Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726
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 search of aid. He appears, shabbily clothed, and is faced down and treated as a beggar by an old portress at the house of Theoclymenus. She tells him of Helen’s presence in the house and of her master’s hostility toward all Greeks. Helen enters and, after Menelaus learns that the gods had substituted a phantom-image for his wife, they are reconciled and seek the aid of Theonoe. In his plea before her, Menelaus is the “miles gloriosus,” the braggart soldier: he threatens, is highly rhetorical, and even congratulates himself during his speech. After he makes several useless suggestions for their escape, he accepts Helen’s plan and carries out his role bravely.
Theoclymenus (thee-uh-KLIM-eh-nuhs), the king of Egypt, a pious and kindly man whose love for Helen has caused him to attempt to make her his wife in spite of his father’s oath of protection. He dislikes Greeks because he is afraid they may come to steal Helen. Eager to believe the reports of Menelaus’ death and overjoyed because Helen now seems willing to accept his suit, he is easily duped into agreeing to any funeral arrangements she wishes to make. He is kept from pursuit by the intervention of the gods, whose advice he gladly follows.
Theonoe (thee-ON-oh-ee), a prophetess and the sister of Theoclymenus. Helen consults her offstage and learns that Menelaus is not dead. The seeress makes a spectacular entrance and reveals that the final decision in the fate of Menelaus is hers. After hearing from both Helen and Menelaus, she decides, out of self-respect and piety, for Menelaus.
Castor (KAS-tur) and
Polydeuces (pol-ih-DEW-seez), the twin brothers of Helen. They appear at the end of the play to keep Theoclymenus from pursuing Helen and to prevent his punishment of Theonoe for deceiving him.
Teucer (TEW-sur), the famous archer. Traveling to Rhodes because his father, Telamon, has banished him for failing to protect his brother Ajax at Troy, he gives Helen news of the fall of Troy and of the wanderings and reported death of Menelaus.
The portress, a guardian of the house of Theoclymenus. A manly woman, typical of Egypt, she faces Menelaus down when he attempts to beg.
A servant, a simpleminded but faithful servant of Menelaus who brings news of the disappearance of the phantom Helen and who has some bitter things to say against soothsayers.
The Chorus, captive Greek women who are sympathetic to Helen. They render the odes that lift the play above the level of mere comedy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 171
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.