Euripides’ play Hecabe, produced in 425 bce but probably written much earlier, begins with an introduction from the ghost of Polydorus — Priam and Hecabe’s youngest son who was sent away with a pile of gold to stay in Thrace with a family “guest-friend,” Polymestor, for safekeeping. Troy has fallen now, and when news reached Polymestor, he killed Polydorus and flung his corpse into the sea. It’s due to float ashore today. Meanwhile, the ghost of Achilles has appeared to the Greeks and demanded sacrifice: Polyxena, another daughter of the former Trojan royal couple. Priam is dead. His widow, Hecabe, watched him being butchered (as Hamlet appreciates), and, after also having experienced the deaths of dozens of sons, she is now essentially a slave; and she has much more to bear soon.
Hecabe has a sense of bad omens, having dreamt of Polydorus. A Chorus of Trojan women, now slaves of Agamemnon, reports of the demands of the dead Achilles and the recent Greek debate. A woeful Hecabe informs Polyxena but the girl seems more sorry for her mother’s grief than for the loss of her own life.
Odysseus arrives, all business, and hopes there’s not a fuss:
Lady, you know, I think, the decision of the army, the resolution that was passed; just the same, I will tell you this. The Greeks have decided that your daughter Polyxena is to be sacrificed at the high mound of Achilles’ tomb. I am appointed by them to escort the girl and bring here there. The man who will oversee this sacrifice and wield the knife is the son of Achilles. You know what you must do: spare us the need to take her from you by force; do not try to match my strength, but realize the limits of your own and the hopelessness of your position; in times of trouble, wisdom lies in thinking what you ought to think. (53)
Hecabe appeals to his sense of honor: she reminds him that she alone recognized him in his disguise when he sneaked into Troy once but did not rat him out. So isn’t he a “villain” now?
It is a thankless generation you belong to, all you who long to enjoy the prerogatives of public-speaking! I pray I may have nothing to do with you, men who harm your friends without a second thought if it helps you make a point that flatters the mob! (54)
Hecabe argues that it would make more sense to sacrifice Helen (55). Or take her, Hecabe, instead of the girl. Odysseus employs some sophistry to weasel out of such a deal. Polyxena is fatalistic, explaining that although she was a princess and supposedly destined to marry well, she can look forward now only to ignominy and slavery: “He would be happier dying than remaining alive; life without honour is a heavy burden to endure” (57). She tries to comfort her mother with the thought that Polydorus is still alive, at least. Odysseus exits with Polyxena, and Hecabe faints.
The Chorus, as the collective voice of the enslaved Trojan women, speculates on where they will end up now. Thessaly? Athens? A Greek herald, Talthybius, comes in search of Hecabe and wonders, “O Zeus,… Do you watch over men or are we fools, blind fools to believe this, and is it chance that oversees all man’s endeavours?” (60-61). [Or the Vellicott translation: “is all our belief in gods a myth, a lie / Foolishly cherished, while blind hazard rules the world?” (77).] He has the lamentable duty to inform Hecabe of Polyxena’s noble death, who “even as she died, took care to fall / Becomingly, hiding what should be hidden from men’s view” (79). Now Hecabe must prepare the body for funeral rites. She sends an old attendant to fetch a jar of sea-water.
Polydorus’ corpse is discovered and brought, and Hecabe initially wonders if now it’s Cassandra. But the horror is revealed. “This kills me,” says Hecabe (65). “I understand the vision I saw in my dream” (66). And she knows who the murderer is.
Agamemnon shows up, wondering why Hecabe is taking so long to attend to the body of Polyxena. Hecabe ruminates about possible strategies of approach, eventually deciding to request from Agamemnon justice for this violation of the sacred Greek value of treating guests with respect: “take pity on me; stand back as a painter would and study me, observe the nature of my woes” (69). Somewhat more extraneously, she pontificates:
Why is it we mortals devote ourselves with all due care to seeking out and mastering all other branches of learning, but, when it comes to the art of persuasion, we show no such zeal? Though this art alone presides over mankind, we spend not a jot more energy on learning it thoroughly; and yet by paying fees to achieve this end, a man would eventually have the ability to convince others on any point he wished and to get his way into the bargain!
Hecabe anticipates Shakespeare: “I wish I possessed a tongue in all my parts” (70).
The ever-cheesy Agamemnon is okay with punishment of Polymestor, but he doesn’t want to be perceived as persuaded to the pseudo-Trojan side because of the influence of Cassandra, whom he has taken as prisoner/concubine. Hecabe speaks to the ages:
In all the world there is no person who is free; either he is the slave of money or circumstance, or else the majority of his fellow-citizens or a code of laws prevents him from acting as his better judgement dictates. (71)
Agamemnon is also secure in his sexist assumptions, thinking that “women — can’t do anything” (89), or “how will women get the upper hand over a man?” — but whatever. Hecabe footnotes the cases of the daughters of Danaus, forced to marry the sons of Aegyptus, killing their husbands on their wedding night, and the Lemnos women murdering all their cheating husbands (71), but who pays attention to old myths? Hecabe wants the funeral for Polyxena delayed so that she and her brother Polydorus can share the pyre (72).
Polymestor is sent for and brings his two young sons. He puts on a hypocritical yet cursory display of sympathy, blabbing rhetorical bs. “The gods dispose our fortunes / This way and that in sheer confusion, so that we / May reverence them through fear of the unknown” (92). He pretends Polydorus is still alive. Hecabe tells him there’s more treasure and tricks him into a tent where she and the other women kill his sons and gouge out his eyes. He emerges, blind and crawling, enraged after Hecabe.
Agamemnon must judge the events. Polymestor defends himself with the claim now that he feared that Polydorus might have raised an army to avenge the sacking of Troy, and that therefore he was an enemy of the Greeks and therefore he did them a great favor, right? Gold? What gold? Oh, yeah, I was totally gonna give it to you guys. Polymestor says the women gouged out his eyes with their brooches (whereas Ovid says Hecabe scraped them out with her fingernails and kept digging at the empty sockets — see Metamorphoses, Book 13). Polymestor ends with a slur against women:
Whatever criticism women have been subjected to by men in the past, whatever abuse they receive today or are likely to earn tomorrow, I will summarize the whole tirade by saying this: never has sea or land bred such a creature; whoever encounters them knows this. (80)
Even the Chorus-Leader replies, “Spare us your insolence and do not make your own troubles an excuse for such sweeping condemnation of all womankind” (80). There is no stage-direction that she also kicks him in the nuts.
Hecabe, in her closing argument, explains what bull he is full of and convinces Agamemnon that Polymestor is ruled by greed. Agamemnon agrees that Hecabe has suffered adequately and the Polymestor got what he had coming to him, and his claim that he cared about the Greeks is crap. Polymestor says that a Dionesian prophet in Thrace revealed that Hecabe will turn into a dog (a “bitch”) and throw herself from the masthead of the ship into the sea. “Cynossema, the Dog’s Grave, / A sign for sailors” (102) will be the place bearing her name and memory. Cassandra and Agamemnon will be murdered by Clytemnestra. Agamemnon has had enough of this rubbish. He orders that Polymestor be gagged and thrown onto a desert island. Hecabe must attend the corpses of two children. The winds have finally arisen, and Agamemnon looks forward to the trip home. It’ll be nice seeing his wife again and having a bath. The Chorus resigns itself to slavery.
Euripides. Hecabe. Trans. John N. Davie. Electra and Other Plays. London: Penguin Classics, 1998. 43-184, 224-228.
Euripides. Hecabe. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Medea and Other Plays. Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1963. 63-103, 201.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.