The Trojan Women

by Euripides

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Critical Evaluation

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The Trojan Women is a masterpiece of pathos as well as a timeless and chilling indictment of the brutality of war. The circumstances of its composition, and the raging moral indignation behind it, refer to an incident in the Peloponnesian War that occurred a few months before the tragedy was presented in March, 415 b.c.e. The people of Melos tried to remain neutral in the Athenian conflict with Sparta, and Athens responded by massacring the grown males and enslaving the women and children. In The Trojan Women Euripides shows Troy after the men were slaughtered, with a handful of women waiting to be taken into bondage. The parallel is clear and painful. Euripides does not stop with that. The women in their anguish show dignity, pride, and compassion, whereas their conquerors are vain, unscrupulous, and empty. Further, the conquering Greeks are shown to be headed for disaster, since the gods have turned against them. When this play was produced, Athens was preparing a large fleet to take over Sicily, an expedition that ended in calamity. The prophecies of sea disasters in the play no doubt made the Athenian audience squirm. Indeed, the whole tragedy seems calculated to sting the consciences of the Athenians. That they allowed it to be produced is amazing. The fact that a nonentity named Xenocles won first prize that year, defeating Euripides, is scarcely surprising.

This play concludes a trilogy of tragedies on the legend of Troy. It was preceded by Alexandros (another name for Paris), which dealt with the refusal of Priam and Hecuba to murder their infant Paris, who would eventually bring about the destruction of Troy. This is important because, in The Trojan Women, Hecuba sees the full consequences of her choice. Alexandros was followed by Palamedes, where Odysseus exacts a dire revenge on the clever Palamedes through treachery. The Trojan Women merges the Trojan and Greek lines of tragedy, showing them to be complementary aspects of a central agony. This final play presents the culmination of this story of suffering. It is as bleak and agonizing a portrait of war as has ever been shown on the stage.

However, Euripides merely dramatizes a brief portion of the aftermath, about an hour or two the morning after Troy was looted and burned and the Trojan men were put to death. In that time, one sees enough to realize that war is the most devastating, unheroic activity that humanity has ever devised. No one wins. The Greeks in their swollen vanity commit atrocities against both the gods and human decency, and they are about to receive their just punishment, as Poseidon, Athena, and Cassandra state. The action of the play consists of the revelation of those atrocities, one after the other, as they overwhelm the helpless old queen, Hecuba. It is primarily through Hecuba the enormity of Troy’s fall is experienced. The chorus of captive women, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen serve to balance and to counterpoint Hecuba’s anguish as well as to contribute to it.

A brief time before, Hecuba was the proud queen of a great, wealthy city, and within the space of a night she is reduced to a slave. Hecuba witnesses her husband Priam’s murder and knows almost all of her children were butchered. Longing for death, she experiences one dreadful thing after another. She learns that she is the prize of Odysseus, the vilest Greek of all, and that her few daughters will be handed out as concubines. She sees her daughter Cassandra madly singing a marriage hymn, and she finally grasps that Cassandra, through prescience, is really...

(This entire section contains 998 words.)

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singing a death song for herself and for the commander of the Greeks, Agamemnon. Believing her daughter Polyxena to be alive, Hecuba learns from Andromache that the girl had her throat slit. Hecuba, trying to comfort Andromache with the prospect of Astyanax’s growing to manhood, sees the little boy taken from Andromache to be executed. Menelaus arrives to drag Helen back to Greece, and Helen, who causes the whole war, calmly faces him down, oblivious of Hecuba’s accusations. In this way Hecuba loses the satisfaction of seeing her worst enemy killed, and it is clear that the shallow, worthless Helen will go unpunished. In her final anguish, Hecuba must look upon her poor, mangled grandchild lying on the shield of her dead son, Hector. The last ounce of torment is wrung from her, and she makes an abortive suicide attempt. Hecuba’s stark pathos is drawn out to an excruciating dramatic degree.

Yet the play is not a mere shapeless depiction of human pain. Hecuba’s suffering is cumulative. There is also a pattern to the appearances of the chorus, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen. The chorus of captive women serves to generalize Hecuba’s grief. If Poseidon will create future misery for the Greeks, the chorus shows the past and present pain of the Trojans on a large canvas. It places Hecuba’s agony in perspective as one calamity among many. Moreover, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen extend the portrayal of the victimization of the women who become the spoils of war: Cassandra, the raped virgin and crazed bride of death; Andromache, the exemplary wife and mother turned into a childless widow and handed over to the son of the man who killed her husband; and brazen Helen, the faithless wife who has the knack of getting her own way in every circumstance. The contrast among these three cannot be more striking.

Euripides takes pains in The Trojan Women to show that the only justice in war is punitive and nihilistic. War arises from numerous individual choices and leads to disaster for everyone, the conquered and the victors alike. With Thucydides the historian, Euripides shares the view that power corrupts, promoting arrogance and criminality. His vision of the suffering caused by the war is as valid today as it was when he wrote the play and as it must have been when Troy presumably fell.

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The Trojan Women