The Failure of Orestes

While many other Greek tragedies tend to reiterate already established myths and customs, Euripides’s Orestes appears to be entirely his own invention. Chronologically, the plot of the play takes place after the events contained in Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. It was first performed in 408 BC, near the close of the Peloponnesian War.

In Orestes, Electra recounts the story of her mother, Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon upon his return home from Troy, and her brother, Orestes’s subsequent murder of Clytemnestra at the behest of Apollo. As a result, Orestes lies unconscious for days on the floor. Meanwhile a band of citizens has begun calling for the death of Orestes for his crime of matricide. When Menelaus and Helen arrive from Sparta, Orestes suddenly awakens but he is in a tormented psychological state, haunted by the Furies (recall the plot of Aeschylus’s Eumenides). What are the Furies? Orestes tells us: “I call it conscience. The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime” (395-396). It is not unlike the psychological terror experienced by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Orestes begs Menelaus to save him and Electra from certain death: a verdict of death by stoning from the people of Argos. Initially, Menelaus relents to Orestes, however his father-in-law Tyndareus (also Orestes’s grandfather) appears and is disgusted by Orestes. He persuades Menelaus not to help Orestes. Perhaps we can hear the words of Euripides in the mouth of the elder Tyndareus, defender of a sanitary and rational rule of law, as he criticizes Orestes’s act of murder rather than taking Clytemnestra to trial:

“When his father died-
killed I admit, by my own daughter’s hand,
an atrocious crime which I do not condone
and never shall-he should have haled his mother
into court, charged her formally with murder,
and made her pay the penalty prescribed,
expulsion from his house.

Legal action,
not murder. That was the course to take.
Under the circumstances, a hard choice,
true, but the course of self-control
and due respect for law, and the better choice
of two evils

But as things stand now,
what difference is there between him and his mother?”

Tyndareus believes the law trumps all. He criticizes Orestes for stooping to a petty act of vengeance when he could have taken his mother to court instead, despite Apollo’s wishes. Orestes’s pleas to Menelaus for help fall on deaf ears. He has come to Argos and returned from Troy a weakened man and he cannot help Orestes. He gives some prescient advice on the nature of the mob-mentality:

“Look at it this way my boy.
Mobs in their emotions are much like children,
subject to the same tantrums and fits of fury.
But this anger must be treated with patience
rather like a fire that gets out of control” 

However, the mob quickly declares a death sentence for Orestes and Electra so they both conspire to kill Helen and Hermione, Helen and Menelaus’s daughter. Just as Orestes holds a sword to Hermione’s throat and demands that Menelaus profess Orestes’s innocence to the people, the god Apollo appears – another deus ex machina. He commands that everyone stop: Orestes is to go to Athens to stand trial, and Menelaus is to return to Sparta. Also, Orestes is destined to marry Hermione, Menelaus’s daughter, and Electra is to marry Pylades, Orestes’s lifelong friend and companion. Thus truces are made and the possibility of justice is introduced, though curiously, yet again, Euripides introduces a deus ex machina. For Euripides the plot of the play is almost irrelevant, or is at least secondary, to the feelings of sorrow he arouses in his characters. It matters very little that a god should suddenly appear at the end and set things right. Euripides’s primary goal is to make Athenian audiences reflect on themselves and their activities, particularly pertaining to the war with Sparta, in the words of people like Menelaus and Tyndareus. His focus is on tragic character study, thus inverting the classical Aristotelian view of tragedy.

For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.

Brief Thoughts on The Trojan Women

Known in Latin as the Troades, Euripides’s The Trojan Women was said by Aelian’s Varia Historica (published in the third century A.D.) to have been performed for the first time in 415 BC at the 91st Olympiad. Ultimately, he won second place, losing to Xenocles, a now lost Athenian tragedian. The Trojan Women was part three of a group of three tragedies and a satyr play, as was common. However, unlike his notable predecessors, Euripides rarely wrote a tragic cycle like the Oresteia or the Oedipus cycle. His plays typically do not follow any kind of order. Instead, Euripides is much more interested in the tragic passions experienced by various characters, particularly women and foreigners.

The Trojan Women is a play that is almost devoid of any plot. It details the experiences of several prominent women after the fall of Troy: the fate of Hecuba, as portrayed in greater detail by Euripides in his play entitled Hecuba, as she becomes a slave in the house of Odysseus and her daughter Cassandra who becomes a concubine of Agamemnon. Next we hear from Andromache, also detailed in her own play by Euripides, entitled Andromache. She is the widowed wife of Hector, the warrior of Troy who was slain by Achilles. Andromache bemoans the fate of the Trojan women, as her young son Astyanax is being thrown from the high walls of Troy to his death. Andromache is fated to become a concubine of Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus. Lastly, we hear from Helen, the cause of the Trojan War. She is slated to be taken back to Greece where Menelaus has a death sentence awaiting her (though we know through Homer’s Odyssey and other texts that Helen was never actually killed Menelaus, and that they ruled together again for years). At the end of the play, all the women are taken away to live out their future enslavement, each praying for death. Hecuba comments on her life:

“Ah, wretched me. So this is the unhappy end
and goal of all the sorrows I have lived. I go

forth from my country and a city lit with flames.
Come, aged feet; make one last weary struggle, that I 
may hail my city in its affiliation. O Troy, once
so huge over all Asia in the drawn win of pride,
your very name of glory shall be stripped away.
They are burning you, and us they drag forth from our land
enslaved. O gods! Do I call upon those gods for help?
I cried to them before now, and they would not hear.
Come then, hurl ourselves into the pyre. Best now,
to die in the flaming ruins of our fathers’ house!” (1271-1283)

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Thoughts on Andromache

It has been suggested that Euripides is obsessed with character, but that he is indifferent to plot. Each one of his tragedies might be said to be a character study into the pure hopelessness faced by human beings.

The Andromache is an unusual play for a number of reasons. The unnamed Scholiast, a latter Byzantine, reports that the play was not presented at Athens, and may have instead been presented at Argos as part of Athenian propaganda campaign. Who is the central character of the play? The title would suggest Andromache, wife of the slain Hector of Troy. However, two-thirds of the way through the tragedy, Andromache disappears and the story concludes with a tragedy that has befallen Peleus, father of Achilles. Like, Euripides’s Hecuba the tragedy takes place following the events of the Trojan War.

“Andromache Mourning Hector” by Jacques-Louis David in 1783

Background: Andromache was the wife of Hector of Troy. Hector was the fiercest warrior of Troy, matched only by Achilles of the Greeks. He is eventually slain by Achilles in battle, as told in Homer’s Iliad. When the city of Troy is sacked, all are either killed or enslaved. The children of Hector and Andromache are thrown off the walls of Troy for fear of exacting revenge against the Greeks one day. Andromache is enslaved by Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, and she is taken back to his island to live, along with his grandfather Peleus. Years later, Andromache has a child with Neoptolemus and he later marries a woman, Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen.

The play begins with Andromache lamenting her status in life. Neoptolemus has taken a new wife, Hermione, and she is extremely jealous of Andromache. She plots to kill either Andromache or her young son. Andromache pleads at the altar of Thetis, goddess and mother of Achilles. She has hidden her son away, but a nurse arrives to warn her that Menelaus knows the location of her son. She seeks the help of Peleus, grandfather of Neoptolemus. The elderly Peleus arrives and prevents Menelaus from killing the child. Suddenly, however, Orestes arrives and he has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes carries away Hermione. An attendant appears and tells Peleus that his chain has died out with the death of his grandson, Neoptolemus. The play ends with a surprise appearance from Thetis to Neoptolemus.

Unlike Hecuba, the Andromache is far more patriotic to the city of Athens. At the height of the Peloponnesian War, the portrayal of Menelaus, and therefore Sparta, was no doubt falling upon audiences with approval, as Athens was sorely losing its ascendance.

For this reading I used the Deborah Roberts translation.

Examining Euripides’s Helen

Thirty years prior to Euripides’s first performance of Helen at the Dionysia in 412 BC, Herodotus of Halicarnassus echoed a controversial theory of the story of the Trojan War. In Book II of his famous Histories, or “Inquiries”, Herodotus suggests that Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus, was not actually taken to Troy, but was instead transported by the gods to Egypt. In her stead, they created a phantom, or “eidolon,” that looked and acted like Helen. Recall the story of Paris, son of Priam, choosing Helen as the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, over and against a jealous Aphrodite.

This was supposedly the true account of Helen, the “face that launched a thousand ships.” According to Herodotus, who gathered this story from his travels around Egypt, Homer was aware of this account but he did not include it in the epics. The story was also echoed by Hesiod and Stesichorus, the latter of whom penned an apologia to Helen for his earlier brow beating criticism. And Stesichorus was not alone. All throughout the ancient world, Helen was criticized as the femme fatale whose renowned beauty instigated the greatest war of the ancient world.

Euripides plays on this ancient prejudice and he employs the Herodotean account of Helen in his romantic tragedy Helen. He opens the play, much like Iphigenia in Tauris with the leading female, Helen, stranded alone in Egypt, under the control and protection of Memphis. She laments her status as the cause and blame of the Trojan War. Suddenly, Teucer, a Greek exile, washes ashore and tells her of how Menelaus is believed dead because he never returned home from war. All this time, totaling 17 years, Helen has remained faithful to Menelaus. Shortly thereafter, Menelaus himself appears in Egypt and is reunited with Helen. Together, they devise a plot to escape back to Sparta.

Why is this account of Helen’s story important? Two points. First, this is the first time we hear Helen’s account of her station in life. It is common to note Euripides’s use of many female characters, like Helen, Iphigenia, or Medea, but there is greater depth to the play than simply a need to balance representation of genders. Helen is blamed by all of Greece for an act she did not commit. And she is doubly cursed because she is trapped in Egypt. For example:

“Women and friends, what is this destiny on which
I am fastened? Was I born a monster among mankind?…
And so my life is monstrous, and the things that happen
to me, through Hera, or my beauty is to blame. 
I wish that like a picture I had been rubbed out
and done again, made plain, without this loveliness,
for so the Greeks would never have been aware of all
those misfortunes that now are mine.” (255-265)

And second, the story is significant because if ‘Helen of Troy’ was a mere phantasm, then what was the purpose of fighting the Trojan War? There was nothing to gain. This is the most pitiable perspective of the Trojan War, reiterated by the most tragic of the poets.

Lastly, consider the context in which the play was presented. It was late winter at the urban Dionysia. The wildly unsuccessful Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC) was fresh in the minds of the Athenian audiences, when Athens came to the aid of Sicily as it was under attack from Syracuse, allies of Sparta. The relative peace of the Peloponnesian War had ended. Alcibiades led the expedition but was recalled midway through. In the end, the Athenians were embarrassingly defeated. All surviving soldiers were either enslaved or killed, as noted by Thucydides, and Sicily was destabilized and forced to submit to a tyrant in order to repel the forces of Sparta. It was a turning point in the war.

For Euripides, Helen is an exploration into the pity and meaninglessness of war by revising the official Homeric account of the greatest war in the ancient world. It is a conciliatory work toward the hope of a once again unified Greece. By making Helen the central tragic figure of the play, Euripides removes any blame on Sparta for their responsibility in spawning Helen, the fire that ignited the Trojan War.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.