After several years absence, Deianira is really starting to worry about her husband, Herakles. It was foretold
that after he accomplishes his most recent task, he is fated to either die or lead a long happy life. She sends their son Hyllus to check up on him, and meanwhile a messenger arrives and announces Herakles' victory in his battle against Eurytus. Lichas, Herakles' herald, shows up shortly thereafter with the captured women of Oechalia and lies through his teeth about the situation.
Deianira takes particular pity on Iole, whom she discovers is Eurytus' daughter. Knowing something is not quite right, she persuades the first messenger to reveal Lichas' deception, and Lichas admits that the reason for the siege itself was Herakles' love for Iole
. Deianira is upset but actually fairly understanding. She accepts Iole but doesn't want her family compromised by the situation, so she decides to smear a robe with a "love potion" that the centaur Nessus had given her as he lay dying by Herakles' bow. After she sends the clothes to Herakles, she realises the cloth she used has been eaten away by the so-called potion (just Nessos's blood, with a good dose of the Lernaean Hydra's blood, Herakles's venom of choice), and that Nessus had no reason to do her any favours. Hyllus comes back to accuse her of murdering Herakles, and Deianira kills herself off-screen
The rest of the play follows Herakles as he very slowly and painfully dies, cursing his wife. Hyllus, who realized her good intentions after her death, tries to argue in her favour. Herakles forces Hyllus to immolate him, and promise that he will marry Iole
. Unhappily Hyllus does as he asks.
One of seven surviving plays by Sophocles
This play contains examples of:
- Burn Baby Burn: Herakles asks Hyllus to burn him before he dies.
- Chewing the Scenery: It wouldn't be Herakles if he didn't.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Herakles.
- Driven to Suicide: Deianira, stabbing herself in their bedchamber.
- Either-Or Prophecy: After taking Oechalia Herakles will either die soon or live happily.
- Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: As Deianira talks to the chorus about the "strange sight" that is the bubbling, disintegrating piece of cloth she used the love potion on.
- Greek Chorus
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Double subverted. Lichas is reluctant to tell Deianira that Herakles is madly in love with Iole for fear she'll become hysteric and do something drastic. Deianira actually just pities the girl, and understands that Love Hurts even for Herakles. However, not comfortable with the thought that having Iole in the house will compromise her family, she decides to use a love potion on Herakles to get his affections back, which actually kills him.
- My God, What Have I Done?: After she sees the effect of Nessus' blood on the scrap of cloth, she starts to realize what is going on and begins freaking out. When Hyllus arrives to blame her for killing dear old dad, she really loses it.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: There is the aforementioned "die now or live long and happily" one, but there's also "Herakles is destined to die at the hands of a creature already dead". Herakles acknowledging this makes a lot more sense than it used to as he dies. And depending on how you look at it, the dead creature in question might not be Nessos, but the Lernaean Hydra. Herakles habitually tipped his arrows with the thing's extra-poisonous blood. Nessos was killed by such an arrow. The "potion" was Nessos's own blood. You can see where this is headed, right?
- Prophetic Names / Names to Run Away From Really Fast: When you marry someone named "man slayer" you're just asking for it.
- Shoot the Messenger: Herakles bashes Lichas' skull for all his troubles.
- Thanatos Gambit: Nessus pulls one, ensuring his enemy will die by his wife's hands, at a moment when their relationship is already in dire straits.
- You Do Not Want To Know: Lichas is convinced Deianira doesn't want to hear the truth, fearing she will become irrational and take it out on Iole.