Critical Evaluation

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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 Paris abducted, Helen feels the guilt and disgrace that led to her mother’s suicide; she understands why the Greek chieftain Teucer hates her. Their meeting is played out ironically: He leaves her saying she may look like Helen but her heart is not at all like Helen’s. He goes so far as to wish that Helen die miserably, which reminds her, as she laments to the chorus of captive Greek women, that her life is monstrous, ironically because of her beauty. Confronted with the possibility of forced marriage to the barbarian (non-Greek) Theoclymenus, she insists she would prefer suicide.

In many of his plays, Euripides’ characters speak in sweeping terms of women’s issues. The chorus, in this instance, advises Helen to consult the prophet Theonoe, sister of Theoclymenus, as “It is right for women to stand by a woman’s cause.” When she does consult Theonoe, the prophet proves to be strikingly reasonable and just, even compassionate, despite her supposed Egyptian barbarism. Another female character, the old portress...

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at the palace gate, who figures briefly in the comic scene where Menelaus appears in rags, is also admirable and at least equal in wit to the Spartan hero.

Men, by contrast, do not come off well in this play at all. The unperceptive Teucer, for example, whose brother Ajax was fabled as a physical but not a mental giant, is easily deluded by Helen. When Menelaus is confronted with “the real” Helen, he seems utterly addled, and when the servant tells of the phantom Helen’s disappearance, Helen must explain everything to Menelaus line by line. Moreover, the elaborate and successful ruse (another distortion of reality) concocted to effect their escape is all Helen’s idea.

The first lustful and then vengeful Theoclymenus is the villain of the piece, first duped by Helen and then checked by her brothers, Castor and Pollux, in a contrived ending. The deus ex machina at the end imposes further strain on the concept of reality. This device is anticipated at the start of the play; the phantom Helen is herself a figurative deus ex machina.

Among the male characters, only the old servant, who recognizes the frustrating unpredictability of the gods and the unreliability of prophecy (a favorite theme in Euripides’ plays), seems really sensible. The art of prophecy, he says “was invented as a bait for making money,” and “The best prophet is common sense, our native wit.”

Scholars have pointed to Helen’s historical context: the ruinous Athenian war with Sparta and the disastrous naval expedition against Sicily that took place a year before the play was performed. Some critics insist that the play should not be taken seriously, but others detect a serious antiwar message.

The haunting losses of the Trojan War are mentioned repeatedly, from Helen’s opening speech and the meeting with Teucer to the choral lament for the dead in the latter half of the play. The supreme irony is that the ghastly war was fought over a phantom. This message is not lost on the servant, who says simply, “Yours was a story, but [Menelaus] fought with the spear, and all/ his hard fighting was fought for nothing.” Fearing their exposure to Theoclymenus, Menelaus contemplates suicide before Helen’s appeal to Theonoe succeeds, and his response is that of the hero in time of battle: “I would rather die in action than die passively.” Such a reaction, however, is ludicrous in a comic context. It is typical of the male, Euripides seems to say, that Menelaus can see only one way out, whereas the clever Helen not only wins over Theonoe by argument but also deceives Theoclymenus with the supposed funeral ceremony at sea for Menelaus.

Athenian audiences suffering from the news of the defeat in Sicily and still struggling with the costs of the war with Sparta, which Athens was to lose, may have been distracted by the comic aspects of this escape story, but they must also have recognized the darker messages: The causes of war are illusory; heroism may be a delusion; the human costs of war are staggering; war, most notably as a solution to problems, is futile.