Euripides, The Trojan Women
THE TROJAN WOMEN
Euripides’ play The Trojan Women, is not so much a tragic story as a portrayal of a tragic situation whereby Euripides dramatizes the postwar conditions of these women of Troy, the spoils of war. Watch The Trojan Women (1971), with Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, and Irene Papas as Helen.
The play was produced in 415 BCE shortly after the capture of Melos by the Athenians. We may wonder at Euripides’ purpose for writing this play. One might speculate on how such a play might be received by Athenian audiences in the wake of the brutal colonization of Melos. Paul Roche, in the Signet Classic Euripides: Ten Plays suggests that Euripides “wrote The Trojan Women as a prophecy of tragedy to shock Athens to her senses” (359). A brief look at the playwright may give us a clue about Euripides’ intentions.
Euripides’ plays are, for the most part, a departure from the orthodoxies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is often iconoclastic, dramatizing unconventional views, especially by underscoring the plight of women and slaves; in the The Trojan Women we see that the slave women possess a nobility of mind that stands in striking contrast to the inhumanity of the victorious Greek warriors. In Euripides’ The Trojan Women, the Greek warriors’ decision to murder Hector’s son Astyanax is coldly grotesque and motivated by an abstract fear that this child will, someday, rise up to avenge his father, Hector breaker of horses (see the last lines of The Iliad). In the postwar drama, these formerly fierce warriors fear reprisal for their “work of war” and in this fear they commit an act of infanticide. Andromache goes along with the vicious decree because she feels she has no choice. The drama, ruthless in its depictions, slays the idea of hope as a virtue. Hope is self-delusion and folly.
Of course it has been said that Sophocles, for his part, represents people as they should be while Euripides represents people at their worst.
We can apply the high mimetic/low mimetic headings to identify the different cultural perspectives of Euripides and Sophocles. Sophocles’ play Antigone and Euripides’ The Trojan Women both depict women struggling with powerful and irrational patriarchal forces. Euripides gives us cynicism or skepticism (even an antiwar ideology), aligned with Thucydides’ disparaging sentiments of human nature in his historical record of the Peloponnesian War. For Hecuba and the Trojan Women, it is the Achaean warriors’ irrefutable lack of compassion — the callous disregard for the lives of innocent women and children — that squanders humanity. For Sophocles’ character Antigone, the potential for humanity is squandered by the rigid postwar politics of King Creon, a man driven by the poisonous power of victory without compassion. When we consider the noble acts of Antigone, we are inspired by her loyalty to her family, despite the deadly consequences. Sophocles focuses on the nobility of mind inherent in Antigone and in doing so sets up a high mimetic rebellion completely absent in the subjugation of the Trojan Women. Sophocles suggests that women can thwart the institutionalized verdicts of superior and irrational masculine forces in non-malicious ways. Conversely, Euripides’ Hecuba remains a woeful woman in a postwar landscape of terror and execution. She never considers the possibility of individual female rebellion against corrupt yet superior male forces, although Cassandra may be said to do so. But it is not Cassandra’s nobility of mind that motivates her passionate and bereaved actions. She is driven by vengeance,unlike Antigone.
Tragedy has a consistent structure in which scenes of dialogue (episodes) alternate with choral songs (stasimon), which themselves may be but not always divided into two parts, the Strophe and the Anitstrophe. Most dramas open with a Prologue as monologue. In this play it is the speech of Poseidon. After the Prologue, usually the chorus enters and offers the first of the choral songs called the Parados. In The Trojan Women, Euripides inserts the first episode — the dialogue between Poseidon and Athena — between the Prologue and the Parados. The last scene is called the Exodos. Some tragedies have more or less episodes and stasimons.
The traditional structure of Greek plays looks something like this:
- Parados (Strophe / Antistrophe)
- First Episode
- First Stasimon (Strophe / Antistrophe)
- Second Episode
- Second Stasimon (Strophe / Antistrophe)
- Third Episode
- Third Stasimon (Strophe / Antistrophe)
- Fourth Episode
- Forth Stasimon (Strophe / Antistrophe)
The Trojan Women
Prologue: opening monologue by Poseidon.
Poseidon seems to express remorse or at least nostalgia for Troy (also known as Ilium, thus the name Iliad). He calls himself the Trojan Horse, which perhaps is perplexing but also perhaps reflects Euripides’ suspicion that what really brought down the walls of Troy was an earthquake.
The sanctuaries of the gods are splattered with blood. King Priam is dead. The Trojan gold is being loaded into the Greek ships and the captive Trojan women await their allotted fate. Poseidon says: “If you want to see misery at its worst / look at the creature lying there, poor Hecuba.”
Hecuba is King Priam’s wife and Hector’s mother, Queen of Troy. What has happened to her daughter Polyxena? Does Hecuba know?
Because of the violations of the temples, Athena has changed sides: “I want to bring joy to the Trojans who were my enemies before, and to give the Greeks a journey home they will bitterly regret” (185).
Questions on the Prologue:
What is the dramatic purpose of the prologue?
What is Poseidon’s sentiment toward the Trojan Women?
Why is he leaving?
Athena and Poseidon
Why is Athena angry with the Greek army?
What are her intentions?
What does Poseidon agree to do?
The Parados is normally the opening Choral Song. Euripides’ division of the Chorus (initial Parados and subsequent Stasimons) into Strophe and Antistrophe represents an early form of dialectic where different and even opposing perspectives are voiced, especially when the speaker is divided about how to proceed — a dramatic tension defined as “being of two minds.” The representation of this divided mind takes on a physical action in the play. As the actor delivers the Strophe he (yes, “he” as women characters were played by men) moves from one side of the stage toward the other. When the antistrophe is delivered, the actor turns around and moves in the opposite direction back across the stage.
Hecuba awakening. What is her condition?
Strophe I: Hecuba uses the image of ships to characterize her attitude or the attitude she thinks or wishes she could muster. She begins here then by doing some psychology on herself. Explain.
Antistrophe I: Sounds like Hamlet? Hecuba faces the deepest of grief. The question implied is how to proceed in such a dire situation. How does one master sorrow?
Strophe II: Hecuba fills us in on the past. This is common in all Parados — we get the history of what has occurred. Her anger is directed at Helen. Why not the Greek warriors instead?
Antistrophe II: She is lamenting being old and a slave. She thinks of better days, underscoring how war has taken her from riches to rags. “Shall I be set to keep watch at some doorway or given charge over children, I, who reigned as queen in Troy?” (188). Okay, that’s effective! The thought of having to put up with brats.
Enter Chorus 2: the captive Trojan Women — the pattern of Strophe and Antistrophe is repeated as Choral dialogue. The women are waiting to find out their fate as slaves and who will go where, on what ship with what Greek warrior. The tone is bleak. The ships are preparing to leave and the women must say good-bye to their native land forever. Hecuba says: “expect the worst.” What does this tell us about her?
Euripides plays on the falsity of hope in a reality of despair. Hope it seems is a useless, even bitter, thing.
The historian Thucydides (a contemporary of Euripides) argues that “hope” is a false or empty vessel. It is foolish and even dangerous. Under what circumstance would hope be foolish or dangerous?
Cassandra is Hecuba’s daughter and one of the most interesting women in Greek Mythology. What is her curse? One may sense that Hecuba still hopes that her daughter will somehow prevail against this horrific situation. Her inquiries in Episode 2 begin not with the her own fate, but with the fate of her children. The worst nightmare is to be forced to lie in the Greek bed. The chorus speculates that perhaps some of the women will end up in the most beautiful of Greek cities but we can see this as folly, or the twisted illusion of hope. We know that Poseidon and Athena plan to annihilate many of the ships and thus many of these women will drown before ever seeing the shores of Greece.
What do we learn from the dialogue?
What suspicions does Hecuba have about her daughter Cassandra?
What does she suspect about her own fate?
Enter Talthybius, a herald of the Greek Army. This guy is almost comic in his lack of understanding, a stuttering milksop whom the Trojan Women hardly fear in contrast to Agamemnon and the other formidable warriors. He says they are “personally assigned” each to a man. Hecuba chides him. Talthybius doesn’t even get it, for he seems to think that the women should be honored by this lottery. When Hecuba learns that her daughter is the prize of Agamemnon she says her daughter is thrown away. Talthybius replies, “So it goes for nothing to share the bed of a King?” Hecuba does not answer this question. Why? What is the effect of the long pause here?
Hecuba partially realizes what has happened to her youngest child, Polyxena. Notice her composure at the news she receives, which is amazing. Perhaps because it is presented to her as a riddle she can deny the truth. Yet when Andromache tells her straight in Episode Four, Hecuba still maintains her stoicism. We have the opening Parados to tell us that she has somehow resolved to “change with the spirit of change.” Does she have a choice? She asks: “What new law or ritual, my friend, among the Greeks is this?” What is the answer to her question? Why are the Greeks reduced to such actions, actions that have even turned Athena and Poseidon against them?
The son of Achilles, Neoptolemus (which means new war), gets Andromache. This is a can of worms itself. Hecuba goes to Odysseus which is consistent in that of all the warriors, Odysseus seems the least interested in young women as concubines. His relationship with his wife Penelope endures for twenty years in Homer’s Odyssey.
First Stasimon: Chorus and Cassandra
What is Cassandra’s plan?
What do the torches signify?
Describe Cassandra’s character and her “gift.”
Strophe I: Cassandra is juxtaposed to the imagery of the torch, the fire from which Talthybius initially signifies the Trojan women’s self-immolation — suicide to avoid their fates. As an image, audiences would have understood the torch, especially because of the use of the symbol in Aeschulus’ play The Oresteia about Agamemnon’s homecoming and subsequent murder by his own wife, Clytemnestra. The torch symbolizes the archaic system of justice: an eye for an eye. Cassandra of course will know all this. She appears mad, her dance is manic and frightens the Trojan Women, but her knowledge of the future brings a cold relish of joy to the scene — revenge on Agamemnon will become reality.
What prediction does Cassandra make about Odysseus?
Cassandra will be a lethal bride to Agamemnon. Cassandra should be seen in contrast to the other Trojan Women, especially her mother Hecuba. Euripides is saying that some women may have the power to stand up to the institutionalized power of the male warrior class? Cassandra knows about the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s own daughter, so that he can acquire favorable winds to begin the siege against Troy. She also knows of what she calls “obscenities” back in Argos (and other Greek cities for that matter) that are taking place while these men, these Greek warriors, have been ten years gone to war. In the Odyssey, it is the wife of Odysseus — Penelope — who stands in contrast to Clytemnestra and thus comes to represent the good woman archetype defined primarily by sexual loyalty to her husband.
Cassandra’s perspective is significant in many ways. She remarks that Helen willingly ran off with Paris and was used as an excuse for Greek war. See sees the Trojans, even Hector, as better off. Why? And of course true to her curse, the leader of the Chorus calls Cassandra’s rantings “fiction.” And of course Talthybius is beside himself in bewilderment. He says that he would not let Cassandra anywhere near his bed; thus the great Agamemnon is not one whit superior to nonentities like himself. In this statement, Talthybius is certainly correct, but he is still a lackey for he says this for all the wrong reasons; he is entirely clueless about the real threat that Cassandra represents.
Cassandra’s last seventeen lines are not just a prediction but an actual flash-forward to real outcomes, which she affirms without fear. She knows that Hecuba will not be leaving here, after all.
Exit Talthybius and Cassandra.
Hecuba has collapsed to the ground. Her speech to the Chorus of Trojan Women epitomizes the sense of absolute hopelessness brought on by extreme loss: “count no one happy till he is dead.” The “he” here is not Agamemnon, but the generic pronoun that represents us all. Happiness resides not in life but in death alone. Can things get worse? Remember that Hecuba has said to the women in the Parados to expect it. The Fourth Episode reveals yet even more misery, one disaster follows another.
Summary of the Fall of Troy by the Chorus as an Ode.
Enter Andromache, Hector’s wife, with their son Astyanax: Andromache and Hecuba share their collective sorrow as lyric dialogue.
Who does Andromache call upon for help?
What is the grim plight of mothers in war?
What does Andromache tell Hecuba about Polyxena?
What does Andromache say about her death?
Are there things worse than death? What are they?
Andromache’s long speech to Hecuba is fascinating and terrible at the same moment. Hope again is seen as illusion.
HECUBA: No, my child: sight and daylight not death. One is a nothingness, the other hope.
ANDROMACHE: Mother, mother, listen, is a greater truth —
if I can only touch your heart with it.
Never to have been born I count as death,
a death superior to a life of bitterness.
In death there is no pain, no awareness of struggle;
but one who falls from happiness to tragedy
is driven with regret and memories of blessedness.
In death it is as if Polyxena had never known the light
and nothing of her trials.
But I who aimed at happiness
hardly had attained it when it went.
All that a woman can contrive through a balanced life
I worked at under Hector’s roof.
Even if a woman has no other mark against her,
one single flaw will bring her to notoriety,
which is, not keeping to the house.
So that was my priority:
to put such urges from me and stay at home.
I never allowed the frilly gossip of women
to infiltrate my house,
and kept to the steady counsels of my heart,
with quiet tongue and eyes serene before my spouse.
I knew when to rule my husband
and when to let him win:
a virtue the Achaeans came to know of
and it proved my downfall,
for when I was captured the son of Achilles claimed me for his own,
I shall be a slave in the house of my husband’s murderers.
And now if I put away the image of my darling Hector
and open my heart to a new man
it will seem like disloyalty to the dead,
but if I turn from this new lord
I’ll only earn his hate.
Yet they say that a single night in bed
suffices to end a woman’s aversion to a man.
I, however, feel nothing but disgust
for the woman who forgets her former man
and beds down with a second.
Why even a dray-mare
separated from the horse she pulls with
shows repugnance for another partner in the yoke,
this in a mere animal of a lower order
without speech or reason,
whereas you, my dearest Hector, were my perfect mate:
noble, intelligent, rich, brave — a man great in every way.
You took me chaste from my father’s house
and you were the first to enter my bed.
But now you are no more
I am about to board a ship for Greece,
a prisoner of war and a subservient slave.
[Turning to HECUBA]
So I ask you:
isn’t your loss of Polyxena, whom you mourn,
less harrowing than mine?
For me, not even those vestiges of hope common to mankind
are left, and I do not deceive myself
with the delusion, sweet though it be
of anything being right again.
Hecuba has never sailed on a ship. Yet she imagines the situation that sailors face on stormy seas as an analogy for her dire situation. What is the point of her analogy? Given the opening conversation and pact between Athena and Poseidon, how does the analogy also work in reverse? How does it indicate the future of the homeward bound army?
Certainly Andromache’s speech in the previous lines takes on a twisted new pathological spin.
What news does the herald bring to Andromache?
Which Achaean chief proposes this course of action? Why?
How does Talthybius tell Andromache to behave in the face of this situation?
What will she gain?
Why do the Greek warriors decide to execute Astyanax, flinging him from the ramparts of Troy?
Exit Andromache, Talthybius, and Astyanax.
Third Stasimon: unjust fate. What is wanting now to our utter and immediate ruin?
Menelaus strides into camp saying it is a lovely day. How absurd is this?
What has Menelaus come to do?
What is Hecuba’s response?
“I approve of your decision to kill your wife, Menelaus. But do not look at her, or she will fill you with longing and make you her prisoner” (206).
Helen wants to plead her case to Menelaus, who says, “I have come here to end your life, not to have a debate” (206). But she speaks, blaming Hecuba for giving birth to Paris, blaming the gods, blaming Menelaus himself for leaving her alone with Paris. Helen pleads on her knees to her former husband, telling the story “The Judgment of Paris.” What effect does this seem to have on Menelaus’ resolve to slay her? What does she say that might appease Menelaus’ wrath?
Hecuba enters a long speech that condemns Helen’s story. What is Hecuba’s rebuttal? According to Hecuba, what is Helen guilty of? What is the Chorus’ reaction to Hecuba’s speech? Why doesn’t Hecuba want Menelaus to return to Sparta on the same ship as Helen?
In the end, Menelaus speaks about chastity? What is his attitude toward chastity? How is this a double standard?
What is our culture’s attitude about chastity?
Exit Menelaus dragging Helen with him.
Fourth Stasimon: new troubles on my country fall, to take the place of those that still are fresh.
Enter Talthybius with the broken corpse of Astyanax. He actually seems to acquired a degree of humanity and compassion for these women, in particular Hecuba. He tells that he too wept to see Andromache being dragged away from the tomb of Hector.
Why is Andromache not present?
What task falls heavily to Hecuba?
Hector’s son is to be buried in Hector’s shield.
Oh, you spear-mongering Greeks
if only your intelligence could match your prowess!
[Alternatively: “O you Greeks, who take more pride
in deeds of war than possession of intelligence” (212-213)]
This is a mindless murder — murder unmentionable.
What did you fear in this little child?
That he would raise up fallen Troy? . . .
So all your bravery of old was sham.
The women prepare to bury Astyanax. It seems that Hecuba’s sorrow is continually magnified in the tragedy. Not unlike the drama of Achilles, she is forced into an even more intense downward journey of despair and grief. However, she seems to receive a vision, or a revelation.
What does Hecuba say about death and the living?
“But if the god had not overthrown us … we would have faded from memory, with none to celebrate us, and would give no themes for the songs of men hereafter” (215).
Exodos: Talthybius returns with Greek soldiers carrying torches.
What do these men do?
What might be the symbolic relationship of these torches to the torches that Cassandra carries in the Third Episode?
The play ends with the warriors escorting the women to the ships and into slavery in a foreign land. As we know, Hecuba is to be the slave of Odysseus. Yet we also know — from Cassandra’s prophecy and Homer’s Odyssey — that Odysseus returns home alone, ten years later, to face a new challenge, the brazen suitors of his wife Penelope. So what happens to Hecuba? You’ll love it!
Euripides. The Trojan Women. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 1998. 175-217, 242-247.
Euripides. The Trojan Women. Ten Plays by Euripides. Ed. Moses Hadas and John McLean. NY: Bantam Books, 1981. 173-204.