52 New Books – Book XLVIII
The Trojan Women and Other Plays
5th C BC
The Trojan Women and Other Plays:
The Trojan Women
I had finally collected translations of the main surviving Greek playwrights. Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Meander. So where was I to begin?
I began with Euripides.
There are 19 extant plays of Euripides. Most of these surviving plays are tragedies, though an example of a Satyr play also remains. I read the translations of James Morwood and Robin Waterfield collected in five volumes by Oxford. On their efforts I can offer no real comment, as an unschooled peasant I can only discuss these things in generalities.
I enjoyed reading these plays a lot more than I initially thought I would. I came to them with a sense of duty. I knew that they were favoured texts of the Canon, but I did not know how well I might personally enjoy them. One surprising thing is how well the general plot of each play sticks in the mind. Even now, months after I initially read these plays for the first time, I can almost describe every single play on naming the title. I feel like reading them again, and more than ever, I really want to see them performed if it were possible.
If only there were some classically minded arts patron that would finance performances, or failing that, create animated versions to stand as faithful replications.
My own reading was also influenced by the introductions to each book by Edith Hall. Who despite being a woman, managed to keep the gender baiting trash to a minimum. These introductions were actually quite interesting and informative and were definitely worthwhile reading along with the plays.
I never read them in any particular order, chronological or otherwise, but rather which ever came to hand first. I began with The Trojan Women.
This volume begins with Hecuba. Now I have a passing knowledge of Greek legend, the siege of Troy, the fate of Agamemnon, the sacrifice of his daughter at the beginning of the war, so I was able to think of that while I read the play. However, there were aspects that I was unfamiliar with and as I learn more and more, the plays become a richer experience. At a minimum, Hecuba is greatly improved if you understand some of the background to the Trojan war and if you have some knowledge of the origins and ultimate fates of the various characters.
In this play, there are two stories. Hecuba loses her daughter to sacrifice, killed to appease the spirit of Achilles and her son also is killed, by the greedy Thracian lord who was to have kept him safe.
It is a rather grim play. Hecuba loses her children, only one enemy is revenged upon, and further grisly fates for Hecuba and Agamemnon are foretold. Odysseus is rather unheroic in his arguments for the sacrifice of a young woman and The chorus of captive Trojan women are full of lament at their fate. There is an ironic note at the end, where Agamemnon hopes for a happy voyage home, having disregarded the Thracian king Polymestor’s dire warning of the result of taking Cassandra home with him.
A lot of the idiosyncrasies of the plays come out in this one too. Violence is always off stage, or described either by the victim, the perpetrator or through a messenger’s speech. Messenger’s speeches are also used to describe more complex interactions, so that we never have more than a few people on the stage at any one time. It will become obvious that there is usually no more than three people on the stage at any one time that will speak. The use of the chorus to comment, narrate and react to the events of a play is also seen.
The other theme explored is the willingness of the sacrificial victim to be killed, either as an alternative to slavery, or to save their people or honour. They are not mute, but will often argue that they meet their fate properly and willingly, this of course making the sacrifice that much more powerful. It is a marked difference from the story of Abraham and Isaac, as Isaac does little but question where the sacrificial lamb is, while Abraham is not open about his intention. Of course, the stories are about different themes, but it is interesting to see the difference in how the cultures approached a similar event.
This play also served as my introduction to stichomythia, where the characters talk back and forth in single lines, leading to a quick fast paced conversation, usually when the characters are in conflict, excitement or haste. I get from the notes that sometimes this point is belaboured on as if some people can’t avoid pointing out every last manifestation of the technique so as to say “I recognised it!”
Another thing that I would point out is how Hecuba’s argument with Odysseus and then Agamemnon later are structured like legal arguments in a court, making claim and counter claim while providing evidence and support for the claims, which can seem a little passionless when they are discussing whether tearing out someone’s eyes was a legitimate course of action or arresting your daughter to sacrifice should be allowed.
However, I think that rather than actually becoming passionless and derailing the intensity of the moment it is a valid stylistic choice. These are after all noble people, schooled in rhetoric, clever (famed for it in fact, in the case of Odysseus) and intelligent. Mere emotional claims carry little weight, rather it is appeal to the ancient laws of natural justice that must be used to gain favour or to change a mind. The ancient values of hospitality, of returning favour, of recognising debts, of just vengeance being especially applicable to the events of this play.
Even so, it must be acknowledged that in these circumstances, the court is a bloodthirsty mob, and in the other, justice was taken into hand, extra judicially. This piles on top of the generally grim tone of the play. No one comes out looking especially heroic or moral.
Finally I was introduced to the concepts of supplication, in this play, it is described through its avoidance when Odysseus turns away, pulls back his hands and head to avoid having Hecuba to make the one emotional and irrational plea allowed. That of supplication. Supplication is a very important cultural concept to recognise in these plays for the role it plays in character interactions so this play served to point that out to me, and I continued to notice it in other plays. So much so that I created my own terms of reference through which to understand the concept. Something that I will explore more later on in another post.
These translations are all in prose, however, the sections that are chanted or songs are generally set out in shorter lines to show the difference. However, much of the song is missing from such a translation, especially as the metre is absent. This leaves the translations feeling a little dry, an unavoidable consequence. For this reason, the play was not one of my favourites as I think that some of the appreciation must come from the poetics. Even so, it does have some striking moments that come out vividly, even in translation, such as when Polymestor comes crawling out of the women’s tents on all fours, with bloody eye sockets. This has a greater impact than the typical display of a body on a platform – another convention of Greek theatre, also in this play – when Polymestor’s sons are brought out, having been killed by the Trojan women when they took his eyes.
The Trojan Women is the next play in the book. Calamity upon calamity is heaped on the heads of the women of Troy. Cassandra is taken by Agamemnon to illegitimately wife, against the wishes of fair Phoebus. She knows what awful fate awaits her when Agamemnon returns home, but no one of course would believe her, even if she told them. Hecuba’s other daughter Polyxena has been sacrificed to Achilles and Hector’s wife is given away, while her son, Hecuba’s grandson, is thrown from a tall tower to ensure that he never assails the Greeks. Andromache misses the chance to bury her son and perform the proper rights. Hecuba herself, as we learned in the last play, will transform into a dog and drown in the storms that wrack the Greeks as they return home.
Helen is to be executed, but she argues, and blames everyone but herself for the destruction of Troy. She is successful and we learn that she survives, returning to Sparta with her husband.
Another rather grim tragedy. In the end the great house of Priam is dead or dispersed and Troy itself is set to the torch. A great earthquake ends the ruination. The misery is compounded by Hecuba’s defence of Helen’s right to speak before Menelaus kills her. A chance that Helen uses to argue successfully that she deserves no blame and should return with Menelaus as his wife once more. A final insult to Hecuba!
I think I enjoyed this one a bit more than Hecuba. The constant depredations that affect the women of Troy compound the great insult of their defeat and bring into sharp relief the consequences of such a war.
The final play of this books is Andromache. In a foreign land, taken as a slave, she has a child by her captor Neoptolemus, raising the ire of Hermione, daughter of Menelaus. Jealous and vengeful, Hermione plots to kill Andromache’s son, she herself seems barren and she fears that Andromache could supplant her. Menelaus arrives to aid his daughter, but all is resolved when old Peleus arrives to protect Andromache and her son. It is revealed that the absent Neoptolemus has been killed, Orestes claims Hermione for himself as once promised by her father and the goddess Thetis arrives to settle everything to the proper order – as a literal deus ex machina.
Neoptolemus shades the entire play. He is ever unpresent and when he does arrive, he is on his funeral bire, dead. Yet he has driven all of the action and activity of the play and all of the characters are reacting to his earlier actions, prior to his absence.
The most striking thing that was new that I noticed was how Thetis as the deus ex machina settled any further reaction to the events of the play. She commands Peleus to bury his kin and to no more mourn. This he instantly agrees to. This is something that I will notice in the other plays where such a device is used. The characters involved at that point always immediately comply with the wishes of whatever god is involved. All disputes are immediately ended. It might seem arbitrary to our modern sensibilities, but I think it reflects the honest appreciation of the people for the power that they knew their gods to have, they are with good reason, unwilling to tempt them.
I never meant to write so much about these plays. I even intended to have all five books in the one post but it just kept running away ahead of me. I think that I will return to them to write about them some more, as even in translation, there are many powerful passages. The way they reveal a certain ancient point of view that is yet still applicable and perfectly relevant to our age demonstrates the value and importance of these ancient texts and their place in the canon.