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Euripides' Trojan Women Study Guide

Euripides, the third of the great Athenian tragedians, wrote the Trojan Women for performance at the City Dionysia in late March/early April 415 BC, where it won second prize. The play was written against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War (a long and destructive war between Athens and Sparta). During the preceding winter (416-15 BC) Athens had attacked and devastated the island of Melos; in the spring of 415 she launched a disastrous attack on Sicily.

Euripides’ Trojan Women: A Tragedy of Survivors, by Dr Rosa Andújar

By the time Euripides staged his Trojan Women in 415 BC, the Trojan War was a subject deeply rooted in the Greek imagination. Various epic poems (including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey along with other lost epic narratives) had already extensively described all the major episodes of this first great conflict between East and West. The chaotic aftermath of the war between Greeks and Trojans had inspired other tragedians to stage some of the calamities that befell the conquering Greeks immediately following the war (e.g. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Ajax). In this light, Euripides’ general choice of subject can be seen as a fairly conventional one. His focus, however, was anything but: Euripides imagines the aftermath as experienced by the captive Trojan Women, the weakest and most vulnerable group of survivors, in direct contrast to earlier narratives focusing on Greek victors. Euripides had previously addressed the individual perspective of the two most famous Trojan women survivors in two earlier plays, Andromache and Hecuba, but in Trojan Women he broadens this focus by emphasizing the collective experience of the captive women of Troy.

RF Ajax attacks Cassandra

The play’s loose structure reflects the sense of uncertainty and general doom surrounding this fragile collective. Instead of focusing on a single protagonist, Euripides stages a sequence of episodes concentrating on Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache and their reactions as each learns of new impending misfortune. In these Euripides makes repeated references to the fragility of their physical — and in the case of Cassandra, mental — condition. Hecuba’s first words, for example, describe her aching head and side as well as her throbbing temples (115-116). As soon as Talthybius informs Andromache of the Greek decision to hurl Astyanax from the Trojan battlements, the herald reminds her that she is physically weak, defenseless, and without any power (728-729). Finally, Cassandra, already famous for her prophetic screams and ramblings in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, appears even more frenzied on Euripides’ stage, as she celebrates her enslavement to the Greek general Agamemnon by bearing torches and singing a marriage song, as if it were her own wedding. The dramatist furthermore underlines the fragility of her mental state in an incredible scene that depicts the prophetess arguing a preposterous proposition before the assembled group of captive women, namely, that the fallen Trojan city is in fact more fortunate than the whole of Greece (365-405).

Like the Odyssey and other poems that address the experience of survivors, the play devotes several scenes to narrating and reliving the past, in addition to describing the misfortunes of the present. At various junctures in the plot the women provide a detailed account of the catastrophic events that leveled the Trojan race. The night on which the Greeks invaded Troy, in particular, receives special attention, with the chorus describing in their ode the arrival of the Wooden Horse and the happy manner in which the Trojan citizens rushed to the gates in order to drag it inside the city to the temple of Athena (515-567). Their song even quotes some of the citizens’ joyful shouting to one another upon discovering the deceptive gift. In her various laments throughout the play, Hecuba routinely mixes vignettes of the past with her expressions of misery: in the very first episode, for example, the queen’s utterances of sorrow explicitly recall the previous songs of praise that she used to lead at Troy while Priam leaned upon his scepter (149-152).

It comes as no surprise that a play staging the harrowing experience of captive and defeated women has been interpreted by modern critics as a powerful anti-war drama. Euripides’ subject matter may have been unconventional in his own time, but his decision to voice the experience of these women speaks to a number of pressing contemporary questions: How can survivors of traumatic situations do justice to what they have experienced? What duty do they owe to those who did not survive? How are the traditional roles of women transformed in the aftermath of war, and in what kind of language can they articulate their new status?  (© Dr Rosa Andújar)

Study questions

1.    Does the Trojan Women lack cohesion?
2.    What is the dramatic purpose of the prologue?
3.    Are the women passive victims in the play?
4.    Talthybius 'represents what little order and civilization is left in the midst of disaster, grief, and ruin' (K. Gilmartin) -- do you agree?
5.    'It is not a tragedy like the Antigone, but an oratorio' (J.-P. Sartre): does the play work as a drama on the modern stage?

Modern productions

  • Watch Michael Kakoyiannis' 1971 film version here
  • Clips from the 2013 UCL production here

Further Reading

  • Books


•    Translation (with introduction and notes) of Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache (the 'Trojan plays' of Euripides): James Morwood, Euripides: Hecuba, the Trojan Women, Andromache (Oxford 2000)

•    Translation (with Greek text facing) of Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion: David Kovacs (Loeb: Harvard UP 1999)

General works of criticism

•    P.E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997)
•    B. Goff, Euripides: Trojan Women (Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy: London 2009)
•    J. Gregory (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Greek Tragedy (Oxford 2005)
•    D. Mastronarde, The Art of Euripides (Cambridge 2010)
•    J. Mossman (ed.), Oxford Readings in Euripides (Oxford 2000)

Euripides in the modern world

•    P. Burian, "Tragedy adapted for stages and screens: the Renaissance to the Present", in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997), 228-83

•    F. Macintosh, "Tragedy in performance: nineteenth and twentieth-century productions", in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997), 284-323

  • Online

•    The literary and mythical biographies of the women of Troy (Stanford) >>

•    Study guide from Haverford College >>

•    Andy Scholtz's page from SUNY Binghampton >>

Hector visits Andromache and Astyanax c.360 BC