Department of Greek & Latin


Euripides, Trojan Women

Euripides' Trojan Women was staged as part of a trilogy of plays set in the Trojan War. It included Alexander, which told the story of the return of Paris, exposed at birth, to regain his birthright and ultimately to be the destroyer of Troy, Palamedes, the Greek hero framed for treason by Odysseus and executed by the Greeks. The trilogy as a whole like much Greek tragedy was a reshaping of stories from Greek epic. The sense that we are in the world of epic in our play is intensified by the opening, in which Poseidon and Athena meet onstage after the capture of Troy and make a deal to destroy the Greek army on the way back from Troy. Euripides was in some ways the most epic of the tragedians. Nowhere more so than in his treatment of the gods. Euripides likes to bring the gods physically into the theatre much more so than Aeschylus and Sophokles. This takes us back to the epic world in which the gods are part of the action. In this play especially the presentation of gods in conversation deciding the fate of the human beings without their knowledge is reminiscent of the divine councils of epic narrative. I'll return to this later.

Athena & Poseidon (Amasis painter c. 540).jpeg

All three plays of this trilogy were based on lost epics from the Trojan Cycle, but the text which towers behind the Trojan Women is not the lost epics of Troy but the Iliad of Homer. Though the Iliad turns upon the anger of Achilles, it is not just a story of male anger and male violence but also a story of women. Helen, the cause of the war, regretting her elopement with Paris but now trapped in a guilty relationship. Whether it is Aphrodite forcing her to return to the bed of Paris, a man she no longer respects, or Paris refusing to give her up after he has been beaten in a duel by Menelaus, Helen's freedom of movement is in the past. She no longer controls her own fate. The women of Troy play a prominent role as wives and mothers (Andromache, Hecuba), the passive victims of war who are less fortunate than the men. Men die but women live on, and the women of a defeated city are doomed to become the property of the victors. Andromache in Homer vividly predicts her fate after Hector's death. Trojan Women in many respects ties up the Homeric loose ends. The women we meet in the Iliad return in Euripides' play to answer the question: 'Whatever became of them?' In the process the play inverts the emphasis of the Iliad, a male focused poem which occasionally looks at women; Trojan Women places the women centre stage and pushes the men to the periphery, both in theatre space and in time. The Greeks except for Talthybios and Menelaus are an offstage and vague power. The Trojan men are dead. The only Trojan male in the play is Andromache's son, Astyanax, another non-combatant victim. The play is largely female space.

In following the subsequent fate of the figures of the Iliad the play depicts the end of a world. Troy is gradually demolished, first in its people and then finally in its very fabric, as all trace of the city is obliterated by the victors. The sense that the whole world is ending is stressed by the presence of the chorus, who take us back into the past and forward into the future as they contemplate their fate and its causes. In this respect the royal family are representative of all the females of Troy and of every captured city.

At the heart of the play is Hecuba, in the very literal sense that she remains before us throughout, while others come and go. Though there are lots of entrances and exits, there is little forward movement in the plot. Instead what we see is a relentless assault on Hecuba, as she is struck by blow after blow. Already in Homer Hecuba is associated with suffering, as she watches her son Hector hunted and killed by Achilles. Our play takes up the story of suffering. Hecuba begins the play at what in theatre terms looks like the lowest point in her fortunes. At the opening of the play Poseidon points her out, prostrate on the ground. We almost seem to have wandered into the end of the story, a sense reinforced by the gods taking their leave of Troy and deciding the fate of the departing Greeks. It seems that all is now over for Hecuba. This is the drift of her song of lament, the first words she utters in the play. She is now a slave, her head shaved, her city destroyed, waiting to see the survivors sent off to Greece as slaves. But the play will show that this is not the end but just another beginning. Life has much more suffering in store for her. During the scenes that follow her world is dismantled around her, as members of the family are physically removed from her by the Greek herald and parcelled off or slaughtered. The first to come and go is Cassandra, who reprises in this play the cameo role she played in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus as the wild prophet who sees what other people cannot. Already raped by Locrian Ajax, as we know from the divine conversation at the beginning, she is now to become the concubine of Agamemnon, the leader of the victorious army, reduced like Hecuba from high to low but in her case to become and object for others' use, from princess and virgin priestess to sex slave.

RF Ajax attacks Cassandra.jpeg

At her departure Hecuba falls again to the ground, broken. But there is more to come. And immediately. The next victim to enter is her daughter-in-law, Andromache, Hector's widow. Before she introduces us to her own suffering Andromache brings news of another daughter of Hecuba, Polyxena. This is not the first we've heard of Polyxena in this play. Talthybius, the Greek herald, had spoken of her earlier in a very obscure way. Hecuba did not understand him. The audience did, because one of the elements inherited from epic and earlier tragedy was the appearance of the spirit of Achilles to demand the sacrifice of Polyxena as an offering on his tomb; Sophocles had written a tragedy on the subject. So Hecuba receives a second blow. The loss is emphasized by the brutal way Hecuba describes the death - Polyxena has her throat slit on Achilles' tomb. Euripides treats the same story in another of his plays, Hecuba, where the nobility of Polyxena in meeting her death is stressed. Here there is no nobility, just brutality and helpless victimhood. This scene thus gives us not one but two female victims, since Andromache not only tells Hecuba about Polyxena but also laments her fate. At the end of Andromache's lamenting Hecuba, who suffers for and with all of them, sees herself as literally overwhelmed by waves of suffering. But worse is still to come. Hecuba in encouraging Andromache to endure in spite of everything points out that if Andromache survives, she can rear her son by Hector, Astyanax, to manhood. Troy is not lost completely, since there is another generation. While Astyanax survives, so does Troy. At this point the Greek herald enters again to announce a mission which even he finds distasteful. The army has decided that it would be stupid to let Hector's son live to avenge his father's death. At one stroke Hecuba's hope for a Trojan revival is obliterated.

Hecuba has reached her ultimate low. Impotent to intervene, all she can do is lament: 'What can I to help you from this harsh fate? I can beat my head and breast, that much I can do. I have that much power. O child, O city - what's left to suffer? How much further can we fall into complete destruction?'

The answer is that there is still more to come. But this time a complete surprise. The Greeks so far have been a dimly perceived offstage force, unstoppable but invisible. Now Menelaus enters. He has come in search of a very specific prisoner, his wife Helen, the woman who caused the war by eloping with the Trojan prince Paris. He is now dead. Helen has yet to be punished and Menelaus intends to take Helen home and kill her. For Hecuba this offers hope of another sort; it provides an opportunity for some kind of justice from the gods. She is however suspicious of Helen's power over Menelaus and Menelaus' ability to resist. Helen herself now enters, the only female in the play not abased, abashed and humiliated. She is dressed to kill. She enters not pleading but complaining at the undignified treatment she has received from Menelaus' guards. Her arrival triggers a formal debate of a sort loved by Euripides, in which she is virtually put on trial by Hecuba in the presence of Menelaus, who is to judge. Helen's case like her first entrance is brash and confident. It is also shameless. Having betrayed her husband, she places the blame on everyone but herself. It is Hecuba's fault; she should have had her son Paris killed in infancy after dreaming that he would destroy the city. It is also the goddess Aphrodite's fault; Aphrodite gave her to Paris as prize for his infamous judgement in the divine beauty contest. Aphrodite also inspired Helen's desire for Paris; Helen was an innocent victim of overwhelming divine power. So far from being happy in Troy she tried hard to escape. By an obscure logic she even claims that she has brought benefit to Greece, since the alternative to Aphrodite's victory in the beauty contest was the bribe offered to Paris by Athena, that Paris would rule over Asia and Europe. Aphrodite's gift of Helen to Paris substituted the departure of one woman for the Asiatic conquest of Greece. Hecuba is able to refute Helen point by point, both her attempt to shift the blame and her false claims of attempted escape. It's important here also to note that she speaks second and it's the golden rule in Greek dramatic debates that the second is the stronger case. But even if we accept some of Helen's points - and not everything she says can be dismissed - her insistence on locating blame everywhere but herself leaves a hole in her logic.

The chorus are satisfied that Hecuba is right. They would of course, as Hecuba's countrywomen. More importantly Menelaus finds for the prosecution. Helen is to die. But she will not die now. He will instead take her home. But no member of the original audience could fail to see the irony in all of this. No myth told of Helen's punishment. Menelaus famously failed to punish her and she returned home with him, as we know for instance from Homer's Odyssey, to a life of domesticity. Equally important, Hecuba too knows that if Helen travels with Menelaus on his ship, she will win him over. So the one prospect Hecuba had of extracting some satisfaction from her situation comes to nothing.

Her misery is complete when the herald Talthybius returns with the body of the child Astyanax, which is carried on his father Hector's shield, for Hecuba to lament and prepare for burial. The shield itself encapsulates everything that Hector was to Troy as its protector and representative of its warriors. Everything that Astyanax will now never be. His inheritance from his father is to be used to bury him, Troy's glorious past and its lifeless future buried together.

But actually her misery is not quite complete. Even after lamenting Astyanax Hecuba has not lost all hope. She can still find a crumb of comfort by appealing to the values of Homeric epic, which placed emphasis on the heroic search for undying glory in war, commemorated in song. Without all their suffering they would have been anonymous. Now they will be remembered in song. Their glory comes at a terrible price but glory it is. It is at this point that the chorus see torches on the walls and Talthybius gives the order to burn Troy to the ground. Troy is to be physically wiped from the earth. It is to be as though Troy had never existed. 'O Troy', cries Hecuba, 'your very name is being disappeared.' Finally she cracks and has to be restrained from hurling herself into the flames. She finally led to the Greek ships.

I've viewed the other women so far largely through the eyes of Hecuba. But they are not just devices for increasing her suffering. They each have their own story. Each of the female characters present this destruction from a different angle and all come to terms with their fate in different ways. Cassandra like Hecuba tries to find some comfort in martial values, in this case a combination of epic values and those of classical Greece. The Trojans are luckier than the Greeks, since they died at home fighting for their country, while the Greeks are buried in a hostile foreign land. Hector was lucky, in that the arrival of the Greeks gave him the opportunity to win glory in war. In a context of relentless lament and of women condemned to a lifetime of suffering, all of this though at some level true just doesn't seem enough. More to the point, though only she can enjoy it, is her knowledge of what will happen to the Greeks, especially those most hated by the Trojans, Agamemnon and Odysseus, Agamemnon destined to be murdered, Odysseus destine to wander the seas for another ten years. And she can also enjoy the knowledge that her arrival in Argos with Agamamenon as his concubine will help to seal his fate by inflaming his wife further.

Andromache enters not wildly like Cassandra but accompanied by the spoils of war. She is just another trophy. Andromache does not even have the limited consolation given to Cassandra by her clairvoyance. All she sees is a life of servitude. And the domesticity which made her an iconic figure from Homeric epic onward is all pointless. At best it simply made her more desirable to her Greek master. The result of the war is not just to rob present and future of hope but also to rob the past of meaning.

The exception to this story of female suffering is Helen, the woman for whom the war was fought. On the surface she is tried, convicted and led off to punishment. But ultimately she will resume her life in Greece as though nothing had happened.

And yet the play is not just about undeserved suffering, though it is about undeserved suffering. It is also about resilience. Troy is destroyed and its women are parcelled out to the victors. Hecuba outlives her husband, her sons and her grandson and lives to see the complete obliteration of Troy. Yet she lives through it all. Tragedy interests itself in the paradoxes of human life and nature. It likes to explore human life at its most sublimely heroic. But it also recognizes the fragility of human beings. The greatness and the fragility often go together in Greek thinking. As well as the pain of human life the play also presents the human ability to survive in spite of everything. Part of that survival is hope. In this play as in Greek belief more generally hope is an ambiguous emotion. It can be sustaining but it can be illusory. That ambiguity is written into this play. Andromache and Hecuba dispute the nature of hope. For Andromache the dead are happier because they are beyond suffering. The living are more to be pitied, because for someone like her there can be no hope. For Hecuba in contrast life and hope go together. There is always the prospect of a better future. And so Hecuba carries on. But as she does so the plot contrives to take away everything on which she pins her hope. Survival like hope is not inevitably or unambiguously positive. But it is part of the ambiguous nature of human existence, that they survive against all odds.

Helen & Menelaos c.440BC Louvre.jpeg

Here I would like to return to the beginning of the play. There we see two gods in conversation. Athene has previously favoured the Greeks. Poseidon is one of the champions of Troy. In contrast to Euripides' earlier Hippolytus, where Artemis' vow to destroy a follower of Aphrodite in reprisal for Aphrodite's destruction of Hippolytus offers a stark contrast to the forgiveness shown by Hippolytus toward the father who has killed him, here the previously warring gods are reconciled above a human world which is still in conflict. And the nature of the divine reconciliation is very significant for the lives of the human beings. They are agreed on the destruction of the Greek army on its way home from Troy. We noted earlier that the play imitates the Homeric presentation of the gods. This is however not just a matter of having gods on stage. It is also about knowledge, what we know and what the characters in the play know. The Homer text plays constantly with the gap between character and audience knowledge and so here does Euripides. The audience knows the divine plan; the characters do not. The gap between character and divine knowledge is pointed up by the presence of Hecuba on stage during the conversation between Athena and Poseidon. Prostrate, humiliated, destroyed, she lies there while the gods discuss the fate of the people who will abuse her during the play. Everything the Greeks do, every further humiliation and brutalization of their Trojan victims, takes place against a future unseen by them and by their victims. This gives the whole play a hanging close of the sort favoured more by Sophocles than by Euripides, in which the stage action stops before the end of the story and we are left to provide the rest of the narrative for ourselves. As scholars have often noted, there are in fact two stories at work in this play. The story of Troy is played out before us, while the story of the Greeks is presented in fore-shadowing. This is announced first by the gods at the opening, where Poseidon is persuaded by Athena to destroy the fleet on its way home. More detail is added by the prophetess Cassandra. She predicts the murder of Agamemnon and the sufferings of the arch-villain Odysseus. The Greeks are to be punished for their excesses, typified in the rape of Cassandra by Locrian Ajax in Athena's temple. The same behaviour pattern will persist throughout the play; and the Greeks will persist in this behaviour in ignorance of the fact that they have already been condemned by the gods. The irony of all this is increased by the absence of the Greeks. They operate dramatically like the gods. For most of the play, except for Talthybius and Menelaus, they are an unseen force, experienced only by an intermediary, and a force which dispenses life and death and moves human beings around at will. But they are not gods. They are subject to divine will and in this case, though they do not know it, the gods have decided to destroy them. Their every action is that of condemned men. But this ignorance of the divine purpose complicates things not just for the Greeks but also for the Trojans. The Trojans will in some sense be avenged but it gives them no satisfaction, since they suffer in ignorance of any larger plan. Unlike the audience they do not know what the gods have in store. And though Cassandra tells Hecuba in detail of the fate of her enemies, the great irony built into the myth of Cassandra is that she was fated never to be believed. All Hecuba is offered is chaos and brutality, a world in which all their hopes are relentlessly destroyed, in which their world is systematically dismantled. Family relationships are terminated by the death of husbands and fathers in war and its aftermath and by the murder of children. Larger social relationships and structures are demolished in the physical destruction of the city. Core ethical values are repudiated by the conquerers, as in the case of Odysseus, who rejects all of his previous relationship with Hecuba. And any hope in natural justice is betrayed by the escape of Helen, unpunished and unharmed, while the innocent victims of her misconduct pay with their lives, their bodies and their freedom. This is a very bleak world. And its bleakness is accentuated by the inability of those involved to see beyond the moment in which they live and discern a larger pattern. Hecuba is explicit that the gods have abandoned her. Andromache says outright that the gods hate Tory and Hecuba after grieving for astyanax makes the same point; the gods hated them and all the sacrifices they offered counted for nothing. When Menelaus leads Helen away, the chorus complain that Zeus has betrayed them all to the Greeks, despite all the sacrifices the Trojans have offered over the years. For the victims their fate confirms the ingratitude of the gods and the pointlessness of worship. The knowledge which might comfort the victims in their suffering is always withheld.

The characters thus live in a world in which even where there is meaning, the meaning is inaccessible to them. The gap between audience knowledge and character knowledge is often exploited in the Greek theatre. One aspect of this exploitation is to give the audience a near-divine perspective on events, since they are allowed to know things which the characters cannot. But the knowledge is as much about disempowerment as about empowerment, in that they can never convey this knowledge to the characters. They can only watch the characters stumble toward what the audience already knows. But since the audience share a common humanity with characters, dramatic irony drives home as much as anything else the lack of human control over the world and the lack of human knowledge of the future. In this respect Trojan Women is much more than a war play. Certainly it is a play about war. And for an Athenian audience it would invite thoughts about the war in which they were currently engaged. In the winter of 416-5 the Athenians killed the adult male population of the small island of Melos and sold the women and children into slavery. This was not the first time that Athens had done this; and such atrocities were not uncommon in ancient warfare. But this was a very recent example. And like the play it was a stark example of the use of overwhelming force by a great power against helpless victims. For anyone watching the play Melos must have been there in the background, however they may have felt about Melos. And some of the Athenians who did the killing at Melos must have been in the audience. But this is not just a war play, just as Homer's Iliad, the key background text, is more than a war poem. Both are also about life, beyond war. War (as Euripides' contemporary, the historian Thucydides, noted) offered both more occasions and more pressures for the ruthless exercise of power. Tragedy always looks for extreme examples and war offers just this. War accentuates the human potential for cruelty; it takes suffering to extremes and it tests to an unusual degree the human capacity to cope. But victimhood, ignorance and injustice are not confined to war. They are part of the fabric of everyday existence. The strong exploit and humiliate the weak in ordinary life. The guilty like Helen walk away from their crimes while others suffer the consequences. The play is not just about the difficulty of surviving conquest in war. It is also about the difficulty of surviving in a hostile world. The gods are critically important for this aspect of the play. Modern readers often struggle to come to terms with the Greek gods, especially in tragedy. But for the Greek playwright the gods offered an invaluable medium for exploring the world. The Greek gods are individual beings each with their own sphere of operation; as well as being individual anthropomorphic beings they are also (or can also be) the embodiment of principles. And collectively they are the forces that control the world in which we live. In this respect the gods are the reality with which we must contend. They offer a physical order. They also, or so at least human beings hope, offer some element of moral order in the world at large. We look to the gods to punish wrongdoers, even if the gods themselves as individuals often behave in ways which contradict human morality. In this play they do offer a moral order. The Greeks will suffer. The problem is not that we live in a random world. It is that the moral order, as in Sophocles, is always just beyond the reach of human understanding. The gods and the world they control are impossible to predict. Human beings are condemned to live in a world which they do not understand. Ultimately this is as true of peace as it is of war.

(Prof. Chris Carey, UCL)