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Death is the end to the natural cycle of life and is represented as dark, melancholic and even menacing. The underworld is depicted as a murky and sinister realm where the dead are trapped in a world of eternal darkness. Ancient drama, however, defies the conventional perceptions and representations of death. Despite the foreboding associated with it, characters in ancient drama embrace death in its frightening glory, rather than face the repercussions of their actions, especially when their honor and pride are at stake. Deceit is also an integral part of ancient drama and characters, particularly women, fall prey to it and unwittingly unleash chaos that more often that, negatively impacts the lives of the characters. This paper demonstrates how gender biases can be interpreted from the depiction of death and the characters’ justifications of it in two of Sophocles’ plays – Ajax and Women of Trachis and also demonstrates how female deception leads to the death of the principal character(s).
Interestingly, the concepts of death and deceit are intertwined. Deceit often leads to death and illustrates gender bias in even the portrayal of death. The woman’s suicide is almost always portrayed as the coward’s way out of a difficult situation, whereas the man embraces death in order to keep intact his pride and glory, being even braver in death than in life. In both instances of male and female death, female deception plays a vital role and the woman is frequently responsible for creating the unsavory situation.
Warrior pride plays a vital role in Ajax, eventually propelling the hero to his death. Ajax is portrayed as an accomplished and mighty warrior, eulogized by even his worst enemy, Odysseus, as “The bravest man I ever saw / except for Achilles, the best and bravest who ever came to Troy” (Aj. 66, 83-85). Ajax’s whole sense of self is shattered in one swift moment of induced madness by Athena. She uses her divine powers and tricks him into confusing sheep as member of his army. Ajax seeking revenge on his army, slaughters the sheep, believing them to be the generals of his army and their followers, who had wronged him.
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Ajax prefers to embrace death rather than be dishonored by his peers. His suicide is a reaction to his degradation at the hands of Athena, compounded by his feelings of unworthiness as the King of Salamis. In his opinion, he was “the gutless son” (Aj. 29, 513) of Telamon, champion warrior, who would return home “empty-handed, / without a shred of glory” (Aj. 29, 505), just a member of the army that the sons of Atreus would lead home triumphantly. He was ashamed that he was not a leader of the army, but a mere follower. In death, Ajax concedes his life to the Gods for his folly of having challenged Athena’s chosen one, Odysseus and it appears that he gives into Agamemnon and Menelaus and accepts their superiority when he says of them, “They’re kings, we must bow to them” (Aj. 37, 715). Yet Ajax’s death defies this obligation as it cuts him loose from the allegiance and service that he owes them. By killing himself, he ensures that he does not have to return him in the shadow of their glory and keeps his pride intact. Suicide liberates Ajax from the pain and humiliation that he would have had to suffer for his brief period of induced insanity.
Ajax’s death, in all its masculine glory, is a consequence of female deception, keeping with the notion that dishonesty is an inherent female trait that wreaks havoc, especially on the lives of men. Interestingly, even the Goddesses are ascribed with such lowly qualities despite their immortality and divinity. Sophocles portrays Athena as conniving and ruthless. She “baffled his eyes” (Aj. 12, 66) and “conjured fantasies to thwart his glee” (Aj. 11, 50-51). Athena made Ajax temporarily insane and induced him to commit acts that undermined his warrior abilities and tarnished his character – all because Ajax was disgruntled with her protégé Odysseus. If Ajax was awarded the arms of Achilles over Odysseus, it would be a direct blow to Athena’s pride as her chosen one would have failed. There is something callous in Athena’s teasing of Ajax and in the frigid pleasure she takes in his plight. She is not only insensitive, but also deceptive in her ways as she makes Ajax see things that were not true in order to confuse him and bring about his doom. Athena is also petty and unfair, extracting revenge on Ajax for opposing Odysseus and asserting his rights – justifiable rights because Ajax’s warrior skills and prowess demanded that the arms of Achilles be awarded to him and not to Odysseus as they were, an act which greatly angered Ajax. Athena, in this situation, by using deception to bring about Ajax’s doom, once again reestablishes the concept of women being underhanded and responsible for chaos in the lives of men.
In the Women of Trachis, Deianira’s death is influenced by very different factors. She is not affected by pride, but consumed with love for her husband Heracles and her love ultimately leads to her husband’s death and her suicide. In keeping with the theme of women and their lowly status in ancient drama, Deianira’s suicide is portrayed as a selfish act to protect her, rather than an act of bravery to uphold her dignity. Says she:
“May I never be the kind of woman who connives
to do evil, for I hate such women.
But if these spells and charms will overcome
that girl and return Heracles to me –
Well it’s done, unless I am acting recklessly.” (Wo. 99, 560-565)
Deianira knew that the outcome of her actions would have portrayed her as an evil woman and in order to escape the consequences of a tainted character, she commits suicide. While Ajax is eulogized and honored in death, Deianira’s death is almost portrayed as an inconsequential act in the tragedy, and little or no emphasis is placed on it. Rather, more prominence is given to Deianira’s supposedly treacherous act which causes Heracles’ death.
For Deianira, death is the only way out of a life filled with constant sorrow and self-loathing. She would forever be “the unhappy wife / who killed her husband” (Wo. 103, 695-696), who had been tricked into murdering the man she loved more than life itself. Deianira feels that without Heracles her life would be empty and not worth living, but more importantly she could not live on, consumed by the guilt of having orchestrated his death. She is afraid of the stigma that would plague her for the act of unwilling deceit and treachery. She asks, “How can I live / and hear my name coupled with disgrace, / when all I intended was for good?” (Wo. 104, 702-704). Death in a perverse way, rescues Deianira from a life of disgrace, though unlike that of Ajax, she was responsible for her loss of dignity.
Deianira’s death however is not wholly portrayed as one arising from the necessity of preserving her honor and reputation, as it is tarnished with her unintended treachery. Her jealousy, which is justifiable, at having to be one of the “two women waiting for Heracles under the same sheet” (Wo. 97, 519-520) propels her to commit the act which causes Heracles’ doom. Though she seemed to think that death would uphold her virtuous character and save her from dishonor, it really provided an escape route for her. People were aware of Deianira’s underhanded attempts of winning back her husband’s love and despite the good intentions she harbored, her dishonest actions culminated in Heracles’ death. She always had doubts in her mind about the effects of her sending Heracles the robe smeared with the supposed love charm and refers to the rashness of her deed many a time – “O my friends! Now I am fearful! / Have I gone too far in what I have done?” (Wo. 102, 649-650). Her statement, “I don’t know, but something tells me disaster / will follow what I did in all hope” (Wo. 102, 652-653), also highlights the doubts she harbored about the positive outcome of her reckless act.
Deianira thinks her behavior regarding winning back Heracles’ love is rash and reckless but nonetheless goes through with it. Her initial reasoning of losing control over her household by having Iole within it is now coupled with jealousy and dishonesty as she commits an action despite the her misgivings. By killing herself, Deianira ensures that the people do not shun her for her actions. Her death appears more of a response to avoiding possible shame as her aversion to scandal is obvious when she says, “What’s done in the dark / maybe shameful, but it’s bit a scandal, at least” (Wo. 99, 575-76). The duplicity of her actions continuously hints at deception and contradicts honorable intentions that she may have harbored. Deianira’s suicide is a sharp contrast to that of Ajax as it is portrayed as an act of cowardice, because she commits it to avoid the scandal that her actions would have caused. Deianira’s dislike for scandal is apparent as she feels that her act, in spite of the duplicity associated with it, was not disgraceful. From that statement, it can be inferred that Deianira commits suicide to protect her dignity in a perverse manner as it is also committed to avoid the repercussions of her action, which would result in a less than favorable opinion of her. Hyllus’ reaction to the discovery of her treacherous act of sending Heracles the poisoned robe is an indication of the way Deianira’s actions would be perceived. Hyllus blames his mother and takes her to be wicked. He has no sympathy for her, and for Deianira, his reaction was an indication of the outrage and scandal that would follow. Says Hyllus to Deianira:
“Mother! I wish I I’d found you dead,
or if not dead then someone else’s mother.
Or else, with a better heart that yours inside you.
Of these three wishes, any one would do.” (Wo. 104, 715-718)
Unlike Ajax’s madness, which diminished his manly qualities to make him a lesser warrior, Deianira’s actions are her own doing as she gives Heracles the love-potion, despite her nagging doubts and wreaks havoc in their lives. Deianira does not face up to her actions, but avoids shame, scandal and taking responsibility for them by killing herself, another example of deceit leading to death.
There are many interesting parallels in the deaths of Ajax and Deianira. Both their deaths are the consequences of the actions of women, Athena and Deianira herself, and they both kill themselves in order to protect themselves – Ajax to protect his warrior pride and Deianira to keep intact her dignity and avoid shame and scandal. They are also both duped into committing the acts that are responsible for their deaths. While Ajax is beguiled by Athena, Deianira commits the act of treachery, but at the same time, she herself was tricked into it by Nessus, once again highlighting the role of deceit in death.
Death is dealt with and depicted in a variety of angles in these two plays. The depiction of death also plays on femininity and masculinity, playing on these to illustrate the female and male reactions to death and their reasoning behind embracing death. It also depicts the human loss of rationale, turning to the dark and unknown – death, for solace, as they lose control over their predicaments, depicted best my Ajax’s suicide in response to Athena’s curse and his lack of control over his actions and emotions. Deceit also plays a significant role in these plays as it brings out character traits in death and demonstrates the status of men and women in the ancient world, where women were second class citizens and thought of as weak and untrustworthy, and the men were held in high esteem because of the power associated with their masculinity.
Sophocles 1 / edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie.
University of Pennsylvania Press
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4011.
Ajax / translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish
Women of Trachis / translated by Brendan Galvin