In Sophocles’ Trachiniae, only when Heracles is about to succumb to gruesome death does he realize that the prophesied peaceful end to his toils (170, 825, 1168-9) will be death itself. Until then, he and the other characters in the play had grossly misunderstood the “trusty oracles” of Zeus (μαντεῖα πιστὰ, 77). Five distinct versions of the oracle appear in the play, each suggesting a different fate for Heracles; strikingly, each different version of this oracle is fulfilled in the end. This web of seemingly contradictory prophecies has generated difficulty for modern scholars, dating back to Wilamowitz (1917). In recent years, the prophecies’ ambiguous nature has attracted attention from a variety of theoretical schools, including deconstructionist (Heiden), feminist (Bowman), and structuralist (Segal). Some sense of this complex tragedy has emerged from these studies, but interpretive challenges remain. I propose that the language of Zeus’ oracle is carefully crafted to invite misinterpretation while still being semantically accurate. Pragmatic theory—which studies the ways that language gives rise to meaning and understanding (or misunderstanding)—can shed a great deal of light on how and why these prophecies are misunderstood.
While the play’s outcome suggests either a willfully deceptive god or the impossibility of knowledge, I argue instead that Sophocles has a subtler objective: an exploration of how humans do communicate and how tragedy emerges from the flawed assumption that the rules that govern human speech apply to communication from the gods. By focusing on this very failure, however, the Trachiniae illustrates the mechanisms of effective communication among mortals: the rules that implicitly govern effective human communication are highlighted by the situations in which they do not apply.
I first examine the play’s self-conscious attention to the processes of (mis)interpretation. Deianeira describes the oracle twice, in language that offers a seeming disjunctive fate for Heracles—either death or a happy life, but (as she interprets it) not both. It is only after Heracles’ fate is sealed that the Chorus can offer a correct interpretation of the oracle and Deianeira’s misinterpretation becomes clear: an “end of toils” is death and both options are realized (829-30). Later in the play, when Heracles himself gives an account of his original interpretation of the oracle and his adjusted understanding of its true meaning, we again see that his “release from toils” will not be an easy life, but rather death.
Using pragmatic theory, I focus my analysis on the specific language of the oracle and the ways in which this language allows misinterpretations and reinterpretations of the oracle to occur. I draw on the theory of generalized conversational implicatures (GCI) (Levinson, building on Grice) to clarify what goes wrong in the interpretive process and, in particular, how a division emerges between the available semantic meanings and the pragmatic implications of the oracle. Oracular language is carefully crafted to exploit the assumptions of the listeners. A fate of either death or a painless life (79-81, 166-8) does not naturally mean that both outcomes will coincide, although that proves to be the meaning of the oracle in the end. Deianeira, Heracles, and the Chorus approach the prophetic words of Zeus with the same tools that they would use to interpret ordinary speech—the tools that pragmatic theory helps illuminate. The fatal outcome of the play, I argue, stems from the basic mechanisms of how language, among mortals at least, functions. By highlighting the failures of communication between mortals and gods, Sophocles comments on the relationship of language to meaning—a particularly salient topic in 5th-century Athens, when Sophists were introducing more relativistic and deconstructionist ideas about language into the intellectual discourse. Rather than simply accepting or rejecting these concepts, Sophocles makes a much more subtle point about the ways that language functions. Instead of a bleak look at the impossibility of knowledge or effective communication, the Trachiniae instead makes a positive argument about what is peculiarly human about language and interpreting its meaning.