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The Women of Troy | Characterisation, Narrative Convention and Symbolism

Euripides’ The Women of Troy provides rich opportunities for analysing characterisation, narrative unconventionality and symbolism. This blog will explore these literary devices to demonstrate how one can link them, through detailed interpretation, to the broader themes of the play and to authorial intent. Briefly, Euripides’ characters are deeply embedded with meanings relating to the injustices of war, and help the playwright form a critique on the unethical treatment of children and women as means to an end. Euripides also works against narrative conventions such as that of the “objective messenger” to demonstrate the impossibility of remaining impartial in the context of war. Finally, one can also comment on Euripides’ use of symbolism, irony and dramatic irony to emphasise the tragic aspects of the play.

Euripides’ repetition of “second hand” cements the idea of the conquered woman’s body as a material spoil of war. This objectification is visualised further along the play, when “Andromache and Astymax are wheeled in on top of a baggage wagon loaded with spoils.” The stage positioning of mother and child atop a wagon of loot creates imagery that resonates throughout the play; it goes beyond a general critique of patriarchal violence and exhibits the intersection of womanhood and victimhood of war as completely dehumanising. Hecuba will not just wear “rags” but embody their second-handedness and “wasted[ness]” with her own “flesh”. Euripides thus asserts that the Greeks are not simply imposing the role of slavery upon women but metamorphosing them into objects that, at least in the case of Hecuba, have no value beyond their utility. The sense of antiquity evoked by the term “second-hand” also alludes to the way old age exacerbates Hecuba’s loss of status. She acknowledges herself as an “old woman, dragged as a slave,” as Euripides establishes, through his simile, the way a woman’s body influences her fate as a victim of war. Her old age sets her further apart from the other widowed women, who instead wait to be re-married. Casandra’s own body presents a strong contrast to Hecuba, and her presumed fate equally reflects this. As a young, “consecrated virgin” she is temporarily protected from “second-hand” status and has exceptional sexual value, reserved only for Agamemnon (the highest ranking Greek hero of the war). In Cassandra’s instance it is the Greeks who are objectified, reduced only to their sexual desire for the Trojan women. By referring to Agamemnon as a “slave of his [own] lust,” Euripides draws parallels between the socio-physical statuses of the women and the moral statuses of the Greeks as “slaves”. Each case demonstrates how the consequences of war on the body are both gendered and dehumanising for the victims and victors alike

  • Repetition is the simple repeating of a word, within a short space of words, with no particular placement of the words to secure emphasis
  • Stage positions are used to help keep track of how performers and set pieces move during rehearsal and performance.
  • Imagery consists of descriptive language that can function as a way for the reader to better imagine the world of the piece of literature and also add symbolism to the work. 
  • Antiquity: The ancient past, especially the period of classical and other human civilizations before the Middle Ages.
  • Simile: a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.
  • Contrast is a rhetorical device through which writers identify differences between two subjects, places, persons, things, or ideas.
  • Parallelism means balancing two or more ideas or arguments that are equally important

By instilling repeated references to Hecuba’s old age throughout Women of Troy, Euripides examines age as a manifestation of unjust irony  in the aftermath of war. Hecuba’s adoption of third person narration, characterising herself as “an old woman, with her city destroyed,” briefly establishes her as an outsider commenting on the injustice imposed by the Greeks, of having to live beyond her childrens’ deaths. There is also an ironic implication in “her city destroyed… all her children dead” as the context of war disrupts the nature of age by letting the oldest woman become its seemingly sole survivor, at least within the exaggerated context of the phrase. The sense of tragedy in the proclamation “So much younger than I” also echoes throughout the fourth and sixth episodes, as Euripides depicts war as unnatural in its delivery of death. Hecuba and Astyanax are juxtaposed both in appearance and characterisation, as the repetition of Hecuba as an “old woman” is contrasted with descriptions of Astyanax as a “tender corpse”; whilst the latter description emphasises life and age, the former emphasises death and youth. Furthermore, the anecdotal reference to Astyanax’ promise, to “sing songs of farewell” at Hecuba’s grave, remind the audience of the way war has disrupted traditional rituals of death; rather than a “song of farewell,” the play must be structured as a lament, a song of grief. Euripides thus presents this irony as unjust and unnatural, appealing to the ethos of his audience. The only similarity drawn out by Euripides in their characterisation lies in the objectification of their bodies on behalf of the Greeks. Whilst Hecuba is alive, both characters are treated as “wasted flesh,” with brutal imagery depicting Astyanax’s body as being “shaved” by the walls of Troy; whilst one body is to be used “as a slave,” the other is “thrown” away. These dehumanising descriptions reflect Euripides’ condemnation of the Greeks’ unethical construction of human bodies, and specifically children, as means to an end. 

  • Repetition is the simple repeating of a word, within a short space of words, with no particular placement of the words to secure emphasis
  • Any story told in the grammatical third person, i.e. without using “I” or “we”: “he did that, they did something else.” In other words, the voice of the telling appears to be akin to that of the author him- or herself.
  • Irony: The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
  • Juxtaposition is a literary term which places different elements side by side in order to emphasize their differences, reveal surprising similarities, or explore a unique relationship between the two. It challenges us to reconsider and discover elements typically kept apart by placing them in contact with one another.
  • Anecdote is a brief, revealing account of an individual person or an incident: “a story with a point,” such as to communicate an abstract idea about a person, place, or thing through the concrete details of a short narrative or to characterize by delineating a specific quirk or trait.

By integrating euphemisms into Talthybius’ speech, Euripides characterises him as a troubled figure, whose failure to remain objective, omniscient and apathetic breaks all narrative conventions of the messenger in Greek tragedy. Using euphemisms for death, such as “serve Achilles at his tomb,” in the context of a violent post-war conquest, establishes Talthybius as an unorthodox Greek character lacking the vilifying characteristics of the other soldiers. In fact, his emotiveness inhibits him from fulfilling the fundamental role of the messenger, to deliver information; Expecting Talthybius to be a conventional messenger, or perhaps to embody the same coldness as the other Greeks, Hecuba misinterprets the euphemism and takes it literally with the question “a servant at a tomb?”. There is also irony in being unable to comprehend the play’s messenger, emphasised by Hecuba’s “What does that mean? She is alive? Is she?”.  A similar lack of clarity is repeated in the fourth episode, when Talthybius’ ability to communicate fails in admitting “…I don’t know how to say it.” The ambiguity of “no Greek will ever be his master” replaces the certainty expected from his role, once again engendering confusion from Andromache. Euripides thus signifies through a breakdown of conventional narration that the horrors of the Trojan War are too great to be voiced by an impersonal character. Talthybius’ confessional tone, seen repeatedly within the lines “I’m not half hard enough…” or “to tell the truth,” is instrumental in subverting his role as messenger and in embodying Euripides’ contention that there can be no objective voice in the context of war. 

  • A euphemism is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay
  • Omniscient: An ‘all-knowing’ kind of narrator very commonly found in works of fiction written as third-person narratives. The omniscient narrator has a full knowledge of the story’s events and of the motives and unspoken thoughts of the various characters
  • Narrative conventions are the techniques used by the writers to create meaning in a story. There are various things that come under narrative writing such as Characters, plot development, settings, a point of view, plot devices, etc
  • Ambiguity: The quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.

The symbolism of fire in Women of Troy provides opportunity for different interpretations. In asking the question “Are they trying to commit suicide in there, setting light to themselves?” Talthybius raises the first possibility, that the flames are to be understood literally, in their destructive form, as a purification ritual intended to preserve the “dignity” of the Trojan women. Although this notion is quickly dispelled by Hecuba, the flames still retain significance as purification symbols; Cassandra celebrates her prophesied death alongside Agamemnon with the flames intended to celebrate her marriage, regarding them as holy only in the sense that they metaphorise her death and consequently, the preservation of her virginity. Her “ritual dance” also allows Euripides to temporarily break away from the play’s song of lament, and thus to explore the morbid notion of death as a victory for the women of Troy. The vindictive tone delivered through Cassandra’s euphemism for death, “bedded by the hand of destiny!” further establishes her as the only character in the play capable of meeting a just end. Hecuba’s interpretation of the “torches [as] a grotesque parody/Of everything I hoped for my daughter,” also presents a dramatic irony as both the audience and Cassandra know that the marriage will not be consummated, whilst Hecuba grieves over her daughter’s lost virginity. As Euripides re-introduces the song of lament through Hecuba’s proclamation – “let her dreadful parody of a wedding song/Be drowned by the sound of your tears” – he thus also presents Hecuba’s misunderstanding as tragic, as the symbolic meaning of the flames is lost to her in the dramatic irony.

  • Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, be they words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the literal meaning. The concept of symbolism is not confined to works of literature: symbols inhabit every corner of our daily life.
  • Metaphorise: to express (something) metaphorically. intransitive
  • Dramatic irony, a literary device by which the audience’s or reader’s understanding of events or individuals in a work surpasses that of its characters.
  • lament or lamentation is a passionate expression of grief, often in music, poetry, or song form. The grief is most often born of regret, or mourning.Laments constitute some of the oldest forms of writing and examples are present across human cultures.

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