The story of Helen is taken from a tradition established in the sixth century b.c.e. by the Greek poet Stesichorus, who believed that Paris had carried off to Troy only a phantom Helen fashioned by Hera, while the real Helen was taken to Egypt by Hermes. Some critics have praised this play, asserting that it has appropriate rhetoric throughout, consistent characterization, and a faultless plot. Perhaps the only exceptions to its evenness of tone are the first ode of the chorus and the murder of the fifty Egyptian galley-men. Others have been troubled with its melodrama and what they see as a contrived plot.
Only seven plays each survive by two of the acknowledged masters of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus and Sophocles, but nineteen are extant by the third, Euripides. He is thought to have written at least eighty. Of the three playwrights, Euripides is regarded as the dramatist most interested in psychology. In Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781) and Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781), he portrays women whose passions lead them to horrible crimes. The witch Medea, wife of Jason, arranges the death of her husband’s mistress and her father and kills her own two sons. Phaedra, wife of Theseus and stepmother and would-be lover of Hippolytus, arranges the death of her stepson when he spurns her advances. Most of Euripides’ extant plays, in fact, concern women, and in Helen he offers one of his most engaging characters. As in Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781), which also involves a rescue-escape plot and is the earliest of his plays that survives, the character of the woman is considerably stronger than those of the men around her.
Traditionally, from Homeric times, Helen was despised for being a willing hostage to the Trojan prince Paris and for being disloyal to her Spartan Greek husband, Menelaus (brother of the king, Agamemnon). In this version of the story, Paris kidnapped only a phantom from Menelaus; the real Helen did not cause the Trojan War, and the Greek hatred of Helen is ungrounded. The play takes place in Egypt seventeen years after her supposed abduction.
In her opening speech, Helen introduces the theme of the tension between appearance and reality. She is uncertain of the facts regarding her own birth; the entire world is in error about her identity. Tension would also have existed for an Athenian audience between the familiar world of Greece and mysterious one of Egypt.
Although the blame for the bloody, ten-year-long Trojan War belongs to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and lust, and to the phantom Helen, whom...
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