The Liminality of The Women of Troy

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Despite there being a plethora of rich analysis on Euripides’ The Women of Troy, one aspect of the play that is rarely discussed is its liminal setting. Or rather, the way Euripides sets his play in a liminal space, and how this aids the playwright in delivering an anti-war message. 

Before diving into the discussion, we probably want to clarify what exactly liminality, or liminal spaces, are. First coined by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, the term liminality refers to the transitory stage within a rite of passage. It is often defined as a space or time that is ‘in-between’; a period of waiting and of relative uncertainty. Think of the period of moving into a new house, or between graduation and finding a job; at a larger scale, think of refugees or displaced victims of war (a pertinent example in regard to The Women of Troy). Liminality has since been adopted as a term in various fields, not only within the social sciences but also in art and literature. 

Broadly speaking, Gennep’s description of ritual phases closely resemble the sequence of events that envelop the broader context of Euripides’ play. Paraphrasing, Gennep states that “the first phase [the preliminal stage] detaches the ritual subjects from their old place in society…the initiates are stripped of their status, removed from a social structure”. In the third and final phase, the postliminal stage, subjects “return to the community as initiated members”. Indeed, as audiences we know that the pre-text of the play involves the separation of the Trojan women from the safety of their homes, and from their old statuses as either royalty or citizens. They are, as we are made aware of from early on, to become slaves for the Greeks; separated both from their prior social status and physical space, to be re-integrated into Greek society as inferior persons. Hecuba bemoans this throughout, constantly juxtaposing her present self with her past self: 

So let me tell you how fortunate I was
Born lucky, to heighten the tragedy
Of what has happened to me now. 

The Women of Troy is thus a liminal play, as the narrative revolves around the Trojan women awaiting their allocation and transitioning to their new place in society. 

Furthermore, the narrative itself, much like liminal periods, lacks a clear structure. There is no unity, no conventional climax or resolution. The play opens (rather than closes) with a deus ex-machina so that we know the ending from the beginning, and because the time structure is realist (every hour that passes in the play also passes for the audience), audiences are forced to wait for the ‘end’ along with the women. The lack of an articulated structure has prompted some scholars to argue against the classification of The Women of Troy as a play at all. But when we consider the liminal setting, how can the play have a structure if the events it portrays are merely transitory periods, moments in-between larger, more ‘significant’ events (such as the Trojan War, Odysseus’ journey back, the death of Agamemnon…)? Without getting into the discourse of whether The Women of Troy is a play or not, what we can acknowledge is that the narrative lacks structure largely due to its liminal setting. 

Now that we have identified the setting of Euripides’ play as liminal, we ask ourselves, why does this matter? What effect does Euripides’ decision as a playwright produce? Here I will highlight three possible arguments for the importance of liminal settings in an anti-war play such as The Women of Troy. 

  1. Liminal settings offer opportunities for reflection and critique. 

At its core, the play’s liminal setting promotes critique and reflection on the value systems that led to the initial fall of Troy. One characteristic associated with liminal phases that has not yet been mentioned is increased scepticism towards old values. In the words of Victor Turner: 

If liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs

Ritual Process, 1966, p. 167

For us audiences, this means that a text which engages with liminality also asks us to scrutinise the structures that preceded the transformation presented to us onstage. Engaging with these critiques is easier when presented with a liminal setting, because the pain of separation is still fresh, the future uncertain, and the transformation of characters explicitly portrayed. We see the Trojan women become slaves one by one as they are carried atop a “baggage wagon loaded with spoils,” or assigned masters through the messenger Talthybius. This helps characters and audiences alike question the misogynist and militarist conditions under which such cruel transformations take place. 

Commenting also on the abandonment of ideas, in his essay Total Disaster: Euripides’ The Trojan Women Adrial Poole remarks that the images of Troy’s “demolition” reflect “at a wider level [the demolition] of a whole set of ideas, ideals and values.” (260). Of course, neither the characters nor audiences find reason to celebrate the literal fall of Troy. However, through its physical destruction, characters and audiences are pushed to question and abandon the cultural values of chauvinism and militarism that lead to it. From the outset of the play, audiences are invited to take in the imagery of the “ruins of Troy” via the set design. Poseidon refers to it as a “smoking ruin” which he will soon “desert,” emphasising the notion that Troy as a city, alongside its culture and value systems, must be left behind. If the gods only watch over what is civilised, then Troy and the atrocities committed upon it have become uncivilised. Indeed, the Greeks, who continue to embody these values, are characterised as inhuman through metaphors of their army as a “war machine.” Subsequently, Euripides’ liminal setting aids in creating an atmosphere of increased scepticism for the chauvinistic values he condemns and pleads audiences to abandon in the mist of the Peloponnesian War. 

  1. Liminal settings can create tension and a sense of uneasiness. 

The Women of Troy has sometimes been referred to as a play which disorients its (at least Hellenic) audiences due to its unconventionality. For example, in his essay The Agency of the Herald Talthybius, J.J Sullivan remarks that “The banishing of divine agency would have been a profoundly disorienting experience for an ancient audience.” (476). Likewise, its liminality renders it almost jarring at the first read (or viewing), because Euripides has chosen an unusual event, time and place to portray. As aforementioned, the play opens at the end of a major event and ends right before the destruction of the Greek ships at sea. This awkward ‘in-between’ setting that would have otherwise been skimmed over in a conventional play becomes the play itself. In turn, audiences may feel uneasy or ‘disoriented’ throughout, just as the Trojan women are (this is subjective of course, but settings principally work in this manner, in attempts to invoke subconscious reactions from audiences and immerse them in the narrative). 

Furthermore, by presenting his female protagonists in the liminal stages of their lives, Euripides portrays the women at the complete height of their suffering. In other words, the Trojan women also suffer because they are waiting, be it for news or for the journey that lies ahead. The Chorus expresses this clearly in the parados: 

It won’t be long now till you hear the worst

I can’t bear it. Who will it be, which lord
Of the Greeks will carry me over the sea

Once again, this creates a shared experience of anxious anticipation between audience and characters, which in turns helps Euripides engage the audiences’ pathos and allows him to emphasise the women’s bravery (or arguably, heroism) in times of intense suffering. 

  1. Liminal settings remove the possibility for romanticised or heroic depictions of war. 

Francis Trouffaut once famously said: “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” What he meant by this is that by depiction the thrill and adventure of conflict, films will often inherently (and inadvertently) stimulate excitement in their audiences. Specifically, many anti-war narratives fail to properly communicate an anti-war message due to overly gory and action-packed portrayals, meant to disgust audiences but which instead satisfy appetites for violent entertainment. A commonly referenced example now-days in ‘American Sniper,’ but the same can be said of classical depictions of ancient conflicts such as the Trojan War. Hellenic society, in its chauvinism, relished in Homer’s epic tales of war and conflict, of heroes such as Achilles and Patroclus, or Hector and Paris. However, in The Women of Troy characters like Odysseus’ are scrutinised, their heroism peeled back to reveal men… 

“without morality…whose animal appetite savages all decency, and whose double tongue twists truth into lies, friendship to enmity…” 

Part of this larger critique prompted by Euripides is supported by the play’s liminal setting. It is after all difficult to fill a liminal space with the type of exciting conflict usually present in war narratives, because as soon as you introduce elements of a war narrative, such as a climax and a resolution, the setting ceases to be liminal. Entering the spaces in-between war and peace, on the other hand, eliminates all direct depictions of war whilst still allowing the playwright to engage with its participants, victims, and tragic consequences. Thus, one can say that the liminal setting of The Women of Troy helped Euripides form a powerful and timeless anti-war message. 

We hope you found this blog helpful! This blog adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, engaging the knowledge of literary studies, anthropology, psychology and other studies and analysing the setting to a higher level (university-level). If you have any questions, do not hesitate to pop your questions down below!

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