Brief Notes on the Rhesus

The Rhesus is a highly disputed tragedy that is commonly attributed to Euripides. It is a short play, though not altogether a tragedy in the classic sense of the word. Unlike many other Greek tragedies, Rhesus takes place during the Homeric canon, during the events of Book X of the Iliad. The plot encompasses the events of a single night. Most other Greek dramas take place outside of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

It is a far more hopeful play than many of Euripides’s other works. It tells the story of the Trojans who believe the Achaeans are in retreat. They send Dolon over to their camp to overhear their plans, but he is captured by Odysseus and Diomedes, who extract information from him and then promptly kill him. Disguised, the two men infiltrate Troy in an attempt to kill Hector, but they are directed by Athena to the bedside of Rhesus, an ally of the Trojans who came to their aid at the last minute. They kill Rhesus and take his famous horses. Athena curiously appears at the end to announce that Rhesus will be made immortal and swell in a cave.

Why is this a tragedy? Perhaps the title is revealing. Rhesus sees a complete reversal of his fortunes, as does Hector who proudly notes his recent bout of Trojan victories. He expects to win the war as he declares to Rhesus. However, the play may have just as easily been called “Dolon.” He alone is the sole Trojan volunteer to spy on the Achaeans, only to be captured and killed, leading to a turning point in the war for the Achaeans. The story of Rhesus is not a focus of the Homeric epics, so this glimpse from Euripides is helpful in experiencing the downfall of Troy.

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