What Is Tragic About Greek Tragedy? Euripides’s Hecuba Considered

Euripides’s Hecuba is perhaps the most bleak of the Greek tragedies. It takes place shortly after the sack of Troy by the Achaeans. The few remaining Trojans have been either killed or enslaved by the Greeks. Hecuba, Queen of Troy and wife of Priam, has been captured and enslaved by Odysseus. Like Job, the her life has had a complete reversal of fortune: her husband Priam was killed by Achilles’s son Neoptolemus, her famous son Hector was killed in battle by Achilles along with her other son Troilus, her son Paris was killed by Philoctetes, her son Deiphobus was mutilated during the sack of Troy, her son Helenus the seer was taken as a slave by Neoptolemus. Her youngest son, Polydorus who appears as a ghost at the outset of the play, was killed by an ally of Troy, the Thracian King Polymestor. Polydorus was sent by Priam just prior to the sack of Troy to Thrace to hideaway with a large pile of gold so that he might survive. However Polymestor betrayed Priam and slaughtered Polydorus, leaving his body floating in the surf, and he took the gold.

“Hecuba” by Giuseppe Maria Crespi in the 18th century

Additionally, Hecuba lost several daughters: her daughter Cassandra the seer was taken as a concubine of Agamemnon and was slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra out of jealousy upon his return home, as detailed in Aeschylus’s masterful Agamemnon, part of the Oresteia cycle. Her last remaining child, Polyxena, was taken by Odysseus and slain upon the grave of Achilles.

In total, Hecuba lost eight children either directly or indirectly as a result of the Trojan War.

The first part of the play concerns this latter tale of Polyxena being reunited with her mother and then promptly taken away for her throat to be slit on the grave of Achilles. Odysseus hears Hecuba’s pleas to release her, but says that he is powerless to the politics of the situation – Odysseus has already promised the Achaeans the sacrifice of a Trojan princess if the conquered Troy. Everybody laments the situation but nobody can prevent the death of Polyxena. Hecuba bemoans her station in life, a fallen Queen with nothing and no one. Her sorrow quickly turns into action.

In what we may call the second part of the play, Hecuba seeks revenge on Polymestor, King of Thrace, for killing her youngest son and stealing his gold. Agamemnon willingly grants her request and deals justice to Polymestor, who notes the impending doom for Hecuba before he is lead away. Lastly, as a note of foreshadowing, Agamemnon is eager to leave to return home to normalcy, however readers of Aeschylus will recall that Agamemnon returns home to a trap that is laid against him by his own wife.

As is common in Euripides, the world of Hecuba is devoid of the gods. Humans, alone, must bear the weight of their great downfall. Outside of Job, truly few other humans have reached the depths of despair where Hecuba find herself. Her world is a life of loss with no hope of redemption. Instead, politics becomes the primary vehicle by which men may find hope. But even politics is insufficient as men like Odysseus the great tactician, and Agamemnon the warlord, are powerless to the necessity imposed on them by political circumstances. Surely, the Hecuba represents the darkest depths to which a human being might fall, from royalty to slavery, with no hope of recourse to the gods, family, or politics. Hecuba’s will is meaningless and powerless as she has lost everything worth holding onto in life, with absolutely no possibility of redemption, while the deliverance of death has come for all but herself.

For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.

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