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...
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