The earlier Greek dramatists, with their usual unerring judgment, avoided sexual love, i.e. the love between a young woman and a young man, although love-stories and love-lyrics were well known to them. The only play which has come down to us where love is a predominant motive is the Trachiniae.
Now, if we had nineteen plays of Sophocles, of which twelve or thirteen should be no better than the Trachiniae, and if, on the other hand, only seven pieces of Euripides had come down to us, and if those seven had been the Medea, the Bacchae, the Iphigenia in Aulis, the Orestes, the Phoenissae, the Hippolytus, and the Alcestis, I am not sure that the relative position which the two poets now hold in our estimation would not be greatly altered.
In May, 1797, the purchase was made, but by this time work on 'Wallenstein' had completely stagnated and other interests were at the fore. He was back among the Greeks. Renewed study of Sophocles, particularly of the 'Trachiniae' and the 'Philoctetes', had convinced him that everything hinges upon the invention of a poetic fable.
The tone of the play is singular; from misery it at first sinks to hopelessness, then to despair, and finally it soars to triumphant joy. Such a dangerous venture was unattempted before. The most lovable woman in Greek literature is the heroine of the next play, the Trachiniae, produced at an uncertain date.
Our first Greek play had been costumed by the professional costumer, with unforgetable results of comicality and indecorum: the second, the TRACHINIAE, of Sophocles, he took in hand himself, and a delightful task he made of it.
Thus the Agamemnon of Aeschylus comprises the whole interval, from the destruction of Troy to his arrival in Mycenae, which, it is plain, must have consisted of a very considerable number of days; in the Trachiniae of Sophocles, during the course of the play, the voyage from Thessaly to Euboea is thrice performed; and again, in the Supplices of Euripides, during a single choral one, the entire march of an army from Athens to Thebes is supposed to take place, a battle to be fought, and the General to return victorious.
The Trachiniae appears to me so very inferior to the other pieces of Sophocles which have reached us, that I could wish there were some warrant for supposing that this tragedy was composed in the age, indeed, and in the school of Sophocles, perhaps by his son Iophon, and that it was by mistake attributed to the father.
X. The "Ajax" is far superior to the "Trachiniae." The subject is one that none but a Greek poet could have thought of or a Greek audience have admired. The master-passion of a Greek was emulation the subject of the "Ajax" is emulation defeated. He has lost to Ulysses the prize of the arms of Achilles, and the shame of being vanquished has deprived him of his senses.
Yet one of them, the Trachiniae, is, to my thinking, very poor and insipid.
Yet unlike her, she remains absolutely human throughout; her weak spot was her maternal affection which made her hesitate, while Clytemnestra was past feeling, "not a drop being left". Medea is the natural Southern woman who takes the law into her own hands. In the Trachiniae is another, outraged as Medea was, yet forgiving.