Date and Composition External evidence indicates that The Trojan Women was most likely produced in 415 BCE, as the third play of a tetralogy with Alexander, Palamedes, and the satyr-play Sisyphus (all lost). Unusually for Euripides, all three tragedies were thus drawn from the same body of mythic material involving the Trojan War: Alexander (of which quite substantial fragments survive) dealt with the rediscovery of Paris as an adult after he had been exposed as an infant, Palamedes with Odysseus’ treachery by which he tricked the Greeks into killing their fellow soldier Palamedes. Though the three plays did not form a single coherently connected narrative of the sort Aeschylus seems to have favored in his trilogies, they did present the three episodes in chronological order and were linked with one another by various shared themes. In the competition that year, Euripides came in second to the obscure playwright Xenocles’ tetralogy of Oedipus, Lycaon, The Bacchae, and the satyr-play Athamas (all lost). A few months before the date on which, according to most scholars, the play was produced, the Athenians had captured the small Greek island of Melos and slaughtered all the adult men and enslaved all the women and children. Under the circumstances, it is difficult not to see Euripides’ play, with its extended reflection on the piteous fate of a defeated city and its people, as being colored by that recent event.
Euripides’ Trojan Women portrays the fall of Troy from the point of view of the defeated: given that all the Trojan men have been slain by the Greek victors, it is their women— mothers, daughters, wives— who give voice to the suffering of the city. The play begins with the two gods Poseidon and Athena setting aside their previous opposition during the Trojan War and amicably negotiating the destruction of the victorious Greeks for their sacrilege during the sack of the city. But then it moves to a purely human level of unrelieved distress focused above all on Hecuba, the aged former queen of the city, and her family. In contrast to the play Hecuba, here the woman who had ruled Troy and, with her, all the defeated Trojan women and children are deprived not only of the act of vengeance, but even of the bare hope for it. Amid the laments of the chorus of anonymous Trojan captives, the various members of Hecuba’s family are assigned as slaves or concubines to their future Greek masters; the prophetess Cassandra exults over the death of Agamemnon, which she can foresee; Hector’s widow Andromache announces that Polyxena has been sacrificed to the dead Achilles (in contrast to Hecuba, Polyxena’s death is much less prominent here); and Andromache’s young son Astyanax is carried off to be hurled down from the city’s walls. Then Helen, Menelaus’ wife, whose elopement with the Trojan prince Paris (a son of Hecuba and Priam) had caused the war, debates with Menelaus and Hecuba about how much she should be blamed for what has happened and whether or not she ought to be punished; Menelaus promises to have her killed when they arrive home in Sparta (but we know he will not do so). Finally the corpse of little Astyanax is brought on stage and mourned, and Hecuba and the remaining Trojan women leave to sail off with Odysseus, to whom she has been assigned.
The bloody and heart-rending aftermath of the Trojan War— including all the episodes dramatized here—was extensively depicted in ancient Greek epic, lyric poetry, and art. Euripides himself chose to base a number of different tragedies upon these stories. For example, about ten years before he wrote The Trojan Women, he had dramatized later events in Andromache. In Hecuba, written about nine years before The Trojan Women, he portrayed many of the same incidents as he does here. So the main events of this play are likely to have been well known to Euripides’ audience already, though the formal and rather legalistic debate between Helen and Hecuba seems characteristically Euripidean and in this form is probably his invention. The play seeks to create an effect upon its audience less by surprise and original plot inventions than by its exploration of the traumatic consequences of war and its almost unrelieved, yet lyrical, portrayal of loss and displacement.
Transmission and Reception
The Trojan Women was not especially popular in antiquity, certainly much less so than Hecuba, which treats much of the same legendary material. For example, only a couple of papyri of the play have survived, containing fragments of a plot summary and of some lines. But it did end up being selected as one of the ten canonical plays most studied and read in antiquity. As a result, it is transmitted by three medieval manuscripts and is equipped with ancient and medieval commentaries. Greek and Latin authors who portrayed Hecuba’s sufferings after the fall of Troy inevitably drew upon this play and upon Hecuba. Roman tragedies by Ennius (Andromache) and Accius (Astyanax) are lost; but Seneca’s Troades (Trojan Women) does survive, containing many close echoes of this play of Euripides along with others from his Hecuba, and was widely read during the Renaissance. Epic poets like Virgil, Ovid, and Quintus of Smyrna also followed the outlines of Euripides’ plot at least in part and presumed their readers’ familiarity with his text; and Hecuba eventually became a standard example for the vicissitudes of fortune. Although during the Middle Ages and Renaissance The Trojan Women was largely overshadowed by Hecuba (and Seneca), things have been very different in modern times. Already in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hector Berlioz based the first two acts of his opera Les Troyennes (1856– 59) not only, unsurprisingly, upon Virgil’s Aeneid but also, innovatively, upon The Trojan Women. Since the mid-twentieth century, the experience of the horrors of war, along with changes in dramatic taste, have led to a remarkable resurgence in the play’s popularity, and in recent decades it has been one of the most frequently staged of all Greek tragedies. The play has been successfully adapted by such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre (The Trojan Women, 1965), Suzuki Tadashi (1974), Hanoch Levin (The
Lost Women of Troy, 1984), Andrei Serban (1974/ 1996; with music by Elizabeth Swados), Charles Mee (n.d.), and Ellen McLaughlin (2008). It has also been the subject of notable films by such directors as the Mexican Sergio Véjar (“Las Troyanas,” 1963) and the Greek Michael Cacoyannis (“The Trojan Women,” 1971, starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and Irene Papas).
|860||O splendor of sunburst breaking forth this day, whereon
I lay my hands once more on Helen, my wife. And yet
it is not, so much as men think, for a woman’s sake
|865||I came to Troy, but against that guest proved treacherous,
who like a robber carried the woman from my house.
Since the gods have seen to it that he paid the penalty,
fallen before the Hellenic spear, his kingdom wrecked,
I come for her now, the Spartan once my own, whose name
|870||I can no longer speak with any happiness,
to take her away. In this house of captivity
she is numbered among the other women of Troy, a slave.
And those men whose work with the spear has won her back
gave her to me, to kill, or not to kill, but lead
|875||alive to the land of Argos, if such be my pleasure.
And such it is; the death of Helen in Troy I will let
pass, have the oars take her by seaways back to Greek soil, and there give her over to execution;
blood penalty for friends who are dead in Ilium here.
|880||Go to the house, my followers, and take her out;
no, drag her out; lay hands upon that hair so stained
with men’s destruction. When the winds blow fair astern
we will take ship again and bring her back to Hellas. (Exit several soldiers into the tent.)
(Exit several soldiers into the tent.)
|O power, who mount the world, wheel where the world rides,|
|885||O mystery of man’s knowledge, whosoever you be,
named Zeus, nature’s necessity or mortal mind,
I call upon you; for you walk the path none hears
yet bring all human action back to right at last.
|What can this mean? How strange a way to call on gods.|
(Exit several soldiers into the tent.)
|890||Kill your wife, Menelaus, and I will bless your name.
But keep your eyes away from her. Desire will win.
She looks enchantment, and where she looks homes are set fire;
she captures cities as she captures the eyes of men.
We have had experience, you and I. We know the truth.
(Enter Helen from the tent escorted by soldiers.)
|895||Menelaus, your first acts are argument of terror
to come. Your lackeys put their hands on me. I am dragged
out of my chambers by brute force. I know you hate
me; I am almost sure. And still there is one question
I would ask you, if I may. What have the Greeks decided
|900||to do with me? Or shall I be allowed to live?|
|You are not strictly condemned, but all the army gave
you into my hands, to kill you for the wrong you did me.
|Is it permitted that I argue this, and prove
that my death, if I am put to death, will be unjust?
|905||I did not come to talk with you. I came to kill.|
(Exit several soldiers into the tent.)
|No, Menelaus, listen to her. She should not die
unheard. But give me leave to make the opposite case;
the prosecution. There are things that happened in Troy
which you know nothing of, and the long-drawn argument
|910||will mean her death. She never can escape us now.|
|This is a gift of leisure. Yet if she wants to speak
she may. But it is for your sake, understand, that I give
this privilege I never would have given for her.
|Perhaps it will make no difference if I speak|
|915||well or badly, and your hate will not let you answer me.
All I can do is to foresee the arguments
you will use in accusation of me, and set against
the force of your charges, charges of my own.
(Pointing to Hecuba.)
|She mothered the beginning of all this wickedness.|
|920||For Paris was her child. And next to her the old king,
who would not destroy the infant Alexander, that dream
of the firebrand’s agony, has ruined Troy and me.
This is not all; listen to the rest I have to say.
Alexander was the judge of the goddess trinity.
|925||Pallas Athena would have given him power, to lead
the Phrygian arms on Hellas and make it desolate.
All Asia was Hera’s promise, and the uttermost zones
of Europe for his lordship, if her way prevailed.
But Aphrodite, marveling at my loveliness,
|930||promised it to him, if he would say her beauty surpassed
all others. Think what this means, and all the consequence.
Cypris prevailed, and I was won in marriage: all
for Greek advantage. You are not ruled by barbarians,
you have not been defeated in war nor serve a tyrant.
|935||Yet Hellas’ fortune was my own misfortune. I,
sold once for my body’s beauty, stand accused, who should
for what has been done wear garlands on my head.
I know. You will say all this is nothing to the immediate charge:
I did run away; I did go secretly from your house.
|940||But when he came to me—call him any name you will:
Paris? or Alexander? that ruinous spirit sent
to haunt this woman—he came with a goddess at his side,
no weak one. And you— it was criminal—took ship for Crete
and left me there in Sparta in the house, alone. You see?
|945||I wonder—and I ask this of myself, not you—
why did I do it? What made me run away from home
with the stranger, and betray my country and my hearth?
Challenge the goddess then; show your strength greater than Zeus’
who has the other gods in his power, and still is slave
|950||to Aphrodite alone! Shall I not be forgiven?
Still you might have some show of argument against me.
When Paris was gone to the deep places of death, below
ground, and my marriage given by the gods was gone,
I should have come back to the Argive ships, left Troy.
|955||I did try to do it, and I have witnesses,
the towers’ gatekeepers and the sentinels on the wall,
who caught me again and again as I let down the rope
from the battlements and tried to slip away to the ground.
As for Deiphobus, my second husband: he took me away
|960||by force and kept me his wife against the Phrygians’ will.
O my husband, can you kill me now and think you kill
in righteousness? I was the bride of force. Besides,
my natural beauty brought me the sorrow of slavery
instead of victory. Would you be stronger than the gods?
|965||Try, then. But any such ambition is absurd.|
|O Queen of Troy, stand by your children and your country!
Break down the beguilement of this woman, since she speaks
well, but has done wickedly. This is dangerous.
|First, to defend the honor of the gods, and show|
|970||that the woman is a scandalous liar. I will not
believe it! Hera and the virgin Pallas Athena
could never be so silly and empty-headed
that Hera would sell Argos to the barbarians,
or Pallas let Athenians be the slaves of Troy.
|975||They went to Ida in girlish emulation, vain
of their own loveliness? Why? Tell me the reason Hera
should fall so much in love with the idea of beauty.
To win some other lord more powerful than Zeus?
Or had Athena marked some god to be her mate,
|980||she, whose virginity is a privilege won from Zeus,
she who abjures marriage? Do not trick out your own sins
by calling the gods stupid. No wise man will believe you.
You claim, and I must laugh to hear it, that Aphrodite
came at my son’s side to the house of Menelaus?
|985||She could have caught up you and your city of Amyclae
and set you in Ilium, moving not from the quiet of heaven!
Nonsense. My son was handsome beyond all other men.
You looked at him, and sense went Cyprian at the sight,
since Aphrodite is nothing but the human lust,
|990||named rightly, since the word of lust begins the god’s name.
You saw him in the barbaric splendor of his robes,
gorgeous with gold. It made your senses itch. You thought,
being queen only in Argos, in little luxury,
that once you got rid of Sparta for the Phrygian city
|995||where gold streamed everywhere, you could let extravagance
run wild. No longer were Menelaus and his house
sufficient for your spoiled luxurious appetites.
So much for that. You say my son took you away
by force. What Spartan heard you cry for help? You did
|1000||cry out? Or did you? Castor, your brother, was there, a young
man, and his twin not yet caught up among the stars.
Then when you had reached Troy, and the Argives at your heels
came, and the agony of the murderous spears began,
when the reports came in that Menelaus’ side
|1005||was winning, you would praise him, simply to make my son
unhappy at the strength of his love’s challenger,
forgetting your husband when the luck went back to Troy.
You worked hard: not to make yourself a better woman,
but to make sure always to be on the winning side.
|1010||You claim you tried to slip away with ropes let down
from the ramparts, and this proves you stayed against your will?
Perhaps. But when were you ever caught in the strangling noose,
or sharpening a dagger? Which any noble wife
would do, desperate with longing for her lord’s return.
|1015||Yet over and over again I gave you good advice:
“Make your escape, my daughter; there are other girls
for my sons to marry. I will help you get away
to the ships of the Achaeans. Let the Greeks, and us,
stop fighting.” So I argued, but you were not pleased.
|1020||Spoiled in the luxury of Alexander’s house
you liked foreigners to kiss the ground before your feet.
All that impressed you. And now you dare to come outside,
figure fastidiously arranged, to look upon
the same sky as your husband, O abominable
|1025||heart, who should walk submissively in rags of robes,
shivering with anxiety, head Scythian-cropped,
your old impudence gone and modesty gained at last
with reference to your sinful life. O Menelaus,
mark this, the end of my argument. Be true to your
|1030||high reputation and to Hellas. Grace both, and kill
Helen. Thus make it the custom toward all womankind
hereafter, that the price of adultery is death.
|Menelaus, keep the ancestral honor of your house.
Punish your wife, and clear your name of the accusation
|1035||of cowardice. You shall seem great even to your enemies.|
|All you have said falls into line with my own thought.
This woman left my household for a stranger’s bed
of her own free will, and all this talk of Aphrodite
is for pure show. Away, and face the stones of the mob.
|1040||Atone for the long labors of the Achaeans in
the brief act of dying, and know your penance for my shame.
(Helen falls before him and embraces his knees.)
|No, by your knees! I am not guilty of the mind’s
infection, which the gods sent. Do not kill! Have pity!
|Be true to the memory of all your friends she murdered.|
|1045||It is for them and for their children that I plead.|
(Menelaus pushes Helen away.)
|Enough, Hecuba. I am not listening to her now.
I speak to my servants: see that she is taken away
to where the ships are beached. She will make the voyage home.
|But let her not be put in the same ship with you.|
|1050||What can you mean? That she is heavier than she was?|
|A man in love once never is out of love again.|
|Sometimes; when the beloved’s heart turns false to him.
Yet it shall be as you wish. She shall not be allowed
in the same ship I sail in. This was well advised.
|1055||And once in Argos she must die the vile death earned
by her vile life, and be an example to all women
to live temperately. This is not the easier way;
and yet her execution will tincture with fear
the lust of women even more depraved than she.
(Exit Menelaus and Helen to the side escorted by soldiers.)
Translated by Richmond Lattimore from Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, Ion. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Third Edition. Edited by Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.