Table of Contents
- ANALYSIS OF THE QUOTES
- ANALYSIS OF THE THEME
- ANALYSIS OF THE CHARACTERS
- Essay 1 : ’The Women of Troy shows a world without justice.’ To what extent do you agree?
- Essay 2 : ’My children, a blasted mind never sleeps. / I came out here at dawn. But there’s no relief.’ Is there any indication of hope or relief for the Trojan survivors, or is The Women of Troy completely hopeless?
- Essay 3 : “You Greeks! You have dreamed up such cruelties / Even the barbarians would flinch at.” ‘In Euripides’ portrayal, the Greeks are irredeemably evil.’ Do you agree?
- Essay 4 : The Women of Troy attacks men and their actions. Do you agree?
- Essay 5 : In The Women of Troy, the women are not mere victims, they are heroic in their own right.
- Essay 6: ’Euripides argues that women and children are the true victims of war.’ Do you agree?
- Essay 7 : How does The Women of Troy explore loss?
- Essay 8 : ‘Poor Troy. Ten thousand men are dead For one woman’s hated marriage bed.’ Are the Chorus right to blame Helen for the horrors which befall Troy?
Women of Troy is a classical tragedy, first staged in 415 BCE, by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It tells the tragic account of the women captured after the fall of Troy, which has been under siege by Greek forces for a decade.
The ancient Greeks saw theatre as a public, and in some senses religious, ritual essential to the health of the city. In Athens, plays were staged in the open air, in immense amphitheatres which could have held up to 14,000 people, by some estimates. It was a competitive process; playwrights would stage plays against each other in a festival called the City Dionysia, held in honour of the god Dionysus. As their subject, plays took ancient Greek myths, well known to the audience, and reinterpreted them (the one known exception is The Persians by Euripides, which depicts the Persian Wars). Each playwright would stage three tragedies and one comedy. The purpose of the festival was to achieve catharsis, a sort of emotional relief, through a communal experience of shared horror. Greek tragedy can be understood as a bit like watching a horror movie with your friends as a bonding experience – a shared horrific experience which allows the audience to work through intense emotions without experiencing tragic events first-hand. And just like how you might watch something funny to clear your head after a horror film, the final play in a set was always a rude and bawdy comedy.
Every Greek tragedy has a chorus, membership of which was considered a public obligation, almost like jury duty. The Chorus usually represents the common people. As a religious occasion, Greek theatre is thought to have evolved out of choral chanting, with innovative playwrights gradually adding first one actor, than two, than finally three. As far as we know, there were never more than three speaking roles on stage at any one time. The acting was highly stylised and there were codes about what was and was not permitted on stage; violence, for example, is always described, never depicted. Euripides often pushed this boundary in plays like Medea and Ajax, with violence occurring just out of sight, often within earshot.
Traditionally, Greek tragedy follows a fairly conventional plot, first described in detail by the philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. It usually involves a great man, a leader or a king, who commits an act of hubris (pride) and is struck down by the punishments of the gods, or fate (nemesis). Ultimately moderation is praised as a virtue. This outline largely follows Oedipus the King by Sophocles, hailed by Aristotle as possibly the greatest of tragedies. All tragedies were, however, different, and as the last great tragedian Euripides in particular experiment with form and theme.
The three most prominent Greek tragedians, and the only ones whose work has survived, were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Euripides was the youngest of the three, although he was outlived by Sophocles. When Euripides was writing, Athens had plunged into the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which the Athenians would eventually lose. Writers such as Thucydides at the time blamed Athenian arrogance and imperialism as the ultimate cause of the conflict, and perhaps this criticism is reflected in Euripides’ work. Although very little is known about him as a person, he was regarded as something of an intellectual, and seemed to move in the same circles as philosophers such as the sophists. He was a respected playwright, yet also a curiously unpopular one. His plays emphasise moral confusion, or moral chaos, and never provide clear and simple answers to the at times deeply disturbing questions they pose. They are also more formally experimental, with Women of Troy a particularly good example of a play which largely ignores traditional structure and indeed has no real narrative arc. In his own time his depiction of Medea earned him a reputation for being a woman-hater. In the subsequent centuries, however, that play has been held up as a perceptive exploration of the effects of patriarchal oppression on women. Women of Troy again shows his unique interest in the plight of women – unusual in the deeply patriarchal society of fifth-century BCE Athens. He spent the last years of his life in Macedon, for reasons which are unclear, and died in 406 BCE.
Women of Troy
Women of Troy is a remarkable exploration of the horrors of war, with a particular focus on the plight of women and children. It is set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War. A long and bitter struggle ignited when the Trojan prince Paris eloped with Helen of Sparta, the war brought together a roll-call of legendary Greek characters; Achilles, Pairs, Hector, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Nestor, Ajax. Many of those heroes have already perished by the time the action in the play begins. A ploy by the cunning Odysseus, legendary tactician and orator, eventually saw the Greeks triumph. The Greeks left a large wooden horse, ostensibly as a peace offering, outside the walls of Troy. Hidden inside were a team of warriors. After the Trojans had celebrated into the night, the warriors snuck out and opened the gates of Troy. The Greek army flooded in, and massacred the people of the city. King Priam was cut down at the altar. His wife, Hecuba, was among the captives dragged away. Andromache, the wife of Hector, and Cassandra, the prophetess daughter of Priam and Hecuba are with them also. The play focuses on these women, as they await news of their fate.
Cassandra was raped by Ajax (“little” Ajax; confusingly, there were two Greek heroes called Ajax in the conflict; “great” Ajax has long-since killed himself). The crime was committed in the temple of Athena. The play opens with a furious Athena beseeching Poseidon, god of the sea and ally of Troy, to punish the Greeks. Athena was actually on the side of the Greeks throughout the war, and is closely associated with Odysseus. Her change of heart, and the devastating revenge she wreaks, is central to Euripides’ critique of war; a senseless, pointless affair, it can only beget more suffering and more pain. In the always fairly terrifying vision of the gods Euripides presents, they are largely self-centred and capricious. Athena’s concept of bringing relief to the surviving Trojans is not to assist them, but to cause more pain for the Greeks.
The play is remarkable formally. It essentially has no plot; it is almost a litany of horrors befalling the surviving women. It is one of the most utterly hopeless visions of war in all of Greek tragedy. The central character is Hecuba, who can do little more than bewail the fate of herself and her fellow women. The play is interesting in its presentation of the Greek heroes. Menelaus, in his brief appearance, is depicted as an easily-seduced, weak-willed male, who Helen has no difficulty in persuading to take her back. Odysseus is presented as positively villainous, a smooth-tongued murderer who takes sadistic delight in punishing the women.
The unforgiving depiction of the Greeks in Women of Troy may owe something to the time in which it was written. The play was produced in 415 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War. The year before, an Athenian army had besieged the island of Melos. Though technically neutral, the Athenian commanders had decided that they could not risk the island falling into enemy hands. When the Melians refused to surrender, they were slaughtered – men, women and children. Many were dragged into slavery – just like in Women of Troy. When news reached Athens, many were appalled that their armies could perpetrate such a senselessly brutal act. Many have since read Women of Troy as a criticism of the sacking of Melos. This seems likely, although there is debate over whether or not Euripides could have heard of the atrocity by the time he started writing. However, even if the play is not a direct attack on the Athenian treatment of Melos, it is still clearly bound up in the Peloponnesian War generally. The play has seen a resurgence in recent years. Its themes, of war, atrocity, people movement and the fact that women and children are the real but often ignored victims of conflict, seem more relevant than ever. It is perpetually relevant because here, as in many of his other plays, Euripides does not offer solutions to the situation, or even hope. There is no solution, for Euripides: as long as there is war, there will be scenes such as are depicted in Women of Troy.
ANALYSIS OF THE QUOTES
- “And now, the temple gardens are deserted, / And puddles of blood smear the sanctuaries / Of all the gods.”
Poseidon, 5. Euripides employs vivid imagery to capture the violence and desecration of the fall of Troy. The excessive butchery perpetrated by the Greeks as described by Poseidon not only sets the scene unforgettably, it also foreshadows the vengeance that the gods will take against them.
- “Are you usually so casual whom you love or hate?”
Poseidon, 6. Euripides emphasises the fickle nature of the gods, to whom human suffering clearly means very little.
- “We must endure it, flow / With the stream, let the new wind fill our sail, / Not breast a running tide with our fragile prow.”
Hecuba, 9. Hecuba’s resignation to the fact that there is nothing the women of Troy can do but “endure” everything they must, sets the unremittingly hopeless tone of the play.
- “How can I grieve / More than I do, is there more pain for me?”
Hecuba, 11. Hecuba’s question becomes a sort of motif in the play, and the answer, grimly, is that there is no end to the amount of pain the human soul can suffer; suffering matches the human capacity for cruelty, and in The Women of Troy that capacity is endless.
- “He wants her because she’s sacred.”
Talthybius, 15. Agamemnon’s perverse desire to rape a consecrated virgin is symbolic of how far from the rules and norms of civilisation the Greeks have fallen. War perverts and warps morality, as far as Euripides is concerned.
- “Because I’ll kill him, and destroy his whole family / In return for my father and brothers destroyed.”
Cassandra, 19. Cassandra prophesises the destruction of the house of Atreus, reinforcing Euripides’ belief that excessive, gratuitous violence can only beget more violence.
- “But our Trojans! What a contrast there! They won / The greatest of glories. They died / Fighting for their fatherland!”
Cassandra, 20. Euripides’ uses Cassandra’s speech to very pointedly condemn Athenian violence. He argues that the “greatest of glories” is not to die in some foreign field, but to die defending one’s country. Thus, Euripides implies that there is no glory for Athenian armies, but the armies of cities like Melos, destroyed by Athens, were truly heroic.
- “What a clever fellow he is, / This underling! Officers of your kind / Are always hated by everyone.”
Chorus, 22. The Chorus blasts Talthybius as a simple lackey, with no will or spine of his own, perpetrating atrocities by just following orders. The question of whether or not Talthybius is a “good” man is the same question which faces all people who commit unspeakable deeds in the name of their country.
- “Wealth, good fortune, it’s all worth nothing. / There is no happiness. The lucky ones are dead.”
Hecuba, 26. Hecuba prevaricates a little about whether it is better to be dead, or to live under terrible circumstances. Overwhelmingly, it seems that the dead suffer less in The Women of Troy than the living do. Euripides’ focus on slavery might have seemed radical to an audience sitting in a city largely built by a massive slave population.
- “The gods always hated us.”
Andromache, 30. There is virtually no meaningful justice in The Women of Troy. Andromache reflects that for all their noble sons and beautiful culture, once Athene decided to turn her hand against Troy, they were doomed.
- “Whereas someone whose life has been prosperous… from that paradise.”
Andromache, 32. Andromache argues that a sudden reversal in fate is the most terrible thing to experience. This is an understanding usually reached at the end of a tragedy. By having his characters living through the aftermath of a reversal which has already occurred, Euripides is experimenting with the structure of the play.
- “Be pleasant, make yourself attractive to him.”
Hecuba, 34. Hecuba’s advice to Andromache, to accept the inhumanity of her position and hope to win favour with her new master by being as servile as possible, reflects the deeply patriarchal reality of ancient Greek life.
- “This has to be. So please be sensible.”
Talthybius, 36. Talthybius is coldly practical about letting Astyanax die. He is the voice of a common soldier who knows what he is doing is wrong but that there is no choice but to do it, and hopes to complete his hideous task as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- “Ask the goddess, not me, / Punish her.”
Helen, 44. Characters in Euripides’ plays often use slippery interpretations of the nature of the gods to avoid moral responsibility. Helen’s arguments – and her other charms – ultimately convince Menelaus to take her back.
- “Oh you Greeks, / You are so proud of yourselves as fighting men and thinkers. / Are you proud of this too?”
Hecuba, 52. Euripides directly confronts his sophisticated Athenian audience with a blunt question: can they take pride in their amazing intellectual and cultural achievements but turn a deaf ear to the people they conquer and brutalise? For Euripides the answer seems to be no.
ANALYSIS OF THE THEME
War and Atrocity
Women of Troy is frequently recognised as an anti-war play – unusual for Classical Greece, but understandable given Athens’ involvement in the Peloponnesian War, and the ramping-up of military activity which was being proposed around the time of the play’s composition. The play opens with a dramatic speech, rich in imagery, by the sea-god Poseidon. It is an introduction to the setting of the play, and also acts as a eulogy for Troy. Poseidon evokes the senselessness of the city’s destruction. He and Apollo built this city, he declares, “Every stone we laid, every tower, /even the walls we dressed and levelled.” Now it is little more than “a smoking ruin, devastated by the power/ of the Greek war machine.” He lists the atrocities carried out by the Greeks on the royal family of Troy: Polyxena, sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles; Priam, cut down with no regard for his age or status; Cassandra, raped in temple of Hera and then dragged away to become a concubine for Agamemnon. This last will prove the undoing of the Greeks, angering the formally supportive goddess Athene.
Cassandra is one of the most remarkable characters in the play. Her comforting words to her mother Hecuba can be read as Euripides’ view on war. The Trojans, she says, won “the greatest of glories.” They fell, “fighting for their fatherland,” living with their families, and dying for those families. There is no shame in dying for one’s country when it is invaded. By contrast, the thousands of Greek soldiers who died “lie forgotten in a foreign country.” Touchingly, heartbreakingly, she points out that they have been away for so long that as they lay dying on the plains of Troy, they had probably “forgotten what their children looked like.” During the Peloponnesian War, Athens was an aggressive state, carrying out a variety of atrocities – most famously at Melos, but also on other islands. In his excellent introduction, Don Taylor lists several other well-known examples. The Greeks will be punished, horrifically, for their crimes; Euripides seems to suggesting that all those butchered by his own city deserve more honour than his countrymen doing the butchering, and that Athens will be made to pay for its sins.
Talthybius is an important character in Women of Troy, and one which rings most true to a modern audience when regarding the nature of atrocity. He is a very minor character in Greek mythology, but given a central role by Euripides. He is essentially a warrior of Agamemnon. He has a moral conscience – he knows what the Greek generals are doing is evil and wrong, and resents having to do it. But he still does it. It is most obvious when he breaks the news to Andromache that Astyanax must die. A battle-hardened soldier, he still finds it hard to swallow: “They have decided… I don’t know how to say it.” He urges Andromache to be “sensible,” and to let him do what “has to be.” He makes an effort to wash the body, and prepare a “decent burial.” Talthybius is a perfect example of what Euripides views as the product of war. An essentially decent man, with a theoretical sense of right and wrong, who is serving in war. War disrupts the usual rules of morality, and so this decent, well-meaning man resigns himself to perpetrating unspeakable deeds – a concept which is often treated as a modern dilemma but which Euripides clearly understood thousands of years ago. This notion, that war corrupts, is evident in every element of the play. The ferocity with which the Greeks desecrated Troy is the result of a decade of relentless, crushing warfare. The murder of Astyanax is also the result of a military paranoia, the desperate fear by the Greeks that the child might grow into a warrior as terrifying as his father, and bring vengeance to the Greeks. Owing to the insane logic of war, he must die. Hecuba’s speech near the end of the play must have been uncomfortable viewing for an Athenian audience. She derides those who would murder a child as the most pathetic, worthless creatures: “You’re nothing, / You’re worth nothing.”
Euripides explores the effects of war on all levels of society but, as the title of the play suggests, he focuses particularly on women. Women did not fight in wars (with the exception of the mythological Amazonian women of Greek legend) and never organised wars or started wars – yet it is women and children who are most vulnerable during wartime. The play is a devastating portrait of the utter helplessness of women in a captured city – as well as the gendered nature of the violence they suffer. The men are merely cut down in the streets or on the field of battle; “the lucky ones,” Hecuba notes, “are dead.” Things are worse for the female survivors, “a whole generation of women raped in their own bedrooms,” who must now endure the rest of their lives slaving for the very men who slaughtered their husbands, sons and fathers. Women, always secondary in Greek society, are now just objects. As Andromache puts it, “We are loot, my son and I, soldiers’ plunder, / Born royal, and made slaves.”
The Women of Troy is unremittingly hopeless – with one exception. Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra is written off as mad. She has the gift of prophesy, but, like most prophets and seers in Greek myth, she is never believed. She is full of hope, arguing that the Greeks have done as much damage to themselves as they have to the Trojans. Further, she promises to bring about the destruction of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks: “I’ll kill him, and destroy his whole family / in return for my father and brothers destroyed.” She performs a frenzied enactment of a wedding ceremony, and sees it as a weapon – a usually patriarchal construct which she will use to bring disaster to Agamemnon: “And be sure, that by means of this marriage of mine / I shall destroy them.” For once, the femininity which usually constrains women of the ancient world will in fact prove the undoing of the Greeks; in myth, Cassandra’s presence at Agamemnon’s palace will so infuriate his wife, Clytemnestra, that she kills him.
Another interesting female character is Helen, whose elopement with Paris started the war, and who is presented negatively here by Euripides. Myths were very malleable in this regard; in other plays, Euripides treats her more sympathetically. In The Women of Troy Euripides presents Helen as the object of hatred for the surviving Trojans. She is cunning, and a master manipulator; Menelaus intends to kill her, but we know that she will convince him to take her back to Sparta, and to let her live. Hecuba begs Menelaus not to travel in the same ship as Helen, because she knows she will charm him. Whilst the portrayal of Helen is overall a negative one, it should also be noted that her ability to use her sexuality to survive is really the only option available to her – in an age when women were utterly devoid of rights, Helen does an exceptional job of keeping herself alive.
Like in Medea, his most famous play, Euripides shows an awareness of the sufferings of women highly unusual for his time and place. Whilst it hardly makes sense to refer to his work as being proto-feminist, he certainly is keenly aware of the brutality and injustice of ancient Greek society, especially in its treatment of women.
Justice and Vengeance
The inability – or reluctance – of the gods construct a just and fair universe is a central theme to The Women of Troy. The entire, devastating war is really fought between two men: Menelaus of Sparta, and Paris of Troy. Paris’ elopement with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, sees Menelaus call on his brother Agamemnon of Mycenae and the other Greek cities to raise a force and take her back. “The gods always hated us,” laments Andromache, who continues to pin the blame for the entire war on Paris. The Chorus identifies Helen as the culprit: “Ten thousand men are dead / For one woman, and her hated bed.” The scale of the war is thus frequently contrasted with the relatively few people – in reality, a single love triangle – whom it actually, directly concerned. Time and time again, the Trojan survivors bitterly lament the gods for their failure to protect them. The Chorus mention Ganymede, a beautiful youth from Troy who was swept away by Zeus and now enjoys a blessed place on Mount Olympus. The arbitrariness of his story – that he should attract a god and therefore enjoy eternal bliss while his people are butchered – is bitterly noted: “While you were reclining / Serene in your youthful beauty / By the throne of Zeus, the Greeks were destroying / Troy’s people and Priam’s city.” Similarly, Hecuba laments that people such as Agamemnon, a brutal, grasping conqueror, and Talthybius, his servant, get to live, whilst the heroic Hector, who slew countless invading Greeks in the defence of his city, died at the hands of Achilles. “I see what the gods are doing,” she says, “making monuments / Of worthless men, and demolishing the good.”
Euripides does not leave the gods without a voice, however. The play is opened by Poseidon and Athene, and the callousness of their conversation, given the human horror of what has happened, is shocking. Poseidon gives a lengthy lament that the city he supported has fallen. “If Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus, / Had not determined to destroy you, your foundations / Would be as firm and solid as ever they were.” Yet the actual extent of his grief for the thousands of innocent people who have been murdered or enslaved is clearly limited, as evidenced when Athene arrives on the scene, flatters him slightly, and asks for forgiveness. The Greeks haven’t even left the city before he agrees. Athene decides she will “make the Greeks’ return home a disaster” because Ajax raped Cassandra in Athene’s temple. She, Poseidon and Zeus agree to drown most of the Greeks before they get home. The survivors are forced to take long, dangerous routes home – it takes Odysseus ten years. The volatility of the gods here is extraordinary – Athene had of course supported the Greeks during the war. And her reasons for that were pretty trite too – Paris had declared that she was less beautiful than Aphrodite. So, by the end of the play, the Trojans have been exterminated or enslaved, and most of the surviving Greeks drowned. The madness of war, for Euripides, knows no bounds, mortal or divine.
Reversal and loss
Greek tragedies, as Aristotle famously noted in his Poetics, frequently involve a reversal in fortune. That is, the main character usually starts the play at the peak of their fame and glory, and then loses everything. The Women of Troy is, like many of Euripides’ plays, more experimental. Here, the massive reversal in fortune has already happened. Time and again the Trojan characters lament what they have lost; Hecuba is now “throned in the dust,” and she lists all the wealth and luxury she has lost. Men are of course the other thing the women have lost – their husbands, fathers, and sons. Hecuba pronounces a common axiom in Greek literature: “What’s certain / Is that luck always runs out, and that no happy man / Ever stays happy or lucky for long.” However, this sort of sentiment is usually announced by the Chorus at the end of the play. Here, it is an acknowledgment of the suffering which occurred before the play began. There are no sudden reversals, no plot-twists. Indeed, there is barely even a plot to The Women of Troy. It is essentially a catalogue of suffering being piled onto the women, and uncomfortable exploration of just how much suffering the human spirit can endure – or rather, be forced to endure.
There is, of course, a reversal waiting for the Greeks. “The number of the drowned will be beyond counting,” Poseidon promises. Odysseus will suffer a terrible, decade-long voyage home. He is lucky. Agamemnon will be butchered in his own house, and countless Greeks will drown. Euripides is perhaps warning the Athens of his own day that no brutality will go unpunished – the more aggressive and imperialistic Athens acts, the more certain it is to eventually be punished. Euripides essentially has taken the usual, individual tale of a great man losing everything by angering the gods, and expanded it massively, to encompass entire civilisations. As Don Taylor notes, brilliantly, “It is civilisation that is going down in blood and fire, not just a city.”
ANALYSIS OF THE CHARACTERS
Hecuba was the queen of Troy, husband to King Priam and mother to the mighty warrior Hector. In The Women of Troy she is the central, tragic figure. Of all the female characters in the play she has probably lost the most. All of her many sons were killed off one by one over the course of the war, then her husband, her city levelled and herself degraded from queen to slave. “We must endure it,” she speaks of her misery in her first monologue, and this line frames the central concern of the play: how much can the human soul endure? The play is ultimately inconclusive on this front; her opening statement proves true. It is not a question of how much grief she can endure – Euripides points out that for the victims of war, there is no option but to suffer whatever gods or mortals decree. Her early refrain, “How can I grieve / more than I do?” is answered only with some fresh cruelty.
Hecuba forms the central focus of the play. She is the only character who is constantly on the stage; all the others walk in and out, usually to pile some new load of horror onto her shoulders. She thus becomes a sort of universal symbol of the suffering of war, a mother who sees her husband, children and grandchildren taken from her, one by one. Hecuba’s personality is, in its own way, one of the most heroic in all of Greek tragedy. She is the longest suffering yet also one of the most resolute. She is also given a remarkable prophetic role by Euripides. As she prepares to meet her fate, Hecuba seems to be able to peer into the future, and she states that were it not for the spectacular, heroic suffering of the Trojans, “No one would ever / Have heard of us, no songs would have been written / In memory of our suffering, nor would the poets / A hundred generations hence have taken us / As their great theme.” Hecuba appears to be able to predict that Troy would live on in fame, affirmed for its suffering. Euripides wrote The Women of Troy over 2000 years ago. One wonders what he would make of the fact that millions of people around the world still read the ancient epics to this day.
Andromache was the wife of Hector, and mother of Astyanax. In the Iliad, she has one scene, where Hector briefly returns to Troy to drag Paris back to the field of battle. In a remarkable scene, Homer contrasts the two couples (Hector and Andromache vs Paris and Helen). Hector and Andromache are a loving couple, and Andromache an engaged and clearly intelligent woman – she even gives Hector military advice as she observes the battle raging below from the city walls. Hector and Andromache talk of the day that Astyanax will grow to be a man, and return from battle in his armour, maybe with armour taken from an enemy he killed. Euripides plays on this scene by inverting it and having Astyanax be returned, dead, on Hector’s shield. The relationship between Andromache, Astyanax and Hecuba is tragic for a modern audience; for an ancient audience, however, with a knowledge of the Iliad, it presumably must have been devastating.
In The Women of Troy, it is Andromache who brings the news to Hecuba that her daughter Polyxena has been murdered. One element of Euripides’ plays which feels particularly modern is his portrayal of women. Like Hecuba, Andromache is given a firm personality, and strong opinions of her own. She bluntly informs Hecuba that Paris is the root of all the tragedies to have hit Troy, and is scathing about the fundamentally masculine nature of war: “So some second Ajax flatters his masculinity / By dragging off your daughter.” The role of Andromache requires tremendous grace – the actor must portray a mother who gives her final farewell the child she knows is about to be killed.
Cassandra is the daughter of Hecuba. In Greek myth she was courted by the god Apollo, who promised her any gift in return for sleeping with him. She asked for the gift of prophesy, which was duly granted, but then refused to sleep with Apollo. Gods cannot undo their own or each other’s work in Greek mythology, so instead of taking the gift back Apollo cursed Cassandra so that her prophesies would never be believed. There are several prophets in Greek myth and tragedy who are never believed – Tiresias is one. Cassandra, for example, warned the Trojans not to accept the gift of the wooden horse, and was ignored. Cassandra suffers terribly during the war; aside from losing most of her family, she is raped by the lesser Ajax in the temple of Athene. However, in her one appearance in the play, Cassandra is optimistic, albeit in a frenzied, maddened way. She assured Hecuba that she will “destroy” Agamemnon and his household; Hecuba, of course, ignores her, believing her to be mad. Cassandra’s scene is a parody of a wedding procession; becoming Agamemnon’s concubine is a victory of sorts, as it allows her to become the destructive agent which leads to his death. Similarly, her horrific rape leads to Athene turning on the Greeks, and so leads to some form of justice – albeit in the typically brutal, almost perverse fashion of Greek myth. She also offers comfort to Hecuba, assuring her that the Trojans have it better than the Greeks, for to die defending a city, fighting for your wife and children, is far better than to die on some foreign shore ten years since you last saw your family. This strain of optimism recurs in Hecuba’s final remarks, when she prophesises the immortal fame of Troy, and goes so far as to state that Astyanax is in a sense not dead, because his name will live on.
Talthybius is a low-ranking Greek officer. He is also a remarkable character, and one who prefigures modern debates about the nature of evil after the Second World War. Talthybius is an almost bureaucratic drone, a tool by which evil is perpetrated. He is in a sense fundamentally decent; he is disgusted by the extreme actions of his commanders, and sees his job as an unpleasant but necessary one. He simply wants to get the hideous deeds over and done with so that he can go home to his family. He begs Andromache to be “sensible,” and think practically. She can’t stop the Greeks from killing Astyanax, so advises her not to waste her few precious remaining minutes with him in resisting, but instead say goodbye with dignity, like the “queen you are.” He is an almost sympathetic character, although Euripides lets the Chorus prevent the audience from getting too sympathetic, and has them denounce him as the type of “underling” who is “hated by everyone.” Don Taylor’s analysis of Talthybius in his introduction is superb.
Helen is one of the towering figures of Greek mythology, cast variously as an unscrupulous seductress, a victim of male power dynamics, tragic lover, plaything of the gods, and repentant adulteress. In The Women of Troy she features in an intellectual showdown with Hecuba. This is an agon, or debate, which is frequently the centrepiece of a Greek tragedy, and particularly in the works of Euripides. Hecuba sees Helen as an irresistibly tempting seductress, with a strong affiliation with Aphrodite. She warns the vengeful Menelaus not to lay eyes on her: “With one look / She makes men’s eyes her prisoners.” She and Hecuba faceoff: Hecuba argues that she must die, and Helen proves herself a master of sophistry, twisting the circumstances of her residing in Troy. She describes herself as unwilling hostage of Aphrodite – a tricky argument relating to the nature of free will. It is hard to know how convincing a Classical audience would have found this argument – although, for reference, it is used by Jason in Euripides’ most famous play, Medea, and in that case it is definitely meant to be a dishonest argument. Her speech is denounced by the Chorus as “Fluent, but wicked.” Interestingly, she places much of the blame on Paris, and some on Menelaus – it infuriates Hecuba, but to a modern audience it is hard not to agree with her that the murderous men who orchestrated the war are really more blameworthy than Helen. Menelaus, by the end of the speech, still insists that she will be punished, but he has already backtracked on his decision to kill her on sight. The Athenian audience would have been well aware that Helen is one of the few characters to survive the war. She moves back to Sparta with Menelaus, and appears in the Odyssey as a repentant and dutiful wife.
Athene and Poseidon
Euripides opens his play with a dialogue between two gods, Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Athene was one of the three goddesses in the contest for the golden apple; she offered Paris wisdom should he award it to her. Hera offered power, and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen of Sparta). When Paris selected Aphrodite, the other two goddesses were enraged, and they sided with the Greeks. Poseidon sided with the Trojans. His opening monologue is a lament for Troy. When Athene appears and asks for his assistance in punishing the Greeks (who enraged her by desecrating her temple and raping Cassandra, her supplicant) he happily agrees. The almost flippant manner in which the gods decide to cause even more slaughter and chaos is shocking. Also important is that Cassandra, as a supplicant, was under the protection of Athene. This does not mean that she is protected by Athene; Athene does not save from Ajax or prevent her from being sent to Mycenae. Indeed, she seems to show very little interest in Cassandra at all. Instead, she mercilessly blasts the Greeks, killing thousands. Athene in The Women of Troy is symbolic of the callousness of the gods, and their petty vindictiveness. For her, Cassandra as a person is insignificant – it is the fact that she was a supplicant that counts. Essentially, Athene punishes the Greeks for interfering with a person she considered her property.
Menelaus is the King of Sparta, and husband to Helen. When Paris and Helen elope, he calls on his brother Agamemnon to help avenge the slight. In The Women of Troy, he is presented as weak-willed and petty. It is implied that he will easily succumb to Helen’s charms.
Significant characters who do not appear in the play
Owing to the limited number of characters that can be sustained in Greek tragedy, and the complex nature of Greek myth, there are many characters who may not appear in the play but which are essential to understanding The Women of Troy. Many crucial characters are dead by the time the play opens.
Odysseus, king of Ithaka, is one of the most famous Greek heroes. He is known for his amazing oratory, and his cunning. He is the tactician who comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. After the fall of Troy, he sails home, but a series of disasters means that it takes ten years, and many wondrous adventures, before he arrives home to Ithaka. This epic voyage is the subject matter of the Odyssey. In Women of Troy, Euripides puts an interesting spin of Odysseus. His cunning and ability to speak well makes him a villain – he is the “black-hearted politician” who convinces the Greeks to kill Astyanax. Euripides was writing at a crucial moment in Athenian politics, when many were calling for a ramping-up of military expeditions. Perhaps his version of Odysseus is a representation of the smooth-tongued politicians of his own day who used their oratory to incite warfare.
King Priam was the husband of Hecuba and King of Troy. Like her, he sees his sons slain, one by one, in battle. He is killed during the fall of Toy. In the Iliad, he features in the final chapters of the poem, in one of the most touching moments in Greek myth, as he ventures from the city to meet Achilles and retrieve the body of his son Hector.
Prince Hector was the mightiest of the Trojan fighters, and wife to Andromache. So terrifying was he to the Greeks that Odysseus convinces them to kill his little boy, Astyanax, in case he grows up to be as dangerous as his father. The Iliad recounts a moment in the Trojan war when the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles, refuses to join the battle after he is offended by Agamemnon. With their best fighter, and his soldiers, out of the fray, Hector turns the tide of battle against the Greeks. However, Achilles’ friend (and possible lover), Patroclus, decides to join the battle. He puts on Achilles’ armour. Hector fights him, believing he is fighting Achilles, and kills him. Achilles is devastated, and he challenges Hector to single combat. He kills Hector and dishonours his body by dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam eventually convinces Achilles to return the body for burial.
Price Paris was separated from Troy as a baby after a prophesy foretold that he would bring destruction to the Trojans. He was sent away and raised as a shepherd, but, after the judgement which resulted in Aphrodite promising him Helen, he finds his way back to Troy. After meeting and running away with Helen, he sparks the Trojan War. Helen, the most beautiful woman in all of Greece, had many suitors. They all join forces against the Trojans. Paris is depicted in the Iliad as a coward. He eventually kills Achilles by shooting him in his one vulnerable area – his heel. He is killed in turn by Philoctetes later in the war.
Agamemnon is Menelaus’ older brother, and king of Mycenae. He is the de facto leader of the Greek expedition. In the Iliad he is portrayed negatively, as a murderous, greedy warrior who always claims the lion’s share of spoils of war. He takes Cassandra as his concubine. This outrages his wife Clytemnestra, who eventually kills him. Thus, Cassandra takes solace in the fact that her “wedding” will “destroy” Agamemnon.
Achilles is the greatest warrior of Greek myth. He is the son of a goddess, Thetis, who submerged him head-first into the river Styx as an infant, making him invulnerable – except for his heel, where she held him. As recounted above, he was legendary for his rivalry with Hector, and, for that matter, with many of the Greeks – notably Agamemnon. It is at his tomb that Polyxena is sacrificed.