"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

19 August 2014

The Trojan Women, by Euripides

Poseidon: If you want to see misery at its worst,
            look at the creature lying there, poor Hecuba,
            weeping a plethora of tears for a plethora of disasters.

Hecuba: I see the scheme of the gods: to raise to the skies the worthless
            and dash to the ground the exalted.
Andromache: Yes, I with my son are captive stock:
            highbirth to slave—what a reversal!
Hecuba: Fate is remorseless.

Hecuba: Just that it is clear now
            the gods have singled me out for suffering
            and Troy for hate—above all other cities.
In vain have we slaughtered our hecatombs, and the divine reply
            is to bury us under the earth, heap it on us, pack it down.
It is as if we were to be smothered from view:
            unsung by the Muses, unchanted, unrecorded,
            in ages to come.

Hecuba: O Troy, great city,
            once breath of grandeur on the barbarian scene,
            how fast is your glory extinct!
They burn you down, and we,
            we are being herded off as slaves.
O you gods. . .
            but why bother to invoke the gods?
            In the past they never heard my prayers.
So, hurry, hurry into the flames.
Let my glory be
            to die on the bonfire of my home.

I’ve read EuripidesTrojan Women before, and I saw it performed (in a not terribly great college production), but this is the first time I’ve genuinely enjoyed the play. Many people find it hard to like The Trojan Women because it is such a heavy play, considering that essentially the entire focus is the lamenting of the enslaved women of Troy after it sack by the Greek army.

But it was never the heaviness of the theme that bothered me before, it was the fact that there is very little that actually happens. Most of the play is spent recounting and lamenting the destruction of Troy and dreading the upcoming enslavement in the homes of the victorious Argive army. And while that is still true, this was my first experience of the play where I could genuinely appreciate the beauty of the poetry and the sublimity of Hecuba’s suffering. Yes, there were still moments where it felt a bit tedious, but by and large I enjoyed the play because Hecuba—Priam’s widow, the former queen of Troy—is such a well written part. Her lamentations are really evocative, and her character remains torn between despair, suicide, and a desire to support the women who were her former subjects and current slave-peers. So much has been taken from Hecuba, that when she dies of sadness at the end of the play it is almost a perverse relief.

The other thing I was able to appreciate more on this reading is the way the lamentations are broken up the spare action that does occur in the play. Periodically individual women are taken aboard the Hellenic ships or the Argive herald arrives with some news, but the two major interludes of action are when Cassandra is brought out and makes some bizarre and obscure prophecies, and when Astyanax—Andromache’s son, Hecuba’s grandson—is taken away to be killed. Cassandra really changes the mood of the play significantly with her entrance bearing a torch and the odd prophecies she speaks, to which, of course, no one gives heed. In a way this is almost like the gatekeeper scene in Macbeth, because (although Cassandra isn’t funny) she disrupts the overall heavy depressing tone enough that it is possible to make it through the intense suffering of the play. The execution of Astyanax works a bit differently, because it builds the suffering, but it is a performative break from the continual lamentation. Rather than just having the women bewailing the fall of Troy, the deaths of their husbands, sons, and brothers, and their own enslavement, the scene with Astyanax actually shows the brutality and the terror inflicted by the victorious Argive army on the Trojans.

One character I find particularly interesting is Talthybius, the Greek herald. Other than some spear-bearers, he and Menelaus are the only two Hellenic soldiers who appear in the play. And Menelaus is supposed to be quite stupid (which seems to be a common opinion of him in other Athenian tragedy), but Talthybius seems to be genuinely conflicted about the treatment of the Trojan women. He is reluctant to add to their sorrows by telling them bad news, though that ends up being his primary role in the play. And when Astyanax is taken to be killed, Talthybius turns him over to another soldier saying, “This order needs a brute, someone merciless, / much more heartless than I can be.” On the one hand, I like this character tremendously because I think he is caught in a very modern moral dilemma—and people do often talk about Euripides as the most modern of the Athenian dramatists—but I also wonder whether this character doesn’t show Euripides hedging his bets a bit. I mean, this play was always going to challenge Hellenic sentiments, because the Greeks were, of course, on the Greek side in the Trojan War. But even more than that, this play was written shortly before what would turn out to be a disastrous invasion of Sicily, and it is easy to read this as Euripides’ protest against Athens’ military actions. So this play was lucky to even be put on in Athens, but I think the humanity, the ethical qualms, and the sympathy that Talthybius displays may have helped the Athenians identify with a not entirely negative image of the Greeks.

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