labors completed, my situation is worse than ever. Here in Trachis we live in exile, and no one knows where my husband has gone. I am certain that some evil has befallen him. It’s been over a year since his last message, and this tablet he left behind makes me think that something terrible has happened.
NURSE: Mistress, how often have I seen you weeping for your absent husband, and I said nothing (50). But now, if a servant may give advice, might I suggest something? You have many sons; why not send one of them to search for your husband? Hyllus would certainly go, being concerned for his father’s welfare. Here he comes now, running toward the house. Take my advice and ask him.
DEIANEIRA: My son, this woman may be a slave, but she speaks with the wisdom of a free mind.
HYLLUS: What did she say?
DEIANEIRA: She wonders why you have not sought an answer to your father’s long absence.
HYLLUS: But I already know where he is, if we can trust the rumor.
DEIANEIRA: Where? In what country?
HYLLUS: For a year now he has been in bondage to a Lydian woman.
DEIANEIRA: If he endured such servitude, then anything is possible.
HYLLUS: He is free now, so I hear.
DEIANEIRA: Where is he presently?
HYLLUS: In Euboea, they say, waging a war against Eurytus the king.
DEIANEIRA: Euboea? He left me a prophecy about this very place.
HYLLUS: I knew nothing about this. What did it say?
DEIANEIRA: The tablet said that he would either meet his death in this place, or that he would finish his labors and live out a happy life. Son, his future lies in the balance. Go to help him however you can, for his safety is ours.
HYLLUS: Yes, I will go immediately. If I had known about this oracle, I would have left before. My father’s good fortune in the past had kept me from worrying about him, but now I will not rest until I learn of his fate.
DEIANEIRA: Hurry, son. Good news, even if late, will bring me joy.
Exit Hyllus and enter Chorus
CHORUS: O Sun, heavenly light, you who see as none on earth can see, tell us. Where is Heracles? On land or sea? (100) Deianeira, over whom men once fought, now spends sleepless nights in her husbandless bed, anxious and frightened, expecting to hear the worst. The stormy waves of fortune have tossed Heracles high and low, but always the gods have protected him from disaster. Therefore, my lady, you should not worry so. Zeus sends both sorrow and joy to all men, each in its turn. Prosperity may come or tribulation, but soon each passes to another. So do not give up hope. When has Zeus ever been careless with his children?
DEIANEIRA: You have come, hearing of my grief, I suppose. May you never learn by your own suffering how miserable I am! A maiden leads a carefree existence, but when she becomes a wife, all she can do is worry about her husband and children (150). Those who are unmarried cannot know how I feel. Now I have a new anxiety. When Heracles departed this last time, he gave me an ancient tablet full of mysterious sayings. He had never mentioned this to me before. Usually, he ventured out as if to conquer, not to die. But this time he discussed how I should distribute his property to our children if he should not return in fifteen months. He explained that if he survived this final ordeal, then he would live out the rest of his life in peace. Such was the will of the gods. That time has now come, and I am terrified that I may lose forever the noblest man of all the earth.
CHORUS: Speak no more words of evil omen. Here comes a man to greet you, surely with good news, for he wears laurel on his head.
MESSENGER: Let me be the first, Deianeira, to free you from your uncertainty. Know that Heracles lives and as a victor sends the first-fruits of battle for the gods of the land.
DEIANEIRA: What is this you tell me, old man?
MESSENGER: That your lord, the mighty conqueror, will soon be home.
DEIANEIRA: Where did you hear this?
MESSENGER: I heard it from Lichas the herald who proclaims it aloud in the meadow. I rushed to be the first with the news so that I might benefit from your gratitude.
DEIANEIRA: Why does he not bring the good news himself?
MESSENGER: The people have crowded around him asking questions. He cannot get away from them until he satisfies their curiosity.
DEIANEIRA: O Zeus, at last you have given us reason to rejoice (200). Women, lift up your voices in praise!
CHORUS: We rejoice with you. These good tidings have come, just as we said.
Enter Lichas, followed by captive women
DEIANEIRA: Welcome, herald. Your message has been too long overdue.
LICHAS: I am happy to return with such good news which I know is true.
DEIANEIRA: O best of friends, tell me first – does Heracles live?
LICHAS: I left him not only alive but strong and in fine health.
DEIANEIRA: Where is he now?
LICHAS: In Euboea where he consecrates altars to the gods for their bounty. He fulfills a vow he took before he set out to conquer the country these women once called home.
DEIANEIRA: Yes, tell me about them. Their plight seems pitiable unless I am deceived.
LICHAS: These are captives whom he chose for himself and for the gods when he sacked the city of Eurytus.
DEIANEIRA: Was it this war that kept him away for so long?
LICHAS: No, for most of the time he was a slave in Lydia, bound to Omphale, the foreign queen (250). He was so stung by this disgrace that he swore to punish the man responsible. This was not an empty boast. When he was free, he raised an army and attacked the city of Eurytus. (This man had insulted Heracles, angering him so that in his rage, he killed Iphitus by throwing him off a cliff. For this reason Zeus forced Heracles into bondage, this being the only time that the hero had ever killed by guile. Heracles always blamed Eurytus for this punishment.) The leaders of the city now reside in the halls of the dead, and these women have traded prosperity for slavery. This was the wish of your husband who shall soon arrive himself.
CHORUS: Now, Deianeira, your joy is assured.
DEIANEIRA: Yes, I have every reason to rejoice in my husband’s success, but I fear too, knowing that good fortune often precedes a terrible fall. A strange pity has come over me at the sight of these unhappy women, homeless and fatherless in a foreign land (300). O Zeus, may my children never suffer such a fate. [speaking to Iole] O unfortunate girl, tell me who you are. Are you married? Are you a mother? Judging by your looks, you are from a noble family. Lichas, whose daughter is this? I pity her above the rest, for she shows the deepest despair.
LICHAS: How should I know? Why do you ask? Perhaps her family was not among the poorest.
DEIANEIRA: Could she be of royal blood? Did Eurytus have a daughter?
LICHAS: I do not know. I didn’t ask many questions.
DEIANEIRA: Did you not even hear her name?
LICHAS: No, I merely performed my assignment.
DEIANEIRA: Then, child, you tell us. It distresses me not to know what to call you.
LICHAS: It would surprise me if she spoke now, for she has been totally silent throughout the entire journey. She often cries, however.
DEIANEIRA: Then we shall leave her alone in peace, and let her go into the house. I do not wish to add to her unhappiness. She has enough already. Now let us all go in and make arrangements for your departure.
Exit Lichas and captive women
MESSENGER: My lady, wait a moment. Let me speak to you while the others are away, so that you may know who has come to your house. You have not been told the whole story.
DEIANEIRA: What have you to say that the others cannot hear?
MESSENGER: This man has not been strictly honest with you. Either he is a liar or his earlier message was false.
DEIANEIRA: What do you mean? Speak plainly (350).
MESSENGER: I myself heard this man tell a crowd of people that Heracles overthrew Eurytus and his high-towered city for the sake of this young girl. Love was the only deity which compelled him – not revenge for his enslavement to Omphale. Lichas has left this out of his story. In truth, when Heracles could not persuade Eurytus to give his daughter to him as mistress, he fabricated some petty complaint as an excuse and sacked the city. Now, as you see, he has sent her to live in his house – not, I tell you, to be a servant-girl, unless his desire has cooled. I thought it best to tell you. Many others can vouch for me that this is what the herald said. If my words are painful, I apologize, but I have spoken only the truth.
DEIANEIRA: What unhappy news! I have welcomed a secret rival into my house. O misery! This girl is not so ordinary after all.
MESSENGER: Her father named her Iole.
DEIANEIRA: Ah, ladies, what should I do? I am too stunned to think.
CHORUS: Confront Lichas directly; perhaps then he will tell the truth.
DEIANEIRA: Good advice. I will follow it.
Enter Lichas from the house
LICHAS: Lady, what message do you send to your husband? As you see, I am on my way.
DEIANEIRA: You rush off too soon, before we have had time to talk further.
LICHAS: If there is anything you wish to ask, I am at your service.
DEIANEIRA: Can I trust you to tell the truth?
LICHAS: By Zeus, I shall reveal whatever I know.
DEIANEIRA: Tell me, then – who is this young woman you brought here? (400)
LICHAS: She is of Euboean birth, although I do not know her parents.
MESSENGER: You there! Do you know to whom you are speaking?
LICHAS: And who are you to challenge me?
MESSENGER: Answer my question, if you please.
LICHAS: The lady Deianeira, wife of Heracles, commands me to speak.
MESSENGER: Well, what do you think your punishment will be for deceiving your master’s wife?
LICHAS: What deception? Stop talking in riddles!
MESSENGER: It is you who speak in riddles. Tell us again, who is the captive girl?
LICHAS: What about her?
MESSENGER: Did I not hear you say that she is Iole, daughter of Eurytus?
LICHAS: What? Where did you hear such nonsense?
MESSENGER: From you. I’ve many witnesses in Trachis.
LICHAS: One cannot always trust town gossip.
MESSENGER: Didn’t you state under oath that you were bringing back a mistress for Heracles?
LICHAS: I said that? Dear lady, who is this stranger who questions me?
MESSENGER: A man who heard you say clearly that the city fell because of Heracles’ desire for her.
LICHAS: My lady, must I endure this madman’s accusations?
DEIANEIRA: By Zeus’ lightning, do not cheat me of the truth! Speak, and do not fear that I am a spiteful woman, nor that I am ignorant of men’s inconstant ways. It is foolish to fight against Love, for Love rules even the gods. I would be mad to blame my husband for falling under the spell of this woman. As for her, she is guilty of nothing shameful and is not my enemy. No, if my husband told you to lie, he taught you falsely (450). If this was your idea, then you make yourself a liar by trying to protect me. Are you afraid of hurting me? Not to learn the truth would be painful, but to know it – where is the harm in that? Heracles has had other women before, and none of them has received harsh words from me, nor will she, even if she has encouraged this passion. I pitied her when I first saw her; now even more, for I know that her beauty has cost her everything and has sent her homeland into slavery. Now you know how I feel. You may choose to deceive others but never lie to me.
CHORUS: Listen to what she says. You will be treated fairly.
LICHAS: Dear lady, I realize now that you are not unreasonable but see things as they are. The truth is just as the old man says. This girl inspired the conquest of her people. Heracles wanted her and did not deny it. It was my idea to change the story in order to spare your feelings. But since you understand completely what has happened, be good to your word and treat this girl kindly, who through no fault of her own has vanquished the conqueror of many men.
DEIANEIRA: Trust me, I will not add to my burdens by fighting against the gods. Let us return to the house. It is not right that you return empty-handed after having brought such good tidings.
Exit Deianeira, Lichas, and messenger
CHORUS: What a wise and compassionate woman this is! Truly she was a worthy bride for Heracles who won her in combat with the river-god Achelous (500). How mighty was the struggle but how desirable the prize!
DEIANEIRA: Dear friends, while our visitor is saying his farewell to the women inside the house, let me inform you of my plan, you who sympathize with my plight. Into my home has come a maiden – no, a mistress now. Henceforth, two of us will lie under one sheet, waiting for his embrace. This is the gift my brave and faithful Heracles sends home to his dear wife to compensate for his long absence! Yet, I cannot be angry with him, for he has long suffered from this passionate fever. But to live with her, sharing the same marriage-bed, what woman could endure it? For I see that the flower of her youth is blooming whereas mine begins to wither, and men desire to pick the young blossoms but avoid the faded ones. I fear that Heracles may remain my husband in name but will be this other woman’s mate (550).
But anger does not befit a reasonable woman. I have another plan. For many years I have hidden in a copper urn a gift which a dying centaur gave me. Nessus used to ferry people across a river for a fee, not in a boat but by carrying them in his hairy arms. I too was carried on his shoulders when my father first sent me with Heracles to become his wife. Halfway across, he fondled me lustfully, and at my scream, the son of Zeus turned around and shot the centaur through the chest with an arrow. His last, dying words were spoken to me: “Daughter of old Oeneus, you will profit from what I tell you, since you are the last person I will carry. Collect my clotting blood where it has mingled with the hydra’s poison which anointed Heracles’ arrow. With this charm you may ensure that your husband will never look at another woman and love her more than you.”
I have thought this over. For years I have kept this potion locked in a dark place. Now, following carefully the instructions he gave me while he still lived, I have dipped this robe in the charm. All is prepared. May I never resort to wicked schemes to have my way in this world, but if by this love potion I may keep my Heracles from this girl, I am ready to do so, unless you think that I am acting rashly. Tell me so, and I will stop.
CHORUS: No, you do not seem to have acted badly.
DEIANEIRA: Certainly the prospects seem good, but as for the results?
CHORUS: Knowledge comes from action. Only if you try it will you find out.
DEIANEIRA: We will know soon enough. Here comes the herald who leaves on his return journey. Let us keep this matter hidden for now.
LICHAS: Do you have anything further for me? I have already stayed too long.
DEIANEIRA: Yes, Lichas, I have been seeing to this final matter while you were inside (600). Here is a gift made by my own hands for you to take to my husband. Tell him that only he should wear it – no other man – and that the light of the sun should not fall on it until he stands before everyone and shows it to the gods on the day the sacrifices are made. I vowed that if Heracles ever came home to me safely, I would dress him in this robe to present him to the gods on the day of sacrifice. The gift has been sealed with my special mark which he will recognize. Now go, and for your loyal services you will receive both my thanks and his.
LICHAS: I will practice this art of Hermes to the best of my ability. I will deliver this chest to him along with your exact words.
DEIANEIRA: You may also tell him how things are here at the house.
LICHAS: I will report that all is well.
DEIANEIRA: You observed that I have treated my husband’s special guest as a friend?
LICHAS: Yes, and am pleasantly surprised.
DEIANEIRA: Then there is nothing more to say. Speak not of my longing for him, until I am certain that he longs for me.
Exit Lichas off, Deianeira into the house
CHORUS: The son of Zeus and Alcmene hurries home bringing the spoils of victory. How long we have waited for his return! For many months we did not even know where he was, or if he was safe (650). But now Ares, the god of war, has released him, dispelling the sorrows of his loving wife. O come, come! Let the oars of his ship not rest until he completes the journey. May he arrive full of desire, melted by the charm of love!
DEIANEIRA: O friends! I am afraid that I may have gone too far in what I have done.
CHORUS: What is the matter?
DEIANEIRA: I’m not sure, but I fear that I may have done great harm when I meant only good.
CHORUS: Does this refer to your gift to Heracles?
DEIANEIRA: Yes! I should have known that one should never plunge into dark waters.
CHORUS: Tell us what has upset you so.
DEIANEIRA: You may not believe my story when you hear it. The tuft of wool with which I smeared the potion on my husband’s robe – it has vanished! Not taken away by someone but disintegrated into nothing! But first let me give you the details. I neglected nothing which that beastly centaur told me to do as he lay dying. His instructions were etched in my memory like engravings in stone. I did everything he said: keep the potion in a dark, secret place away from the sun or any fire until I was ready to use it. I did exactly that. In darkness I smeared the liquid onto the robe with the piece of wool and then put the robe into the chest before any light could shine on it.
But just now, when returning to the house, I saw something almost unbelievable. I happened to have tossed the piece of wool into a beam of sunlight, and as it grew warm, it shriveled up and crumbled into dust (700). Where it fell, the floor foamed and boiled like a divine substance.
What terrible deed have I done? What was I thinking? Why should that dying creature have done me a favor, seeing that he was dying on account of me? No, he deceived me in order that I might one day destroy the man who shot him. Now I realize this, but too late. Yes, unless I am mistaken, I – his unhappy wife – have destroyed him! I know that the poison which slew Nessus once harmed even Chiron, who is a god, and will kill any animal it touches. How can this same venom not slay my lord? But if he should die, it will not be alone. I could not bear to live knowing that evil had come from my good intentions.
CHORUS: These things sound terrible indeed, but it is wrong to give up hope before anything has happened.
DEIANEIRA: When the plan is bad, one cannot expect good to come from it.
CHORUS: Yet when we err unknowingly, others will not condemn us so harshly.
DEIANEIRA: Such words come easy to those who do not share the burden of guilt.
CHORUS: Be silent, unless you want your son to know about this. Here he comes now, returning from his trip to his father’s side.
HYLLUS: O mother! I wish I had found you other than you are – either dead, or someone else’s mother, or with a better heart inside you!
DEIANEIRA: My son, what has happened for you to hate me so?
HYLLUS: What has happened? You have killed my father and your husband!
DEIANEIRA: What have you said? O no! No!
HYLLUS: I spoke the truth about what I witnessed. Once a thing is seen, it cannot be unseen.
DEIANEIRA: What cause have you to accuse me of this crime?
HYLLUS: If you must hear the grisly details, I will tell you. I found him after he had sacked the city of Eurytus and was preparing the altars to Zeus (750). He was about to celebrate a great sacrifice when Lichas his herald arrived, bearing your deadly gift. He immediately put it on, as you had instructed, and proceeded to slaughter twelve bulls, followed by a hundred more animals. At first he rejoiced in his handsome attire as he worshipped the gods. But when the flames of the bloody offerings began to blaze brightly, a sweat broke out on his skin. The robe clung to his flesh, wrapping itself tightly around his sinewy body. Pain coursed through him to the bones as the murderous venom began to consume him.
He shouted to Lichas – that unfortunate and innocent man – demanding to know the plot behind this insidious gift. He said that you alone had sent it, at which point Heracles, writhing with new pain, caught the unlucky Lichas by the ankle and hurled him against a rock jutting out of the sea. His brains splattered forth with much blood. The people cried out in horror, but none dared approach Heracles in his agony. The pain threw him to the ground or made him leap in the air, the mountains echoing back his screams. Finally, his energy spent, he lay cursing you and the evil marriage which your father arranged, only to cause his ruin.
Then through the smoke he saw me in the crowd, tears pouring down my face, and he called out, “Son, come to me! Do not hold back, even if it means you share my death! Take me far from here where no man can look at what I have become (800). Let me not die in this foreign land.” I obeyed his wishes. We carefully put him in a ship and sailed home, he howling in pain. You will see him soon, unless he is already dead.
Such, mother, are the results of your murderous plans. May the avenging Furies bring justice in this case, for you are guilty. If a son may curse his mother, I curse you, for you have destroyed the noblest man in all the world, whose like you will never see again.
Exit Deianeira into the house
CHORUS: Why do you leave us without a word? Don’t you realize that by this silence you accuse yourself?
HYLLUS: Let her go. I hope never to see her again. She does not deserve the name of mother. May she receive the same delight which she gave my father!
CHORUS: See, maidens, how suddenly the divine prophecy has been fulfilled, that in the twelfth year Heracles would see an end to his arduous tasks. Truly he shall endure no more labors, unless they continue in the land beyond the grave. If a cloud of death surrounds him, brought on by the centaur’s treacherous deception, how shall he hope to see another sunrise, caught in the torturous grip of the hydra’s burning poison? This poor woman, ignorant of the truth, meant no harm but only wanted to protect the sanctity of her marriage bed from a new intruder. But now, for the outcome of another hand’s revenge, she mourns dejected and alone (850).
Ah, how our hero suffers, far worse than from the blows of any enemy. Woe to the spear that won the battle fought for this young, deadly beauty; the hand of Aphrodite, goddess of love, is revealed in this deed – But what cry was that coming from the house? Surely a cry of grief, if I heard right. I fear that this day has not yet seen the end of its troubles. Look, an old woman approaches, her face revealing much pain.
NURSE: Ah, ladies, great indeed were the sorrows we were to reap from the gift sent to Heracles!
CHORUS: What new misfortune has occurred, old woman?
NURSE: Deianeira has departed on the last of all journeys.
CHORUS: You can’t be speaking of death?
NURSE: Such is my tale.
CHORUS: O poor woman! Tell us how she died.
NURSE: By her own hand, with a cruel knife.
CHORUS: Was she mad from despair? Did you see what happened?
NURSE: Yes, it was a terrible thing to witness (900). When she came into the house, she hid herself from all others, going from room to room, weeping whenever she touched any household item often used in happier times. Then I, watching secretly, saw her rush into the bedchamber of Heracles. She began to spread the sheets over the bed as if preparing it for her husband. When she finished, she sat in the middle of the bed, and in tears cried out, “O my bed and bridal chamber, farewell forever, for never again shall you receive me to lie as a wife beneath these sheets.” Then without another word, she opened her robe, baring her left side. Quickly, I ran for help, but when her son and I returned, there she lay, a double-bladed sword plunged into her heart.
At this sight her son uttered a great cry, for he knew that his anger had driven her to this deed; alas, he had learned too late from the servants of the house that she had acted unwittingly to serve the centaur’s will. He threw himself at her side, kissing her dead lips and cursing his rash accusations which had caused him to lose a mother as well as a father on this day. Such is the sad fate of this house. Let not anyone count tomorrow secure until he has passed today in safety.
CHORUS: Whose misery shall we lament first? Which calamity is the greater? In our grief we cannot tell. One sorrow is here, the other we await to see (950). O that a strong wind might pick me up and carry me away from here before I die of fright at the sight of Zeus’s fallen son! Here foreigners approach, carrying his body with slow, careful steps. He remains silent. Does this mean he is dead or mercifully asleep?
Enter Hyllus from house and men carrying Heracles
HYLLUS: O my father! What is left for me? What shall I do?
OLD MAN: Be silent, child, do not wake the cruel pain that enrages your father.
HYLLUS: What? He still lives?
OLD MAN: Do not disturb his rest; do not revive the dreadful frenzy that torments him.
HERACLES: [waking] Zeus, to what land have I come? Who are these men who carry me and witness my unending agony? O the pain attacks me once more!
OLD MAN: Now do you see how much better it was to weep silently than to wake him from his peaceful slumber?
HYLLUS: But I cannot be quiet when I see his misery.
HERACLES: O gods, is this the thanks I receive for sacrificing to you? O Zeus! Why do you torture me? (1000) Where is the charmer whose magic can heal me of this pain? [to his bearers] O leave me, leave me alone to sleep the final sleep. Ah, be careful how you touch me! Where are you laying me? You are killing me, killing me! You have prodded awake what slumbered. O it comes again! Agony! Ah, where are the ungrateful Hellenes whom I rescued from many monsters and beasts? Will none come to end my torment with fire or the sword? Why will no one help me by separating my head from this abominable body? O misery!
OLD MAN: Come, help me, Hyllus. We must support him, and the task is too great for my strength alone.
HYLLUS: My hands will help, but I have no power, nor does any mortal, to make him forget his pain. Such is the will of Zeus.
HERACLES: O my son, where are you? Raise me up, help me here. O terrible fate! With each move the thing attacks again! O gods! Unbearable torture! Son, take pity on your father. Draw a sword and strike – no one will blame you. Heal the pain which your godless mother has inflicted on me. May I see her suffer as I have suffered! Sweet Hades, give me rest; with quick death end my agony.
CHORUS: Dear friends, I shudder to hear of our lord’s distress. So great a man, and so great his misery.
HERACLES: Many are the labors my hands and back have borne, more terrible than I can tell. But neither the wife of Zeus nor the Furies has ever condemned me to such agony as this which the deceiving daughter of Oeneus has sent me (1050). It clings to my sides, eating away at my flesh, courses through my veins to the innermost parts of my body, draining the very life from my blood. No warrior, giant, or beast could ever do this to me. No, a woman! a weak female, she alone has without a sword vanquished me!
Son, be true to me and never again respect the name of mother. Go bring her from the house and give her to me, that woman who bore you. Let me see which grieves you more, the torture she has inflicted on me or that which I will show her as her just punishment. Do this for me, my son; have pity on one who is truly pitiful, crying here like a girl. No man can say he has ever seen me in this condition. Always before I have carried my burdens in silence, but now in my misery I act like a woman!
Son, come here and observe the depth of my misfortune. See how the disease has destroyed my body. O! O! The pain returns! The burning scorches my sides, running through me without end. O Hades, receive me! O thunderbolt of Zeus, strike! Look at these arms which once killed the Nemean lion and the many-headed hydra and the dragon which guarded the golden fruit (1100). Now they are torn to shreds, disjointed, a miserable ruin attacked by an invisible enemy. I who claimed to be the son of Zeus, king of heaven! But be certain of one thing: even though I am destroyed and cannot move a step, yet let my hands get hold of her, the one who has done this to me. I will teach her and the world that in death as in life, I punished those who did evil.
CHORUS: How great will be your time of mourning, O unhappy Greece, should you lose this man.
HYLLUS: Father, in your agony, listen to me carefully, or else you will not know how misguided is your desire for vengeance.
HERACLES: Say what you will and be done. Through this cloud of pain I can make no sense of your riddles.
HYLLUS: I would tell you about my mother, her present state, and her innocence.
HERACLES: Curse you for mentioning her in my presence! She your father’s murderer!
HYLLUS: Her plight is such that I cannot keep silent.
HERACLES: Yes, no silence concerning her crimes!
HYLLUS: More so concerning her deed this day.
HERACLES: Reveal your mystery, but be careful not to betray me.
HYLLUS: My mother is dead. She has been slain.
HERACLES: By whom? This is too bitter news.
HYLLUS: By her own hand, none other.
HERACLES: Ah, she died too soon. She should have died by mine.
HYLLUS: If you knew the truth, your fury would subside.
HERACLES: A strange comment. What do you mean?
HYLLUS: She acted wrongly but intended only good.
HERACLES: What? Is it good for her to kill your father?
HYLLUS: She thought that she sent a love charm to win you from her rival.
HERACLES: What person in Trachis knows such potent magic?
HYLLUS: No one. Nessus the centaur persuaded her long ago to arouse your desire with this deadly charm.
HERACLES: Alas, what a wretched man am I! I am truly lost! Now I understand the curse that has struck me down! Child, you no longer have a father. Gather your brothers here, and summon my mother Alcmene, that you may learn all the secret oracles I know (1150).
HYLLUS: But your mother is not here. She lives in Tiryns by the sea and has taken my brothers with her. Those of us who are here will listen and serve you as best we know how.
HERACLES: Then hear your task; now you must prove your worthiness to be called my son. Long ago my father revealed to me that I would be killed not by someone living but by the dead, an inhabitant of Hades. This was that beast, the centaur, who has reached out from the grave to destroy me, just as the prophecy said. More recent oracles confirm this earlier one. I copied down the words of my father’s oak tree that speaks many languages, which told me that at this particular time my labors would be over. I understood this to mean more prosperous days were ahead, but now I see it foretold my doom. My son, now that these things are being fulfilled, you must assist me. Do as I say without question. Show that you have learned the lesson of obedience.
HYLLUS: Father, I fear what you may ask, but I am prepared to obey.
HERACLES: First give me your right hand.
HYLLUS: Why do you insist upon this pledge?
HERACLES: Give me your hand. Do not question me.
HYLLUS: Here it is. I can deny you nothing.
HERACLES: Swear by the head of Zeus who fathered me.
HYLLUS: Swear to do what? Will you tell me?
HERACLES: Swear to do whatever I may command.
HYLLUS: I so swear.
HERACLES: And pray that if you break this oath, you will be punished.
HYLLUS: So I pray. But I will not suffer, for I will keep my oath.
HERACLES: Do you know that high peak on Mount Oeta?
HYLLUS: I have often gone there to sacrifice.
HERACLES: Then you must carry me there, and with the help of your friends, cut down oak and olive branches from the forest. On these lay my body and set it aflame. Do not mourn for me; no tears, if you are your father’s son (1200). If you weep, I will wait below to curse you forever.
HYLLUS: O father! What have you commanded me to do?
HERACLES: What must be done. If you cannot do it, then call yourself someone else’s son, for you are not mine.
HYLLUS: Father, how can you ask me to pollute myself by becoming your murderer?
HERACLES: I am asking you to be my healer, the only physician who can cure my suffering.
HYLLUS: How can I heal you by setting you on fire?
HERACLES: If this is too much for you, perform the rest at least.
HYLLUS: I do not refuse to carry you there.
HERACLES: And will you build the pyre as I instructed?
HYLLUS: Yes, as long as I do not touch the flame to it myself. Depend on me.
HERACLES: Then I am satisfied. Now I ask one more request.
HYLLUS: No matter how great a task, I will do it.
HERACLES: You have met the daughter of Eurytus?
HYLLUS: You speak of Iole, I suppose?
HERACLES: Yes, you know her. This, then, is my last wish. After I die, if you would fulfill the oaths sworn to me, I would have you take this girl as your wife. No other man but you must ever have one who has lain by my side. You alone must share her bed. Even though you obey me in greater things, to disobey here would be treason.
HYLLUS: How can I argue with the dying, and yet . . .
HERACLES: You speak as if you would deny my last request.
HYLLUS: How can I marry the one who shares the blame for my mother’s death and your predicament? Who but an insane man would do this? I would rather die than live with my family’s worst enemy.
HERACLES: You will not respect my dying wishes, I see. If you disobey, then the gods will bring their curse on you.
HYLLUS: You are revealing how sick you really are.
HERACLES: Yes, it is your rebellion that awakens the sickness in me.
HYLLUS: I am lost no matter where I turn.
HERACLES: Because you do not listen to your father.
HYLLUS: But would you teach me impiety?
HERACLES: It is not impious to obey my wishes.
HYLLUS: Does your commanding it make it right?
HERACLES: I do command you, and the gods bear witness.
HYLLUS: Then by your command I will do this thing (1250). May my loyalty not condemn me.
HERACLES: In the end you act wisely. Now quickly, son, uphold your words with deeds. Take me to the pyre before another searing pain scorches my body. Come, lift me up.
HYLLUS: Nothing will prevent this end from coming, for you have commanded me.
HERACLES: Be strong, my spirit. Keep my lips bridled and let not a cry escape. Let us complete this unwanted but welcome task.
HYLLUS: Raise him up, men. Show more compassion on me for what I do now than the gods have shown him. They begot us as children, and yet can look down on such suffering. No man foresees the future, but the present has grief enough for us, disgrace for those above, and anguish beyond compare for him who has endured this doom. Maidens, come away from this house. Today you have seen too much death and sorrow, and there is nothing here which is not Zeus.