Thursday, November 11, 2010

Trojan Women - Euripides

Euripides’ Trojan Women depicts a complex social structure along with distinct cultural practices using the traditional techniques of lament and debate.

Trojan Women, by Euripides, was produced in 415 BCE during the Peloponnesian war. It is a poetic expression of the horror, futility and consequences of war. The play also throws light on the fate of those defeated by war. The play is presented from the point of view of the conquered.

Trojan Women is a tragedy that is set in the smoking ruins of the city of Troy after it has been sacked by the Greeks. Although Euripides follows the structure of a tragedy, the play lacks the kind of symmetry one would see in the plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus. The play follows the fate of Hecuba who was once the Queen of Troy but is now a slave waiting to be taken away in a Greek ship.

The play can be broadly divided into three sections: the first and the third sections consisting of Hecuba’s lament and the second section breaking the lament with a debate. The play Trojan Women begins with a prologue. The prologue in a Greek play serves a dramatic purpose. It is in the prologue that the topic of the tragedy is presented and the setting established. It is usually in the form of a monologue. In the prologue of the Trojan Women, Poseidon, surveys the ruins and desolation of the Trojan plains and mourns the death of his city. He tells us that all the heroes of Troy are dead and the Greek ships will set sail once the spoils of the war have been divided. They are leaving behind nothing but a desolate city where no one is left to worship the gods. When Poseidon tells the audience that he too is about to leave the city, we understand that a god cannot be present in a place where no one exists to worship him. This brings out a sharp difference between the gods of ancient Greece and the God of Western civilization. For the former, a god survives only if man continues to honour and worship him, thus when ‘the sacred groves are abandoned’ there is no longer any place in Troy for Poseidon. For the latter, god is omnipresent and whether man continues to worship him or not in any place he continues to exist. The conversation between Athena, who is the protector of Greece, and Poseidon, in which Athena seeks Poseidon’s help in inflicting upon the Greeks a ‘sorrowful homecoming’ because they have disregarded the temples of her father, indicates that the gods were temperamental. As we read the play, however, we become aware that though the gods are the movers of actions, they cannot dictate the end of the action. Thus action, though commissioned by gods is controlled by humans.

The prologue is followed by Hecuba’s lament about Troy. It must be noted that Hecuba’s laments are specific. The tone is one of grievous loss and great sorrow. She uses the image of ships to characterize the attitude she wishes to have. She tells herself to sail with the winds of fate just as the ships sails with the stream. She is no longer queen of Troy, merely a slave who must obey the commands of her masters. The chorus joins in her cry each wondering what fate waits her. Some of the Trojan women hope to be taken away as slaves to some of Greece’s beautiful lands. Some hope to go to Theseus’ land which is glorious and blessed and others to the wealthy land of Peneus. Their hope, however, is merely an illusion, for we know that many will not even set foot on Greek shores, perishing en route with their masters.

Hecuba’s lament is interrupted by the arrival of Talthybius who informs the Trojan women that they have been assigned to different masters. Hecuba’s foremost concern is that of the fate of her daughters Cassandra and Polyxena. Cassandra, who was dedicated to the temple of Apollo, is to become Agamemnon’s concubine. Agamemnon’s decision to make the virgin bride of Apollo his concubine is an insult to the gods. By doing this he violates religious norms. As a woman dedicated to the shrine of Apollo, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, however, no one ever believed her prophecies because of a curse that Apollo placed upon her. So although she had foreseen the destruction of Troy and warned the Trojans about the Trojan horse, no one believed her. Polyxena, Talthybius informs Hecuba, ‘has been appointed to serve at the tomb of Achilles’. So although, Hecuba learns of the fate of Polyxena later through Andromache, we know that she has been sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles.

Some versions of the myth claim that Polyxena committed suicide after Achilles death out of guilt for revealing his weakness to her brothers. But according to other versions, Polyxena was sacrificed at the foot of Achilles’ grave because his ghost has come back to the Greeks demanding that they sacrifice Polyxena so that they could get the wind needed to set sail back to Greece.

When we look at the fates of the two sisters through the lens of the cultural practices of the time, it is Polyxena who has suffered the worse fate. She has been brutally murdered just so that the Greek armies could sail back to their lands. As Hecuba says, only in ‘life there is hope’ so the murder of Polyxena is a snuffing out of any hope of a bearable life, even if it is as that of a slave. Cassandra’s fate, though horrible, offers a glimmer of hope. Although she has been raped by Ajax and is going to be taken away as Agamemnon’s concubine and her predicament in an insult to the existing social structures of the time, it is still a fate that is better than death because Hecuba hopes that Cassandra will somehow prevail against her horrific situation.

While lamenting the fate of her daughters, Hecuba learns that she is to be Odysseus’ slave. She deems this an awful fate because to her, as to all Trojans, Odysseus is ‘an enemy of justice, a lawless beast, whose double tongue twists all things up and down and down and up, who turns every friendship into hate.’ While Hecuba laments, Cassandra comes out dressed as Apollo's priestess, waving a nuptial torch. The torch can be seen as an archaic symbol of justice. Cassandra brings with her knowledge of the future. She has foreseen the death of Agamemnon and then calls herself ‘a more fatal bride’ than Helen ever was. She tells her mother not to feel sorry for her as ‘this wedlock of mine is the means by which I will destroy our worst enemies, mine and yours. Under normal circumstances her words would have cost her her life but since she is crazy her words are overlooked.

Cassandra in her monologue demonstrates how the Trojans were more fortunate than the Greeks. She points out that for the sake of one woman and he passion, the Greeks left behind their homes and families and perished in great numbers. Agamemnon even sacrificed his much loved daughter for the sake of his brother. Proper burial and funeral rites were of great importance in ancient Greece. The omission of burial rites was seen as an insult to human dignity. The burial rites were elaborate and conducted primarily by the women of the family. Cassandra in her monologue points out that the Greeks who dies during the Trojan war, ‘never saw their children, no wives’ hands wrapped them in their cerements; they lie in a foreign land… no one to visit their graves and make them blood offerings.” The Trojans who fell in battle had their bodies ‘brought home by comrades; they were dressed for the grave by proper hands and the soil of the native land wrapped them about. She offers Hecuba words of comfort when she tells her that Hector ‘lived long enough to win a hero’s fame. She believes that ‘if a man is wise he will shun war’ but if war must come, it is a crown of honour for a city to perish in a good cause.”

In the lament that follows Cassandra’ departure, Hecuba and the Trojan women lament their lost fortunes. Hecuba’s speech to the chorus epitomises the sense of absolute hopelessness brought on by extreme loss. “Never hold any man happy,” she says, “even the favourites of fortune, this side of death.” Andromache enters with her infant son Astyanax when the chorus laments the capture of troy through the device of the Trojan horse.

Andromache’s lament has a tone of analysis. This is so that the tone of the play can shift smoothly into that of the debate in the next section. In light of the fates of Polyxena and Cassandra, Andromache's fate seems to be the most favourable one. Unlike Cassandra, Andromache isn’t being taken away from Troy as a slave or a concubine; she is going as the wife of Neoptolemus. To Andromache, who loved Hector dearly, death would have been preferable, but Hecuba advices her to respect her present master; ply her husband ‘with the allurements’ of her ways. If she does that she will have a happiness in which all her friends will share and she can bring up Astyanax ‘to be a mighty aid to Troy.’ Andromache’s reputation of being a good wife preceded her. Through her words we are shown what qualities ancient Greek society expected a good or virtuous wife to have. Andromache says that she ‘toiled to master all the accomplishments of a virtuous wife’. She ‘kept to the house and had no longing for those places where her mere presence is enough to earn a woman who does not stay at home an evil name, whether she is that sort of woman or not.’ She did not admit inside her doors the smart talk of women. Most importantly she ‘knew when to insist with her husband and when to allow him to overrule her.’ It was this reputation that reached the ears of Neoptolemus who decided he wanted her as his wife and not his concubine. If she goes to Greece has his wife, she would have an oikos of her own. She would have slaves and not be without power or influence. However, it is because she is going as a wife that her infant son Astyanax is put to death. The combined positive traits of both Andromache and Hector threaten the life of their beloved son.

If Andromache was taken away as a slave or concubine, her son, too, would have been a slave, a boy with no prospect of gaining any power. Since Andromache is being taken as Neoptolemus’ wife, her son will grow up as a privileged citizen and will have power. The possibility of him inheriting Hector’s heroic qualities of being a brave and courageous warrior or soldier is a threat to the Greeks, for they fear that he will avenge the death of his family and destruction of his city. Thus Odysseus thinks it best to eliminate the possibility of his revenge by killing him. Thus, from this perspective we can see that it is Andromache who suffers the worst fate of all. She leaves the ruins of Troy as a bride on the blood of her only son.

The first section of the play ends with Andromache lamenting the imminent death of her son and then handing over the child to Talthybius who leads him away to the highest tower of the city to be thrown down to his death. The second section of the play is the debate. This is the rational centre of the play. This break from the lament is required so that the audience does not reach the crescendo of grief before the end of the play. This section focuses on the debate between Helen, Menelaus and Hecuba. While this part arouses the audience’s indignance, the grief of what has occurred so far still remains. The dialogue is rational and engages the mind while holding on to the sense of tragedy.

In this section we finally see Helen who has constantly been spoken of so far but not seen. The section begins with Menelaus explaining that his reason for starting the war was not to get back his wife but to meet the man who deceived him and carried of his wife. His tone is formal and decisive when he says that he has come to take away the ‘Woman of Sparta’. He has decided to postpone her fate and take her back to Greece and hand her over to the vengeance of those whose friends have died at Troy, for they will kill her. Hecuba hearing this, tells him to ‘flee at the sight of her’ because Helen is a seductress who is capable of captivating him with longing. When Helen is brought in, she comes beautifully dressed and aware of the fate that Menelaus has decided for her. Hoping to sway Menelaus’ decision, she pleads with him to allow her to opportunity to justify her actions. Hecuba supports her plea and asks Menelaus to listen to Helen, but also asks to allow, her, Hecuba, to speak as prosecution once Helen has explained her actions.

What follows is the debate where Helen claims that she is not responsible for what has happened. She first places responsibility on Hecuba and Priam – Hecuba for giving birth to Paris and Priam for not killing him though he knew of the dream of the firebrand. Next she blames the goddess Aphrodite for it was she who promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. Falling back on the various promises made to Paris by Athena and Hera, Helen tells Menelaus that it is because of her that Greece is free and victorious. Had Paris chosen Athena or Hera then Paris with his Trojan army would have conquered Greece. She rightfully asks Menelaus what she could do when Paris brought Aphrodite along with him. A mortal is not stronger than a god and thus stands no chance when the goddess decides to make her fall in love with Paris. She explains how she often tried to leave Troy after the death of Paris but all her attempts were thwarted. Hecuba in her rebuttal counters every point that Helen has put forth and warns Menelaus of the dangers of not killing Helen. Menelaus heeds Hecuba’s advice and sentences Helen to immediate death. This is when Helen uses the formal entreaty of supplication. She supplicates Menelaus when she asks him to forgive her and Menelaus gives in. He allows her to go to Greece where he believes justice will be meted out to her. This ends the debate section of the play and leads up to the last section – Hecuba's final lament.

This final section begins with the chorus singing of the beautiful temples of Zeus which have been desecrated by the Achaeans. They also lament their imminent from their beloved city and Talthybius arrives with the body of Astyanax, it is from this point that the tragedy begins to reach its crescendo. Talthybius hands the lifeless body of Astyanax to Hecuba along with Hector’s bronze sword, instructing her to bury the child as soon as possible because the Greek ships are about to sail.

Astyanax, the last son of Trojan royalty, is dead. His mother has had to leave to face her fate as Neoptolemus’ wide and is unable to perform the burial rites for her son. Hecuba, whose children are dead, now has the sad task of burying her grandson. She has no coffin to lay his body in, but the shield of Hector serves as a coffin for his tiny corpse. The death of Astyanax is the pinnacle of the tragedy for he was killed because the Greeks were afraid of what he might do when he grows up. Hecuba laments his death for he ha not died defending his city. He has not enjoyed youth or marriage or ‘the royal power than makes men god.’ She laments that he never experienced those joys and she mourns the loss of his heritage, that of someday being the King of Troy. She recalls the sweet words he would say to her. The image of Astyanax’s tiny body placed in the bronze shield that protected his father in battle is a heartbreaking one. Hecuba’s long funeral lamentation over Astyanax brings home the cruelty of war. Entire families have been wiped out. The image of Hecuba, the oldest woman of the family burying the youngest, who is supposed to be the future, heightens the tragedy of the situation. Instead of the young laying to rest the old, it is Hecuba ‘the old crone, landless and childless who buries his young corpse.

All through the play Hecuba was the dominant figure, yet she neither initiated nor determined the course of action. Euripides used the traditional techniques of lament and debate to heighten the tragedy of the play and through the laments of Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and the Chorus of the Trojan women subtly portrayed the complex social structures and distinct cultural practices of the time.

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