Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Promised by Aphrodite to Paris for his judgment, Helen was rescued by Hermes and supernaturally transported to Egypt. A phantom-image was given to Paris, and Helen was promised that she would return to Sparta to be with her husband, who should know that she did not elope to Troy. She has been protected in Egypt by King Proteus, but he is now dead, and his son Theoclymenus wishes to marry her. She has taken refuge at the tomb of Proteus and, at the beginning of the play, laments her misfortunes. When a Greek, Teucer, appears with the news that Menelaus is reported dead, Helen takes the report as fact. She goes to consult Theonoe, a prophetess who is the sister of Theoclymenus, and learns that Menelaus is alive and will arrive in Egypt. When she returns, Menelaus has appeared. He cannot believe, because he has been wandering for seven years with the phantom-image, that Helen is really in Egypt until one of his men comes to report that the phantom-image has returned to the skies. He and Helen then retell their separate stories, convince the all-knowing Theonoe not to reveal their presence to Theoclymenus, and devise a plan to escape. Helen has Menelaus, ragged and dirty after his wanderings, report his own death to Theoclymenus. She agrees to marry the young king if he will allow her to perform burial rites at sea for dead Menelaus. Once at sea, Helen and Menelaus make their escape. Helen is a romantic figure; she has charm, wit, self-importance, and self-pity combined with loveliness and virtue.


Menelaus (meh-neh-LAY-uhs), the king of Sparta. Shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt, he hides his men and the phantom-image of Helen and sets out in...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Austin, Norman. Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. The fullest account of the Helen story. Devotes nearly seventy pages to Euripides’ play. Close reading, comment, bibliography.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Catastrophe Survived. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Argues that Theonoe makes crucial decisions and saves the play from frivolity. Regards the play as a comedy of ideas.

Segal, Charles. “The Two Worlds of Euripides’ Helen.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 102 (1971): 553-614. Surveys critical responses to the play and focuses on its serious philosophical aspects. Argues that it transcends its genre.

Taylor, Don. Introduction to Euripides: The War Plays, by Euripides. London: Methuen, 1990. Comments on Helen as a production, along with two other plays on the Trojan War; discussion concerns not only the war context but also the play’s comic aspects.

Whitman, Cedric H. Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Stresses the theme of appearance versus reality. Sees the play as a romance and as a drama of ideas.